- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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This is something I've been thinking about as we start to see more and more preseason polls: What are the realistic expectations for each Big East team?
By that I mean, what win total should each team realistically be expected to reach in 2011? For example, a Rutgers fan would be considered reasonable if he expected his team to make it back to a bowl game and the six-win mark this year; he would be unreasonable to expect a 12-win campaign. That's not to say a 12-win season can't happen, but merely to point out that six wins would represent a more realistic demand.
Expectations are important. They're the reason Dave Wannstedt is no longer coaching Pitt and Bill Stewart is a lame duck at West Virginia. And sometimes they're out of whack.
As Thom Yorke once sang, "I'm a reasonable man, get off my case." Here's what I think are reasonable baseline expectations for each Big East team this season. Not all fans would be happy if these are their teams' final win total. But almost all would be unhappy if their teams went below the expectation.
Cincinnati: Bowl game
Most Bearcats fans probably figured the program would take a slight step back in Butch Jones' first year. It would have been difficult not to fall short of a 12-0 regular season. But 4-8 was much worse than anticipated. Cincinnati could bounce back in a big way this year, but the main goal should be getting to a bowl game and getting the program back on track. Anything more is gravy. (Mmm ... gravy.)
Connecticut: Seven wins
Expectations might be higher among the fan base after the Huskies made the BCS last year, but remember that team only won eight games. And there is a new head coach and major questions at quarterback and running back. But with a solid defense and special teams and a hassle-free nonconference schedule, 7-5 is well within range.
Don't underestimate Charlie Strong. He may get the Cardinals to overachieve again in 2011. But with so many veterans gone from last year, so many young players stepping in and six difficult road games, Louisville fans should be happy just breaking even this year as they get ready for bigger things in the future.
Pittsburgh: Eight wins
Wannstedt was fired after going 8-5, so shouldn't that be the benchmark for the new staff? Todd Graham has said publicly that he plans to compete for the Big East title right away, so I'm setting the bar fairly high. It doesn't help that Notre Dame, Utah and Iowa are on the nonconference slate.
Rutgers: Bowl game
After last year's 4-8 fiasco, it's reasonable for fans to expect the Scarlet Knights to get back to the postseason as they did the previous five years. More is possible, but the nonconference schedule is actually slightly harder than it has been in the recent past (at North Carolina, Navy, Army at Yankee Stadium -- hey, the bar was pretty low there). Rutgers fans may have grown sick of continually going to lower-tier bowls, but those games probably looked pretty good last December.
South Florida: Eight wins
This is the same number of wins as the Bulls finished with last year, and expectations have raised for Skip Holtz in Year 2. The team overachieved to an extent last year, and some would say it underachieves this year with only eight wins. At the very least, the Bulls need to be in the running for a Big East title late in the season.
Syracuse: Seven wins
You may think this is low, since the Orange won eight a year ago. But that schedule also included two FCS teams. Syracuse could surpass this expectation, but I'd say going to back-to-back bowl games would be huge for the program.
West Virginia: Nine wins
The Mountaineers won exactly nine games in Bill Stewart's first three years, and last year the team fell just short of his stated goal of getting to 10. With Dana Holgorsen on board and expectations soaring, a nine-win season will be considered a disappointment by some again. I see it as the baseline of what West Virginia fans should expect from this team.