Tackle Mark Popek anchors the South Florida Bulls' offensive line.
1. South Florida – The Bulls return three starters: Quinterrius Eatmon, Mark Popek and Danous Estenor. They lose Chaz Hine and Jeremiah Warren. The unit adds a JUCO player, Chandlor Matthews, and has experienced players from last year's two-deep roster. The Bulls ranked best in the conference with only 16 sacks allowed last year. Expect a performance that is equal to or better than 2012.
2. Syracuse - Justin Pugh and Andrew Tiller earned First Team All Big East honors last year. Tiller has moved on, along with Michael Hay, but Pugh is back with fellow starters Macky MacPherson and Zack Chibane to anchor the line this season. The Orange running game does not look strong to start the season. The line will need to provide solid protection as opponents will be keying on the passing game.
3. Louisville – Mario Benavides is at the heart of this unit in more ways than one. The Cardinals' center was a veteran on a young squad last year and returns in 2012 for his senior campaign as its leader. Returning with him will be Alex Kupper, John Miller and Jake Smith. Gone is Ryan Kessling. The unit declined in performance last year, averaging only 122 yards of rushing compared to 175 in 2010. The year of experience should serve the Cardinals’ young starters well.
4. Connecticut – The Huskies’ offensive line was a disappointment last year, managing only 119 yards rushing per game and allowing 41 sacks. What’s more, it loses All Big East First Team Center Moe Petrus, and Second Team Tackle Mike Ryan. Adam Masters is back along with Steve Greene, Kevin Friend and Jimmy Bennett. Gus Cruz and (Penn State transfer) Alex Mateas are expected to vie for the starting center position. The unit will be coached by offensive coordinator George DeLeone this season.
5. Rutgers – Their recruiting class was tremendous, but the Scarlet Knights needed it to replace Art Forst (2011 First Team All Big East), Desmond Wynn (Second Team) and Caleb Ruch. Andre Civil, Dallas Hendrickson, Kaleb Johnson and Maryland transfer R.J. Dill are expected to anchor the line this year. Rutgers' offense averaged only 98 yards rushing per game, which was comparable to 2009 statistics. This is a unit that should show some improvement from past seasons.
6. Pittsburgh – The Panthers allowed 64 sacks in 2011, including 10 by rival West Virginia and seven by (FCS opponent) Maine. There is nowhere to go but up. Head coach Paul Chryst comes from Wisconsin, a program renowned for its excellent offensive line play. A change in coaching and schemes is inevitable. Pittsburgh has to replace Jordan Gibbs, Greg Gaskins and Lucas Nix. Ryan Turnley returns along with Matt Rotheram and Chris Jacobson (for a sixth year due to injury). If progress is to be made, it should be substantial.
7. Cincinnati – After a terrific 2011 season, it’s difficult to rank the Bearcats so low. But the departures of Evan Davis, Alex Hoffman and Randy Martinez will be keenly felt in Cincinnati. They return Austen Bujnoch, Andre Cureton, Eric Lefeld and Dan Sprague, and add Ohio State transfer Sam Longo, but they lose the conference’s leading rusher in Isaiah Pead. The unit has its work cut out, with so much transition, to maintain last year’s performance.
8. Temple – There is a large gap in offensive line talent and experience between the returning Big East teams and Temple, which played in the Mid-America Conference for several seasons before returning to the Big East. The Owls return just one starter on the offensive line and do not have great depth in the unit. Players to watch are Martin Wallace, who will be Chris Coyer's blindside tackle, and center Sean Boyle who has had a spate of shoulder injuries. He has an extra year of eligibility, while his twin brother, Pat Boyle, finished last year as an All-MAC selection. Head coach Steve Addazio will need young players like Zack Hooks and Jaimen Newman to have a quick learning curve too.