Although many called for the Big East to lose its automatic qualifier status in the BCS following the 2004 departure of three power teams, the league has more than asserted itself in the past five years by putting up the second best winning percentage against other AQ conferences and respectable bowl records every season. The eight team league is one year away from the addition of TCU and a more balanced 8 game conference schedule, so the strange discrepancies of some teams having 3 home conference games and others having 4 continues this season. This season looks a lot like the past three years in the Big East, with West Virginia and Pittsburgh leading the charge and at least one other upstart fighting for the league title. Cincinnati and Connecticut have taken turns being that other team the past four seasons (and have taken the last 3 BCS appearances), but USF might be the new competitor this season. Cincinnati will also likely have a lot to say about who represents the league in the BCS this season. The bottom half of the conference was improving last season, and hopefully the league will maintain that momentum from the latter half of 2010.
Although Pittsburgh had garnered some level of success under Dave Wannstedt, no BCS appearances in six years led to his departure and the beginning of Todd Graham's first major coaching job (at Rice in 2006, Tulsa in 2007-10). Graham brings a potent pass-heavy offense from Tulsa up to the steel city, which should make QB Tino Sunseri into a rising star this year. Sunseri threw for 2500 yards and 16 touchdowns, but those numbers could be blown away with the new offense this season. Sunseri will need to rely on some new receiving talent in Devin Street, Cameron Saddler, and possibly Hubie Graham out of the backfield. Although Ray Graham split the running back duties with Dion Lewis and combined with him for over 2000 yards, his numbers will settle a bit as the primary back this season. The Panthers do have a senior laden offensive line that will be key to the different types of pass protection that will be used this season. The primary strength of Pittsburgh has been the defense in the past few years, and this will stay the case in 2011 with 8 returning starters from one of the conference's best units in 2010. The defensive line and linebackers have six senior starters returning and will therefore be very tough against the run. Look for DE Brandon Lindsey to be a major playmaker after recording 10 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss last season. The special teams may be a big question mark for the PAnthers, as new kicker Kevin Harper and new punter Matt Yoklic take over those units. Pittsburgh has a fantastic schedule with only three road games in conference, two of those being against Rutgers and Louisville. However, the other road game is the Backyard Brawl in Morgantown, which very well may be decisive in the BCS chase. Pittsburgh should have a chance to win the conference title Thanksgiving weekend, which is exactly what Panthers fans have been longing for since 2004.
West Virginia Mountaineers
One of the largest reasons for huge optimism in the Big East this season is the likely return of an overpowering Mountaineers offense under new head coach Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen will look to recapture the offensive explosion days of the Rich Rodriguez era, and he receives 8 returning starters on offense to jump start that recovery. Geno Smith threw for over 2700 yards in Bill Stewart's highly conservative offense a year ago, so the junior quarterback is poised for a breakout year in the new offense. Freshman RB Andrew Buie steps in for the departed Noel Devine, and Buie has been impressive thus far in fall practice to grab the starting job. Although the new offensive scheme is more pass-happy than when Rodriguez was in Morgantown, the continual drop in rushing numbers over the past four seasons (160 yards per game last season) will stop with four starters returning and seven of the top ten in the two-deep. The defense will need to plug in seven new starters and these holes are present on all levels of the defense. The defense was stout against the run a season ago, but expect those numbers to take a slight step back with Shaq Rowell, Bruce Irvin, and Doug Rigg taking over three new spots on the line. Safety Terrance Garvin led the team in tackles a season ago and will be relied on to be the heart and leadership of this defense, which should still be one of the better defenses in the conference. Although a tough early season test against LSU looms in September, the fate of the Mountaineers will be decided in their final three games at Cincinnati, vs. Pitt, and at USF. As long as the offense is fully clicking by this end stretch, WVU may sweep through the Big East for the first tiem since 2005.
