2011 Big East Football Preview - Balance, Diversity, and (Hopefully) Potential

LOUISVILLE KY - NOVEMBER 20: Geno Smith#12 of the West Virginia Mountaineers throws a pass during the Big East Conference game against the Louisville Cardinals at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium on November 20 2010 in Louisville Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Big East football teams have all officially started practicing, and that means its time to stop talking about off the field arrests, recruiting rankings, ticket prices, and all of the other non-essential things that clutter summer football talk and get down to the business of what will happen when the final edition of the eight team Big East conference takes the field beginning September 1, 2011.

Preseason Power Rankings

SB Nation Big East Preseason Ranking
1. West Virginia
2. Pittsburgh
3. South Florida
4. Cincinnati
5. Syracuse
6. Louisville
7. Rutgers
8. Connecticut

Preseason All Big East Team

SB Nation's collection of fantastic Big East bloggers voted and selected this group as your preseason All-Big East team.

Offense   Defense  
QB Zach Collaros - Cincinnati DL Kendall Reyes - Connecticut
RB Isaiah Pead - Cincinnati DL Bruce Irvin - West Virginia
RB Ray Graham - Pittsburgh DL Brandon Lindsey - Pittsburgh
WR DJ Woods - Cincinnati DL Chandler Jones - Syracuse
WR Tavon Austin - West Virginia LB Sio Moore - Connecticut
TE Nick Provo - Syracuse LB JK Schaffer - Cincinnati
OL Lucas Nix - Pittsburgh LB DeDe Lattimore - South Florida
OL Justin Pugh - Syracuse DB Keith Tandy - West Virginia
OL Mike Ryan - Connecticut DB Jarred Holley - Pittsburgh
OL Don Barclay - West Virginia DB Hakeem Smith - Louisville
C Moe Petrus - Connecticut DB Blidi Wreh-Wilson - Connecticut
K Ross Krautman - Syracuse P Pat O'Donnell - Cincinnati
AP Armando Sanchez - South Florida KR Nick Williams - Connecticut

The Ten Biggest Games of the Big East Schedule

Earlier this summer we counted down the ten games that would determine the Big East in 2011. Here's the list and a link to the recap of each and what we think will happen. 

  1. Pittsburgh at West Virginia
  2. West Virginia at South Florida 
  3. South Florida at Pittsburgh
  4. Cincinnati at Pittsburgh
  5. Louisville at Cincinnati
  6. West Virginia at Syracuse
  7. Syracuse at Pittsburgh
  8. Connecticut at West Virginia
  9. Pittsburgh at Rutgers
  10. South Florida or Connecticut

Team Strengths and Weaknesses

  • Connecticut - Strengths: very experienced and talented offensive and defensive lines should allow the Huskies to be competitive with any opponent on the schedule and allow the coaches time to try and work in a whole new set of skill position players. Weaknesses: the skill positions are as bare as they've been since UConn moved up to the Big East. Nothing will matter of the Huskies don't find a competent quarterback.
  • Cincinnati - Strengths: the Bearcats are the bizarro Huskies. On offense, there is as much skill position talent as any team in the Big East. Zach Collaros at quarterback, Isaiah Pead at running back, and a receiving corps led by DJ Woods and the full healed Kembrell Thompkins will be a nightmare for any defense. Weaknesses: until it proves otherwise, the secondary will likely determine just what kind of bounce back season Cincinnati can have. The front seven is fully healthy and much more experienced, but the secondary must improve to make Cincinnati a contender again.
  • Louisville - Strengths: The defense front seven could wind up being the best in the Big East. The Cardinals allowed a lot of true and redshirt freshmen to take their lumps in 2010 and they're all back for 2011. The safeties, Shenard Holton and Hakeem Smith, are a nice ball-hawking combination. Weaknesses: there's no one to play cornerback with any experience to speak of, and that's not good for a defense that prefers to take a lot of chances. The offensive line returns just one starter from last year as well. 
  • Pittsburgh - Strengths: Offensive and defensive lines are loaded with big, talented guys. The offensive line in particular should benefit from being in an offense that's not quite so predictable and is more aggressive. Weakness: New playmakers must step up at receiver to replace the now departed Jon Baldwin and that will be vital in Todd Graham's new no-huddle, spread attack which will use three receivers on most plays. 
  • Rutgers - Strengths: wide receiver is loaded with talents Mohammed Sanu and Mark Harrison. Both will see increased production now that the quarterback position is settled and the offense will allow them to solely play receiver. Weakness: both lines of scrimmage are question marks. The offensive line gave up over 60 sacks in 2010 and it remains to be seen if they're up to the transition to a pro-style offense. The defensive line is relying in some converted players changes positions and growing into their spots in the line and could be rough early on.
  • South Florida - Strengths: the linebacker corps is probably the best in the Big East. No team has a better pair of linebackers than DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington. If the transfers all live up to the hype, the Bulls should also have a very good stable of running backs. Weakness: The offensive line is almost entirely new and until BJ Daniels plays consistently like he did in the bowl game, I will list quarterback as a team weakness.
  • Syracuse - Strengths: the Orange are set at safety and on the defensive line. Chandler Jones is one of the Big East's best defensive linemen and not limited to just being a pass rusher. Weakness: you have to be concerned for the linebacker position as the Orange try to replace Derrell Smith and Doug Hogue.
  • West Virginia - Strengths: the Mountaineers have the conference's best group of wide receivers and they are a perfect fit for the offense that Dana Holgorsen has installed. Tavon Austin will have a big year for West Virginia Weakness: The secondary in West Virginia's unique version of the 3-3-5 defense run by Jeff Casteel is vital, and with heavy losses to graduation, a whole new group of players will be counted on to step up early. 

