Nowhere to go but up for Big East
There's no sugarcoating just how bad the Big East was in 2010.
Its champion finished just 8-5. Its top two bowl games ended in double-digit losses. The league began the season with no ranked teams and finished that way, too, looking more like a mid-major than a BCS automatic-qualifying conference.
So it's no surprise that this spring brought major changes across the Big East landscape, starting at the top. The three teams that tied for first place in 2010 -- Connecticut, Pittsburgh and West Virginia -- all experienced significant coaching changes after the season.
West Virginia and Pitt opted for more offense, which was a welcome sight after last year's leaguewide slog-a-thon (No Big East team finished in the top 56 nationally in scoring offense in 2010). The Mountaineers handed the reins of the offense over to Dana Holgorsen and promised him the keys to the entire program in 2012. Holgorsen installed the basic tenets of his attack this spring, and the team responded with more than 800 yards and 87 points in the spring game, leading many to peg West Virginia as the early favorite to capture its first outright Big East title since 2007.
Pittsburgh erased its disastrous hiring of Mike Haywood -- who was fired on Jan. 1 due to a domestic violence charge after only 2½ weeks on the job -- with the optimism of Todd Graham and his high-octane, no-huddle offense. The former Tulsa coach's approach has proved a polar opposite to Dave Wannstedt's conservative ways, and Panthers players had trouble catching their breath as they adapted to an Oregon-style pace on offense. By the time quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for more than 400 yards in a wet and windy spring game, the extra conditioning seemed well worth it.
Connecticut went back to the future after Randy Edsall bolted for Maryland, hiring native son and former Syracuse boss Paul Pasqualoni. The Huskies' hopes for repeating as the league's BCS representative hinge largely on finding a quarterback, and the four-man spring derby crowned no winner. UConn also must replace last season's offensive MVP, running back Jordan Todman -- a challenge USC transfer D.J. Shoemate hopes to take on. Pasqualoni has a veteran defense, excellent special teams and an easy nonconference schedule to work with.
UConn won a wide-open, unpredictable Big East in 2010. Expect similar balance this year.
South Florida is a serious contender to win its first conference title in Year 2 under Skip Holtz. The Bulls will need quarterback B.J. Daniels to play like he did in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and their receivers must catch the ball better than they did this spring. Syracuse and Louisville got back to the postseason after last season and appear on the rise, though each must replace valuable seniors. Cincinnati had the top offense in the league a year ago and showed much-needed improvement on defense this spring; all 11 starters are back on that side of the ball. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano overhauled his staff and went back to a pro-style offense after last year's 4-8 debacle; the Scarlet Knights are stuffed with skill players but won't go anywhere until the offensive line improves.
One reason the Big East struggled last season was the absence of experience at quarterback. This season, the starter returns on six teams: West Virginia's Geno Smith, Cincinnati's Zach Collaros, South Florida's Daniels, Pitt's Sunseri, Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and Rutgers' Chas Dodd.
So there's cautious optimism for better things from the league this season. Clearing the bar set in 2010 won't be difficult.
What we learned this spring
Big East observers spent much of the spring wondering whether Villanova would join as the 10th team. That saga has yet to resolve itself, but there were plenty of other answers to be found on the practice fields from upstate New York to the Tampa Bay area this spring.
Here are five things we're relatively sure about in the most unpredictable of BCS leagues:
1. Quarterbacks on the rise: Several teams dealt with inefficient and inconsistent play by their quarterbacks last season, and it's difficult to win in college football that way. Things should be better this season. West Virginia's Geno Smith could put up ridiculous numbers in Dana Holgorsen's offense, while Pitt QB Tino Sunseri's stats might not be far behind in Todd Graham's warp-speed attack. Zach Collaros, now a senior, is fully comfortable in Cincinnati's offense and needs only to cut down on his interceptions to be great. B.J. Daniels showed improved decision-making for South Florida in last year's bowl game and again this spring, while Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and Rutgers' Chas Dodd each has more weapons to work with in the passing game. Will Stein separated himself as the starter at Louisville but could split snaps with talented freshman Teddy Bridgewater this year. The only real question under center in the Big East is at Connecticut, which didn't need much of a passing game to win the league last year.
