Big East's star poised to burn bright in 2010
There was a buzz all throughout the Big East this year during spring practice, but it had little to do with what was going on with the helmets and shoulder pads.
The real talking points came on the sidelines, where administrators, fans, media and coaches wondered about the fate of the league -- and their own individual schools -- with a possible Big Ten expansion raid coming seemingly any day. But while most people fretted over what might happen in a few years, something got overshadowed: The Big East has a chance to be pretty good on the field this season.
The league is coming off a season in which it had a team finish the regular season in the top 5 (Cincinnati), sent another team into the top 10 (Pittsburgh), had two other clubs appear in the Top 25 (West Virginia and South Florida) and had six of the eight teams win at least eight games. And this year, the Big East could be even deeper and feature even more parity.
Several stars returned to campus this spring. They include the reigning conference offensive player of the year (Pitt running back Dion Lewis) and co-defensive player of the year (Pitt defensive end Greg Romeus); one of the most electric big-play backs in the country (West Virginia's Noel Devine); two other 1,000-yard runners (UConn's Jordan Todman and Syracuse's Delone Carter); a Biletnikoff Award front-runner (Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin); and a slew of budding young superstars like Cincinnati's Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead, Rutgers' Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu and South Florida's B.J. Daniels.
Cincinnati has made back-to-back BCS games and is trying to get to a higher level under new coach Butch Jones. The Bearcats have the offensive stars to cause teams fits.
Pitt is hoping to improve on last year's 10-win season and capitalize on a talented, well-rounded roster. West Virginia returns 18 starters and could easily get back to the top of the Big East if sophomore quarterback Geno Smith lives up to expectations.
Connecticut has 16 starters back after finishing as strong as anybody in the league last year. Rutgers is building a young, hungry team around Savage and Sanu. Excitement is high at South Florida, where Skip Holtz has infused a new energy into a program that's had its share of big moments the last few years.
Even last year's co-cellar dwellers, Syracuse and Louisville, have reason for optimism, with the Orange moving into their second year under Doug Marrone and the Cardinals beginning what they hope is a fast rebuilding project for first-year coach Charlie Strong.
Maybe by the fall the future of the league will be in dire straits. But in the spring, at least, prospects look strong for the immediate future. Enjoy it while you can.
What we learned this spring
Spring football is full of tackling sleds, closed-door scrimmages and players wearing noncontact jerseys. In other words, it's hard to read too much into spring happenings. But you can still learn some things if you're paying attention. Here are five things we learned about the Big East this spring:
1. Few quarterback controversies. Going into the fall, the only real questions at quarterback are at Syracuse, where Ryan Nassib leads hard-charging Charley Loeb, and Louisville, where Adam Froman and Justin Burke continue to battle. Tino Sunseri never faced a serious challenge at Pitt, Geno Smith will be the starter at West Virginia despite Coley White's strong spring and Zach Frazer distanced himself from Cody Endres at UConn. Most teams will go into the fall all set at the game's most crucial position.
2. Offense still rules. Cincinnati showed last year that you could win the league by outgunning people, and that might happen again. The Bearcats are loaded on offense, while Pitt should have a high-scoring attack with Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin. UConn will put up points in the second year of its no-huddle system, while West Virginia has as much raw speed as anyone. Be prepared for some shootouts this fall.
3. New coaches, new attitudes. All three new coaches in the league brought something positive to the table this spring. Butch Jones changed the culture to a more family-oriented atmosphere at Cincinnati. Skip Holtz created openness and a more diverse offense to South Florida. Charlie Strong installed toughness and offered gangbuster recruiting for Louisville. Now all three have to win some games.
4. Experience doesn't mean worry-free. West Virginia and UConn returned the most starters, with 18 and 16, respectively. Yet both Bill Stewart and Randy Edsall had to deal with some minor off-the-field transgressions during the spring. On the plus side, each coach could afford to dole out strict punishment because of the depth on his roster. But they'd probably each like to see a little more leadership from their returning players.
5. It's going to be a wide-open race. There was no real consensus around the league this spring about who should be the favorite, though most coaches felt Pitt probably has the best talent. Any one of six teams could win the Big East, though, and not register as a major surprise. You can tell who the two noncontending teams are from the league schedule. For the second straight year, Louisville and Syracuse are the only Big East clubs that won't play on the final weekend of conference action.
