There won't be any college football games played for quite a while but that doesn't mean we are going to stop talking about the sport we love. Each week during the off-season we will bring you the top stories and we will also be discussing a variety of topics in our weekly roundtable. Over the next few weeks we will be touching on all of the BCS Conferences and also taking a look at the non-BCS teams. We started with the ACC, hit the Big 12 and last week we talked Big Ten football. This week is all about the Big East. We have a special treat this week as we have not one but two Big East guys here to drop some knowledge on us. We have Friend of the Blog Brian Harrison from the great Syracuse based blog Orange:44. Brian has joined us a few times before, most recently when he answered some questions for us in our 2010 Syracuse Exit Survey. Also joining us, fresh off of a National Championship victory in Basketball this week, is Ian of the UConn Huskies/Boston Red Sox based blog Sox & Dawgs. He has been busy blogging about College Basketball and the start of the baseball season this week but still had enough time to join us for this roundtable. Huge thanks to both of these guys. Enough with the chit chat, let's talk college football!
Looking at the bottom 4 teams in the conference last year (USF, Louisville, Cincinnati, Rutgers), which one do you find most capable of making a strong run at the Big East title this year?
Brian: I think it’s probably Louisville. Charlie Strong proved he is a very good coach and capable of making less talented players overachieve. Additionally, they have a nice, balanced offensive attack and some players that are poised to step up big for the Cardinals.
Ian: Honestly, I think USF probably has the best chance. With Skip Holtz having a full year there and the players adapting to his system, they should be able to compete next year with the big boys of the conference. I’d also say that Louisville is right there on the outside looking in. Cincinnati is close as well. Until Rutgers proves to me they can play a full season, I don’t see them doing much.
Ross: I think Louisville has a chance to make a dark horse run at the title this year. They were markedly improved in year one under Charlie Strong and I think they'll only be better in year two. They lost six games in 2010, but five of them were by eight points or less; this is a team that was very close to having a very good year. They return seven starters on defense and, under Strong's tutelage, could be one of the top defenses in the conference. The concern is that they return very little on offense and will be breaking in new faces all over the offensive line, at quarterback, and at running back. That could derail their progress. But in Strong I trust for now.
Kevin: Just based on sheer offensive talent I'm going to take Cincinnati. They have the most passing yards and rushing yards returning from last year (in the conference). And according to Phil Steele they have 11 starters returning on defense. Along with UConn, they return the most starters in the league. If I was a betting man I would pick Cincy out of those four.
Syracuse went 8-5 (4-3 in conference) last year. Have they turned the corner?
Brian: Overall yes. Everyone is confident in Marrone’s coaching ability, as well as his ability to surround himself with excellent staff. And Syracuse has gone from recruiting kids no one else wants to kids with three or four stars, and from areas we were shut out of the past five years, such as Florida. Syracuse may not achieve another eight wins, or win another bowl game. But it should be the case that they make it to another and continue to build upon their success.
Ian: As an outsider to Syracuse, being a UConn fan and all, I do think they have turned the corner. They did beat two FCS teams last season but also were able to beat West Virginia in Morgantown and USF in Tampa. They have pretty much the entire offense back led by QB Ryan Nassib. If the defense can step up its game next year, the Cuse should find themselves bowling again.
Ross: I think they've definitely turned the corner in terms of no longer being the doormat of the Big East. Whether they've turned the corner in being a legitimate Big East contender... I'm not sure about that yet. They made their breakthrough last year on the back of a stronger-than-expected defense (which was stocked with quite a few upperclassmen) and a strong year from RB Delone Carter; this year we'll see how well they can replace all of that. If Doug Marrone leads them to another 8-5-type season this year, then I think Syracuse is definitely in a place to be a player in the Big East title picture going forward. They're on the cusp now -- I just want to see a little bit more from them.
Kevin: I think they are out of the doghouse but they aren't quite ready for the penthouse. I like what Doug Marrone has brought to the table as he brought them from 3-9 just two years ago to 8-5 this past year. I worry about the offense (91st in passing and 76th in rushing) as they scored less than 20 points in six games last year. But I have confidence in the defense to keep them in games. Syracuse is going to be competitive this year and they are no longer a team that you can pencil in a "W" against. I'm interested to see how quickly Marrone can get them to the upper crust of the conference.
