'11 Predictions: Big East

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The Orange could be the wild card in the Big East in 2011.

The Orange could be the wild card in the Big East in 2011.

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the Big East.

If quarterback turnover is the theme in the ACC this spring, then coaching changes might be the theme of the Big East. In a league that appears to be in a constant state of transition, coaching manuevers once again have dominated headlines so far this off-season.

Doug Marrone, Skip Holtz and Charlie Strong have proven, in short order, that they were solid hires for Syracuse, South Florida and Louisville respectively. West Virginia, Pitt and UConn have totally unique and utterly different issues all together. The conference champion Huskies have lost head coach Randy Edsall to the Maryland Terrapins. Much like Jim Leavitt at South Florida, Edsall defined UConn football. He ushered the Huskies into the FBS era in Storrs and reached an unprecedented level of success, taking Connecticut to its first BCS bowl game in school history this season.

Needless to say, this could be the most important hire in UConn football history. Replacing Jordan Todman and the entire linebacking corps will make it a tough job keeping the Huskies at a BCS bowl level next fall.

While UConn has zero head coaches, Pitt and West Virginia have five — or should I say had. The Panthers will have had three head coaches over a period of weeks after newly hired Mike Haywood got released due to some domestic issues that arose shortly after the ink was dry. They, too, are on the coaching prowl once again. Filling major gaps along the defensive line will be key for whomever is leading the Pitt program this off-season.

Maybe UConn and Pitt should call WVU AD Oliver Luck and see if he could loan them one of his? Bill Stewart (28-12) is entering his final season as the headman at West Virginia after the Mountaineers hired Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgersen as the “Head Coach In Waiting.” Both will coach the 2011 Mounties with the spread-it-all-over-the-field-and-score-bunches-of-points Holgersen taking over the program in 2012. The offense could be the leagues best with Holgersen and quarterback Geno Smith calling the plays — even with losing Noel Devine. Gaps all over the defense will be the biggest issue for WVU and keeping some early NFL entries at home (Keith Tandy, Robert Sands) would help immensely.

Cincinnati’s first season sans Brian Kelly proved that the Mad Scientist really was that important. The 4-8 (2-5) record was the worst since a 4-7 mark in 2005 under Mark Dantonio. After back-to-back Big East titles, the Bearcats have fallen right back to periphery of college football. Much of 2011 success will hinge on Zach Collaros’ arm and legs. His return gives Cincy arguably the best signal caller in the conference next fall.

That leaves Rutgers as the only school in the conference not to have changed head coaches in the last two years (and/or next year). And Greg Schiano’s last place 1-6 finish has Rutgers’ fans antsy as they head into 2011. The Knights will return much of their offense — which could be a good or bad thing — and need to replace half of the defense.

The Bulls and Mountaineers look to be the class of this conference next season with a number of competitors nipping at their heels. UConn takes a clear step back without master architect and leader Edsall. Pitt always has talent and could always surprise but the Panthers have to put the right leader in place quickly in order to compete for a conference crown next fall. Cincy, Louisville and Rutgers simply do not have enough talent, it would appear on paper, to push for a title in '11.

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Athlon takes a way too early look at the Big East in 2011.

That leaves the improving Syracuse Orange as a big wild card. Ryan Nassib showed the ability to manage the game and will need to take the next step in his development if the Cuse expects to compete for a conference title. Antwon Bailey should be able to fill the void left by Delone Carter. So replacing a couple of starters along the offensive line will be the only issue for what should be a relatively intact offense. The defense is a different story, however, as six seniors started in the Pinstripe Bowl. A reworked defense could be the difference between contending for a BCS bowl and heading to the St. Petersburg Bowl.

2011 Big East Predictions (key losses):

1. West Virginia: RB Noel Devine, WR Jock Sanders, OL Eric Jobe, DT Scooter Berry, DT Chris Neild, LB Pat Lazear, LB J.T. Thomas, CB Brandon Hogan, S Robert Sands*, CB Keith Tandy*

2. South Florida: OL Sampson Genus, OL Jake Sims, WR Dontavia Bogan, DE Craig Marshall, DT Terrell McClain, LB Jacquian Williams, LB Sabbath Joseph

3. Syracuse: RB Delone Carter, OL Ryan Bartholomew, OL Andrew Tiller, DT Andrew Lewis, NT Bud Tribbey, S Mike Holmes, CB Da’Mon Merkerson, LB Derrell Smith, LB Doug Hogue, P Rob Long

4. Pitt: WR Jonathan Baldwin*, OL Jason Pinkston, OL Alex Karabin, DE Greg Romeus, DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Brandon Lindsey*, S Dom DeCicco, K/P Dan Hutchins

5. Cincinnati: WR Armon Binns, WR Marcus Barnett, TE Ben Guidugli, RB John Goebel, OL Sam Griffin, OL Jason Kelce, OL C.J. Cobb, LB Dorian Davis, K Jake Rogers,

6. UConn: QB Zach Frazer, RB Jordan Todman*, FB Anthony Sherman, OL Zach Hurd, OL Mathieu Olivier, LB Lawrence Wilson, LB Greg Lloyd, LB Scott Lutrus, S Kijuna Dabney

7. Rutgers: OL Howard Barbieri, DE Alex Silvestro, DT Charlie Noonan, DE Jonathan Freeny, LB Antonio Lowery, S Joe Lefeged

8. Louisville: RB Bilal Powell, TE Cameron Graham, DE Malcolm Tatum, LB Antwon Canady, LB Brandon Heath, CB Johnny Patrick, QB Adam Froman, QB Justin Burke

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