2011 Big East Preview

2010 FINAL BIG EAST STANDINGS

West Virginia 9-4 (5-2)

UConn 8-5 (5-2)

Pittsburgh 8-5 (5-2)

Syracuse 8-5 (4-3)

South Florida 8-5 (3-4)

Louisville 7-6 (3-4)

Cincinnati 4-8 (2-5)

Rutgers 4-8 (1-6)


RETURNING STATISTICAL LEADERS

Returning Leaders: Passing

Geno Smith, WVU, Jr (241 of 372 for 2,763 yds, 24 TD, 7 INT)

Zach Collaros, Cincy, Sr (225 of 383 for 2,902 yds, 26 TD, 14 INT)

Tino Sunseri, Pitt, Jr (223 of 346 for 2,557 yds, 16 TD, 9 INT)

Chas Dodd, Rutgers, Soph (123 of 223 for 1,637 yds, 11 TD, 7 INT)


Returning Leaders: Rushing

Isaiah Pead, Cincy, Sr (157 carries for 1,029 yds, 6.5 ypc, 6 TD)

Ray Graham, Pitt, Jr (148 carries for 922 yds, 6.2 ypc, 8 TD)

Demetris Murray, USF, Jr (121 carries for 533 yds, 4.4 ypc, 4 TD)

Antwon Bailey, Syracuse, Sr (114 carries for 554 yds, 4.8 ypc, 2 TD)

Returning Leaders: Receiving

Tavon Austin, WVU, Jr (58 rec for 787 yds, 8 TD)

D.J. Woods, Cincy, Sr (57 rec for 899 yds, 8 TD)

Michael Smith, UConn, Sr (46 rec for 615 yds, 2 TD)

Mark Harrison, Rutgers, Jr (44 rec for 829 yds, 9 TD)


 

Returning Leaders: Tackles

J.K. Schaffer, Cincy, Sr, LB (111 total, 9.25 tackles/game)

Sio Moore, UConn, Jr, LB (110 total, 8.46 tackles/game)

Phillip Thomas, Syracuse, Jr, S (92 total, 7.08 tackles/game

Hakeem Smith, Louisville, Soph, S (88 total, 6.77 tackles/game)


Returning Leaders: Sacks

Bruce Irvin, WVU, Sr, DE (14.0 sacks)

Brandon Lindsey, Pitt, Sr, DE (10.0)

Julian Miller, WVU, Sr, DE (9.0)

Jesse Joseph, UConn, Jr, DE (7.5)

Chas Alecxih, Pitt, Sr, DT (7.5)


Returning Leaders: Interceptions

Keith Tandy, WVU, Sr, CB (6 interceptions)

Jarred Holley, Pitt, Sr, S (5)

Blidi Wreh-Wilson, UConn, Jr, CB (4)

Jerome Junior, UConn, Jr, S (4)

 

BREAKING DOWN THE BIG EAST WITH THE ZEALOTS

 

Cincinnati

Jay (Prediction: #3): I’m feeling strangely bullish on Cincinnati.  The transition from Brian Kelly to Butch Jones proved much rougher this time around than it did at Central Michigan.  The offense unexpectedly sputtered out, and the defense was poor, even by the Bearcats’ already low standards.  But watch out for Cincy’s D in 2011.  With 10 starters back (and an even more impressive 19 of their top 21 tacklers returning), for the first time in ages, the defense may be the strength of this team.  They’re not the most talented bunch in the world, or even the conference, but they know what they’re doing by now.  This will be a stalwart unit that will put less pressure on the offense.  Which will be important considering the depletion of the Bearcats receiving corps.  The offense will be improved in year 2 of Jones’ system, and that should be most evident in Zach Collaros’ efficiency at quarterback (14 interceptions in 2010).  However, the talent is just not there for this year’s offense to approach the 2009 team’s offensive dominance.  To be successful, they’ll have to focus on protecting the ball and lean heavily on the experienced defense.  Ultimately, though, I think the schedule will be too much for them to overcome, with 4 of their last 6 games on the road.

