Cory Mccartney
Thursday March 11th, 2010

The Big East got off to an inauspicious start in 2009 -- and things didn't end much better.

The season began with no Big East teams in either preseason poll. It ended with unbeaten champion Cincinnati, a team that was one second from potentially playing for the national title, getting shellacked by Florida in the Sugar Bowl.

But as tough as '09 was for a conference that has been fighting to earn respect since the 2005 realignment, there were positives. Namely, the emergence of young stars. There's Pitt's Dion Lewis, who became the first player to win conference player of the year and rookie of the year honors since Michael Vick in 1999. Add in two more 1,000-yard rushers in UConn's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter; Rutgers' jack of all trades Mohamed Sanu; and quarterbacks Zach Collaros (Cincinnati), B.J. Daniels (USF) and Tom Savage (Rutgers), and there's no shortage of talent.

There's also no lack of burning questions as the league works to break in three new coaches, one of whom will try to help his two-time defending champion squad get the bad taste of the Sugar Bowl out of its mouth.

Pitt turned a corner under Dave Wannstedt last season, and if returning talent is any indication, the Panthers could be in for an even bigger 2010. They boast a Heisman contender in Lewis, a deep threat in 6-foot-5 wideout Jonathan Baldwin and an elite pass-rusher in defensive end Greg Romeus, the conference co-defensive player of the year, who passed on the NFL to return to Pitt.

Pitt proved in last year's de facto title game that it can hang with Cincy. Now, the Panthers will look to supplant a Bearcats program in transition.

With Brian Kelly gone to South Bend, Central Michigan coach Butch Jones takes over at Cincinnati. That bodes well for the multi-dimensional Collaros, who should thrive running the same offense that propelled Chippewas QB Dan LeFevour into the record books. Collaros should also benefit from the addition of USC transfer Vidal Hazelton, a proven receiving weapon.

But the Bearcats' biggest concern isn't offense; it's a defense returning just five starters and transitioning to a 4-3 scheme. Of course, considering the unit surrendered 39.4 points per game over the last five games of 2009, wiping the slate clean might not be such a bad thing.

The Panthers have their own holes. They must replace three starters on the offensive line as well as both tackles on the defensive side. More importantly, they need a successor for QB Bill Stull. Vying for the role: sophomore Tino Sunseir and redshirt junior Pat Bostick, who started as a true freshman in 2007 but sat out last season to improve his mechanics.

With Pitt, there's also the matter of mental hurdles. Did this group learn from the three-point loss to West Virginia and the one-point loss to Cincinnati that kept it out of a BCS game? If so, the Panthers could be legit contenders. If not, the real threat to Cincinnati's throne might be...

The Mountaineers haven't exactly fallen off under Bill Stewart, who has led them to consecutive nine-win seasons. But the program also hasn't been the same since the holy trinity of Rich Rodriguez, Steve Slaton and Pat White, which registered two BCS appearances in three years, left.

Stewart has flirted with a BCS berth, but simply flirting may not be good enough for the couch-burners in Morgantown this year. WVU returns sparkplug back Noel Devine (1,465 yards,13 TDs as junior) and receiver Jock Sanders, adds receiver Ivan McCartney and boasts a defense that lost just two starters.

More than anything, West Virginia needs its offense to live up to its explosive potential. That didn't happen last season, when the Mountaineers ranked 61st nationally in total offense (377.4 yards per game) and 67th in scoring (26.1 points per).

Though they boast plenty of playmakers, quarterback remains a question, as Geno Smith will be the team's third starter in three years. The sophomore did see action in five games last season, including the entire second half of the Gator Bowl loss to Florida State. Smith was uneven in that game (8-for-15, 92 yards), and his progress this spring will be slowed while he recovers from a broken foot.

There's no downplaying the coaching job Randy Edsall did in carrying the Huskies from tragedy to triumph in the wake of Jasper Howard's death.

UConn ended the season on a four-game winning streak, during which it showed a markedly improved ability to close out close games. The Huskies had lost five games by four points or less before earning a come-from-behind win over Notre Dame and beating South Florida with a field goal as time expired.

Those close wins helped UConn reach at least eight wins for the third straight season and set the stage for a potential breakthrough 2010 season. The Huskies return 17 starters, and after a year-and-a-half of Zach Frazer and Cody Endres splitting starts at QB, Edsall says Frazer is the clear No. 1.

Though Todman broke out with 1,188 yards and 14 TDs, the Huskies must replace Andre Dixon, who was part of their 1-2 running back punch. Edsall must also replace two of his top three pass-catchers. But with a roster of veterans and a favorable schedule (UConn gets Pitt, WVU and Cincy at home), this could be Edsall's best shot at a title run.

Rutgers may have lost 11 starters from a year ago, but this team could be a Big East sleeper behind emerging sophomores Sanu and Savage.

Sanu averaged 17 touches a game over the final three games as a receiver and running back, finishing with 985 yards and eight touchdowns, while Savage threw for 2,211 yards and 14 scores.

There's no doubt about their potential, but building on last season may hinge on an offensive line tasked with replacing three starters, including both tackles and center. Art Forst is expected to move from guard to tackle opposite Desmond Stapleton, while Howard Barbieri and Desmond Wynn, who will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery, will compete for the center spot. They'll be pushed by Matt McBride, a Hofstra transfer, and early enrollees Betim Bujai and Frank Quartucci.

How well those inexperienced pieces gel could be a sticking point for how much Sanu and Savage excel -- and how much this team can progress.

South Florida coach Skip Holtz and Louisville coach Charlie Strong could be in for much rockier transitions than fellow newcomer Jones.

Holtz is replacing the fired Jim Leavitt, the man who literally built the Bulls from scratch. But if there's one thing Holtz excelled at during stops at UConn and East Carolina, it was selling the future.

As for the present, the Bulls may have to fight for bowl eligibility while replacing five defensive players who were invited to the NFL combine, including ends George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul. Meanwhile, despite returning nine starters, the offense could look very different. Daniels is a rising star, but he had surgery on his non-throwing shoulder this season, and he and incoming freshman Jamius Gunsby are the only scholarship QBs on the roster. Holtz isn't disclosing much about schemes, but with such little depth he'll almost certainly cut down on the QB runs that were a staple of the Leavitt era.

Strong built an impressive résumé as the architect of Florida's national title defenses, and he brought in an offensive coordinator schooled in the Urban Meyer way, Utah's Mike Sanford. They're promising a Gators-like offense, and while Adam Froman, Justin Burke and Will Stein will vie for the starting QB spot this spring, keep an eye on Dominique Brown. The athletic incoming freshman ran for 1,998 yards and 32 TDs and could be the change-of-pace passer that allows the Cardinals to play the Tim Tebow-Chris Leak game. Brown won't be there until the fall, though, and neither will 1,000-yard rusher Victor Anderson, who will be held out of contact drills this spring as he returns from shoulder surgery. There's talent, but the Cardinals remain a work in progress.

MORE BURNING QUESTIONS Pac-10: Can Lane Kiffin maintain USC's dominance? ACC: Will a nationally elite team emerge? Big East: Can Pitt dethrone Cincinnati? Big 12: Is it finally Nebraska's year? Big Ten: Can Pryor pick up where he left off? SEC: What's happening at Florida? THE REST: Can Boise break the glass ceiling?

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