Monday, October 11, 2010
Big East midseason overview
By Brian Bennett
Unlike other conferences, the Big East has an almost perfectly split first and second half. The first five weeks or so of the season are spent exclusively on nonconference action, while league play kicks in during mid-October.
And this year, the second half can't come fast enough.
The Big East took more lumps than a washed-up boxer in the out-of-league portion of the schedule, as has been well documented. The conference has gone just 2-11 against opponents from other BCS automatic-qualifying leagues, including 0-for-5 versus ranked teams. It is just 13-15 against FBS opponents.
QB Geno Smith and West Virginia have been the Big East's top team, despite a scare against Marshall.
But, hey, that half is in the books. The nonconference record indicates that there's no dominant team in the Big East, which means that the race for this year's BCS bid could be a free-for-all.
Well, maybe not if West Virginia (4-1) can keep playing at a high level. The Mountaineers are a six-point loss at LSU away from having had a great first half, and they once again look like the class of the conference thus far. They stand as the Big East's highest (and right now only) ranked team.
But West Virginia is hardly unbeatable. Just ask Marshall, which led its in-state rival by 15 points late in the fourth quarter before Geno Smith led a rally to win in overtime.
Behind the Mountaineers are a crop of hopefuls including, believe it or not, Syracuse. The long-suffering Orange (4-1) are more than halfway to bowl eligibility and tied for first place in the standings after one conference game. They're in better shape than two-time defending league champ Cincinnati or preseason favorite Pittsburgh, both of which are 2-3 yet still dangerous.
Connecticut (3-3) hasn't realized its high expectations, while Rutgers and South Florida are battling youth and inconsistency. Louisville, which many regarded as the clear favorite to finish last, is averaging close to 40 points its past three games and took Oregon State to the wire on the road.
The first half didn't go the way most Big East teams envisioned. But each has a chance to earn some redemption in conference play. The league race appears to be as wide open as it has been since 2004.
Sure, Big East teams might not have been able to beat much outside competition in the first six weeks. All that matters now is who can beat the most of its league brethren.
The Huskieshaven't justified their preseason buzz, but Todman has been terrific. He leads the Big East in rushing yards, averaging more than 152 per game, and rushing touchdowns with eight. He's ripping off 6.2 yards per carry and has two games of more than 190 yards. If UConn had more help around him, Todman would be garnering more national attention.
Defensive MVP: Joe Lefeged, S, Rutgers
No defensive player has really stood out as head and shoulder pads above the rest this season, but the hard-hitting Scarlet Knights senior is hard to ignore. Not only is Lefeged leading the league in passes defended and ranked eighth in tackles, he's also been a monster on special teams with blocked kicks and fumble recoveries. If only Rutgers' offense had matched its defensive performance during the first half of the year.
The last time Marcus Sales was in a Syracuse jersey, he had three TDs in the 2010 Pinstripe Bowl.
Biggest surprise: Syracuse
Raise your hand if you had the Orange tied atop the Big East standings at any point this season. Granted, the league race is all of two games old. Still, Syracuse is 4-1 with a road victory at South Florida. It has added a credible passing attack to its solid running game and aggressive defense. In a conference where several preseason favorites have disappointed, the Orange count as a pleasant surprise so far.
Biggest disappointment: Pittsburgh
The Panthers were the overwhelming preseason favorite to win the Big East; instead, they enter league having lost to every respectable opponent on their schedule. The low point was a 31-3 humiliation at Heinz Field to Miami. Their trio of stars -- Greg Romeus, Dion Lewis and Jon Baldwin -- have all been slowed for various reasons, and the offensive line and new quarterback Tino Sunseri have taken time to jell. (Dis)honorable mentions: UConn, Cincinnati
Best game: Oklahoma 31, Cincinnati 29 on Sept. 25
The Big East doesn't have many big victories to hang its hat on, but the Bearcats gave a terrific effort against the Sooners in front of a rowdy crowd at Paul Brown Stadium. If Cincinnati didn't fumble it away a couple of times or miss an extra point, it might have beaten the top 10 team and given itself and the league a signature win. It didn't happen, but this game was entertaining and competitive throughout.
Best coach: Doug Marrone, Syracuse
Give it up to the big guy. Marrone has already matched last year's win total and has the Orange poised to chase their first bowl game since 2004. In two seasons at the helm, he's managed to correct most of the mistakes of the Greg Robinson error -- er, era. The most impressive trait of his Orange is their mental toughness. Honorable mentions: Bill Stewart, West Virginia and Charlie Strong, Louisville.