Kevin (Prediction: #6): I really want to like Cincinatti. They are the most experienced team in the Big East but a lot of their experience is returning from a defense that was one of the worst in the Big East last year. I do think the Bearcats will show significant improvement over last years 4-8 team and should make a bowl. Replacing the OL is crucial for this team as only Louisville’s has less experience. Isaiah Pead and Zach Collaros should will them to some Ws but don’t expect them to be challenging for the conference title this year.

Ross (Prediction: #4): Where have you gone, Brian Kelly?  Bearcat nation turns its lonely eyes to you, whoa oh oh…  Actually, business should be picking up for Cincy this year; they return more starters (15) than any other team in the league and they were one of the unluckiest teams in the Big East a year ago.  Butch Jones gets Cincy back to respectability this year.

 

Louisville

Jay (Prediction: #7): Charlie Strong lived up to his billing as a future star in the coaching ranks in his first season at Louisville.  It’s not even about posting a (barely) winning record, though that was impressive, too.  It’s how he got there.  After posting scoring defense averages that hovered around 30 through the Kragthorpe years, Strong instantly dropped it to below 20.  He also dropped total defense by almost 60 yards, boosted sacks back close to 40, and posted a positive turnover differential for the first time in 4 years.  On defense, it was like the Kragthorpe years didn’t even happen.  No rebuilding necessary.  Even with some significant losses in personnel, I would expect the defense to stay steady in year 2.  Strong just knows what he’s doing on that side of the ball.  Offense will be the problem.  It was a surprise breakout performance by Bilal Powell that really boosted this team into a bowl game, and now he’s gone.  It will be up to injury-prone Victor Anderson to recapture his freshman form if this team has any chance of moving the ball.  The Cardinals very well could be starting freshman Teddy Bridgewater at QB before the year is up.  To make matters worse, they have a very strong out of conference schedule (@Kentucky, @North Carolina), and they catch the bad end of the Big East schedule.  I don’t see them making a bowl this year.

Kevin (Prediction: #3): I really like Charlie Strong. I’ve got more confidence in him then I do in just about any other coach in the Big East. Louisville will be the least experienced team in the Big East this year but I really like some of their young talent on defense and I think the defense will carry them until they get into the conference schedule. I don’t have them as a strong #3 as I don’t think there is a lot of separation in this conference from #2 to #8 but I’m just getting a feeling about them.

Ross (Prediction: #6): Louisville began emerging from the wreckage of the Kragthorpe Era last year with a slightly surprising 7-6 record and a bowl win, but they should slide back a bit this year before the improvements of Charlie Strong Era can really take hold.  They lose a ton of seniors from last year’s team, which will hurt.  Strong’s too good to let them completely collapse, but bottom-half of the Big East seems realistic.

 

Pittsburgh

Jay (Prediction: #4): Here’s something I thought I’d never say:  If Dave Wannstedt was still the coach, I’d pick this team to win the conference title.  Last year, Pitt had all the pieces in place to finally break through, except at quarterback where they were breaking in young Tino Sunseri.  And sure enough, the first year starter took his lumps and led the way to a disappointing 8-5 record and Wannstedt’s long-time-coming demise.  But look at the team the Stache had coming back this year.  The defense is loaded with experience (16 of the top 20 tacklers back).  The offense now has an experienced QB operating behind a solid line, and despite some big “name” losses, there are proven players at the skill positions.  Pitt had all the parts to be a very successful team.  But then the Mike Haywood thing happened.  And then Todd Graham came along and upset the applecart.  Gone is the pro-style offense everyone is familiar with, done away with to make way for the spread variation Graham favors.  Well, that’s generally a difficult, 2 to 3 year transition process.  For good measure, he’s switching up the defense to a 3-3-5 look, all those experienced, instinctive defenders are having to re-conceive their roles.  Maybe this will pay off in 2012, but even with an almost perfect Big East schedule, this looks to me like a team destined to underwhelm.

Kevin (Prediction: #2): I’m not in love with Pitt but I think they are just enough to be better than the next six teams in the Big East. Todd Graham was a good choice as coach (after the Mike Haywood debacle). They key for this team is how quickly the offense gets going with Graham and if they have the right personnel to run it. The out of conference schedule is tough but in conference they only have three road games with one of them being Rutgers.

