You waited all weekend for me to confirm what you already figured out: West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith takes the No. 1 spot in my countdown of the top 25 players in the Big East for 2011.
He may not have won Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors, but I thought Smith was the best and most valuable player in the league this year. Why?
Making the case: There is no way West Virginia would have had another record-breaking offensive year and been one of the most explosive groups in the country without Smith. Take Smith away, and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are not nearly as effective. There is no denying that trio of players benefited from playing in the high-powered offense Dana Holgorsen brought with him from Oklahoma State. But one glance at what happened at Pitt should show everybody that there is no such thing as just being able to insert any warm body into a spread offense and have it work like magic.
Were there problems? Sure, there were problems. Smith made bad decisions at times. The offense failed to put together a complete game on more than one occasion, driving the ball ridiculously well at some points, then stalling at others. We finally saw the full capability of the offense on display in the Orange Bowl against Clemson, a sign of things to come for 2012. But for 2011 at least, Smith learned the offense and did a great job in his first year -- setting the school and Big East record with 4,385 yards, while throwing for 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions. Smith ranked No. 8 in the nation in passing, and was the most highly visible player in the Big East.
With Smith leading the way, West Virginia set 19 different school records. Smith owns seven of them. And if anybody needs reminding, his backup was a true freshman. So if Smith had gotten hurt, this team would have been in a heap of trouble. I don't think you can say the same of Austin. As good as Austin is, I think West Virginia would have been able to make do without him. That's why I have Smith ahead of his teammate.
Why Smith over Isaiah Pead? As I have written before, I understand the argument for making Pead the No. 1 player in the Big East. He had his best season, and was extremely valuable to the Bearcats, especially after Zach Collaros got hurt. But in a must-win game against Rutgers the week after losing Collaros, Pead had his worst game of the season, with 28 yards on 14 carries. A lot of that was a function of the way the Scarlet Knights focused on shutting him down and making Munchie Legaux beat them. But I think all Bearcats fans can probably agree they expected a little more out of Pead in that game. It was as if the entire offense failed to show up. To me, MVPs find a way to make a play -- even with nine men in the box.
Not to take away anything from the season Pead had. I obviously think highly enough of him to rank him No. 2 in the Big East. But overall, I thought Smith was better and more valuable, so he gets my No. 1 ranking.
Preseason ranking: No. 1
No. 2 Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati
No. 3 Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
No. 4 Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
No. 5 Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers
No. 6 Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
No. 7 Stedman Bailey, WR, West Virginia
No. 8 Ray Graham, RB, Pitt
No. 9 Zach Collaros, QB, Cincinnati
No. 10 JK Schaffer, LB, Cincinnati
No. 11 Kendall Reyes, DT, UConn
No. 12 Najee Goode, LB, West Virginia
No. 13 Bruce Irvin, DE West Virginia
No. 14 Julian Miller, DE, West Virginia
No. 15 Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
No. 16 Trevardo Williams, DE, UConn
No. 17 Aaron Donald, DE, Pitt
No. 18 Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers
No. 19 Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville
No. 20 Dexter Heyman, LB, Louisville
No. 21 Lyle McCombs, RB, UConn
No. 22 Antwon Bailey, RB, Syracuse
No. 23 Duron Harmon, S, Rutgers
No. 24 Keith Tandy, CB, West Virginia
No. 25 Ryne Giddins, DE, USF