By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
At the midpoint of the 2011 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 – Greg Schiano, Rutgers
With Rutgers coming off a 4-8 season, Schiano was feeling a little heat coming into 2011. However, the Scarlet Knights have rebounded with a 5-1 record through six games. The offense has struggled, but is led by promising freshmen with Gary Nova at quarterback and Jawan Jamison and Savon Huggins at running back. Rutgers’ defense has been one of the best in the conference so far this season, ranking first in points allowed and in turnovers gained. Schiano shuffled his coaching staff after last season and those moves appear to have helped spark this team.
Freshman of the Year – Lyle McCombs, RB, Connecticut
This space is usually reserved for a true freshman, but it’s hard to ignore McCombs’ stats through seven weeks. The redshirt freshman has 705 rushing yards (second in the Big East) and four touchdowns, which has carried the Connecticut offense. McCombs has four 100-yard performances this season, including 130 in last week’s win over South Florida. Some top true freshman performers: Louisville WRs Eli Rogers and DeVante Parker, West Virginia RB Dustin Garrison, Rutgers QB Gary Nova, Syracuse LB Dyshawn Davis, South Florida DL Elkino Watson.
Newcomer of the Year – Darrell Scott, RB, South Florida
Scott was one of the nation’s top running back prospects coming out of high school, but never lived up to the hype at Colorado. Scott is off to a good start this year, leading South Florida with 482 rushing yards and five touchdowns. The junior has one 100-yard game, rushing for 146 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over Florida A&M.
Offensive Player of the Year – Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
Although Pittsburgh is 3-4, Graham has carried the Panthers’ offense through the first seven games of 2011. The junior has rushed for 939 yards (the most by a running back this season) and nine touchdowns, while catching 30 passes for 200 yards. Graham has four games of at least 100 yards, including a monster 226-yard performance in the 44-17 win over South Florida. If the Panthers are going to get bowl eligible or back in the Big East race, it will likely depend on Graham, as the Panthers are struggling to get consistency from the passing attack or offensive line.
Defensive Player of the Year – Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut
With a struggling offense, it’s going to be up to the defense to win games for Connecticut this season. Reyes has dominated in the trenches so far, leading the Big East with 11 tackles for a loss, registering four sacks and 26 tackles. The Huskies, thanks in large part to Reyes’ presence, are allowing only 89 yards a game on the ground and opponents have managed only four rushing scores this year.
Midseason Disappointment – Pittsburgh
The Panthers have shown flashes of promise, but have yet to live up to the preseason expectations. Most preseason picks had Pittsburgh in the top three of the Big East, but unless the offense shows big improvement (and soon), it’s unlikely it will finish there. Two of the Panthers’ four losses are by four points or less, but the last two defeats have not been pretty – 34-10 to Rutgers and 26-14 to Utah. New coach Todd Graham wants to bring an up-tempo, high-scoring offense to Pittsburgh, but it’s been a major disappointment so far. Quarterback Tino Sunseri has struggled and the offensive line has allowed 34 sacks. Outside of the Backyard Brawl against West Virginia, all of the remaining games on the schedule are winnable. However, Sunseri needs to play a lot better for Pittsburgh to assure itself of a bowl appearance.
Midseason Disappointment – Jeremy Wright/Victor Anderson, RB, Louisville
The Cardinals owned the Big East’s top rushing attack last season, but it has yet to take off in 2011. Wright and Anderson have combined for only 331 yards and one touchdown, while converted quarterback Dominique Brown leads the team with 211 yards. Anderson and Wright’s struggles are largely due to the offensive line, but both players were expected to keep Louisville’s rushing attack near the top of the Big East this year.
Midseason Surprise – Rutgers
Expectations in Piscataway were low, as Rutgers was coming off a 4-8 season and riding a six-game losing streak entering 2011. The Scarlet Knights enter Week 8 with a solid 5-1 record, with the only loss coming to North Carolina 24-22. Although the offense has struggled, the defense ranks first in the Big East in scoring defense, and the Scarlet Knights have been winning the turnover battle. The schedule sets up favorably for Rutgers, with road trips to Louisville and Connecticut (arguably the two worst teams in the conference), while West Virginia, South Florida and Cincinnati visit High Point Solutions Stadium.
Midseason Surprise – Cincinnati’s defense
The Bearcats owned one of the worst defenses in the Big East last season, ranking seventh in total defense and last in passing and points allowed. However, after six games, Cincinnati owns the Big East’s top rush defense, ranks 28th nationally in total defense and is allowing only 16.5 points a game. The Bearcats have also generated 19 turnovers and collected 20 sacks. Stopping the pass is still an issue for Cincinnati, but the rest of the unit has been solid through the first half of the year. With a high-scoring offense and an improving defense, the Bearcats will be a dangerous team the rest of the season.
What Athlon Sports got right – The Big East is usually one of the more difficult conferences to predict each preseason. However, our predictions had West Virginia and South Florida as the top two teams in the conference, which is certainly within reach. Also, we picked Louisville to finish last, largely due to the amount of young players stepping into starting lineup this year.
What Athlon Sports got wrong – West Virginia is clearly the No. 1 team, but after that, things get cloudy. We had Rutgers pegged seventh in the preseason picks, but it looks like the Scarlet Knights will easily out perform that ranking. We liked Pittsburgh as the third-best team in the conference, which looks questionable after its last two performances.
Athlon projects the wins and losses for each team for the rest of the season. Here's how we think the final standings in the Big East.
1. West Virginia 10-2, 6-1
2. Rutgers 9-3, 5-2
3. South Florida 8-4, 4-3
4. Cincinnati 8-4, 4-3
5. Pittsburgh 6-6, 4-3
6. Syracuse 6-6, 2-5
7. Connecticut 4-8, 2-5
8. Louisville 3-9, 1-6
Big East Champion: West Virginia
Three Things to Watch
Expansion and Realignment – Pittsburgh and Syracuse have announced its intentions to leave the Big East in 2014. The conference expected to have TCU aboard next season, but the Horned Frogs bolted to the Big 12. The Big East has only six teams committed to the conference for 2014. And West Virginia and Louisville have been mentioned as candidates to join the Big 12 if Missouri goes to the SEC. The Big East reportedly has six schools targeted to join, but when will the invitations be extended? Will the Mountaineers and Cardinals jump to the Big 12? The Big East has waited far too long to expand, but there’s still time to save the conference.
Can West Virginia finish unbeaten in conference play? – The Mountaineers cruised in their only Big East game this year, beating Connecticut 43-16. Four road games remain in conference play, including trips to Rutgers, Cincinnati and South Florida. West Virginia is clearly the No. 1 team in the conference, but it could be difficult to finish the season without a loss in Big East play.
Will the defending Big East champs make a bowl? – Connecticut has a lot of work to do if it wants to get back into the postseason. The Huskies have not missed a bowl since 2006 and made their first BCS appearance last year in the Fiesta Bowl. At 3-4, Connecticut needs to find three more wins the rest of the way. Syracuse and Louisville are winnable at home, but picking up a victory against Pittsburgh, Rutgers or Cincinnati won’t be easy. The Huskies have one of the conference’s best defenses, but the offense needs to step up for Connecticut to make a fifth consecutive bowl trip.