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2011 Big East preview

Can West Virginia finally deliver when faced with high expectations? Dave Miller

Print This August 29, 2011, 07:45 AM EST

The National Football Post begins its College Football Kickoff Week with the first of six BCS conference previews. First off, the Big East.

Let’s take a look at how the conference could shake out this season, in order of strength of team.

West Virginia: Quarterback Geno Smith looked very comfortable in new coordinator/head coach Dana Holgorsen’s spread offense this spring, throwing for 388 yards and four touchdowns in the team’s spring game. With receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, this offense is going to be fun to watch all season long. And Smith could ultimately emerge as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate. The running game should be just fine no matter who is carrying the rock — Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, Trey Johnson, Shawne Alston or Vernard Roberts. Lighting up the scoreboard will not be a problem. Meanwhile, end Bruce Irvin and tackle Julian Miller pace a speedy defense. They will be a force for opposing offensive linemen all season. But the major question concerning the Mountaineers always is whether they can avoid slipping up in conference play as they have so many times in the past against inferior opponents. They are the most talented team in the league, and they are positioned to earn the league’s automatic BCS bid if they can weather early-season nonconference battles against Maryland and LSU. Even if they falter in those contests, there is much at stake in league play. Overall, Holgorsen's track record of producing prolific offenses at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State should excite Mountaineer fans. But how he deals with adversity in his first season as a college head coach will determine this team's fate.

Ray GrahamICONRay Graham will shine as the lead back at Pitt.

Pittsburgh: Tino Sunseri had an up-and-down 2010 season under center but really elevated his play this spring, culminating in a big spring game where he completed 35 of 55 passes for 416 yards and two scores. The offense certainly looked like one coached by Todd Graham, who arrived on the scene after overseeing prolific offenses at Tulsa. But can that proficiency in the spread attack carry over to the regular season? No matter what, running back Ray Graham will make a seamless transition to starter with Dion Lewis’ departure. Graham recorded 922 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns while splitting time with Lewis in 2010. For the Panthers, the big question is how the defense will fare under new coordinator Keith Patterson. Ends Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are gone, but former head coach Dave Wannstedt did not leave the cupboard bare on that side of the ball. Brandon Lindsey is their best defender after leading the team with 17.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2010. This is a talented squad that can win a league title in Graham’s first season.

South Florida: When Skip Holtz was hired before the 2010 season, he said he wanted to run the ball more effectively in Tampa. He’ll likely be able to do that in 2011 with juniors Darrell Scott and Demetris Murray providing a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield. Scott has said that he was humbled by his experience at Colorado, so it will be interesting to track his progress with the Bulls. Quarterback B.J. Daniels struggled to perform in the new offense early last fall but played better by the end of the year. However, did he establish enough chemistry with the receivers this fall after a bit of a struggle in the spring? Defensively, can an experienced linebacker corps be the strength of a unit that has undergone shifting along the defensive line? We’ll get a good look at this offense right away when Holtz and the Bulls visit Brian Kelly and Notre Dame in the season opener on Saturday.

Louisville: Victor Anderson, the 2008 Big East newcomer of the year, could be the key to this offense with Bilal Powell gone. Anderson could be ready to assume the lead running back role after a strong spring and with his injuries put behind him. The Cardinals have good running back depth, as well, which is huge considering their question under center. Expect Jeremy Wright to receive plenty of carries. Although former walk-on Will Stein is starting at quarterback, former Miami commit Teddy Bridgewater will get quality playing time in Mike Sanford’s offense. This is a very young team, as evidenced by the fact that head coach Charlie Strong has 21 redshirt and true freshmen listed on the two-deep after playing ten true freshmen in 2010. The big concern is the secondary, where young and inexperienced cornerbacks will be tested.

Cincinnati: Butch Jones' squad struggled its way through a 4-8 season in 2010, specifically on defense. The Bearcats failed to generate a strong pass rush, but their defensive line depth is improved this fall. All 11 starters return from last year's unit that ranked last in the Big East in scoring defense and next to last in total defense. But is it a good thing or a bad thing that the entire starting unit is back? Offensively, junior-college transfer Kenbrell Thompkins seems to be the real deal at wide receiver, so he should take some of the pressure off of D.J. Woods. Cincy will also run the ball effectively with Isaiah Pead, who led the conference in yards per rush (6.6) for the second straight season in 2010. Quarterback Zach Collaros led the Big East in passing yards (2,902) and touchdowns (26), but he also had a league-high 14 interceptions last year. Getting better line play will be imperative because Collaros can be very effective both in the pocket and on the move. The Bearcats are the real wild card in the Big East because Jones is a better coach than what his record showed last year, and former coach Brian Kelly brought in good players during his tenure so the talent is there.

Doug MarroneICONCan Doug Marrone deliver another winning season at Syracuse?

Syracuse: Doug Marrone performed one of the best coaching jobs in the nation last season in leading the Orange to the Pinstripe Bowl. It was a real feel-good story, but the key is maintaining that momentum. The defense lost several starters, and defensive tackle and linebacker remain areas of concern especially with the injury bug really affecting the Orange this fall. Specifically, replacing Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith at linebacker will be difficult. The offensive line should be a strength, but does the team have enough offensive playmakers? Marcus Sales’ availability is a major question mark, so Van Chew and Alec Lemon will have to emerge as real go-to threats. Marrone has his players buying into his philosophy, but can he deliver back-to-back bowl appearances?

Connecticut: The defending Big East champion Huskies lost head coach Randy Edsall, who raised the profile of the Huskies and led them out of the FCS into major-conference football. Edsall departed to Maryland, and UConn is now being led by former Syracuse head coach Paul Pasqualoni and two new coordinators. The offense didn’t have a great offseason, and there are questions under center. Who will emerge as the starter in the battle between Michael Nebrich, Johnny McEntee and Scott McCummings? It will also be difficult to replace star running back Jordan Todman. The strength of the Huskies is on the defensive side of the ball, which returns its front four. Also, keep an eye on Sio Moore, who should deliver another big season at linebacker.

Rutgers: Greg Schiano is the longest-tenured Big East head coach, but he needs to improve on a 4-8 mark last season. The Scarlet Knights looked slow and unathletic at times throughout that trying campaign, so Schiano moved some players around on defense to become a speedier unit. However, it remains to be seen how good this defense can be in the fall, especially with the secondary breaking in three new starters and a front that’s a little undersized. Quarterback Chas Dodd and running back De’Antwan Williams finished with strong spring games, but the offensive line must continue to develop cohesion if the Knights want to sneak into bowl consideration. It remains the biggest question mark on Frank Cignetti’s offense. But even if the Scarlet Knights do struggle, true freshman running back Savon Huggins will be fun to watch.

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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