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2011 NCAA Preview: Big East
By Jonathan Hull

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Give the Big East credit. Since losing Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College to the ACC in 2004 and 2005, it's been considered the weakest of the BCS-affiliated conferences. But it's an issue the Big East administration is at least attempting to address.

While some conferences decided to stand pat and stick with what was in place (*cough* Big 12 *cough*), the Big East is looking toward expansion. When it comes to basketball, its already the best conference in the country. But there's simply too much money in the world of college football for the Big East to ignore it and not try to grab a piece.

That's why TCU is being added to the mix next season. That's why the Big East also looking at further expansion down the road in an attempt to ensure it will be one of the four superconferences around once the great NCAA migration begins again.

The future of the Big East is intriguing for that reason alone. The heads of the conference have decided to fight for their future and be proactive rather than sitting back and waiting for the entire process to unravel. Don't be shocked if the Big East beats other conferences to the likes of Kansas and Missouri, which would be valued by the conference for their basketball programs.

Don't be shocked if it's the Big East that can ultimately swoon some independents such as Notre Dame, which already plays basketball in the conference, or even big fish Texas, since the Big East might be the only conference that would accept the Longhorn Network. The conference is ready to make compromises in order to gain more power in the world of college football.

But for now, the Big East is what it is -- the weakest major conference. Some years, it seems the Mountain West was stronger than the Big East, thus the reason for bringing TCU into the fold in 2013. That's not the case this season, considering BYU and Utah's departure from the MWC and TCU is a slight rebuilding mode.

But as is the case the past few seasons, the Big East appears to be wide open and it's very possible a surprise team could emerge as the conference champion and serve as a mini-BCS Buster.

Here's how I see the conference playing out:

1. West Virginia (Projected record: 10-2, 6-1 in Big East)
2010 record: 9-4
Top players: QB Geno Smith, WR Tavon Austin, OG Josh Jenkins, DE Bruce Irvin, DT Julian Miller, CB Keith Tandy, SS Terence Garvin, OT Don Barclay, OC Joe Madsen.
What to expect: Rich Rodriguez' spread option offense, the most indentifiable trait of West Virginia football for the past decade, is gone. Former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen has taken over the program and with him he brings a more balanced offense that will still run out of the spread.

Don't be surprised to see the Mountaineers throwing the ball more than running it, though, based simply on the presence of junior QB Geno Smith. Smith was extremely effective as a sophomore, passing for 2,763 yards and 24 TDs with just seven INTs. He should easily top 3,000 yards passing as a junior with Holgorsen making him the focus point of the offense. There's also a solid veteran OL protecting Smith.

On defense, the Mountaineers are small, but have some quickness, particularly on the front line. Bruce Irvin is one of the better pass rushing DEs in the nation, while Julian Miller is moving inside to DT from DE to give the Mountaineers even more athleticism up front.
West Virginia gets a big measuring stick against LSU in Week 4, but should it overcome the Tigers, who will be visiting Morgantown, the Mountaineers might emerge as a dark horse for the BCS title. The lone question would be whether or not they can get enough respect from voters due to the current state of the Big East.

2. Pittsburgh (9-3, 6-1)
2010 record: 8-5
Top players: LB Max Gruder, LB Greg Williams, DT Chas Alecxih, DE Brandon Lindsey, CB Antwuan Reed, RB Ray Graham, FS Jarred Holley, DT Myles Caregein, OT Lucas Nix, OG Chris Jacobson.
What to expect: Most of the talent for Pitt is on the defensive side of the ball. The Panthers should have the best defense in the Big East highlighted by standouts such as LB Max Gruder and DE Brandon Lindsey.

The question is whether or not new head coach Todd Graham can get his spread offense implemented quickly at Pitt. Graham coached one of the nation's more prolific offenses at Tulsa the past few seasons and believes in a true, pass-heavy spread scheme. That means junior QB Tino Sunseri, who started all 13 games last seaosn, is going to be called upon much more to guide the Panthers in Graham's no-huddle attack.

The schedule is definitely one of the tougher ones in the Big East, considering Pitt is taking on such non-conference foes as Iowa, Notre Dame and Utah. Only Iowa is a road game, however, and all three should be seen as winnable for the Panthers. But the team has had a way of underachieving in recent memory. Perhaps that is Graham's biggest challenge as he takes on this new venture.

3. Cincinnati (8-4, 4-3)
2010 record: 4-8
Top players: QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead, WR D.J. Woods, OT Alex Hoffman, DE Brandon Mills, LB JK Schaffer, LB Maalik Bomar, DT Derek Wolfe, SS Drew Frey.
What to expect: Cincinnati underachieved in its first season without Brian Kelly at the helm, but second-year coach Butch Jones should expect better success this season. The problem definitely wasn't on offense as the Bearkats led the Big East in multiple offensive statistical categories including scoring and total offense.

QB Zach Collaros is entering his third season as the starter for the Bearkats and also has some experienced weapons around him including RB Isaiah Pead and WR D.J. Woods. Pressure is really on the defense to keep Cincy's opponents from outscoring them and the Bearcats might just have the pieces, particularly in the front seven, to accomplish that.

