- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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As we move along in our final position rankings for the 2011 season, we come to the defense. First up: defensive line. To me, this was the strongest, deepest position in the Big East; thus the toughest to rank. Trust me when I say I would not call any of these defensive fronts bad, although they each had their moments to forget. Six of the eight teams in the league in 2011 gave up more than 200 yards rushing at least once. Read on to find out the two that did not.
For these rankings, I am taking into account both rush defense, sacks, tackles for loss, personnel and my own impressions from what I saw this season.
1. Cincinnati. Not only were the Bearcats the most improved group this season, they were the best up front -- No. 2 in the Big East in rush defense; No. 2 in the nation in sacks; No. 1 in the nation tackles for loss. Tackle Derek Wolfe won Co-Big East Defensive Player of the year. Twice, opponents were held to negative yards rushing. Yes, there was one bad game late in the season against Rutgers. But otherwise, this unit was aggressive and tenacious and the best of the bunch. Preseason rank: 7 (Yikes!)
2. Pitt. This is a group that got better as the season went on, and collectively had some pretty solid performances. Among the top eight players in sacks in the Big East -- three belong to the Panthers (Aaron Donald, Chas Alecxih and Brandon Lindsey). Their ability to get after the quarterback is a big reason why I have them here. They might have ranked No. 5 in the league in rushing defense, but they were No. 21 in the nation. Donald and Alecxih also earned spots on the Big East second team. Preseason rank: 2.
3. USF. The Bulls were vastly better at the end of the season than they were at the beginning, yet I still can't get that performance against Pitt out of my head (gave up more than 300 yards on the ground), probably because I was in the stadium and have not seen a worse display of run defense in a long time. Still, I give these guys credit for bouncing back. After that game, the highest run total USF yielded was 132 to Louisville. The Bulls ranked No. 2 in the nation in tackles for loss, No. 3 in the Big East for sacks and were able to develop some solid players up front. Preseason rank: 4.
4. UConn. The difficulty in ranking the Huskies is the fact that most teams just decided to throw on them, which probably skews the No. 1 run defense ranking a little. There were only 385 rushing attempts against them this past season -- the only Big East school with fewer than 400. Still, UConn did not allow 200 yards on the ground this season, a rare feat in the league. Trevardo Williams led the league in sacks with 12.5, and Kendall Reyes contributed 13.5 tackles for loss and has the potential to be a first-round NFL pick. Reyes was a first-team Big East selection; Williams made the second team. Preseason rank: 1.
5. Rutgers. Yes, the run defense was tough to watch at times (three straight games allowing more than 200 yards rushing), but the Scarlet Knights were able to get back to what they do best -- pressuring the quarterback and taking players down in the backfield. Last season, Rutgers had 17 total sacks. This past season, the Scarlet Knights ranked No. 4 in the league with 36. Justin Francis led the way with 6.5, and Scott Vallone made improvements as well. Preseason rank: 8.
6. Louisville. Injuries on the front really hurt the Cardinals this past season. They did rank No. 3 in the league in rushing defense, but there was never a real sense that they could produce a consistent pass rush from their linemen. Louisville ranked No. 6 in tackles for loss and No. 6 in sacks. The team leader in sacks, Marcus Smith, had 5.5. Only Syracuse ranks lower in that category. There is great potential here as the young players who got experience showed definite flashes. Preseason rank: 5.
7. West Virginia. As much as I think Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller are terrific players, this group as a whole I thought was disappointing in 2011. There were definite strides at the end of the season, but for most of the season we all wondered what was wrong with the potent pass rush? Through nine weeks, West Virginia had 10 sacks. That improved in a big way once Irvin was used in more situational downs, but the Mountaineers ranked No. 7 in the Big East in sacks (31) and No. 8 in tackles for loss, along with No. 8 in run defense. Though they never gave up 200 yards on the ground, they did give up more than 180 four times. Preseason rank: 3.
8. Syracuse. The Orange never really got much going along the front, and a big reason why is because they missed Chandler Jones so much while he was gone. The fact that he made the Big East first team in only seven games should prove how badly he was needed. Syracuse ranked No. 7 in the league in tackles for loss; No. 8 in sacks (28), and No. 6 in rushing defense. Those TFL and sack stats are pretty good nationally, but these guys are being judged against the rest of the Big East, and most games, they just fell short. Preseason rank: 6.