Best of spring
Here's a look at some of the superlatives from the Big East during spring practice:
Best spring game performance: South Florida receiver Dontavia Bogan was the favored recipient of B.J. Daniels' air show in the spring game, catching nine balls for 228 yards and four touchdowns. Bogan's big game gave some reason for hope on a day when fellow wideout A.J. Love tore his ACL.
Best improvement by a position group: Rutgers' receivers. In a year, the Scarlet Knights' pass-catchers went from Tim Brown and a bunch of nobodies (remember, Mohamed Sanu had to be moved over from defense late last spring to shore things up) to a group full of potential. Credit the impressive offseason improvements by Tim Wright, Mark Harrison and Quron Pratt.
Best guest play-caller: Cincinnati coach Butch Jones let a fan in the stands call a play from the playbook, and the fan wisely chose some trickery. The play resulted in a 60-yard bomb on an option pass from receiver D.J. Woods to Vidal Hazelton.
Best two-way player: West Virginia's Coley White played quarterback for both the Gold and Blue teams in the spring game as Geno Smith was held out to protect a foot injury. Pat White's younger brother threw three touchdown passes to complete a stellar spring. "He's a White," wide receiver Jock Sanders said, simply.
Best spring game atmosphere: (Tie) Rutgers and West Virginia were the only two teams in the Big East to draw 20,000 fans to their spring games.
Best bold quote: "We have improved in toughness and physicality and people just wanting to play the game," Syracuse linebacker Derrell Smith said. "Coach [Doug Marrone] did a good job for preparing us for last season and I think that he is going to do an even better job this year. Hopefully I'll be out here next year with a championship ring on my finger."
Big East's BCS contenders
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Cincinnati: Loaded at the skill spots, Cincinnati is poised for another title run. For more on the Bearcats, click here.
Connecticut: A strong offensive line and QB Zach Frazer's growth have UConn primed for 2010. For more on the Huskies, click here.
Louisville: Coach Charlie Strong focused on instilling toughness and passion at Louisville. For more on the Cardinals, click here.
Pittsburgh: Quarterback Tino Sunseri's development highlighted Pittsburgh's spring. For more on the Panthers, click here.
Rutgers: A deep defensive line and emerging wide receivers have Rutgers ready. For more on the Scarlet Knights, click here.
South Florida: South Florida found some new weapons for B.J. Daniels this spring. For more on the Bulls, click here.
Syracuse: Improved depth, new-look offense have Syracuse optimistic about 2010. For more on the Orange, click here.
West Virginia: With 18 returning starters, West Virginia is loaded for a title run. For more on the Mountaineers, click here.
Big East games to watch
POST-SPRING POWER RANKINGS
1. Pittsburgh: The Panthers have some questions, notably on the interior offensive line. But they've also got Dion Lewis, Greg Romeus and Jonathan Baldwin and more answers on both sides of the ball than any other Big East squad.
2. Cincinnati: The two-time defending champs probably deserve the top spot until someone knocks them out of it. Still, I have lingering concerns about that defense, though the offense has a chance to be devastatingly good.
3. Connecticut: I liked UConn going into the spring and was even more impressed with the Huskies after seeing them live. Lots of depth and more speed than you think.
4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers could very easily rule the Big East again this year and have more returning starters than anyone else. I need to see Geno Smith get fully healthy and things start to jell more overall before I move them up, however.
5. Rutgers: This is a young but very talented team, especially on defense. The offensive line remains the huge sticking point right now and could be what holds the Scarlet Knights back from serious contention this year.
6. South Florida: Losing A.J. Love at the end of the spring was a big blow for an offense that was light on experienced receivers. The defense is green but gifted. Skip Holtz has plenty to work with, but he may need some more time to get it all pieced together.
7. Syracuse: Delone Carter's suspension at the end of the spring cast a pall over the Orange camp, and quarterback competition could continue into August. Syracuse still should show improvement based simply on having more healthy bodies.
8. Louisville: Incoming players this summer could push for playing time right away, because the Cardinals need more difference-makers, especially on defense. The team got better and tougher this spring under Charlie Strong but still has a long way to go.