2011 College Football Preview: Breaking Down The Big East

geno-smithIn case you missed it, the Big East actually played football last season. Of course, those of us who actually like watching Big East football realize last year was embarrassing.

This year it should be much better, and when TCU arrives in 2012 the Big East could potentially move ahead of the ACC. OK, maybe that’s me dreaming a bit there. But the conference won’t get beat up quite as much. There is also the possibility that conference expansion/realignment could once again disrupt the Big East in the near future as well.

That is in the future. Let’s talk about 2011.

Fellow Crystal Baller Aaron Torres and I are on the same page here. The Big East isn’t perfect, but it’s much stronger than all of those arrogant SEC and Big Ten fans believe. There are plenty of numbers to back up the claim, and of course there are all of those big losses to BCS teams last year that just obliterated the Big East’s reputation.

So what. The Big East is still playing football and it’s an automatic qualifier. Get over it and learn a little more about the conference.


Best Quarterback: West Virginia’s Geno Smith. You could also go with Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros, but he was the Big East’s version of John Brantley last year. So going with Smith is a smart call because he should have a huge year in Dana Holgorsen’s system.

Best Running back: Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead. He’s a workhorse and rushed for 1,029 yards despite missing two games last season. He has earned a reputation in the Big East as being one of the toughest backs, however he remains relatively unknown outside of the conference.

Best Wide Receiver: Cincinnati’s D.J. Woods. Hey, another Bearcat. You really think Butch Jones could have done much better than 4-8 in his first season with this talent. Woods caught eight touchdowns passes and had 899 receiving yards last year. It’s a close battle with WVU’s Tavon Austin, who also had eight TD receptions last year.

Best Offensive Lineman: Connecticut’s Moe Petrus. The Huskies’ senior has started 39 games and is on pretty much every watch list for linemen this preseason. The center should be drafted next spring. He helped pave the way for Jordan Todman, and now he anchors the best line in the conference. The second best lineman in the conference also comes from UConn (Mike Ryan).


On the spot: South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels. South Florida has the best chance to knock WVU off the top of the Big East, but the only way that’s going to happen is if Daniels plays more like the guy from the bowl win over Clemson. Daniels has the skills to be an elite player, but he usually reminds me of Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib.

Busting out: Rutgers running back Savon Huggins. The 6’0″, 200-pounder is a five-star recruit who should make an impact immediately for Greg Schiano.

Wildcard: Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu. After bursting onto the scene as the first true freshman to start under Greg Schiano, Sanu slipped last year because of nagging injuries. He still managed to catch 44 passes. New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti isn’t planning to use Sanu as a Wildcat this year so he can focus on being a receiver. Sanu is extremely physically gifted and he has the potential to be the best player in the conference.


Best Defensive Lineman: Pittsburgh’s Brandon Lindsey. As much as I’d love to go with WVU’s Bruce Irvin, Lindsey is a proven commodity and you can’t overlook his 51 tackles and 10 sacks. What is it with Pitt and all of the top-shelf defensive linemen?

Best Linebacker: Pittsburgh’s Max Gruder. The Panthers are moving to a 3-4 and Gruder will be on the weak side this fall, which means he needs to step up for Todd Graham. He has amassed 175 tackles over the past two seasons. In case you haven’t noticed, Pitt should be good on defense this year.

Best Defensive Back: West Virginia’s Keith Tandy. Tandy was considered a weak spot on WVU’s defense going into 2010, but then he had a breakout year at corner. He was a first-team All-Big East selection and is on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list. Tandy is being moved to the left side in 2011, and it will be interesting to see how he does as the “best” player. The best safety in the Big East is Louisville’s Hakeem Smith, after leading the Cardinals with 88 tackles as a freshman.

On the spot: West Virginia’s Jeff Casteel. The Mountaineers’ defensive coordinator has done some amazing work, but he has a new boss and WVU’s defense was hurt by graduation and defection to the NFL. If Casteel works his magic again, he could become one of the most sought after assistant coaches in the nation (not to be a head coach). Don’t be shocked if he bolts after 2011 to go wherever Rich Rodriguez lands.

Busting out: West Virginia defensive end Bruce Irvin. Used mainly as a pass-rush specialist, Irvin is now one of the players the defense is designed around. Despite limited action, Irvin still managed a conference-best 14 sacks in 2010. His goal during the offseason was to get into better shape so he can be an every down player. Early reports are that it has paid off for Irvin.

Wild card: Syracuse’s Marquis Spruill. The linebacker had a memorable freshman season as he recorded 51 tackles in 13 starts as a true freshman. Now he’s the leader of Doug Marrone’s defense and Spruill has the personality and talent to take on this role.


