A couple of Big East teams will get an early start to the season playing games on Thursday night including a big cross-regional match up between Pitt and Utah
No. 15 Pitt at No. 24 Utah Thursday, 8:30 Versus Network
Pitt starts the season as the prohibitive favorite to win the Big East, but the Panthers are an underdog on the road Thursday as they travel to face a very good Utah team.
"We had a good camp with an opportunity to evaluate the younger players," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We still have a few (position) battles going on and they will likely continue well into the season.
"We have to play a clean game against a team that is very good at home," Wannstedt said. "We know all of the numbers and all the statistics. Our football team will have to be in synch in all areas from a turnover standpoint and a penalty standpoint. I used the term clean and we have to play a clean game come Thursday night."
The game will mark the first start for Pitt sophomore quarterback Tino Sunseri.
"We opened the competition between Tino and (last year’s starter) Bill Stull at quarterback," Wannstedt said. "They went through a spring practice and a training camp (last season) when they were splitting the practice. He got a lot of work with our better players, our first group. And last year he was our #2 quarterback.
"I have a lot of confidence in him,"Wannstedt continued. "He understands what we want to do and he can make the plays we need him to make."
Sunseri will have a bevy of skill position talent around him. Running back Dion Lewis returns as a Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for nearly 1800 yards. 6-5 junior Jon Baldwin leads a deep and very talented receiving corps.
Utah parlayed a remarkable run in recent seasons into an invitation to join the Pac-10. Utah, right now, is arguably the top non-BCS conference program in the country. Utah has won two BCS bowls including a blowout of Pitt in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. Utah won ten games a year ago and it has eight starters returning on offense. Quarterback Jordan Wynn is back as is leading rusher Eddie Wide.
Utah does, however, have some holes to fill on defense including some key spots at the linebacker position and the entire secondary.
Utah is 7-0 all-time against current members of the Big East.
Norfolk State at Rutgers Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
Rutgers is dealing with it’s first major injury issue of the season as wide receiver Tim Wright was lost for the year due to a knee injury. The redshirt sophomore played very well in the spring and early during pre-season camp. He did not make a catch last year, but was expected to develop into a go-to guy this season as he was battling Mark Harrison for a starting job opposite Mohamed Sanu. Receiver, in fact, was the position Rutgers was hit the hardest in terms of injury in the pre-season. Harrison missed practice time with a head injury and was just getting back on the field for non-contact drills toward the end of camp. Also, slot receiver Quron Pratt injured his should. Pratt could miss the first month of the season. It leaves true freshman Jeremy Deering as the most likely candidate to start Thursday night. Redshirt freshman Aaron Hayward will also get some reps.
Rutgers coach Schiano says Norfolk State will bring an experience team into the 53,000 seat Rutgers Stadium.
"We played them before a couple of years ago,:" Schiano recalled. "I read recently were 16 guys that played against us are still in the lineup. They were freshman and sophomores then and now they are juniors and seniors.
"We just have to focus on being the best we can be and that will be the case all season long," Schiano said.
UConn at Michigan Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ABC
Winning with defense and by running the football. Things shouldn’t change at UConn as coach Randy Edsall begins his 12th season at the helm of the Huskies. UConn won eight games including a bowl last season despite the tragic loss of Jasper Howard midway through the year. Connecticut lost consecutive games to WVU, Rutgers and Cincinnati by a total of ten points in the immediate weeks following the Howard murder. Then following a week off, the Huskies went on the road at beat Notre Dame in double overtime in one of the best games of the college football season. Edsall is hoping that trip into South Bend will help somewhat in preparing his team to deal with the over 106,000 fans that will fill the Big House Saturday.
"I would hope so," Edsall said. "Our guys played there (South Bend) last year. I think one of the toughest places to play in the entire country is down in Morgantown at Mountaineer Field. Their fans are very loud. It is very loud there.
"I don’t think the crowd will be intimating to them," Edsall continued. "We just have to go out and play the way we are capable. if we don’t, it will probably be something self inflicted."
The UConn defense returns all three starters at linebacker although Greg Lloyd will be moved to defensive end this season. On the other side of the line, Lindsey Witten returns after leading the Big East with 11.5 sacks a year ago. That UConn defense must, however, replace a couple of play makers in the secondary as Robert McClain and Robert Vaughn are both gone following years were they combined for nine interceptions.
Four of five starters are back on the offensive line. Jordan Todman will return to anchor the ground game. Todman had five 100-yard games a year ago as he shared carries with Andre Dixon.
Kentucky at Louisville Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ABC
The Charlie Strong era begins at Louisville as the highly regarded former Florida assistant coach will be on the sidelines for the first time as a head coach.
"We are just moving so quickly I haven’t had a chance to sit back," Strong said in answering the question about whether he has thought about what it means to be in charge of a program for the first time. "Its game week. Its just the preparation getting the players locked in and making sure they understand how important this is.
"Myself, I just haven’t thought about it. I know I am a head coach now but even when you were a coordinator you wanted your unit to go play well and I want this football team to go play well."
The last winning season for Louisville occurred in 2006 when under then coach Bobby Pettrino, Louisville finished 12-1 and won the Orange Bowl. Over the last three years, the Cardinals have averaged just five wins a season. Strong says this opener against rival Kentucky is extremely important.
"What is really big about this game is that you have six or seven recruits in the state that are really, really good players," Strong said. This game sets the tone. If you can win this game then you can be one up on the other school in terms of recruiting these young men.
"This game will set the tone for this state," Strong concluded.
Syracuse at Akron Saturday, 6 p.m.
Second year Syracuse coach Doug Marrone and his staff were able to step up recruiting efforts somewhat as they prepare to take another shot at getting out of the Big East Conference basement for the first time since 2004.
Syracuse hasn’t had a winning season since 2001.
"We brought in 30 players to our program," Marrone said. "The trust and the communication and the things we are doing here have paid off until this point.
"Our objectives are to have a winning season and go to a bowl," Marrone said.
The Zips are coming off a three win season in 2009, but they beat Syracuse 42-28 at the Carrier Dome in 2008.
Akron has a new coach in former Notre Dame assistant Rob Ianello. And there is a connection to Syracuse as two former Orange assistants–Mitch Browning and Derrick Jackson–are on the Akron staff.
Cincinnati at Fresno State Saturday 10 p.m. ESPN2
This one could be a shootout as Zach Collaros gets a chance to run the Cincinnati offense full time. Collaros started four games for the injured Tony Pike last season rushing for 132 yards against South Florida, throwing four touchdown passes against Syracuse and rolling up over 500 yards of total offense against Connecticut.
Collaros also has plenty of weapons to work with as eight starters return on that side of the ball. Isaiah Pead had over 1100 total yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Armon Binns finished with 11 touchdown grabs. D.J. Woods and USC transfer Vidal Hazelton will be the other wide receivers.
Cincinnati lost head coach Brian Kelly to Notre Dame, but made a great hire in former WVU assistant Butch Jones.
Fresno State lost leading rusher Ryan Matthews from a a year ago but quarterback Ryan Colburn is back after 2450 yards and 19 touchdowns.
The Cincinnati defense was a concern at the end of the year as it allowed an average of over 39 points per game over the last five contests including a 51-24 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl. The Bearcats have five starters returning on that defensive unit.
Stony Brook at South Florida
The Bulls have a season opening warm up game prior to their first ever trip to Florida on September 11.