Competitive Balance and Diversity

It was stressed ad nauseum at Media Days, but, it's worth repeating that the Big East is the most competitive conference in college football. While there seems to be a consensus that West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and South Florida will most likely contend for the conference title, the remaining five teams could all still earn bowl bids and have enough strength on one side of the ball to make a run at a conference title as well. Since, 2005 five of the eight teams in the Big East have won or shares the Big East title. That number could grow this year if South Florida or Syracuse breaks through after improved 2010 seasons.

In terms of styles of play and types of attacks, no conference boasts greater diversity than the Big East. Offensively, the Big East will feature schemes that can best be described as pro-style (Syracuse and Rutgers), freeze-option (Connecticut and new offensive coordinator George Deleone), a run-oriented spread and pistol looks (Louisville and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford), an offense with multiple looks to maximize a mobile quarterback's skill set (South Florida and Skip Holtz), and now no huddle spread looks that are typically pass first (West Virginia and Dana Holgorsen, Pittsburgh and Todd Graham, and Cincinnati with Butch Jones). The league will welcome another spread offense when TCU joins in 2012. 

Defensively, there is just as much diversity. Syracuse, Rutgers, and South Florida employ base 4-3 defenses that are similar to the NFL in playing a lot of cover two and relying on the defensive lines to get pressure on the quarterback. Connecticut will move away from solely using a 4-3 look to using multiple (4-3 and 3-4) with exotic blitzes under new defensive coordinator Don Brown. Louisville is easily the most aggressive defense in the league that while sticking with a four man line, will use an almost limitless number of corner and zone blitzes to the point that the alignment is almost unrecognizable. Jeff Casteel at West Virginia and now Todd Graham at Pittsburgh are both experienced devotees of the 3-3-5 stack defense that few teams in America still run. 

Staging Ground for 2012

While there is no sense in pretending that the Big East hasn't been struggling the past two seasons, there's reason to believe that 2011 will be a staging ground for huge strides in 2012. For the first time in years, there should be no coaching turnover in the offseason. Nothing has contributed to the league's struggles more than the constant turnover at the top. With coaches that all seems to fit their respective teams and cultures well, and with virtually all of them having only been in place for two to three seasons, there should finally be a respite from the coaching carousel. While many teams will be breaking in new offenses this year, six of the eight teams should welcome their quarterbacks back in 2012. With a year in their new, aggressive systems, Big East offenses should be far more explosive in the future. It also helps that virtually every Big East team is recruiting better than it has in its history. We've not the increased success in landing quality quarterbacks as of late, but the recruiting success is not limited to that as multiple Big East teams currently are in Rivals.com's initial national top 40. Once TCU joins the league next year, the conference should boast multiple preseason top 25 teams and a chance to take a major step forward in national perception.

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