Hottest Seat: Rutgers’ Greg Schiano. In fairness, there really isn’t any coach in the Big East in serious trouble of losing his job. But Schiano is trending down, and he waited too long for that Penn State job. He should have taken the Michigan job when it was offered, but now he’s stuck in Piscataway. Sorry Greg, but you will be in coaching purgatory for a while.

Up and Coming: Louisville’s Charlie Strong. You could also go with Syracuse’s Doug Marrone, but the job Strong did last year was simply amazing. What took everyone so long to hire Strong? He is likely the next Big East coach to upgrade his situation.

Top technician: West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen. Love him or hate him, Holgorsen has a proven track record as an offensive mastermind. He likes the skill players he inherited at WVU and he will likely work his voodoo magic again. Now, can anyone please explain the hair?


Cupcake City: Since everyone in the conference plays each other, it basically comes down to the OOC games. While Rutgers is in the running, it has to be Connecticut. That should factor in well during Paul Pasqualoni’s first season with the Huskies. Here is a look at the non-league games: Fordham (Sept. 1), at Vanderbilt (Sept. 10), Iowa State (Sept. 16), at Buffalo (Sept. 24) and Western Michigan (Oct. 1). Connecticut should open the season 5-0.

Death March: Pittsburgh. Matt Hayes of the Sporting News said the Panthers have the second toughest non-conference schedule in the country. Those opponents are Buffalo, Maine, at Iowa, Notre Dame and Utah. OK, Buffalo and Maine doesn’t scare anyone, but those other three are legitimate non-conference foes.

Game of the Year: West Virginia at South Florida (Dec. 3). It’s the final week of the season, and I believe this is the game that will decide the Big East champion. WVU will likely be favored, but the Bulls have found ways to stymie the Mountaineers in Tampa. It won’t be as easy doing that against a coach like Holgorsen.


For the sake of its reputation, the Big East needs to win some of the marquee non-conference games. Maybe Pitt or South Florida can beat Notre Dame. Heck, Pitt beating Utah would be a good start. The huge feather in John Marinatto’s cap would be if WVU could take down No. 4 LSU in Morgantown on Sept. 24. I’m not missing that game. I’ll be there just in case. The odds are slim, but it could happen. If not, WVU could help the league a little with a win over Maryland the week before.

One thing will certainly happen in Morgantown this fall, though. The Mountaineers will celebrate being back on top of the Big East. Right now, WVU has the best talent and with Dana Holgorsen in charge (and not Bill Stewart), the Mountaineers won’t let the opportunity slip by.

Pitt and South Florida should be the hunt, but WVU will win close games with each of them.

Here’s what the rest of the Crystal Ball Run staff has to say:

Aaron Torres: I see no reason why West Virginia shouldn’t be the favorite as well. Even though they lost a lot on defense they seem to constantly reload under Jeff Casteel. Not to mention that the offense should be about, oh I don’t know, 6,000 times better under Dana Holgorsen. I firmly believe the hype in Geno Smith as a dark horse Heisman candidate.

As for the rest of the conference, I fully expect South Florida, Pitt and Louisville to get to the Mountaineers level in time. But only West Virginia is “there” right now.

An 11-1 season wouldn’t shock me.

Michael Felder: You know what? I’m not taking West Virginia. I’m going to roll the dice on someone else in the Big East after having been so routinely disappointed by West Virginia since Rich Rod’s departure.

I’ll take South Florida. Not because I like their situation; they’ve got a lot of holes that need filling. I’m rolling them out there because I do believe in Skip Holtz. Having watched him at ECU plenty and seeing what he’s building toward at USF, I think he understands now is the time in the Big East and he’ll push the pedal to the metal to get close. Transition at Pitt, WVU and UConn leave the door open. I’m going to look for Skip to capitalize on that opening.

Allen Kenney: As a card-carrying member of the Holgo the Destroyer Fan Club, consider this a vote for West Virginia.

If you don’t think the Mountaineers will have more success moving the ball this year, I have to assume you haven’t watched college football in the last five years. On the other side of the ball, the lack of experience on defense definitely concerns me, but underrated coordinator Jeff Casteel is among the best in the biz.

Really the biggest issue facing WVU is Holgo’s ability to “manage a program.” This dude may be the “bro-est” of college football’s current crop of head coaches, and he’s never had a reputation as the kind of guy who’s in the office by the crack of 8 a.m.

I know Pittsburgh is attracting some attention as one of the Big East favorites. However, what Dave Wannestedt did and what Todd Graham wants to do on both offense and defense couldn’t be farther apart. I’m betting Pitt muddles through 2011.

South Florida definitely deserves consideration, as Skip Holtz has done a great job re-igniting the Bulls, who had fallen into a malaise under Jim Leavitt. Until USF can get better consistency from its offense, though, I have a hard time backing that horse.

No, I’m sticking with the ‘Eers. All hail Holgo.

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