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Big East 2011 conference preview

Big East 2011 Conference Report
Will Dana Holgorsen work his Year 1 magic at West Virginia? Can USF take the next step? Who is the conference's next big thing? Cory McCartney tackles that and more in his 2011 Big East preview.
 
How They'll Finish
 
 ConferenceOverall
West Virginia6-110-2
Pittsburgh6-110-2
South Florida5-29-3
Cincinnati3-47-5
 
 ConferenceOverall
Connecticut3-47-5
Syracuse2-56-6
Louisville2-55-7
Rutgers1-64-8
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Geno Smith
2010 stats: 241 of 372 passing for 2,763 yards, 24 TDs and 7 INTs
2011 projection: 341 of 525 passing for 4,150 yards, 35 TDs and 10 INTs
Smith didn't lead the conference in passing yards or touchdowns in 2010, but that should change this year. Smith came into his own as a first-year starter, completing a league-best 64.7 percent of his passes. That precision should make him all the more dangerous in Dana Holgorsen's system. Since Holgorsen became Texas Tech's offensive coordinator in 2005, none of his QBs have thrown for less than 4,000 yards.
West Virginia 2011 scouting report
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Brandon Lindsey
2010 stats: 51 tackles, 17 ½ TFLs, 10 sacks, 3 FF
2011 projection: 65 tackles, 19 TFLs, 12 sacks, 4 FF
Pitt's offensive evolution under Todd Graham has generated the headlines, but Graham's defensive scheme should be a boon to Lindsey, the league's top defender. The explosive 6-foot-2, 250-pound pass-rusher played at end last season, but will fill the "Panther linebacker" role in an attacking 3-4 scheme designed to generate confusion. As a standup end who can drop back or blitz, Lindsey's athleticism will be on full display.
Lindsey headlines SI.com's preseason All-Big East Team
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
Savon Huggins
2010 stats (high school): 1,891 yards, 35 TDs
2011 projection: 160 attempts, 1,050 yards, 8 TDs
The St. Peter's product is the first top-rated New Jersey recruit (as ranked by Rivals) to stay home and play for the Knights. He'll be asked to bolster a running game that ranked last in the conference and 110th nationally with 100.9 yards per game in 2010. At 6-foot, 190 pounds, Huggins may prove the perfect muse for new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr., who saw Pitt's Dion Lewis and Cal's Jahvid Best thrive under his watch.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Greg Schiano
Last Season: 4-8 (1-6 Big East)
Career at Rutgers: 59-63 (24-45 Big East)
This is an easy pick considering Schiano is the only Big East coach who has been at his school for more than two seasons. Schiano may be the man who made Rutgers relevant again, but he's coming off his first eight-loss season 2002. And despite what he's meant to the program, he hasn't been able to deliver a conference title in 10 seasons.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
South Florida at Notre Dame
Saturday, Sept. 3
3:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
There'll be no shortage of storylines as Skip Holtz returns to his alma mater and the school where he coached alongside his Hall of Fame father. Moved from its original date of Oct. 3, this will be a rare early challenge for the Bulls. An upset could pave the way for the Bulls entering conference play 4-0, but B.J. Daniels and Co. will have to contend with Manti Te'o and the Notre Dame D.
 
Pitt at Iowa
Saturday, Sept. 17
TBD
After opening with Buffalo and Maine, the Panthers will face their first real test. The hostile environment of Kinnick Stadium should provide a strong indication of how quickly Pitt has adapted to Graham's system as it begins a grueling stretch that includes Notre Dame, USF and Utah.
 
LSU at West Virginia
Saturday, Sept. 24
TBD
West Virginia will have four games to iron out the wrinkles in its new offense before the Bayou Bengals come to Morgantown. LSU will have already faced a tough opening stretch that includes Oregon and Mississippi State, and if WVU can capitalize -- it last lost a nonconference home game in 2005 -- the Mountaineers could find themselves in the national title conversation.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Pitt at West Virginia
Friday, Nov. 25
TBD
It's the beginning of a new era in the Backyard Brawl, but the potential for a shootout and changes in team philosophies are just part of the draw. There's no love lost between Graham and Holgorsen, who have history dating back to their Conference USA days, adding an interesting subplot to one of the game's best rivalries.
 