2. Defensive lines a strength: The strongest position last season in the Big East was probably linebacker. This season, it should be the defensive line. That's where many of the league's top players reside, including West Virginia's Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, UConn's Jesse Joseph and Kendall Reyes, Cincinnati's Derek Wolfe and Syracuse's Chandler Jones. Pitt's coaches feel that they're loaded up front defensively, while South Florida is stacked on the D-line once again.
3. Extreme balance: The Big East might be the weakest BCS AQ league at the top, but few conferences can match the overall balance. The only two teams that did not make a bowl last season -- Cincinnati and Rutgers -- each have the potential to make quick turnarounds this season with their talent at the skill positions. The resurgence of Syracuse and Louisville means there are no doormats. There may not be a great team in the Big East again this year, but there may not be any truly bad ones, either.
4. Versatility needed: Defense ruled in the Big East last season, but those defenses must be multifaceted this season. West Virginia and Pitt have both gone to high-tempo spreads, joining Cincinnati in trying to wear out defenders with as many snaps as possible. Then there are more power-run based teams such as UConn and Syracuse, and those that do a little bit of everything in Louisville, South Florida and Rutgers. The team that can best adapt its defense to the changing looks every week will likely end up winning the title.
5. Rivalries heating up: The Pitt-West Virginia Backyard Brawl got supercharged with the hirings of Graham and Holgorsen. That sets up years of potential shootouts, not to mention some bad blood that already exists between the two coaches from their previous stops. The budding West Virginia-South Florida rivalry could also step up a notch as the two meet on the final week of the regular season in what many feel could be a de facto title game in Tampa. It will also be interesting to see how Syracuse fans react to former coach Paul Pasqualoni now leading Connecticut, and how Rutgers reacts to losing to the Orange the past two seasons. These emerging storylines inject some much-needed intrigue into the Big East race.
Best of spring
Here's a look at some of the superlatives from the Big East during spring practice:
Best high school reunion: West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey played together at Miramar High School in Florida. It looked like they were toying with a high school defense in the Mountaineers' spring game. Smith threw for 388 yards and four touchdowns, while Bailey caught two of those scores and had 182 receiving yards.
Best quarterback performances: Smith had a great spring game, and up I-79, Pitt's Tino Sunseri threw 55 times for 416 yards and two touchdowns. The new supercharged offenses should keep the scoreboard operators busy during the Backyard Brawl.
Best way to make Zach Frazer look good: Sure, it was wet and windy, but Connecticut's four candidates for starting quarterback did nothing to inspire in the Huskies' spring game. Michael Box, Scott McCummings, Johnny McEntee and Michael Nebrich combined to go 9-of-35 for 69 yards. Walk-on Blaise Driscoll had the only highlight, throwing the game's lone touchdown pass on the final play.
Best M*A*S*H unit: The players who didn't suit up for Louisville this spring might have been able to form a team capable of playing in the Big East. Fourteen players were held out of practice because of pre-spring surgeries and several more got nicked up during drills. The Cardinals had only 38 scholarship players available for their spring game, which had to be modified because of the lack of bodies.
Best spring game atmosphere: For the second straight year, West Virginia and Rutgers fans were the kings of spring. Both drew more than 21,000 to their spring games, while no other Big East team attracted a crowd of more than 5,000. The Mountaineers and Scarlet Knights benefited from better weather in their end-of-April games, while other teams had to play in wet, windy conditions earlier in the month. Pitt took the dubious prize of most fair-weather fans, as only about 1,500 showed up at Heinz Field.
Best legacy performance: A tie between Syracuse's Macky MacPherson and West Virginia's Ryan Nehlen, both grandsons of legendary coaches at their school. MacPherson, whose grandfather was Dick MacPherson, assumed the starting center job for the Orange despite weighing about 255 pounds. Nehlen, one generation removed from West Virginia great Don Nehlen, is a walk-on receiver who worked his way up into the rotation with a big spring performance.
Best guest announcer: Paralyzed former Rutgers player Eric LeGrand provided color commentary for the Scarlet Knights' spring game webcast. LeGrand has maintained a positive attitude in his campaign to walk again, and he aspires to work as a sports broadcaster in the future.
Big East's players to watch
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Cincinnati: Cincinnati is locked and loaded once again at the skill positions. For more on the Bearcats, click here.
Connecticut: Without a spring winner, UConn needs to settle on a QB in the fall. For more on the Huskies, click here.
Louisville: Victor Anderson is back from injury and showing great promise. For more on the Cardinals, click here.
