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WVU the Pick To Win Big East

August 25, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

When the Big East Conference's annual preseason media poll was released earlier this month, there was a familiar name at the top.

Though West Virginia, which received 21 of 24 first-place votes in the poll, hasn't won an outright league championship since 2005, it's generally been a safe program to put atop the tumultuous standings prior to a season because the Mountaineers have proved to be the most consistent program in the embattled, here today, gone tomorrow league.

West Virginia has won or shared the league title five times in the last eight years and has finished no lower than second for the last nine seasons.

Still, the Mountaineers are one of three teams with new head coaches in the Big East this season - Dana Holgorsen takes over for Bill Stewart - and they lost a ton to graduation and the NFL.

Aside from Brandon Hogan, Robert Sands, J.T. Thomas, and Chris Neild being drafted by NFL teams, Noel Devine, Sidney Glover, Anthony Leonard, and Jock Sanders were all given looks as free-agents.

Even if the Mountaineers have the firepower to replace those guys - a big if - they'll also have to quickly adjust to the new offensive coaching staff.

Though the high-end talent's there, led by quarterback Geno Smith, slot receiver Tavon Austin, defensive end Bruce Irvin and cornerback Keith Tandy, West Virginia has holes to fill throughout what was an historically good defense last season and must overcome a season-ending knee injury to offensive lineman Josh Jenkins.

West Virginia is one of four programs nationally (along with Boise State, Ohio State and Virginia Tech) to have won at least nine games in each of the last six seasons.

The following are capsules of the remaining teams, in order of predicted finish.

Pitt

The Panthers, who will be under the direction of Todd Graham, a one-time WVU assistant under Rich Rodriguez, received two first-place votes in the preseason poll. They shared the title last season with the Mountaineers and UConn Huskies.

Quarterback Tino Sunseri threw for more than 2,500 yards last year, and tailback Ray Graham ran for 922. They're sure to enjoy Graham's wide-open offense that produced big numbers and big victories at Tulsa.

The defense lost a few draft picks, but there's plenty back on that side of the ball.

South Florida

The only other first-place vote went to USF, which will be in its second year under head coach Skip Holtz. The Bulls, who have a reputation of limping to the finish line, won five of their last seven games last season and made their sixth consecutive bowl appearance.

They lost four all-league players on defense and don't have and a sure-fire star on the roster, assuming third-year quarterback B.J. Daniels continues his inconsistent play, but there's enough to believe this is a top-3 team in this league either way.

The Bulls open at Notre Dame, where Holtz graduated from in 1986 and was once an assistant for his father, Lou.

Syracuse

Was there a better feel-good story in the Big East last season? Down and out for years, Doug Marrone's second year at his alma mater produced not only a winning record, but a bowl victory for the first time since 2001.

The defense was decimated by graduation and 1,000-yard rusher Delone Carter also graduated. Still, most of the offensive line remains intact to give quarterback Ryan Nassib, who threw for 2,300 yards and 22 touchdowns last season, time to throw to his top five receivers, all of whom are back.

Cincinnati

Butch Jones' first season in Cincy produced an offense that could play with just about anyone in the country, led by former Steubenville Big quarterback Zach Collaros. Collaros threw for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns in the league's best offense. That was negated, in part, by the league's most porous scoring defense, resulting in a 4-8 season. Along with Collaros, tailback Isaiah Pead and receiver D.J. Woods return on offense, and former Beaver Local standout Derek Wolfe is back to anchor the defense from his tackle position.

UConn

The Huskies are in the same type of spot a lot of other Big East teams have been in in recent years. They won the league's BCS bid, then the coach bolted. In something of a surprise, if not unpopular move, former Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni was given the job after Randy Edsall left for Maryland. It'll be a typical Huskies team - strong on defense, yawn on offense with a new quarterback to boot. USC transfer running back D.J. Shoemate could help make up for the loss of Jordan Todman.

Of note, Pasqualoni has more victories than any coach in league history from his 14-year career at Syracuse.

Louisville

There's not a lot to get excited about - though Victor Anderson, when healthy, is probably the league's best running back. A battle at quarterback and inexperience on the offensive line is the reason the Cards were predicted seventh. Having seven starters back on defense is a reason they could finish higher.

Under Charlie Strong, it's widely felt that Louisville has the strongest coaching staff in the league.

Rutgers

A free-fall to end last season - the Scarlet Knights lost each of their last six games, allowing 144 points in the final three, and finished at 4-8 - has some of the expectations tempered but there's got to be a reason Greg Schiano's name used to pop up in the conversation every time there was a vacancy somewhere.

There are 10 offensive starters coming back and a few standouts on defense, meaning Rutgers, too, may well finish higher than people think. Of note, Schiano is entering his 11th season as Rutgers coach. No other Big East coach has been in the league more than two years