Big East preview: Brawl could decide all

The stakes are always high in the Big East, where the path to a lucrative BCS bowl game is as unobstructed as any conference in America.

The smallest of the nation’s leagues, it harbors just eight members, six of which can be even remotely considered contenders. Syracuse and Louisville may have high hopes with young coaches, but the talent doesn’t quite stack up. The Orange would be happy to add another floor to Doug Marrone’s debut by inching closer to .500. The Cardinals are simply hoping Charlie Strong can scrub away all evidence of the Steve Kragthorpe era as quickly as possible.

Although Cincinnati is the reigning two-time champ, the Big East could be anointing a new king this season. No, the Bearcats aren’t about to sink into obscurity. The still-potent offense will make sure of that. However, the defense will be a work-in-progress, and it’ll be impossible to maintain the same level of success without transcendent head coach Brian Kelly, who’s now in South Bend. If there’s an opening on top, the two schools most likely to fill it will be those long-time rivals Pitt and West Virginia.

The Panthers could have the league’s most dominant offensive and defensive players in RB Dion Lewis and DE Greg Romeus, respectively. And after five up-and-down seasons, Dave Wannstedt has finally hit his stride, recruiting well and building a winning attitude at his alma mater.

The key will be at quarterback, where untested sophomore Tino Sunseri will be a marked man all year. Ironically, the Mountaineers enter the season in a similar situation. Their sophomore QB, Geno Smith, also has a lot to prove after replacing a veteran. Just about everywhere else, the program is fine. Superstar RB Noel Devine heads nine offensive starters, and the defense is loaded with all-star candidates. West Virginia has championship talent, putting even more pressure on head coach Bill Stewart to bring a title back to the school.

Working to join the Big East’s Big 3 are Connecticut, Rutgers, and South Florida. The Huskies will always be dangerous as long as Randy Edsall is on campus. The defense and running game are terrific, leaving senior QB Zach Frazer to finally fulfill his potential. The Scarlet Knights are interesting since they leaned on so many kids in 2009, yet still won nine games. The offense could take off behind the precocious tandem of QB Tom Savage and WR Mohamed Sanu, but only if the line can be patched up. The Bulls are thrilled to have Skip Holtz on the sidelines, but in the short term, the talent won’t match the excitement level in Tampa. Any bowl game will do for the time being.

As always, the Big East is up for grabs, with a fat paycheck in January as the prize. While Cincinnati shouldn’t be dismissed, considering all it’s accomplished, the road to a title looks as if it’ll include that 75-mile stretch of I-79 connecting Morgantown and the Steel City.

Team that will surprise

West Virginia. After underachieving the last two seasons, the Mountaineers are about to catch a bunch of people by surprise in 2010. They’re stacked with returning starters on both sides of the ball, nine on offense, nine on defense, and accurate PK Tyler Bitancourt. Yeah, true sophomore Geno Smith will be under center, but he has considerable upside and ample support from RB Noel Devine, WR Jock Sanders, and an imposing O-line. Oh, and forget about running on a defense that’s going to be nasty on opponents.

If Smith can make steady progress and limit his mistakes, West Virginia is capable of snatching a much-needed Big East title for third-year head coach Bill Stewart.

Team that will disappoint

South Florida. The Bulls are going to get an enormous bump by replacing Jim Leavitt on the sidelines with Skip Holtz. You just won’t notice it this season. While all of the hype about the arrival of the new coach is real, South Florida is about to endure a temporary shortage of talent. The offense lacks playmakers to support second-year QB B.J. Daniels, especially after top receiver A.J. Love went down with an ACL tear in the spring. And where’s the scary defensive talent that’s become commonplace around Tampa? Even a lower-tier bowl game won’t keep the school from entering the rebuilding phase until things perk up again in 2011.

Game of the Year

West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 26. On so many levels, this has the potential to be the main event for the Big East in 2010. Not only is it the Backyard Brawl, which needs no other storylines, but there’s a good chance it’ll decide the conference champ and a BCS bowl berth.

Both teams are flush with next-level talent, and the showdown between backs Dion Lewis and Noel Devine could determine Offensive Player of the Year in the league. In the end, it’ll probably come down to which unproven quarterback delivers, Pitt’s Tino Sunseri or West Virginia’s Geno Smith.

Five big-time players who deserve a bigger spotlight

1. WR Mohamed Sanu, Soph. Rutgers

2. S Robert Sands, Jr. West Virginia

3. LB Doug Hogue, Sr. Syracuse

4. DT Derek Wolfe, Jr. Cincinnati

5. OG Zach Hurd, Sr. Connecticut

Coach on the hot seat

Bill Stewart, West Virginia. In an eight-team conference that has three new coaches and four who are safe, Stewart stands out as the most likely to be in trouble in 2010. Since landing the job by shocking Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, his Mountaineers have spit out consecutive nine-win seasons. Not too shabby, right? Not if you’d won 11 games in each of the previous three years and a couple of Big East championships. Even as he breaks in a young quarterback, the coach can ill-afford to plateau, especially as rival Pittsburgh builds a head of steam. Hey, maybe Rich Rod will be available in December. Gotcha.

Five non-conference games the Big East had better take very seriously

1. Connecticut at Temple, Sept. 18

2. Pittsburgh at Utah, Sept. 2

3. Cincinnati at Fresno State, Sept. 4

4. Army at Rutgers, Oct. 16

5. West Virginia at Marshall, Sept. 10

Bold prediction

The Cincinnati offense will hardly skip a beat after leading the league a year. Yeah, yeah, you don’t get better after losing Brian Kelly to Notre Dame and QB Tony Pike to the Carolina Panthers, but the parts are in place for the Bearcats to remain extremely potent this fall. New head coach Butch Jones will employ a similar spread attack, so the learning curve will be flat for the holdovers. Taking over for Pike is Zach Collaros, a perfect fit for the system who was sensational in five games when his services were needed last season. He’ll have no shortage of weapons, including RB Isaiah Pead, receivers Armon Binns and D.J. Woods, and TE Ben Guidugli. The addition of WR Vidal Hazelton, a USC transfer, will be like piling on for opposing secondaries. Despite hints to the contrary, Cincy still has plenty of gas in the tank.

Five best pro prospects

1. DE Greg Romeus, Sr. Pittsburgh

1. WR Jonathan Baldwin, Jr. Pittsburgh

2. RB Noel Devine, Sr. West Virginia

3. OT Jason Pinkston, Sr. Pittsburgh

5. LB Lawrence Wilson, Sr. Connecticut

Five biggest shoes to fill

1. WR Vidal Hazelton for Mardy Gilyard, Cincinnati

2. DE Jesse Joseph for Lindsey Witten, Connecticut

3. QB Tino Sunseri for Bill Stull, Pittsburgh

4. OT Desmond Stapleton for Anthony Davis, Rutgers

5. DE Ryne Giddins for Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida