Charlie Strong and Louisville have company atop the Big East
At the midpoint of the 2012 season, it's time to take a look at the first half and predict how the second half will turn out in the Big East.
Coach of the Year – Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Hired after Greg Schiano unexpectedly left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers job and after FIU coach Mario Cristobal turned down the job, Kyle Flood has defied expectations since Day One. The long-time assistant added to the Big East’s best signing class in the days after his Jan. 30 hire and topped that with the Scarlet Knights’ best start since 2006. The quarterback situation and the offensive line are as stable as they’ve been in three seasons, and the defense hasn’t missed Schiano’s touch at all. Now, Flood has Rutgers in contention to do what Schiano couldn’t in 11 seasons — win a Big East title.
Freshman of the Year – Nate D. Smith, LB, Temple
It’s tempting to pick Pittsburgh running back Rushel Shell, but nearly half of his production occurred in a single game (157 yards against Virginia Tech). The brother of Philadelphia Eagles tight end L.J. Smith, Nate D. Smith is making his own mark at Lincoln Financial Field. The Owls starting middle linebacker is third in the Big East in tackles and has come up big in Temple’s 2-0 start in Big East play with 22 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss against USF and Connecticut.
Newcomer of the Year - R.J. Dill, OT, Rutgers
Again, it’s tempting to opt for a running back. In this case, the nod goes to Dill over Temple’s Montel Harris. A two-year project to repair the Rutgers offensive line has culminated at the halfway point thanks in part to Dill, a transfer from Maryland, locking down the right tackle spot. Rutgers has allowed only three sacks this season after allowing 30 all of last year. The line has also paved the way to Jawan Jamison topping 100 yards in all but one game this season.
Offensive Player of the Year – Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
The sophomore started the season on a tear by completing 75 of 94 passes for 870 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions in his first three games. After a couple of challenging games, including one in a downpour in Southern Miss, Bridgewater bounced back with a 17-of-27 performance for 304 yards and a TD against Pittsburgh. Rutgers’ Gary Nova and Cincinnati’s Munchie Legaux are off to good starts, but no Big East coach is a confident in his quarterback situation as Charlie Strong is with Bridgewater.
Defensive Player of the Year – Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers
The best defensive player in the Big East the last two seasons had the best game of his career against Syracuse with 14 tackles, 1.5 sacks, an interception and three forced fumbles last week. The game added to his tally of 63 tackles (second in the Big East), 5.1 tackles for a loss, two picks, four pass breakups and four forced fumbles.
Midseason Disappointment (Team) – USF
The Bulls’ fourth quarter misfortune from last season carried over into 2012 with the exception of a comeback win over Nevada, the Bulls’ only win over an FBS foe this season. USF is riding a four-game losing streak, including losses to Ball State and Temple. If the losing streak increases to five in a row, USF will have its longest losing streak in program history. And with a road trip against Louisville coming up, it would be a major upset for the streak to end. The Bulls have a fourth-year starting quarterback and some of the best talent on defense in the league, making the 2-4 start that much more baffling. A 1-8 record in the Big East since last season has put Skip Holtz’s job security in question.
Midseason Disappointment (Player) – USF defense
Quarterback B.J. Daniels hasn’t progressed as much as USF would have liked, but the criticism shouldn’t be all on his shoulders. The title for biggest disappointment has to go to an entire side of the ball. The Bulls defense gave up 28 points in the second half against Temple and 21 in the second half against Ball State, both thanks to long sustained drives. USF is last in the Big East in rush defense and scoring defense and seventh in total defense. Moreover, USF is the only team in the country that hasn’t intercepted a pass. For a team with talented veterans like DeDe Lattimore, Sam Barrington and Kayvon Webster, those numbers are unacceptable.
Midseason Surprise (Team) – Cincinnati
Picked fifth in the Athlon preseason rankings, Cincinnati has ended up among the league’s top three contenders with Louisville and Rutgers. The Bearcats set the tone early with a 34-10 win over PIttsburgh in the season opener and then followed it with a 27-24 win over Virginia Tech three weeks later. The offense has been explosive at times, and the defense has held its own. The next step will be to get into a routine over the final half of the season after an odd first-half schedule that included two off weeks and two FCS opponents.
