Connecticut quietly builds winner

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Quick: Who won the Big East football title last year?

You probably said West Virginia, which pounded Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But did you also answer Connecticut?

Technically, UConn was the conference co-champion, losing out on the BCS bid because of its 66-21 humbling by the Mountaineers. The players even got championship rings and a Big East trophy that greets them every day in their training facility to prove it.

Seems like everyone else could use such a prominent reminder. Despite bringing virtually everyone back from a nine-win, co-championship team, the Huskies haven't gotten much attention this summer. The media picked them to finish sixth in the Big East preseason poll, and hardly anybody is giving them a chance to contend for the conference crown this year. (One idiot even picked them seventh in the league this week.)

Does the team take that as a slight?

"Definitely," senior cornerback Darius Butler said. "That gives us a little motivation and puts a chip on our shoulders, knowing we're not getting respect from that aspect."

Odd that a school that plays its home games just 23 miles from ESPN's headquarters can be so anonymous. But think about it: How many Connecticut players can the average college football fan name?

"I don't think a lot of people can really believe that UConn is where they're at in football and what we've been able to do," said head coach Randy Edsall, now in his 10th year at the school. "We aren't that household name. We aren't a program that will go out and have a lot of fluff or beat our own drum and things along those lines.

"Maybe we don't garner some of the respect or maybe get some of the accolades that should go with what happened last year. But that's fine. We have a plan in terms of how we're going to do things."

Edsall, who guided the program's transition from Division I-AA in 2003, plans to build a long-term winner in Storrs. There are signs that his construction project is right on schedule. He's happy to have 19 returning starters from last year, but he might be even more excited about the depth the Huskies have started to assemble.

Look at the offensive line, where eight players who saw significant time in 2007 are back, allowing Edsall to redshirt five freshmen at the position. The same thing is happening on the defensive line, where UConn has a solid eight-man rotation, headlined by ends Cody Brown and Julius Williams. Edsall said he plans on redshirting as many as 19 of the 21 players they signed in February. There are 12 fifth-year seniors on this year's roster.

"That's the kind of program we've got to be," he said. "We've got to have kids come in and redshirt. We didn't maybe redshirt some kids early on because we knew we also had to win games to have a fan base and create some excitement with our program. But this [kind of depth] is what we've been shooting for."

Connecticut may never attract the five-star recruits or track studs from Florida and Texas. That explains why Edsall has taken a conservative approach to his game plans, centering his strategy around a solid running game, a defense that creates turnovers and good special teams. The Huskies averaged a pedestrian 26.5 points per game last year but allowed only 18.5. They were outgained by 83 yards per game in league play.

"This is the type of game we play because these are the type of players that we have," Edsall said. "The more that we can continue with recruiting, then that might change. But to me, the bottom line is winning, not style points."

That was good enough to beat South Florida, Pittsburgh and Rutgers last year as UConn started the year 8-1 and rose as high as No. 13 in the BCS rankings and made its first-ever appearance in both the Associated Press and the coaches' polls.

The ending didn't work out as well. The Huskies lost by a combined 69 points on the road at West Virginia and Cincinnati, then fell 24-10 to Wake Forest in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

"We got to nine wins and got ranked, and those are things we wanted to do," Butler said. "But we didn't finish at the end, and that's something we want to work on.

"We've got most of our core back, and we have a lot of confidence. It's time to get this train rolling."

Ignore that train at your own peril.