Bowl season is long gone. Draft declaration day has passed. Signing day is over. So now it's time to look ahead and gauge the Big East teams as we head into spring. Here, then, are our first set of power rankings for the 2010 season:
1. Pittsburgh: The Panthers will have to replace quarterback Bill Stull, co-defensive player of the year Mick Williams and some other key pieces. But they've still got offensive player of the year Dion Lewis, receiver Jonathan Baldwin, two talented lines and depth created by solid recruiting. This could be their year.
2. West Virginia: Like Pitt, West Virginia will have to break in a new quarterback, though sophomore Geno Smith got some valuable experience during the 2009 campaign. The Mountaineers, though, lose only two starters on defense and bring back the core of their offense, including Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. If the offensive line improves, this team should challenge for the title.
3. Cincinnati: This could prove a bit low for the two-time defending Big East champs, who should have a very potent offense with Zach Collaros, Vidal Hazelton, Armon Binns, Isaiah Pead, et al. Once again, however, the Bearcats will be looking for new playmakers on defense. And with the transition to a new coaching staff, I've got to think the team takes a small step back.
4. Connecticut: The Huskies lost only six starters from 2009 and finished as strong as anybody in the conference. If they can patch up some holes in the secondary and find some receiving threats to replace Marcus Easley, this is a team that can make a run at the Big East crown.
T-5. Rutgers: Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu are a year older, which is nice. Not so nice: The Scarlet Knights must replace three starting offensive linemen, their best wideout (Tim Brown) and five key starters on defense. Don't count them out, but this will be a young team that may be a year away from serious conference contention.
T-5. South Florida: The Bulls are the hardest team for me to peg in these rankings right now. They have lots of potential and bring back the nucleus of the offense around promising sophomore quarterback B.J. Daniels. On the other hand, the defense will be young, though it should be very skilled. The biggest question is whether new coach Skip Holtz can reverse the program's recent history and get it to overachieve in Big East play.
7. Syracuse: It's tough to differentiate between Syracuse and Louisville for the last two spots in these rankings. Both will be at a disadvantage talentwise. It pretty much comes down to the fact that it's Doug Marrone's second year vs. the first year for Charlie Strong. Still, the Orange need a quarterback and some offensive playmakers to avoid the cellar again.
8. Louisville: I believe Strong will get the Cardinals turned around in due time. This year will probably be a struggle again. If he finishes better than seventh this year, we'll know the man can really coach.