Midseason Surprise (Player) – Gary Nova, Rutgers
Rutgers’ revolving door at quarterback has been one of the most pressing questions in Piscataway the last four seasons. After splitting starts with Chas Dodd last season, Nova took hold of the job in the preseason and hasn’t let go. He was shaky in the first two games of the season, but since then, he’s completed 63 percent of his passes for 938 yards with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the last four games. The defense and the run game remain the backbone for Rutgers, but quarterback is no longer a liability thanks to Nova.
What Athlon Sports got right – Louisville atop the conference, for now.
Picking the Cardinals No. 1 in the Big East was near-unanimous among the Athlon staff, though there was a strong contingent for Rutgers as well. The Cardinals are 6-0 and passed their lone Big East test against Pittsburgh last week. They also remain the highest ranked team in the league at No. 16, though that may be more a factor the Cardinals starting higher than Rutgers or Cincinnati. Whether Louisville lives up to its status as preseason favorite remains to be seen, but either way the Cardinals have more company atop the league than Athlon envisioned.
What Athlon Sports got wrong – Temple finishing in last place
The Athlon staff thought USF’s fourth-quarter struggles were a result of bad luck, and that Paul Chryst would bring instant stability to PIttsburgh. Both turned out to be wrong, but Athlon’s pick for Temple in last place may be the biggest misstep. Despite returning only two offensive starters and five on defense, Temple is 2-0 in the Big East in its first season back in the league since 2004. The back-to-back wins over USF and Connecticut are the first consecutive Big East wins in program history.
Three Things to Watch
Are Louisville and Rutgers aiming for another undefeated matchup? Rutgers’ 28-24 upset of Louisville on a Thursday night in November 2006 remains one of the signature moments in Big East history as both entered the game undefeated. Six seasons later, the two programs could be on a similar collision course, this time in the regular season finale -- again on a Thursday night in November. It would be a spotlight moment for a conference in need of a nationally relevant football game between two ranked teams late in the season. That said, Cincinnati will look to upset that goal for both teams.
Is Munchie Legaux ready to lead Cincinnati to a Big East title? We love the name. We love the hair. We love the talent. But Legaux’s consistency may be they key to Cincinnati’s ability to contend for a conference championship. Legaux is completing fewer than half his pass attempts against FBS competition, though he’s accounted for seven touchdowns and one interception.
Will anyone escape the mess at the bottom of the Big East? Connecticut, USF and Pittsburgh are a combined 0-7 in the Big East. Those three plus Syracuse already have four losses. If the trend continues, the Big East will fail to fill its six bowl slots, not including its agreement with the Liberty Bowl. UConn, USF and Syracuse all have to play two of the Big East’s top three (Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers) in the second half of the season. Pitt has only of the top three remaining (Rutgers), but faces Notre Dame on the road.
Three Games to Watch in the Second Half
1. Rutgers at Cincinnati, Nov. 17 - The first in a three-team round robin that may decide the league pits Munchie Legaux and George Winn against the salty Rutgers defense.
2. Cincinnati at Louisville, Nov. 26 - Cincinnati has claimed the last four games for The Keg of Nails.
3. Louisville at Rutgers, Nov. 29 - The stakes could be two 11-0 teams playing the Big East title.
Post-Week 7 Power Rankings
1. Louisville (6-0, 1-0) - The Cardinals started to put Pittsburgh away in the second half, but the Panthers tacked on two fourth-quarter touchdowns. Should Charlie Strong be worried?
2. Rutgers (6-0, 3-0) - Rutgers and Alabama are the only teams in the country that have not allowed an opponent to run for 100 yards in a game this season.
3. Cincinnati (5-0, 1-0) - The Bearcats visit Toledo this week before playing their first Big East game since the opener. The return to Big East play will be interesting: At Louisville on a Friday night.
4. Temple (3-2, 2-0) - The Owls spotted Connecticut a 14-0 lead in the first quarter but crawled back to win 17-14 in overtime.
5. Syracuse (2-4, 1-1) - The Orange have managed four offensive touchdowns in its last three games against Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Rutgers.
6. Pittsburgh (2-4, 0-3) - Pitt is making progress on offense, but the Panthers probably couldn’t afford losses to Youngstown State and Syracuse if it wanted to reach a bowl game.
7. Connecticut (2-4, 0-2) - An inept offense is spoiling the effort of a top-flight defense. The Huskies rank sixth nationally in total defense, 107th in total offense.
8. USF (2-4, 0-2) - Will any soul searching over the off week help the Bulls pull out of their two-year funk? Louisville will be tough next week, but following two games against Syracuse and Connecticut in Tampa are winnable, right?
By David Fox