The schedule isn't necessarily more favorable for the Bearcats to do that, though, with five of their last eight games on the road, including back-to-back trips to South Florida and Pitt on Oct. 22 and Nov. 5, respectfully. But with their offense, nearly every game in the Big East is winnable for the Bearcats.

4. Connecticut (8-4, 4-3)
2010 record: 8-5
Top players: OT Mike Ryan, WR Michael Smith, OC Moe Petrus, DT Kendall Reyes, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson, CB Dwayne Gratz, LB Sio Moore, SS Jerome Junior, TE Ryan Griffin.
What to expect: Yet another coaching change in the Big East after Randy Edsall bolted UConn for Maryland in the offseason. The Huskies are bringing in a very experienced coach, though, in Paul Pasqualoni, who has been a college head coach before, most notably at Syracuse where he posted a 107-59-1 record over 14 years. Since he left Syracuse after the 2004 season, the Orange didn't post another winning season until 2010.

Pasqualoni's first order of business at UConn is to find a QB for his system. That battle is still ongoing, according to this recent Journal Inquirer article, but what is clear is whoever starts at QB for the Huskies will lack experience.

But even with inexperience at QB, the Huskies have the talent to compete in the Big East. Pasqualoni is a defensive mind and has to be impressed with some of the talent he has returning on that side of the ball. Not to mention, UConn's schedule isn't exactly daunting with perhaps a road trip to Vanderbilt as the most challenging non-conference challenge. The Huskies once again look like a bowl team.

5. South Florida (6-6, 3-4)
2010 record: 8-5
Top players: QB B.J. Daniels, RB Darrell Scott, OG Jeremiah Warren, LB Sam Barrington, FS Jerrell Young, DE Ryne Giddins, LB DeDe Lattimore.
What to expect: South Florida always seems ready to surprise in the Big East and this season is no different. The Bulls have plenty of talent, beginning with dynamic dual-threat QB B.J. Daniels. But like Daniels, the Bulls have lacked consistency.

Perhaps the most intriguing player on South Florida's Roster is junior RB Darrell Scott, who transfered to USF from Colorado. Scott was once considered the top RB prospect in the nation coming out of high school, but didn't show the work ethic at CU and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. Perhaps a new beginning is just what Scott needed.

A season opener at Notre Dame should give an early indication where South Florida is at in Skip Holtz' second season in charge of the program. There are back-to-back road trips to Pitt and UConn lingering on Sept. 29 and Oct. 15 as well, though. It's a tricky schedule, but the Bulls should find themselves bowl eligible for a seventh straight season.

6. Syracuse (6-6, 3-4)
2010 record: 8-5
Top players: WR Van Chew, RB Antwon Bailey, OT Justin Pugh, TE Nick Provo, DE Chandler Jones, QB Ryan Nassib.
What to expect: Syracuse is going to be hardpressed to duplicate last season's success that culminated in a victory against Kansas State in the Pinstripe Bowl. It was the Orange's first bowl game since 2004 and first postseason victory since 2001.

But the Orange lost some talented seniors, including RB Delone Carter who will definitely be missed. Senior RB Antwon Bailey was effective as a backup last season and should prove capable of replacing Carter. If Bailey can run the ball well enough to take pressure off QB Ryan Nassib, the Orange should be OK on offense.

Syracuse has an early non-conference test against USC in the third week of the season. The Orange also get West Virginia at home on Oct. 21. Six wins seems doable for this group and the Orange could find themselves playing in a bowl game for a second straight season for the first time since 1998 and 1999.

7. Rutgers (5-7, 2-5)
2010 record: 4-8
Top players: WR Mark Harrison, TE D.C. Jefferson, OG Desmond Wynn, WR Mohamed Sanu, LB Khaseem Greene, DE Manny Abreu, DT Scott Vallone.
What to expect: Just a few years ago, Rutgers surprised the nation and appeared to be a program on the rise. Last year the Scarlet Knights won a single Big East game and the outlook for 2011 doesn't appear much more favorable.

Rutgers has a couple strong receivers and a talented TE, but the biggest question is whether or not sophomore QB Chas Dodd can improve significantly enough from his freshman season to make proper use or Mark Harrison, Mohamed Sanu and D.C. Jefferson.

Rutgers' home games are tougher than their road games, which isn't good news for a young team that could use some easier wins in the friendly confines of its own stadium.

8. Louisville (4-8, 1-6)
2010 record: 7-6
Top players: OC Mario Benavides, FS Hakeem Smith, LB Daniel Brown, RB Victor Anderson, TE Josh Chichester.
What to expect: Louisville is in a bit of a rebuilding mode and it's hard to nail down what the Cardinals bring to the table in 2011. One thing is clear, Louisville's best option on offense is RB Victor Anderson, who has some significant shoes to fill with the departure of Bilal Powell, a 1,400-yard rusher last season.

Perhaps the most talented Cardinal plays in the secondary where redshirt sophomore Hakeem Smith lines up at strong safety. Smith will play on Sunday's soon.

Wins are not going to be easy to come by for Louisville, particularly in Big East play. The Cardinals best chance in the Big East are back-to-back home games against Rutgers and Syracuse on Oct. 21 and Oct. 29, respectively. Qualifying for a bowl game would be a major achievement.

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