Big East midseason review

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

Reports of the Big East's demise were greatly exaggerated.

The season began with no Big East teams in either major top 25 poll. Most observers figured the league would be down after losing such stars as Pat White, Donald Brown, LeSean McCoy and Scott McKillop to the NFL.

But through the first half of the season, the Big East looks as strong as ever. This week, there are three teams from the conference in both major top 25 polls. That's more than the Pac-10, and the same number as the ACC and Big Ten. The league has a legitimate national championship contender in Cincinnati, which is No. 5 in the BCS standings. The Big East has gone 26-7 in nonconference games, and its .788 winning percentage is better than every conference except the SEC.

New stars have emerged, like Pitt's Dion Lewis and South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul and B.J. Daniels, while returning players like Tony Pike, Bill Stull and Jarrett Brown have taken a step forward. Even guys who were absent or invisible last year, like Mike Williams and Andre Dixon, have bounced back with career years.

Big East offenses have been potent, with six teams averaging at least 29 points and players like Pike, Lewis, Noel Devine and Mardy Gilyard among the national statistical leaders.

The second half of the season will be all about the conference race, with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia battling it out as the top contenders. But the Big East remains so balanced that just about any team can beat another.

If there are upsets in the second half, critics can't say it's because the league is weak or down. The Big East proved itself in the first half.

Now here's a quick look at some of the first-half highlights:

Offensive player of the mid-year: Tony Pike. There are a number of candidates here, including Devine, Lewis, Dixon and even Pike's teammate, Gilyard. But Pike is the trigger man for the best offense and the best team in the league, and he's been as good as any quarterback in the country so far.

Defensive player of the mid-year: Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida. There is no clear-cut leader for this award, but there are a plethora of candidates, including UConn's Lindsey Witten and Lawrence Wilson, Cincinnati's Aaron Webster, Syracuse's Derrell Smith, Pitt's Greg Romeus and Mick Williams and South Florida's George Selvie and Nate Allen. I pick Pierre-Paul because, even though he's only been fully involved in about four games, he's been the most disruptive defensive force I've seen this year. He already has 8.5 tackles for loss despite getting a late start, and he's been nearly unblockable at times. The scary part is, he should only get better.

Surprise of the first half: Cincinnati's defense. Those who paid close enough attention knew that the Bearcats had veterans and weren't starting from scratch despite losing 10 senior starters from 2008. But nearly everyone thought there would need to be an adjustment period, particularly with a new scheme and new coordinator. Hardly anyone could have forecast Cincinnati ranking 13th nationally in scoring defense, allowing a little more than 14 points per game.

Disappointment of the first half: Rutgers. All of the momentum built from last year's seven-game winning streak ended in the opener, a humbling 47-15 home loss to Cincinnati. The Scarlet Knights had the perfect schedule to contend in the Big East but have lost their first two conference games, at home. Their offense has sputtered against good competition.

Best game: Syracuse's 37-34 win over Northwestern was an old-fashioned shootout that came down to a dramatic last-second field goal. That it was the first win for new coach Doug Marrone in a raucous Carrier Dome made it even sweeter for Orange fans.

Best coach: It was Brian Kelly in 2007. It was Brian Kelly in 2008. And it's Brian Kelly in the first half of 2009.