South Florida at Pitt
Thursday, Sept. 29
8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
It's one doozy of a conference opener and it's in prime time. The Bulls have talent, but they'll find out whether they're title-contender material against one of the favorites. Pitt will have played Notre Dame five days prior, so the quick turnaround will add more intrigue to a game that could be a deciding factor in who gets the Big East's BCS bid.
 
Cincinnati at South Florida
Saturday, Oct. 22
TBD
Zach Collaros had his coming out party two years ago against the Bulls, relieving an injured Tony Pike as the Bearcats won in Tampa. Last season, B.J. Daniels had arguably his best performance at USF in a Bulls' win over Cincy. In a conference that returns six of its eight starting quarterbacks from 2010, few duels will be more fun to watch.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Can Dana Holgorsen work more Year 1 magic? In Holgorsen's first season as Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, the Cowboys improved by 153 yards and 15.9 points per game. He inherits a West Virginia team that grew stale under Bill Stewart, ranking 59th, 61st and 67th in total offense in Stewart's three seasons. But Holgorsen isn't worried about too much of a learning curve. "I think its similar [to Oklahoma State] based on what the personnel is," he said. He does have plenty of intriguing weapons at his disposal, chief among them quarterback Geno Smith and speedy inside wide receiver Tavon Austin. It's worth wondering if serving as a first-year head coach and the team's offensive coordinator will wear on Holgorsen. But multiple WVU offensive records should fall this season, and Holgorsen should keep the program in contention for its second straight conference title.
Debate: What will Holgorsen's Year 1 impact be?
Who is the conference's next big thing? One possibility is West Virginia end Bruce Irvin, who registered 14 sacks last season (second nationally) despite being a part-time player. Another is South Florida running back Darrell Scott, a Colorado transfer and the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2008. But Pitt running back Ray Graham could steal the show in Todd Graham's new offense. Unlike most spread attacks, Graham's spread is a run-first system that sets up the play-action pass; his 10-win teams at Tulsa ran 54 percent of the time. Ray Graham (no relation) could see his numbers explode after running for 922 yards as a sophomore (including a 277-yard, three-touchdown game) while splitting carries.
Can South Florida take the next step under Skip Holtz? Holtz was a surprising 8-5 in his first year, which included a late-season win on the road against Miami and a win over Clemson in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. Holtz returns six starters from a defense that ranked 17th nationally behind linebackers DeDe Lattimore (69 tackles) and Sam Barrington (65) and figures to be among the conference's best once again. But the questions at USF are rarely about the defense. The Bulls desperately need quarterback B.J. Daniels, who took a step back last season in tossing more interceptions (13) than touchdowns (11), to live up to the potential he's often flashed. Daniels' ability to do so could be the difference between a title contender and a team simply looking to finish above .500 in conference for the first time since 2007.
What will defending champ UConn look like? No team must replace more than UConn, which lost the league's top coach (Randy Edsall) and offensive player (Jordan Todman) from 2010. New coach and former Syracuse headman Paul Pasqualoni can rely on the fact that he'll have one nasty defense. The Huskies boast arguably the Big East's top line behind tackle Kendal Reyes (7½ tackles for loss) and end Jesse Joseph (8 ½ sacks) and a veteran secondary. But can the offense do its part? With the four-player quarterback race featuring a YouTube sensation and a player who has thrown one collegiate pass and with junior running back D.J. Shoemate, a USC transfer, still needing to prove he can be a workhorse, a second straight title will be an uphill battle.
Can Syracuse keep the momentum going? Doug Marrone worked wonders in two seasons, guiding the Orange to their first winning record since 2001. The trick is making the postseason an annual destination, and there's plenty to like this year. The schedule is manageable (outside of USC) and includes seven home games. Junior quarterback Ryan Nassib (2,334 yards and 19 TDs) progressed nicely in his first year as a starter, the line returns four starters and tight end Nick Provo is elite. But career backup Antwon Bailey (569 yards, 2 TDs) is trying to replace 1,000-yard rusher Delone Carter, and there's little depth behind him. In a conservative offense that leans on the run, no player will be more pivotal than Bailey as Syracuse tries to reach consecutive bowls for the first time since 1998-99.
 
Big East Video Preview
Top Big East contenders
Source:SI
SI.com breaks down why West Virginia, Pitt and South Florida look like the Big East's top contenders.

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