Big East Primer: Depth Mixed In With A Little Bit of Pittsburgh
However, there are plenty of caveats to be made for what is the classic cliched underrated conference. While the Big East cannot sell that it has a Florida, a Texas or an Ohio State, it can sell four and potentially all eight members as quality football teams. Their coaches think it's the deepest conference in college football -- the Pac-10 may quibble -- and with good reason. Pittsburgh has several future NFL stars and a showcase-type schedule outside conference borders against high-profile foes Utah, Notre Dame and Miami. West Virginia, Cincinnati and Connecticut all received votes in the preseason AP poll.
South Florida and Rutgers are not far removed from top 10 spots in the rankings themselves and then there are the dangerous cellar-dwellers: Syracuse and Louisville. The Cardinals hired Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to revive one of college football's darlings from several years ago while longtime powerhouse Syracuse has shown life on the defensive side of the ball and will play spoiler all season.
Although not huge national names, the conference's three new coaches -- Charlie Strong at Louisville, Butch Jones at Cincinnati and Skip Holtz at South Florida -- all exude a certain workmanlike demeanor and have certainly paid their dues in the coaching ranks. They'll fit right in with a conference marking its 20th season in the collegiate sports landscape.
The Big East media guide is a giveaway as to the direction programs are headed this year -- the leading returning rusher from each school was pictured including a pair of Heisman Trophy candidates in Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis and West Virginia's Noel Devine (right). That is about as flashy as it gets for a conference that escaped this summer's mad realignment scramble, although future raids from the Big Ten and ACC could dramatically change the conference's role in major college athletics.
What's missing, at least for now, is a dominant defensive team -- although Pittsburgh and West Virginia have several big name defenders who could get hot and elevate their programs into championship contention. If those defensive hopes fail to materialize, 2010 could be a season of cannibalism within conference play.
A QUICK TRIP AROUND THE BIG EAST
*Who should win the league: Pittsburgh. The Panthers cleaned up in the Preseason Big East Media Poll, capturing 22 of 24 first place votes.
*Who will win the league: Pittsburgh. The schedule is killer and the Panthers are lacking in upperclass stars, but the Panthers have the Big East's best defensive line, reigning offensive player of the year and coach Dave Wannstedt says of first-year quarterback Tino Sunseri: "it's his time."
*Who might win the league: Connecticut. A steadily improving program, the Huskies took down Notre Dame last year and could soar if they manage to topple Michigan in the Big House opening weekend. Coach Randy Edsall's teams play solid defense and are remarkably consistent at running the ball. That formula inevitably wins a lot of football games.
*Who might fall flat: West Virginia. Roadies at Connecticut and Pittsburgh could spell trouble.
*Coach of the year: Doug Marrone, Syracuse. The Orange were actually middle of the road defensively last year and received good news with the return of senior tailback Delone Carter.
*Coach you will love: Randy Edsall, Connecticut. He coaches in obscurity but chairs the influential rules committee and is outspoken relative to his peers.
*Player of the year: TB Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh. Lewis could make it back-to-back POY honors, but this time he won't be a surprise.
*Player you will love: QB Zach Collaros, Cincinnati. An oft-spectacular showman at quarterback who throws with uncanny accuracy to a small army of talented receivers when not running by surprised defenders.
*Coach who best enjoy the perks while he can: Greg Schiano, Rutgers ... sort of. The conference has hired four new coaches in the last two seasons, and fans seem content with the holdovers in Pittsburgh's Wannstedt, West Virginia's Bill Stewart, Connecticut's Edsall and even Schiano. Ask again next year.
*Games of note: Pittsburgh @ Utah Sept. 2, Cincinnati @ Fresno State Sept. 4, Connecticut @ Michigan Sept. 4, Pittsburgh vs. Miami Sept. 23, Cincinnati vs. Oklahoma Sept. 25, West Virginia @ LSU Sept. 25, Pittsburgh @ Notre Dame Oct. 9, Connecticut vs. West Virginia Oct. 29, Connecticut vs. Pittsburgh Nov. 11, Pittsburgh vs. West Virginia Nov. 26, Cincinnati vs. Connecticut Nov. 27, Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh Dec. 4