Ross (Prediction: #2): In Todd Graham we trust?  Apparently.  He should be able to get more out of the offense than the Wannstache did and in Tino Sunseri and Ray Graham he has a solid 1-2 punch.  But the main reason to be high on Pitt is their defense: they return eight starters, including almost their entire defensive front.  Graham isn’t known as a defensive coach (at all), but if the defense can be stout and his offense can put up points (which has been the case at every school he’s been at), they should be pretty fearsome.

 

Rutgers

Jay (Prediction: #5): Two years ago, I had this marked down as “Rutgers’ year.”  With Tom Savage coming into his 3rd year at QB, and weapons like Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison maturing around him, I already had the 2011 Rutgers offense penciled in as the school’s best since Ray Rice’s era (boy, 2006 seems like a long time ago).  Well, the strapping Savage is long gone, having fled for warmer climates, and replaced with the diminutive Chas Dodd.  I’m not overly impressed with Dodd.  You have to be a special player to be that small and succeed in this type of offense, and I just don’t see it.  On the plus side, Greg Schiano was able to land the extremely talented Savon Huggins this year.  He is by far the best back who’s stepped into the lineup since Rice went to the pro’s.  I think the slowly drowning Scarlet Knight offense will get a nice boost from finally having another back that can average more than 4 yards a carry.  And Rutgers will need all that he can give them.  On defense, they return only 13 of their top 20 tacklers from 2010 (aka, barely enough to fill the 11 spots on the field).  While it’s difficult for me to believe Schiano will allow the D to be as bad as it was last year (giving up 26.5 ppg after not giving up fewer than 20 ppg 3 of the previous 4 years), the depth of experienced talent just isn’t there to challenge the best in the conference.  Fortunately, their schedule sets up nicely enough to allow them to sit at the top of the pack of non-contenders.

Kevin (Prediction: #8): Rutgers was 4-8 last year and while I think they improve this year I still think they finish at the bottom of the conference. The one thing that would propel them into a better finish would be for incoming freshman RB Savon Huggins to make an immediate impact and give Rutgers a dimension that they did not have last year as they finished last in the league in rushing by a wide margin.

Ross (Prediction: #8): Welcome back to the bottom, Rutgers.  The glory of 2006 — and Ray Rice — recedes further into the distance with each year.

 

Syracuse

Jay (Prediction: #8): Last year, Syracuse rode a veteran defense and the power-running stylings of Delone Carter (and a lousy out of conference schedule) to a surprising 8-5 year.  This year, all of that is gone.  The Orange returns only 10 of their top 20 on defense with the majority of the losses being felt in the front 7.  There is no heir apparent to the workload Carter carried for last year’s team, and there is real concern whether Ryan Nassib can take the next step in his development as a QB with such an uninspiring receiving corps.  Their schedule isn’t so forgiving this year either.  The FBS double-dip of Maine and Colgate is a thing of the past.  Unless a new workhorse RB steps up or a more athletically-gifted receiver (or two) breaks into the rotation, the Orange will find themselves in familiar surroundings come bowl season.

Kevin (Prediction: #7): I really love what Doug Marrone brought to the table last year as he put Syracuse back on the map way faster than anyone ever expected. That being said the ‘Cuse lose a lot of talent off of their over-performing defense from last year and I don’t like the recent off-field issues this team has been having. I like the future for Syracuse under Marrone but I think they take a step back this year before taking a step forward over the next few years.

Ross (Prediction: #7): If Louisville’s success last year was surprising, Syracuse’s success (8-5, including a bowl win) was jaw-dropping.  After spending much of the prior decade as perpetual Big East cellar dwellers, Doug Marrone engineered a shocking turnaround last year.  The good news is that they return quite a bit on offense (8 players, including their QB and most leading WRs), but they return very little on defense (just five players). Mikhail Marinovich has a marvelous mustache, but that alone won’t be enough to shore up their defense.