Pittsburgh: Quarterback Tino Sunseri has adapted to Pitt's new offense quite well. For more on the Panthers, click here.
Rutgers: Greg Schiano's main offseason goal was adding more speed to the defense. For more on the Scarlet Knights, click here.
South Florida: B.J. Daniels is back at QB, but USF will need someone to catch the ball. For more on the Bulls, click here.
Syracuse: The offensive line figures to be one of Syracuse's anchors this season. For more on the Orange, click here.
West Virginia: Dana Holgorsen's arrival had an immediate effect on WVU's offense. For more on the Mountaineers, click here.
Big East games to watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. West Virginia: In the past three seasons, West Virginia has averaged just over 16 points per game during its 12 losses and could have turned five of those defeats into victories if it simply scored three touchdowns in the game. Conversely, Dana Holgorsen's offenses have averaged more than 42 points the past three years and have never failed to score fewer than 20 points. So, yes, we're buying on spec a bit with the Mountaineers. But with Holgorsen calling the plays for quarterback Geno Smith and Jeff Casteel getting the most out of a young defense, the Mountaineers have the highest ceiling.
2. South Florida: Can a team win the Big East without any superstar skill players? The Bulls made a run at it last year with a bunch of no-names and managed to finish strong. They've got the most experienced quarterback in the league in B.J. Daniels, who needs to display the same decision-making he did in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. They're hoping transfer Darrell Scott helps add a new dimension to the running game. Receiver is still a huge question mark. USF has depth, speed and talent on its defense, is very well-coached and gets West Virginia at home to end the year. Will that be enough?
3. Syracuse: The Orange won't sneak up on anybody this year, but they should also have more confidence to handle winning -- and hopefully learn to protect the Carrier Dome in league play. Most of the offense returns, and there were signs this spring that quarterback Ryan Nassib will have more to work with in the passing game. The defense must replace some excellent veterans but is still stocked at defensive end and safety. This is Doug Marrone's deepest team, though it will be young in some key spots. Marrone has already worked wonders with less.
4. Pittsburgh: No Big East team went through a bigger transformation this spring than the Panthers, who scrapped Dave Wannstedt's conservative pro-style methodology for Todd Graham's hyper-tempo spread. The defense changed from a blitz-adverse 4-3 attack to a more aggressive 3-4 scheme. So while Pitt still boasts plenty of top-flight athletes, including running back Ray Graham and linebacker Brandon Lindsey, who knows how quickly the team will adapt to the totally new styles? Picking the Panthers right in the middle to start seems about right, though the potential for more is there.
5. Connecticut: If you're looking for a team most likely to drop way off, look no further than Storrs. The Huskies went to the Fiesta Bowl last year but finished just 8-5, with several white-knuckle victories in league play. They've got a new head coach in Paul Pasqualoni and don't know who their starting quarterback or tailback will be heading into the summer. But there are also reasons to believe UConn will put up a spirited defense of its title, including a veteran and stout defense, standout special teams and the easiest nonconference schedule in the Big East.
6. Louisville: The Cardinals probably got less out of their spring than anyone after a rash of injuries left them scrambling just to find enough players to practice with. There are major issues at quarterback, concerns along the offensive line and pressing needs for young players to contribute right away at receiver and elsewhere. This program is probably a year or two away from being a serious contender. But Charlie Strong and his staff showed last year that they know how to maximize talent, and athletic ability won't be a problem once the injuries heal and the freshmen arrive. Don't overlook this team in 2011.
7. Cincinnati: The Bearcats can't possibly finish with a minus-15 turnover margin again, can they? The defense can't possibly be worse with all 11 starters back, can it? Those are reasons for optimism in Clifton, as well as an offense that should still rank as one of the league's very best under the guidance of senior quarterback Zach Collaros. Chances for a bounce-back campaign are very high, but depth is still lacking and nothing has been proven yet.
8. Rutgers: You go 4-8 while losing your final six games, and you deserve the bottom rung in preseason polls no matter what happens in the spring. The Scarlet Knights are a curious case, because they appear absolutely loaded at receiver and running back, and the fruits of Greg Schiano's good recruiting efforts look ready to ripen at several other positions. Yet they still haven't solved their offensive line problems, and the defensive line needs work, as well. It's hard to win in any league without dominating the trenches.
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