- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was supposed to be a down year for the Big East.
The league entered the season with no ranked teams and much uncertainty. Every team had at least one major question mark, and several stars were lost in the 2009 NFL draft.
Instead, the conference had one of its strongest showings and most exciting seasons ever. Two teams -- Cincinnati and Pittsburgh -- cracked the top 10, five total league teams appeared in the Top 25 at some point and three finished in the final rankings. Cincinnati provided the Big East a legitimate powerhouse, going 12-0 and coming up a controversial Big 12 second short of possibly crashing the BCS title game.
While the Bearcats were clearly the league's best team, the conference remained very balanced. Cincinnati beat Pitt by one point, Connecticut by two and West Virginia by three. West Virginia beat Pitt on a last-second field goal, while Pitt pulled the same trick on UConn.
South Florida got its usual September day in the sun by beating Florida State before slinking back into the shade by mid-October. Rutgers won eight games, including a blowout of South Florida and a thriller over UConn, but couldn't get a signature win. Syracuse, despite a 4-8 record, showed signs of progress under first-year coach Doug Marrone, while Louisville ended the Steve Kragthorpe era after missing a bowl for the third straight year.
In all, the league was highly competitive each week and finished 32-8 against nonconference opponents. The Big East provided lots of great stories -- like Cincinnati's run, UConn's strength in the light of tragedy and Greg Paulus' transition from point guard to quarterback -- and several dramatic games, including the Cincinnati-Pitt finale and virtually every game Connecticut played. Many young stars, from Dion Lewis to Mohamed Sanu to Zach Collaros, came of age under the bright lights and will be making plays in this league for years.
If that's what a down year looks like, may the Big East never find its way up.
Offensive MVP: Pitt running back Dion Lewis
Had Tony Pike stayed healthy all year, he may have run away with this award. But that doesn't diminish the amazing achievements by Lewis, who did the unthinkable by dominating the conference as a true freshman. He finished third in the nation in rushing with 1,640 yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He eclipsed 100 yards nine times and went over 150 yards in five of his last seven games. The rest of the Big East can't believe they have to face this guy for at least two more years.
Defensive MVP: Pitt defensive tackle Mick Williams
This was a very difficult choice. Several defensive players had standout years, but there was no one obvious guy like Scott McKillop last year. I asked a few coordinators around the league for help with this pick, and the consensus was that Williams and fellow Pitt defensive lineman Greg Romeus were the two most disruptive, headache-inducing defenders in the conference this year. I give Williams the nod over Romeus because he had 15 tackles for loss from the defensive tackle position, which is very impressive, and his work on the inside helped make it possible for Romeus to rush the passer on the edge.
Special teams MVP: Cincinnati returner Mardy Gilyard
Rutgers' Devin McCourty had a great year on special teams as well, but Gilyard had the uncanny ability to make a huge play when his team needed it most. Never was that more evident than his 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Pitt. Gilyard returned two kickoffs and a punt back for scores this year and was a threat to go all the way every time he touched the ball.
Newcomer of the year: Lewis
If he's the offensive player of the year, then this is obvious. There were other top-notch newcomers who might have won this in other years, including Rutgers' Sanu and South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul.
Coach of the year: Cincinnati's Brian Kelly
Kelly might not have any more room on his mantle for this award since it would be the third time in three years he's won it. UConn's Randy Edsall deserves strong consideration as well for the way he kept his team together and led with grace after the death of Jasper Howard. But 12-0 is 12-0, especially when you replaced virtually your entire defense.
Biggest surprise: Connecticut
Not so much that it finished 7-5, which was about as expected, but because the Huskies rebounded from tragedy to close the year strong while becoming an offensive power.
Biggest disappointment: South Florida
I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise anymore, but after yet another 5-0 start that included a win at Florida State, the Bulls sure should have done better than 7-5 and the International Bowl. Yes, Matt Grothe's injury didn't help. But when you consider that five of the team's victories came over two FCS teams, Western Kentucky, Syracuse and Louisville, that 7-5 mark looks even drearier.
Game of the year: Cincinnati 45, Pitt 44, Dec. 5
The Big East saved its best for last, as the schedule worked out perfectly to create a de facto championship game at Heinz Field. And what a game it was, with Cincinnati coming back from a 21-point first-half deficit and 14-point fourth quarter hole to win on a touchdown pass in the final minute. It's a game that will remembered by both sides for a long, long time.