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Countdown to Camp: Big East Preview Part III

BearcatLair.com will preview fall camp extensively over the next two weeks. Our countdown has included previews at every position and individual looks at players who must step up to make 2008 a success. If you are not yet a premium subscriber,
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Last season the Bearcats had their first 10 win season in over 40 years. UC relied on an explosive offense and an opportunistic defense to lead them a 3rd place finish in the Big East. Even with question marks at QB and in the defensive secondary it looks like the Bearcats have what it takes to make a run at the Big East title in 2008. In part III of our preview of the Big East Conference we tell you who we think will finish 3rd and 4th.
#3 Cincinnati Bearcats
Biggest Strengths:
The clear strength of this team will be on the defensive side of the football. In the first season the Bearcats spent in the Big East, they fielded the youngest starting unit in all of college football, and as the freshman starters back prepare for their senior campaign that experience will be paramount. CB Mike Mickens and DT Terrill Byrd are on several pre-season All Americal lists, and they are joined by numerous other impact seniors like LB Ryan Manalac, CB DeAngelo Smith and DT Adam Hopple. The other major strength for the Bearcats in 08 is at the WR position. If the Cats do have to break in a new QB, the guy that wins the job has every type of target available in Brian Kelly's "Coast to Coact" offense.
Biggest Weaknesses:
At the time of this story the Ben Mauk situation is still in limbo, and it looks more and more likely that the Bearcats will be without their star from 07 with each passing day. The easiest way to adjust to a new man under center is for the ground game to ease the load. JR Jacob Ramsey is slated as the starter after taking over that role near the end of the 07 season, but he struggled to find holes and then with an ankle sprain that lingered through the bowl game. Redshirt SOPH John Goebel is #2 on the depth chart, and he'll be challenged by a trio of talented FROSH led by Isaiah Pead. If the ground game can pick up some slack, the offense will be a threat to score from anywhere once again.
Why They're Picked Where They Are:
With a strong defensive unit in place UC has the tools to make a run at the Big East crown, but the questions in the offensive backfield going in to the season leave the Cats just shy of a championship. If they can win two of the three road games against UL, WVU and UConn they will certainly be in position to land in the BCS party.
To Win The Big East They Must:
Get the improved play that is expected of the offensive line and in turn have an explosive running game that keeps the defense honest. The defense will need to carry over their big play ability on the edges at CB and DE, and someone is going to have to fill the leadership void created by the graduation of Haruki Nakamura. If things come together quickly, this team has as good a chance as any to win the league.
#4. Pittsburgh Panthers
Biggest Strengths:
LeSean "Shady" McCoy was one of, if not the best, freshman backs in the country. As the Bearcats found out in Heinz Field, McCoy is an explosive blend of power and speed. He's comfortable between the tackles or on the edge, and with the departure of Ray Rice and Steve Slaton he's the best RB in the conference. Leading the way for McCoy is FB Conredge Collins who is considered one of the best blocking backs in the country. Look for head coach Dave Wannstedt to use SR RB LaRod Stephens-Howling quite a bit to keep McCoy fresh.
Biggest Weaknesses:
The concern for the Panthers offense is on the line. While both guards return, Pitt will have newcomers at both tackles and center in 2008. The Panthers are the trendy pick as a Big East sleeper, but if they can't protect the QB and open holes in the running game the momentum gained from the win over WVU to end 07 is wasted. Pitt has two senior options at tackle in Chase Clowser and Frank Kochin, but they will likely look to a host of younger prospects that will help man the position long term. Junior QB Bill Stull is a predominantly pocket passer returning from a thumb injury that ended his 07 season after one game. Not the best news for a young O Line.
Why They're Picked Where They Are:
Class after class of highly ranked recruits has to start paying off some time for Wannstedt, or he could be looking for a new job sooner than later. With 17 starters returning and a bona fide star on offense and also defense in LB Scott McKilliop (151 tackles in 07) the time to get back in the picture is now.
To Win The Big East They Must:
It starts with winning 2 of 3 road games at Cincinnati, USF and UConn. If Stull can stay healthy, and McCoy repeats his 2007 performance the Panthers are indeed a sleeper in the Big East. We'll find out a lot about Pitt on Thursday October 2nd in Tampa.
Countdown to Camp7-21 Linebacker
7-22 Offensive Line
7-23 Defensive Line
7-24 Defensive Backs
7-24 Big East Preview Part 1
7-25 Tresey talks 2008 Defense
7-25 Big East Preview Part 2
7-26 Wide Receivers