 

UConn 

Jay (Prediction: #6): This was going to be a rough year with or without Randy Edsall.  Edsall’s teams were rarely flashy but you always knew what to expect from his teams.  They were going to run the ball and play fundamentally sound defense, and as long as they weren’t athletically outmatched, they’d give you a game.  But this year’s squad might have represented his biggest challenge.  With no experience at QB and, for the first time in recent memory, no proven commodity ready to step in at RB, this traditionally sleepy (but effective) offense is set to be nearly comatose.  Add into the brew a linebacking corps that is having to be completely rebuilt, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a step backwards.  And that’s before you even take into account that the steady Edsall is long gone and has been inexplicably replaced by Paul Pasqualoni, who proved as recently as 2004 that he was no longer in touch with college football in this very conference.  The upside is that the schedule sets up well with a padded non-conference slate and a favorable Big East dance card that should keep them out of the conference dungeon and in a bowl game.  That should be enough to keep the wolves from Pasqualoni’s door for the time being.

Kevin (Prediction: #6): Randy Edsall knew when to get out of dodge. They lose 1700 rushing yards as Jordan Todman went pro early. They also lose their QB. He wasn’t any good last year but if they had somebody better they would have found him last year. UConn could very well be 5-0 as they start off with 5 very winnable out of conference games but once they get into Big East play they will be brought back to reality. A bowl is very possible for this team and most likely probable due to their weak schedule but they won’t contend for the Big East Championship.

Ross (Prediction: #5): From Big East champions to middle of the league?  Sounds like just another year in the Big East.  Edsall wasn’t the most exciting coach around, but he was a steady presence and a consistent 7-8 game winner at Storrs.  The jury’s still out on Pasqualoni. And while UConn won the league last year, it took some fortuitous collapses from Pitt and West Virginia for that to happen.

 

USF

Jay (Prediction: #2): Since their move to the Big East, I’ve often thought of USF as the most geographically disadvantaged team in major college football.  They currently reside an absurd distance from even their closest conference rival, and over the course of a 12-game season, all that travel adds up (and late season road games to frigid climates, predictably, don’t do a team from Tampa any favors, either).  In 2010, the Bulls had their most desirable schedule ever (they only had to leave the state of Florida 3 times), but didn’t quite have the team to get it done in Skip Holtz’s first year.  This season, the schedule flips back out of their favor (though it’s not quite as daunting as usual), but the team looks much better.  I like their collection of talent on defense, even if the returning starter numbers aren’t great.  USF routinely gets more than their share of big, fast defenders out of their backyard.  I think the real key to this team being all it can be is the play of their two big running back transfers, Darrell Scott (6’1″, 230) and Dontae Aycock (5’9″, 225).  Folks at Auburn were very high on Aycock prior to his dismissal last summer, and if Scott can live up to even half of the promise he showed as one of the top recruits in the 2008 class, he’ll be a very productive player for the Bulls.  A boost from the running game will take the pressure off BJ Daniels, who is clearly not the most gifted passer.  If those two backs meet or exceed expectations, USF can put a run on the title.  If not, it will be their typical 8-9 win year.  If they can negotiate the middle portion of their schedule (@Pitt, @UConn, vs.Cincy, @Rutgers, @Syracuse) with no missteps against the teams they should be favored against, they’ll be in position to play West Virginia at home on Dec. 1 for the Big East title.  That will be no short order, though.

Kevin (Prediction: #4): I don’t think there is much separation between Pitt (who I ranked at #2) and USF (who I have at #4). With Holtz at the helm you will get a solid defense and that’s not going to change this year. The big question is the offense as they struggled to put up points in Big East games last year. If BJ Daniels can be more consistent and if they can find a legit #1 RB then USF could be a team to watch in the Big East. They do have four road games on slate for their Big East schedule but three of them are against teams that I have ranked below them in the conference.

Ross (Prediction: #3): Is this too high for South Florida? Probably. They got stuck with four Big East road games this year and they habitually collapse later in the season, especially in cold-weather climates.  On the other hand, their only November road game in potentially chilly weather is an 11/5 game at Rutgers.  They return a talented, but erratic QB in BJ Daniels, and, really, talented but inconsistent describes a lot of players on this USF team.  Still, that might be good enough in the Big East.

