- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Forget all the conference realignment talk that makes Big East fans sweat. The real action to watch is on the field this year in an intriguing, balanced league race. Here are five major storylines to watch:
1. Can Cincinnati three-peat? The Bearcats have run roughshod over the Big East the past two years, winning back-to-back titles and 13 of 14 league games in the process. But now they must continue the magic with a new coaching staff led by Butch Jones. The offense should keep humming at a high level, with Zach Collaros replacing Tony Pike and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton making up for Mardy Gilyard's lost production. The question marks -- again -- are on defense, where several starters are gone and depth is minimal. The schedule (early games at Fresno State, at NC State and against Oklahoma, plus road conference games against West Virginia and UConn) offers few favors.
2. Is West Virginia back? Don't call it a comeback, as LL Cool J might say. The Mountaineers have won nine games each of the past two years and have been mere whiskers away from winning Big East titles. Still, that represents a dip from the heyday of 2005-07, when West Virginia won 11 games and finished in the Top 10 each year. This team is loaded with stars like Noel Devine, Jock Sanders and Robert Sands and more returning starters than any other league team. The players and coaches say it's time to get back to the days of double-digit wins. Bill Stewart isn't on the hot seat and doesn't deserve to be, but there's little doubt this is a big year for him and the program.
3. Stars shining bright: The Big East returns its best batch of star players since 2007. The electric Devine came back to create more highlights for his senior year. Pitt's Dion Lewis was among the nation's top rushers as a true freshman. Teammate Jon Baldwin might be the most physically gifted receiver in the country. Throw in some promising young quarterbacks (including Collaros, Rutgers' Tom Savage and South Florida's B.J. Daniels) and a batch of defensive playmakers (Sands, Pitt's Greg Romeus, UConn's Lawrence Wilson), and the Big East has players who can light up league Saturdays while challenging for national awards.
4. New eras: While Jones is new to Cincinnati and brings a distinct management style, he's replaced Brian Kelly before and hopes to keep the program zipping along. Two other first-year coaches, South Florida's Skip Holtz and Louisville's Charlie Strong, are trying to remake the culture. Holtz looks to get the Bulls over the hump in the Big East instead of settling for fast starts and slow finishes. Strong wants to return the Cardinals to their winning ways after a disastrous three-year stint under Steve Kragthorpe. And though Greg Schiano is the longest-tenured coach in the league, Rutgers is in a sense beginning a new era as well. The Scarlet Knights enter the season depending on a ton of freshmen and sophomores, ushering in what they hope is a window for title contention.
5. Quest for respect: The Big East is always fighting to earn respect nationally, and this season brings several high-profile chances to do just that (albeit many of them on the road). Cincinnati welcomes Oklahoma to Paul Brown Stadium. South Florida plays at Florida and Miami. West Virginia is at LSU. Pitt plays at Utah, at Notre Dame and home against Miami. Connecticut opens at Michigan. Syracuse plays Boston College and at Washington. North Carolina comes to Rutgers. With a fair share of wins in these difficult games, the league could forever put to rest those old Big Least jokes.