After winning two straight Big East titles under Brian Kelly, the Bearcats took a huge step backwards in 2010 with first year head coach Butch Jones. After a full year of acclimating to the new system, fifteen retruning starters should have Cincinnati right back in the mix for a conference title in 2011. Senior QB Zach Collaros trew for 2900 yards last year but disappointed in the clutch with 14 interceptions. Those numbers should improve despite the replacement of two starting receivers. Collaros is also a threat to run the ball, but look for senior RB Isaiah Pead to dominate that side of the offense after a 1000 yard campaign in 2010. The return of Pead and Collaros lessen what would normally be big question marks on the offensive line because both players force defenses to play and tackle well at the edges of the field. Look for some steady play from the offense. The key to the Bearcats success will be the return of a strong defense after surrendering 28 points per game last year. The defense returns every starter except LB Obadiah Cheatham, who only provided 26 tackles in 2010. Thus, a massive improvement in both statistics and results on the field will be expected and should occur. The special teams will need to see improved play from new kicker Tony Millano, as the Bearcats season could come down to a couple games decided by the kicker. The schedule sends UC to four conference road games, but playing Pitt after a bye and WVU at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati might be enough of a break to get the Bearcats back to the BCS.
IN THE MIX
South Florida Bulls
Since joining the conference in 2004, South Florida has seemingly always ended up at 3-4 or 4-3 in conference play. With Skip Holtz entering his second season at the helm, bigger things are expected from perhaps the best recruiting team in the conference (by virtue of their Tampa location). The offense only returns five starters, but the most important piece of the puzzle is returning junior QB BJ Daniels. Daniels is just as much a threat to run the ball as he is to throw, but Holtz is really keeping his focus on the passing game in an attempt to turn around USF's passing numbers. Evan Landi and AJ Love will probably receive most of the throw from Daniels, although RB Darrell Scott cannot be discounted coming out of the backfield. Scott is a transfer from Colorado who was the most heralded running back recruit in the country two years ago. The defense stayed strong against the run last season but will need to replace three defensive linemen in 2011. Fall practice appears to show that Patrick Hampton and Ryne Giddins will take over the critical end slots on the line, and they will have a lot of pressure on them to keep up the good results of the past few years. Two of the top three tacklers on the team return in the linebacker corps in Sam Barrington and DeDe Lattimore, so look for a lot of big plays out of the middle of the Bulls defense. USF only pulls Pittsburgh on the road and could be a major player in the conference race if they take care of business against the lower half of the conference on the road. As long as the high number of new starters adapt well to Skip Holtz's system quickly, USF will be playing more meaningful games in November than they have at any point in Big East play.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
Greg Schiano is the elder statesman coach by far as he enters his 11th season leading the Scarlet Knights (only Doug Marrone at Syracuse has two years at his current school). Similar to Cincinnati, Rutgers collapsed last season after starting 4-2 with a win over eventual conference champion UCONN. Schiano will likely have the ship back on course this season with 14 returning starters (9 on offense) and the best recruiting class in the conference coming in to contribute right away. The best of these recruits appears to be the leader in the clubhouse for the starting running back position: Savon Huggins. Huggins leads a solid group of five running backs that will split time and keep opposing defenses on their toes. Sophomore QB Chas Dodd should take big strides in his second year at starter, especially with all but his center returning on the line. Expect more balance from an offense that only mustered 101 yards per game rushing a season ago. The defense took an unexpected big step backwards last year, but the new starters should begin to turn those numbers back around. Linebackers Steve Beauharnais and Khaseem Greene will lead the unit and may each top 100 tackles this year. The special teams will be some of the best in the conference with senior kicker San Sante and highly regarded freshman punter Anthony DiPaula. Rutgers has the most favorable schedule in the conference pulling Pittsburgh, WVU, Cincinnati, and USF all at home. As long as another collapse does not happen, Rutgers will be back to a bowl and relevant once more in the conference race.
