Get ready for another unpredictable year in the Big East. West Virginia is the favorite, despite changing head coaches in early June. Bill Stewart resigned, elevating offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to the top spot. Holgorsen has produced instant results in his career as an offensive coordinator, but this will be his first head coaching gig.
With Holgorsen at the controls, the Mountaineers should be able to solve some of the offensive issues that have plagued them since Pat White departed. Quarterback Geno Smith should be the conference’s top quarterback and the junior will have plenty of talented options to choose from at receiver. Improving the offense will be critical to West Virginia’s success, especially with seven new starters taking over on defense.
Although the Mountaineers seem to be the clear favorite, South Florida, Pittsburgh and Syracuse aren’t far behind. The Bulls have a loaded backfield with returning quarterback B.J. Daniels, team rushing leader Demetris Murray and transfers Darrell Scott (Colorado) and Dontae Aycock (Auburn). New Pitt coach Todd Graham should help jumpstart a Panther attack that ranked 72nd in the nation in total offense. The Orange return seven offensive starters and five on defense. Quarterback Ryan Nassib, running back Antwon Bailey and receiver Van Chew will benefit from a veteran offensive line.
Cincinnati struggled with the transition from Brian Kelly to Butch Jones and a rash of turnovers, which resulted in the program’s first losing season since 2005. The Bearcats have a few concerns on offense, but should be near the top in scoring with quarterback Zach Collaros and running back Isaiah Pead returning. If the turnover problems from last year are gone, Cincinnati should return to the postseason.
Connecticut is the Big East’s defending champ, but will take a step back in 2011. The Huskies have to replace one of the nation’s top backs in Jordan Todman and has to find a quarterback. Although the defense should be stout, the offense could be the worst in the conference.
Rutgers has plenty of weapons to work with on offense – receivers Mohamed Sanu and Mark Harrison – but has a shaky offensive line and the jury is still out on quarterback Chas Dodd. The Scarlet Knights regressed last season, but the talent is in place to make another run at a bowl.
Charlie Strong was one of the nation’s top first-year coaches last season, getting Louisville back into a bowl and posting a winning record. The Cardinals suffered heavy losses and a new starting quarterback must be found. Strong has recruited well, so Louisville has some young talent waiting in the wings. Although the Cardinals have a lot of turnover, getting back to a bowl isn’t out of the question.
Athlon's 2011 Big East Previews
From any perspective, the Big East had a down football season last year. There was the below-par performance against non-conference opponents. And even though the league finished 4–2 in its bowl games, the two losses were of the embarrassing variety. Oklahoma steamrolled UConn 48–20 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, and NC State stiff-armed West Virginia 23–7 in the Champs Sports Bowl.
There was, however, a lightning strike of good news in late November when TCU accepted an invitation to become a league member beginning July 1, 2012. The better news: The Horned Frogs’ 2010 season will count toward the Big East’s résumé if the league is subjected to BCS scrutiny when the next TV contract ends. TCU went undefeated, beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished No. 2 in the major polls and No. 3 in the final BCS standings. That almost certainly means the Big East will retain its AQ status. And when the Big East adds a 10th football team, the addition of TCU also serves as insurance if the conference loses, say, Rutgers and Pitt to another league.
Label this the year of the quarterback in the Big East. While six of the league’s top eight rushers have departed (only Cincinnati’s Isaiah Pead and Pitt’s Ray Graham return), the top six quarterbacks are back if you go by passing average per game. The six are Cincy’s Zach Collaros, WVU’s Geno Smith, Pitt’s Tino Sunseri, Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, Rutgers’ Chas Dodd and South Florida’s B.J. Daniels. Smith will now be operating within Dana Holgorsen’s “Air Raid” offense, while Sunseri will be moved from under center to the shotgun for Todd Graham.
It seems to be an annual event. Almost inevitably, the Big East loses at least one of its more successful and higher-profile head coaches. Last offseason, UConn’s Randy Edsall bolted for Maryland. Two other Big East schools, however, jettisoned coaches. Pitt’s Dave Wannstedt resigned under pressure before landing an assistant head coaching position with the Buffalo Bills. WVU’s Bill Stewart was expected to spend one more year on the sidelines, but resigned in early June. Stewart will be replaced by new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen.
Wannstedt was replaced by ex-Tulsa coach Todd Graham, who also was once an assistant at Backyard Brawl rival West Virginia. Graham then hired four other former Mountaineer assistants — Tony Dews, Tony Gibson, Calvin Magee and Paul Randolph. The Big East now has two head coaches who once worked for ex-WVU coach Rich Rodriguez — Graham and Cincinnati’s Butch Jones.
TRICK SHOT ARTIST
While there are six returning quarterback starters, none are probably as famous as Connecticut walk-on Johnny McEntee, who has played in two games in two seasons with no pass attempts. The reason? McEntee became a YouTube sensation via the video “Johnny Mac Trick Shot Quarterback.” The video received millions of hits when McEntee performed throwing tricks like knocking the sign off a moving Domino’s delivery truck as well as a water bottle off the head of a teammate.
After Louisville assistant coach Clint Hurtt was named by a major website as the nation’s Recruiter of the Year, Cardinals coach Charlie Strong had to expect tough sledding keeping the assistant on board. He didn’t know how tough. Less than two weeks after Hurtt was honored, national champion Auburn came calling. The U of L assistant even visited the Tigers. But on Feb. 24, Strong sent the following message to his fans via Twitter: “Big news!! The big hurtt is staying with the cardinals.” Hurtt earned accolades by persuading several big-time players from south Florida to join a program that has but one bowl appearance in the last four years and 15 total. The U of L also earned mention on some Top-25 team recruiting lists.
Eric LeGrand, the Rutgers defensive tackle who was paralyzed from the neck down in a game against Army last October, was released from the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J., in late March. He will reside at his aunt’s home in Jackson, N.J., for the near future.