For a league that many consider to be subpar when compared to its BCS counterparts, the Big East sure showed that their teams can be ones to fear. Six of the league’s eight teams not only finished above .500, but four of those six won their bowl games. This year, three teams will have a different look, however, as Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Connecticut all have new coaches. Former Syracuse head man Paul Pasqualoni takes over at Connecticut, Todd Graham brings his spread offense attack from Tulsa to Pittsburgh and Dana Holgrsen takes over at West Virginia.
Offensive MVP: Geno Smith (quarterback West Virginia)
Some people have Smith on their early-season Heisman Trophy lists and after seeing him last year, it’s easy to see why. In throwing for 2,763 yards, Smith became the first West Virginia quarterback since Marc Bulger in 1998 to throw for over 2,500 yards. Even more impressive could be that he completed nearly 65 percent of his passes and threw 24 touchdowns, while only tossing up seven picks. What also helps Smith is that four of the Mountaineers’ top six receivers from a year ago are back for another go with their star quarterback. While Smith is not the running threat that some former West Virginia QB’s have been, if he continues at this pace, he might be able to make those lofty expectations not look so far-fetched.
Defensive MVP: JK Schaffer (linebacker, Cincinnati)
Schaffer will be looking for his third consecutive year of 100 or more tackles as he enters his senior season. Despite finishing the season second in the Big East in tackles with 111, Schaffer was not named to the league’s first-team defense. The rising senior had four games in which he had double digit tackles, including two games (N.C. State and West Virginia), in which he had a season-high 16 tackles each. In fact, 10 of his 12 games saw him finish with seven or more tackles. He also added three sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception and five passes broken up.
Overrated Team: South Florida
Every year it seems like the Bulls come in with big expectations. Even if they don’t, they start off the season strong and people start looking at them as a Big East contender, but then the team always goes through a rough stretch where that optimism fades quickly. This year, the Bulls start off with a game against Notre Dame, Ball State, Florida A&M, and UTEP, the latter three of which are at home. With quarterback uncertainty at Notre Dame, a 4-0 start is possible yet again, but will the team trip up in conference play yet again?
Underrated Team: Cincinnati
With the return of all 11 starters on defense, the Bearcat defense has a chance to be special. Including the aforementioned Schaffer, the Cincinnati defense brings back at least it’s top five tacklers from last season. The offense returns only five starters, but three of them (QB Zach Collaros, WR D.J. Woods, RB Isaiah Pead) either led the team or were second in their respective categories last season. A second season in Butch Jones and Mike Bajakian’s spread offense might be exactly what the team needed. If Collaros can improve on his 26:14 TD:INT ratio, watch out for the Bearcats.
Overrated Player: B.J. Daniels (quarterback, South Florida)
Coming off of a huge redshirt freshman season, much was expected of Daniels in 2010, but he couldn’t live up to those expectations. Other than his completion average, all of his stats dropped and that is what could have led to the disappointing season the Bulls encountered in 2010. The biggest drop was in his rushing stats, as he went from 772 yards and nine touchdowns in 2009 to 259 and five in 2010. He will have to improve on his TD:INT ratio if the team is looking to succeed. Last year, he threw more picks (13) than touchdowns (11) and that can’t happen again. I hope he proves me wrong, but we’ll see.
Underrated Player: Ray Graham (running back, Pittsburgh)
Although Dion Lewis got all of the publicity, Graham had nearly just as impressive of a season as his former teammate, who is now a member of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. Graham rushed for 922 yards in 2010 and added eight scores. All of that in 148 attempts. With Lewis gone, he will look to lead the team in all those categories this year. He also lead the team in kickoff yards with 501 yards and nearly 22 yards/return. Graham rushed for a team-high 277 yards against Florida International and had one other game (Miami (Fla.) with over 100 yards rushing and numerous others with nearly 100 yards.
Freshman of the Year: Andrew Buie (running back, West Virginia)
With the graduation of starting running back Noel Devine, Buie might be looked upon to come in and contribute right away. This is even more true, since the team’s next leading rusher is their fullback and he only rushed for 291 yards. Rivals.com ranked Buie as it’s sixth-best all-purpose running back and 129th best player in the 2011 class overall. Buie rushed for 1,782 yards and 26 touchdowns as a senior and 1,901 yards and 22 scores as a junior. As a senior, he also threw for 772 yards and 11 touchdowns in 94 attempts. His 5’9 size continues the Mountaineer trend of small backs, but his 4.45 speed, similar to those before him, sets him apart from others and makes him ready to step right in and contribute.
Coach of the Year: Butch Jones (Cincinnati)
Jones enters year two of his time as the Bearcats’ coach. Despite the struggles he and Cincinnati encountered in his first season, the team is bound to rebound in 2011. With all 11 starters returning, their defense will be stout and take pressure off of the offense. Luckily for Jones and the Bearcats though, the team brings back important offensive leaders at the QB, RB and WR positions.
Game of the Year: West Virginia at Syracuse
The game marks both teams’ second game in conference play. The Orange returns seven starters on offense and five on defense. Both teams will have been tested early in the season, as West Virginia plays LSU early and Syracuse travels to USC. The key for Syracuse will be stopping the potentially lethal Mountaineer offense.