Although Charlie Strong only achieved a 7-6 record after the bowl win last year, all signs are pointing upward in the coach's second season in Louisville. Strong will need to plug in many of the highly regarded recruits from his first two recruiting classes into the offense this season, as that unit only returns three starters. True freshman QB Teddy Bridgewater is a dual threat athlete who will in all likelihood get most of the snaps right away. Bridgewater will have a decent amount of returning talent at receiver, where Josh Bellamy, Andrell Smith, and Michaelee Harris will be the starters. The offensive lineonly returns center Mario Benavides, but he was likely the best lineman on a high quality line last season. The true strength of the Cardinals will lie in their defense, which dramatically improved a season ago by only allowing 312 yards and 19.4 points per game. Only four starters need to be replaced, although two of these four are the cornerbacks. Both of these new starters will benefit from the return of the two leading tacklers on the defense at the two safety positions in Hakeem Smith and Shenard Holton. The defensive front should continue to stiffen against the run and may push their rushing yards allowed down below 110 or 120 yards per game this season. The schedule does not favor the Cardinals with four conference road games including Cincinnati, WVU, and USF. However, Louisville will improve and perhaps steal a couple of these games to improve on last year's 6-6 regular season.
ALL THE REST
Connecticut sneaked into the BCS last season after getting great breaks on turnovers in games against WVU and Pittsburgh. Despite the shellacking by Oklahoma and the departure of coach Randy Edsall, UC should actually be an improved team in 2011 with veteran head coach Paul Pasqualoni taking over in Storrs. The offense returns seven starters and will need to dramatically improve last year's 326 yards per game average. Unfortunately for the Huskies, two of the new starters will be taking over at quarterback and running back. It appears that freshman Michael Nebrich will be the new quarterback, but the bigger impact may be caused by senior RB DJ Shoemate, who is a transfer from USC. Shoemate was highly recruited coming out of high school but was not able to survive the running back overload in Los Angeles and now comes here to be the feature back in his final college season. The one knock on Shoemate is his tendency to fumble, which could put Connecticut in bad position if that tendency continues. The defense returns nine starters on defense and should be led by LB Sio Moore, who racked up 110 tackles a season ago. The defensive backfield should continue generating turnovers, but perhaps not at the high rate of a season ago when good teams often had their worst games against the Huskies. The schedule only has three road games in conference, but those are WVU, Pitt, and Cincinnati. Assuming Connecticut actually improves from last season, they may sweep the home schedule and end up bowl eligible despite note being a factor in the conference race.
After not winning more than one conference game since 2004, Syracuse exploded to a 4-3 conference record in a topsy-turvy conference race last season. Coach Doug Marrone got the most out of his defense last season in a surprising 8 win campaign, and he will need to see the Orange overachieve again to avoid a step back in wins. The Orange only have 8 scholarship players at linebacker and the only one with experience is sophomore Marquis Spruill after the departure of Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue. Look for opposing offenses to attack the middle of the field with passes and runs until the young crew of linebackers proves themselves in 2011. Both defensive ends Mikhail Marinovich and Chandler Jones return and will be key to keeping opposing quarterbacks contained and uncomfortable. The offense returns 8 starters but still needs to improve dramatically to be a big threat. Junior QB Ryan Nassib has a respectable season with 2334 yards and a 19-8 ratio in 2010. With all of his receivers returning and led by Van Chew, those numbers should improve even further in 2011. Syracuse will need to avoid becoming one-dimensional despite all this reutrning talent at receiver, but whoever takes over the running back position at least will be running behind an experienced line. Syracuse only has three conference road games where they were 4-0 a season ago, so as long as the solid road play continues, then Syracuse may return to a bowl. With the rest of the conference improving rapidly, the true test will be whether Marrone and the Orange can keep up.
Many have wondered how the Big East has remained so strong against other AQ conferences over the years, and perhaps this is caused by the large footprint of the conference. Many of the conference competitors may have to travel long distances to play one another, but this leads to a larger recruiting base for everyone and little direct competition in each school's backyard. The addition of TCU will add yet a larger footprint and the state of Texas to the recruiting trail, so the improvement of the Big East may continue over the next few years. Although the conference may benefit nationally in attention if West Virginia runs the table, the conference will gain more respect over time if they keep beating up on each other like the SEC. Expect another wild conference championship chase and a good race at the bottom of the conference as well. The Big East should continue to dominate their bowl slate in 2011.