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Big East midseason overview

10/10/2011

Unfortunately for the Big East, conference realignment has overshadowed anything that has happened on the field this season. The surprise departures of Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC hit the league hard last month. Then last week, TCU received an invitation to join the Big 12, leaving the Big East with just six football-playing members moving forward.

While the league wants to aggressively pursue new members, it must be absolutely sure all the remaining members are on board for the future. Until then, the fate of the league remains uncertain, and threatens to overshadow yet another football season.

On the field, West Virginia has lived up to preseason expectations so far, jumping to a 5-1 record and a No. 13 ranking behind an offense that has been as prolific as the others coach Dana Holgorsen has directed. West Virginia ranks No. 4 in the nation in passing, and Geno Smith has passed for 2,159 yards. West Virginia is the only team in the country with two receivers ranked in the top 23 in total receiving yards (Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin). Both are on pace for 1,000-yard seasons.

Pitt, also featuring a new head coach, has flopped to a 3-3 mark. Coach Todd Graham came in promising a hurry-up spread offense, but Tino Sunseri has been inconsistent in running the show and the offensive line has been bad, too. Sunseri has five touchdown passes to seven interceptions, and the line has given up a whopping 27 sacks.

If anything, Rutgers and Cincinnati have delivered the biggest surprises so far thanks to a terrific defense and a superior turnover margin. The Scarlet Knights were picked to finish No. 8 in the preseason poll, but they are atop the league standings at 2-0.

UConn and Louisville, two bowl teams a season ago, also have struggled without veteran quarterbacks to lead the way. Syracuse has made things plenty hard on itself this season, playing three overtime games and winning its four games by an average of five points. USF had a big win over Notre Dame to start the season, but a disappointing 44-17 loss to Pitt the last time it played.

That is how things stand at the midway point of the season. But if the Big East has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected during league play.

Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia. Smith is the slam-dunk choice at the midway point of the season, having thrown for 2,159 yards, with 16 touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Smith has thrown for more than 400 yards twice this season and he also has two four-touchdown games. West Virginia may be relying on him a little too heavily because its run game has been inconsistent, but when you have somebody like him throwing the football, it is hard to hold back.

Defensive MVP: J.K. Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati. Nobody has separated himself just yet, but Schaffer has been as good as any defender in the league. He has 35 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended, and has been heavily relied upon both against the run and the pass. He is a big reason Cincinnati now ranks in the top half of the league in total defense, instead of the bottom half.

Biggest surprise: Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were pegged to finish last in the Big East, but lo and behold they are 2-0 in league play for just the second time in 21 seasons. Two more wins and they become bowl eligible.

Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh. For all the promises coach Todd Graham made about turning Pitt into a high-octane offense, the Panthers have been a dud. The offense ranks No. 70 in the nation in scoring, averaging 27 points a game, and is coming off a season-low 10 points against Rutgers.

Best game: USF 23, No. 16 Notre Dame 20. The Bulls opened the season with the surprising win, the only one the Big East owns against a team that was ranked at the time they played. USF survived two long weather delays, and used an opportunistic defense that helped create five turnovers to get coach Skip Holtz a win in his return to his alma mater.

Best coach: Greg Schiano, Rutgers. Dana Holgorsen and Butch Jones deserve mention, but I am going with Schiano for a few reasons. First, fans were disenchanted with him before the season started, wondering whether he should be on the hot seat after a 4-8 season. Second, he is now calling the plays on defense, and the defense is the big reason the Scarlet Knights are in the midst of a turnaround season.