What is the most interesting storyline in the Big East going into the 2011 season?
Brian: I think it will be the hiring of Paul Pasqualoni and if UConn can maintain their level of play this season. Even if the Big East is weaker again, I don’t think they can. Added is the layer that he used to coach at Syracuse, so instantly that has become a very interesting rivalry game between UConn and Syracuse again.
Ian: With all of the coaching changes in the Big East in the off-season, how will the teams respond. You have a new head coach at UConn in Paul Pasqualoni, new head coach at Pitt in Todd Graham and a coach-in-waiting/offensive coordinator at West Virginia in Dana Holgorsen. Graham’s new hybrid defense along with Holgorsen’s high octane offense will be very compelling to follow.
Ross: The coaching turnover at the top of the league should lead to a fascinating and unpredictable season. Two of the top three finishers a year ago have new coaches (UConn and Pittsburgh) and another is going through the dreaded coach-in-waiting process (West Virginia). With that much turmoil among the top teams, the Big East seems poised for an incredibly wild season. I'm not sure ANY potential Big East champion would surprise me this year, which should make for a very fun season to follow.
Kevin: I think it's the fight for relevance. The Big East really took some lumps last year in terms of their standing versus the other BCS conference (well maybe not the ACC). UConn at 8-4 was their BCS representative. The year before that it was an undefeated Cincinnati team getting stomped by Florida. I would like to see a team come out and have a big season and then back it up in a BCS bowl game. I've got my eye on West Virginia and they have a key early season date with "Crazy" Les Miles and LSU.
Who are some under the radar players to keep an eye on in the Big East this year?
Brian: Marcus Sales had an explosive Pinstripe Bowl game for Syracuse. He should be a bigger threat this season after losing his starting position this past season. Dexter Heyman looks like he will be a big player at linebacker for Louisville. Ryan Clarke should explode at running back for West Virginia as well. Otherwise it’s a little too early to make any big calls.
Ian: While it’s still early and some teams are still in their spring practices, there are a few players to watch. UConn RB D.J. Shoemate is having a good spring and could be the featured RB after not doing anything in 2010. NT Scott Vallone moved over from defensive end and has been impressive so far during spring practice. Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce, Louisville QB Will Stein and Syracuse OL Justin Pugh. Ask me this question again before the season starts and I’m sure it will change as you may have some impact freshman come along. Also, some guys will use the 3-4 months before practice starts to bulk up and that could make a huge difference as well.
Ross: Given how little respect the Big East gets, couldn't you say that they're pretty much all "under the radar players"? But seriously... I think QB Geno Smith could be in line for a big, big year at West Virginia. He had good numbers a year ago (241/372, 2763 yards, 24-7 TD/INT) and now he's being coached by Dana Holgorsen, one of the offensive masterminds behind the lights-out passing attacks at Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State over the past five years. With Holgorsen calling the shots, it wouldn't be a surprise at all to see Smith turning heads and finishing among the top ten in the nation in passing.
Kevin: The more I think about it the more I agree with Ross. If you follow Big East football really closely then you know who these guys are but the rest of you might have never heard of them. How many people know who Ray Graham is? Despite Pitt having Dion Lewis as their feature back coming into the year, Graham was able to tally over 1,000 yards in total offense last year. He also had a fantastic 6.2 ypc average. Sure he padded some stats against FIU and New Hampshire but he also gets to play in a new offense this year. An offense that will be more dynamic than last years and an offense that wants to play quickly which will result in more plays and more rushes and receptions for Graham. Look for him to put up some eye-popping numbers. Can you name the returning leader in receptions in the Big East this year? I thought not. It's Tavon Austin of West Virginia. He caught 58 passes and 8 TD last year. This year he is in Holgerson's offense. Look for him to line-up just about everywhere this year and be a guy who will be a difference maker.
Agree, disagree or want to chime in to the conversation then let us know in the comments. If you want to pose a question for us to answer then e-mail it to us at collegefootballzealot at gmail.com or just drop it in the comments section.
Thanks again to Brian of Orange:44 and Ian of Sox & Dawgs for joining us this week. Make sure you join the conversation on twitter and be sure to follow us on twitter @CFBZ, follow Ross @RossWB, follow Ian @soxanddawgs and follow Brian @BH_Orange44.