Dion Lewis gained 1,799 yards on the ground for the Pitt Panthers.
The Big East Conference remains one of the lynchpins in the Bowl Championship Series, but the conference is still waiting for that elusive NCAA college football championship. This eight-team gridiron group has never played in the BCS title game, but has had numerous representatives in BCS bowl matchups the previous few seasons.
There have been four different conference champions since the 2004 campaign, and this year’s race appears to be wide open at the top. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia have been installed as 75/1 NCAA football betting selections to win the 2011 National Championship. Connecticut, Rutgers and South Florida are currently listed at 150/1, while the rest of the conference is part of the 25/1 ‘field.’
Cincinnati has won the Big East Conference the past two years, resulting in BCS losses to Virginia Tech in the 2009 Orange Bowl and Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Head coach Brian Kelly has bolted to the greener pastures of Notre Dame, leaving the Bearcats after posting an impressive 34-6 record in four seasons.
Cincinnati went 12-1 last season, including an unblemished 7-0 conference record.
Butch Jones was installed as the Bearcats’ new coach after being Central Michigan’s head coach from 2007-2009. Ironically, it was also Jones who replaced Kelly with the Chippewas.
Cincinnati returns 14 starters, but the NCAA football defense lost some key contributors and depth is questionable. On the offensive side of the ball, running back Isaiah Pead led the team last year with 806 yards rushing. His abilities should take some of the pressure off quarterback Zach Collaros, who has big shoes to fill for the departed Tony Pike.
Pittsburgh hasn’t captured the Big East crown since appearing in the 2004 Fiesta Bowl. The Panthers finished second to the Bearcats last year that included a last-second home setback to their rivals. Pitt finished with a 10-3 ledger that included a 5-2 conference record.
Running back Dion Lewis led the team with almost 1,800 yards rushing, while quarterback Tino Sunseri and wideout Jonathan Baldwin provide plenty of balance. Sunseri enjoyed an impressive spring practice, while Baldwin led Pittsburgh with 1,111 yards receiving.
The Panthers defense appears to be solid as well, led by defensive ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard.
West Virginia appears to be poised for another Big East title after representing the conference in the 2005 Sugar Bowl and 2007 Fiesta Bowl. The Mountaineers had a bit of a hiccup the past few years with the clumsy departure of head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan, but Bill Stewart appears to have righted the ship.
West Virginia returns 18 starters from a NCAA football team that went 5-2 in conference and 9-4 overall. The Mountaineers will be led by running back Noel Devine (1,465 yards rushing) and wide receiver Jock Sanders (688 yards receiving), while Geno Smith and Coley White can both contribute at quarterback. The defense should be solid throughout, highlighted by Julian Miller and Scooter Berry up front and Robert Sands in the secondary.
South Florida finished in a disappointing three-way tie for fourth place at 3-4 alongside Rutgers and Connecticut. The Bulls did finish with an overall record of 8-5, but they have their fair share of questions heading into the season.
New head coach Skip Holtz was brought in from East Carolina, and the team will have to retool on defense. The offensive side of the ball should help aide in the transition behind quarterback B.J. Daniels who led the team in both passing (1,983 yards) and rushing (772 yards).
Rutgers went 3-4 in the Big East and 9-4 overall, and there is plenty of optimism with head coach Greg Shiano’s squad. The Scarlet Knights could have the conference’s best defense behind linemen Alex Silvestro and Scott Vallone, along with linebacker Antonio Lowery and Joe Lefeged in the secondary.
Sophomore quarterback Tom Savage threw for 2,211 yards last season, and favorite target Mohamed Sanu returns to the mix. Running back Joe Martinek led the team with 967 yards rushing, while Kordell Young adds depth after returning from a knee injury.
Connecticut was 8-5 overall and 3-4 in conference last season, with the highlight occurring with a double-overtime road victory versus Notre Dame. The Huskies return 16 starters, with eight players on both sides of the ball. Signal caller Zach Frazer (1,461 yards passing) and running back Jordan Todman (1,188 yards rushing) provide a solid offensive punch, but some concerns in the defensive backfield could cost UConn some victories. NCAA
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Louisville won the Big East back in 2006 and played in the Orange Bowl, but the program has been in a downward spiral since that high-water mark. Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is the new head coach, but it will take some time for him to turn things around.
The Cardinals do return nine starters on offense, including quarterback Adam Froman who threw for 1,354 yards in 2009 along with running back Victor Anderson (473 yards rushing). Outside of those two players, talent across the board and depth will be major issues during the 2010 campaign.
Syracuse and Louisville finished last season with identical 4-8 record and 1-6 ledgers in the Big East, but the Orange technically finished in last place after dropping an ugly 10-9 affair to the Cardinals in mid-November. The news only gets worse for a Syracuse team that returns just 10 starters, highlighted by running back Delone Carter (1,021 yards rushing).