Coach: Butch Jones
Last year: 4-8, 2-5 in Big East
The story: After winning the conference title the previous two years under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats struggled with first-year coach Butch Jones. They should be better this year. Senior quarterback Zach Collaros (2,902 yards passing), the best passer in the conference last year, is back to lead a talented offense that includes 1,000-yard running back Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods (57 receptions). Cincinnati averaged a conference-best 27.4 points a game and should be just as efficient this year. The challenge is improving a defense that allowed 30 or more points is six of their eight losses and was the worst in the conference. Jones started eight sophomores and three juniors on defense last year, which means the entire unit returns. Linebacker J.K. Schaffer is a standout, but the overall defense will need to be better for Cincinnati to win more games this season.
Coach: Paul Pasqualoni
Last year: 8-5, 5-2 in Big East (lost to Oklahoma 48-20 in Fiesta Bowl)
The story: The Huskies took a huge step in their short history as a Division I-A program, winning the Big East title and qualifying for a BCS bowl game. Soon after, the program was thrown into chaos when coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland. His replacement is Pasqualoni, the winningest coach in Big East history and a revered figure among Connecticut high school coaches. Pasqualoni inherits a roster with questions on offense -- who's the quarterback? -- and the potential to be strong on defense. Replacing Jordan Todman (1,695 yards) won't be easy, but D.J. Shoemate has the potential to step in. The defense, with an experienced core back, will be the team's strength. Lineman Kendall Reyes and linebacker Sio Moore are game-changers, among the best defensive players in the conference.
Coach: Charlie Strong
Last year: 7-6, 3-4 in Big East (defeated Southern Miss 31-28 in Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl)
The story: The Cardinals had 27 seniors on a bowl team, so Strong will have an inexperienced team in his second season. Louisville was picked to finish seventh in the conference, but it was picked last in 2010 and they wound up finishing above .500. The defense, ranked 18th in the country last season, will again be the focus for Strong as the unit returns seven starters. On offense, Louisville will grind it out on the ground with returning backs Vic Anderson and Jeremy Wright replacing 2010 starter Bilal Powell (1,405). The quarterback job is up for grabs, with junior Will Stein expected to take the job. This will be a challenging coaching job for Strong, but he did surpass expectations in his first year.
Coach: Todd Graham
Last year: 8-5, 5-2 in Big East (defeated Kentucky 27-10 in BBVA Compass Bowl)
The story: The perennial Big East favorite is expected again to compete for the conference title, but this time under a new regime. Dave Wanndstedt is gone and Todd Graham brings a more explosive, wide-open offense to Pittsburgh. Graham calls it "high-octane," so expect a fast-moving, no-huddle offense that will challenge every defense it faces. With running back Ray Graham (922 yards) carrying the ball and quarterback Tino Sunseri taking snaps, the Panthers will score points. On defense, expect an aggressive approach from coordinator Keith Patterson. The unit is led by returning defensive end Brandon Lindsey, who had 10 sacks and led the conference with 17.5 tackles for a loss.
Coach: Greg Schiano
Last year: 4-8, 1-6 in Big East
The story: The Scarlet Knights took a step back last year with their first losing season in six years and a big problem was the offense, which was among the least productive in the country. They have a new coordinator (Frank Cignetti, who came from Pittsburgh and has NFL experience on his resume) and expectations are high in New Jersey. All eyes are on freshman running back Savon Huggins, the No. 1 recruit in New Jersey. But Huggins won't be productive unless the offensive line is better this year. The defense, which allowed 26.5 points a game last year, will need to improve and Schiano is expected to take a more active role in running the unit. Amazingly, Schiano, 45, is the longest-tenured coach in the conference as he enters his 11th season.
Coach: Skip Holtz
Last year: 8-5, 3-4 in Big East (defeated Clemson 31-26 in Meineke Car Care Bowl)
The story: Coming off an 8-win season in Holtz's first year, the Bulls are the trendy pick to make a run at a conference title. After beating Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, Holtz says his program has momentum heading into 2011. If USF is to take the next step, the program will need more consistency from talented-but-erratic junior quarterback B.J. Daniels (13 interceptions, 11 touchdowns). Demetris Murray returns at running back and Daniels has plenty of targets, so the Bulls should score points. The defense is young up front, but sophomore linebacker Dede Lattimore is a playmaker. It will be an interesting first week for Holtz, who leads his team into South Bend to face Notre Dame Saturday. He's a graduate of Notre Dame and coached there under his father before becoming UConn coach in 1994.
Coach: Doug Marrone
Last year: 8-5, 4-3 in Big East (defeated Kansas State 36-34 in Pinstripe Bowl)
The story: Marrone revived the program in his second year, leading the Orange to their first bowl game since 2004. And much of the success can be attributed to a defense that was ranked second in the Big East and seventh in the country. Marrone had five starters back, but the Orange will have a smaller, quicker unit. Defensive ends Chandler Jones (57 tackles) and Mikhail Marinovich anchor the defense, which figures to again be solid. Quarterback Ryan Nassib (2,334 yards, 19 touchdowns) is back to lead the offense, but Syracuse must replace running back Delone Carter (1,233 yards). The Orange were picked to finish fourth in the Big East preseason media poll and they should earn another bowl berth.
Coach: Dana Holgorsen
Last year: 9-4, 5-2 in Big East (lost to NC State 23-7 in Champs Sports Bowl)
The story: The preseason favorite and the only Big East team to crack the Top 25 list, West Virginia has the most talent in the conference. New coach Holgorsen inherits the best quarterback in the conference (Geno Smith) and some talent (DE Bruce Irvin, DE Julian Miller, CB Keith Tandy) from one of the best defenses in the country. Even if the defense slips in 2011, the offense should be productive -- Smith (2,763 yards) had the highest pass efficiency rating in the conference (144.7) and he has weapons, most notably receiver Tavon Auston (58 receptions). Holgorsen, who replaced Bill Stewart in June, has been offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech and figures to bring a creative offense to Morgantown.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times