 

West Virginia 

Jay (Prediction: #1): I’ve had WVU penciled in at #1 in the conference since the hiring of Dana Holgorsen as offensive coordinator.  Much like the more celebrated Gus Malzahn, Holgorsen has his scheme down to a science, and he will make any offense more productive by virtue of his presence.  He has a terrific QB to build around, as well, in Geno Smith, who improved as the 2010 season progressed and the WVU staff allowed him to be more of the pure passer that he is rather than continuing to force him into the Pat White dual-threat mold.  He’s a perfect fit for Holgorsen’s system, and they’ll both have a legitimate weapon to target in Tavon Austin.  I do expect the defense to be down several notches from 2010, but they return enough key players (including their top sack and interception producers) not to turn into a pushover.  But it’s important to note that no Mountaineer defense has given up an average of greater than 21.7 ppg in the past 7 years.  Meanwhile, Holgorsen’s last 3 offenses have averaged over 40 ppg.  In short:  It would take a massive collapse on defense to slow WVU down.  All that said, I don’t feel as confident about this pick as I did 7 months ago, before all the drama between Holgorsen and Bill Stewart and Stewart’s subsequent ouster.  Discord between coaches can absolutely filter down to the team and tank a season, regardless of the talent on hand (see: Auburn, 2008).  And that factor is definitely in play here.  But since there’s no predictive metric for that sort of thing (no one will know until September how this has affected the team), and I simply can’t find any other team in the conference that I like as much on paper, I’m sticking with the Mountaineers. 

Kevin (Prediction: #1): Addition by subtraction. That’s what happened this off-season at WVU when Dana Holgersen replaced Bill Stewart. It’s a shame Jock Sanders and Noel Devine won’t be around to play in this offense but Tavon Austin and Geno Smith will and the Mountaineers will take a big step forward this year. Another key is the return of DC Jeff Casteel. The WVU defense was the best in the Big East last year and despite a number of departures expect them to be very good again this year. If WVU can somehow find a way to beat LSU they could even be a darkhorse National Championship contender. Look for a big improvement this year from the Mountaineers. 

Ross (Prediction: #1): In a league that had more than a few schools endure tumultuous off-seasons, West Virginia may have had the craziest.  It’s not often you have one coach openly trying to sabotage another coach, after all.  Head coach-in-waiting arrangements seem to go pear-shaped more often than not, but this one between Bill Stewart and Dana Holgerson went sour in near-record time.  But it might actually wind up being a blessing for the Mountaineers because they’ll avoid any in-season conflict between Stewart and Holgo; this team is 100% Holgo’s now, which means he can implement his offense in full.  West Virginia returns eight starters on offense; if they can acclimate to Holgo’s system quickly, they should have more than enough firepower for any other team in the league.

 

PLAYER OF THE YEAR PREDICTIONS:

Jay: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia:  This seems like a no-brainer to me.  Three of the last six quarterbacks in Dana Holgorsen’s system have put put 5,000 total yards.  That’s good enough to be Player of the Year in most places.

Kevin: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: Geno Smith put up some great stats last year in what was generally a pedestrian offense. This year he will put up some eye-popping stats and along with the Mountaineers winning the conference that will propel him to be the Player of the Year.

Ross: Geno Smith, West Virginia QB.  He’s going to put up absolutely murderous numbers in Holgo’s offense.

 

BREAKOUT PLAYER OF THE YEAR PREDICTIONS:

Jay: Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida:  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that a change of location is just what this kid needed.  He sat out last year after transferring in from the sinking ship that was Dan Hawkins’ tenure at Colorado.  It seems like most have already written this kid off after his flameout in Boulder, but I think he has too much talent to be ignored.  There’s basically no one standing in his way of taking the starting job for a good team, if he wants it.

Kevin: Andrew Buie, RB, West Virginia: I’m going to go with someone from what I believe will be the top offense in the conference. Noel Devine exits stage right but in comes true freshman Andrew Buie. He’s a 4-star true freshman with 4.5 speed from Florida. He’s moved up the depth chart consistently since getting on campus and I see him as the Kendall Hunter of this offense in the future. He will be one to keep an eye on this year.

 

CFBZ PREDICTED 2011 BIG EAST FINISH

1. West Virginia

2. Pittsburgh

3. USF

4. Cincinnati

5. Louisville

6. UConn

7. Syracuse

8. Rutgers

Kevin Causey

About Kevin Causey

dry humorist, beer snob, occasionally unbiased SEC fan, UGA alumni, writer for Crystal Ball Run and founder of College Football Zealots

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