- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
Well, you can always count on the Big East for one thing: drama.
Off the field, on the field: drama dominated the 2011 regular season.
With the campaign just a few weeks old, the future of the league was thrown off kilter when Pitt and Syracuse surprised the college football world and announced they would be departing the Big East for the ACC. In short order, TCU and West Virginia followed to the Big 12. Rather than being able to focus on football matters, the Big East was forced into scramble mode to keep its league viable as an automatic qualifying conference.
As it stands now, the Big East has yet to add new members to make up for its departures, and is involved in a legal imbroglio with West Virginia. The plan is to become a 12-team league with an East and West Division in order to protect itself from future raids. But all that will remain an uncertainty until moves become official.
On the field, the season came down to the final week for a third straight year. Drama, indeed. Cincinnati, one of the surprise teams of 2011, seemed in control of the Big East race until quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle against West Virginia in Week 11. Undefeated in league play at the time, the Bearcats lost to the Mountaineers on a last-second field goal, then lost to Rutgers the following week, losing its grip on the race to get to a BCS game.
But they still had a chance to win their third Big East title in four years. Wins in their final two games would get them there.
Meanwhile, Louisville closed with a major push, ending the season 5-1. Included in that run was a huge win over West Virginia, allowing the Cardinals to remain in play for a BCS spot until Week 14. Those dreams were dashed when Cincinnati won its finale against UConn, but the Cardinals can call themselves Big East champions for the first time since 2006.
West Virginia rebounded from its loss to Louisville with three straight wins to close out the regular season. In all three victories, the Mountaineers needed to rally. In two of them -- Cincinnati and USF -- the game was decided on the final play.
With all three teams finishing tied atop the Big East standings at 5-2, the Big East crowned co-champions for the second straight season and the third time in the past five. West Virginia, headed for the Big 12, won the right to represent the Big East in the BCS based on its finish in the final BCS standings.
In addition to the drama on the field, the Big East had several stellar standout performances. West Virginia rewrote school records for offense as Geno Smith led the way with 3,978 yards passing. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin each went over 1,000 yards receiving. Rutgers receiver Mohamed Sanu set the Big East single-season record for receptions with 109 for 1,144 yards. Khaseem Greene, Aaron Donald and Trevardo Williams -- unknowns on defense before the start of the season -- made themselves known in a big way.
What we are left with was another season high on drama. Now let's hand out some superlatives:
Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith leads the Big East and ranks No. 9 in the nation in passing and has done just about everything asked of him in Dana Holgorsen's new offense.
Defensive MVP: Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers. Greene led the Big East in tackles with 127, ranking No. 12 in the nation in tackles per game. He added three sacks and was a big reason why Rutgers led the league in total defense.
Newcomer of the year: Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville. Bridgewater is a big reason why the Cardinals were able to go on their 5-1 run to close the season. He set the school record for passing yards by a freshman with 1,855 yards.
Coach of the year: Butch Jones, Cincinnati. This was a toss up between Jones and Charlie Strong. But Jones was able to guide a team that went 4-8 last season to a nine-win season and a share of the Big East title -- even after losing starting quarterback Zach Collaros. His team was able to win its final two games without him to hang on for a third league title in four seasons. Ultimately, the five-win improvement from last season to this season made the difference in choosing between Jones and Strong.
Biggest Surprise: Rutgers. People expected Cincinnati to be better, but Rutgers was the preseason choice to finish last in the Big East. Greg Schiano led this team to an eight-win season and back to a bowl game after going 4-8 in 2010. That qualifies as a surprise.
Biggest Disappointment: USF. Some people pegged the Bulls for a dark horse to win the Big East when the season began, but they imploded, losing six of their final seven games after a 4-0 start.
Best Game: West Virginia 24, Cincinnati 21. This was a tough call to make because there were several exciting games this season that came down to the wire with major Big East implications. But the league turned on this game. Collaros went down with a broken ankle in the second quarter and all hope seemed lost. Cincinnati trailed 17-7 when Munchie Legaux took over. He struggled on the first few series, but came to life in the second half, rallying the Bearcats to a 21-17 fourth-quarter lead. West Virginia then went ahead 24-21, and blocked Tony Miliano's 31-yard field goal attempt in the closing seconds to win -- opening the door for the wild finish to the season.