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January 12, 2010

Big East Breakdown: Still fighting for respect


At the conference's media day, Big East coaches shrugged at the league not having a team ranked in the preseason polls.

Turns out they were right in brushing off the snub. Three teams - Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia - were ranked in the final AP poll. That's more ranked teams than the Pac-10 and as many as the Big 12 and Mountain West.

The absence of a Big East team in the preseason top 25 was more likely a product of the absence of a clear front-runner at the start of the season. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh cleared that up in a hurry before meeting in a winner-take-all finale for the league's BCS berth.

Mardy Gilyard led the Big East in catches and receiving yards and tied for the lead in touchdown receptions.

Player of the year: Cincinnati WR Mardy Gilyard.
It has been easy to shuffle quarterbacks as Cincinnati has for the past two seasons when Gilyard is on the roster. He led the Big East in catches (87) and receiving yards (1,191) and tied for the lead in touchdown receptions (11). When he's not running routes, Gilyard is an All-America-caliber return man with three touchdowns in the kicking game.

Rivals.com 2009 All-Big East Team

The conference may have similar uncertainty to start 2010. Three programs - Cincinnati, USF and Louisville - will have new coaches next season. Pittsburgh has to replace its starting quarterback and several key players on defense. West Virginia will lose quarterback Jarrett Brown and possibly tailback Noel Devine.

Despite a top-10 finish by Cincinnati, the Big East again could fight for respect. And once again, the league coaches would be justified in their "just wait and see" approach.

Coach of the year: Brian Kelly, Cincinnati. Bearcats fans might blame Kelly for the way the season ended (a 51-24 loss to Florida in the Sugar Bowl after Kelly took the Notre Dame job), but don't forget what he did for the program. The Bearcats reached double-digit wins only once in their history before Kelly arrived, but they did it three times under Kelly. Filling a void left by Louisville and West Virginia, the Bearcats became the conference's standard-bearer during his tenure, with 33 wins and two BCS bowls in three seasons.

Freshman of the year: Pittsburgh RB Dion Lewis. LeSean who? Lewis replaced LeSean McCoy, one of the best tailbacks in school history, with one of the best freshman seasons in program history. Lewis finished third in the nation in rushing at 1,799 yards, the second-highest total in Pitt history. Only Tony Dorsett has rushed for more yards in a season for Pitt.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Frank Cignetti, Pittsburgh. Going into the season, Cignetti probably had the biggest challenge of any Big East offensive coordinator. But under his tutelage, Lewis became the top tailback in the conference, Bill Stull became the 10th-most efficient passer in the nation and TE Dorin Dickerson became a John Mackey Award finalist.

Defensive coordinator of the year: Phil Bennett, Pittsburgh. Behind a standout line, Pittsburgh was 17th in the nation in rush defense and 19th in total defense. Developing talent like DE Greg Romeus enabled Pitt to lead the nation in sacks.

Biggest surprise: Cincinnati. The Big East didn't have a team ranked in either preseason poll, but the Bearcats came within 1 second of playing for the national championship. Had Nebraska defeated Texas in the Big 12 championship game, it's reasonable to assume Cincinnati - and not TCU - would have faced Alabama for the national championship. The Bearcats were the first team to go unbeaten in league play since West Virginia in 2005.

Biggest disappointment: Syracuse WR Mike Williams. The star wide receiver led the Big East in receiving when he quit his team Nov. 3. Syracuse was 3-4 at the time. Williams was Syracuse's best offensive player and could have helped Syracuse win at least one more game (maybe the 10-9 loss to Louisville?) had he stayed.

Best postseason performance: Connecticut. No team deserved to end the season on a positive note more than the Huskies. Connecticut defeated South Carolina 20-7 in the Papajohns.com Bowl to end the season on a four-game winning streak. The Huskies embarrassed Steve Spurrier's offense on the way to Connecticut's first bowl win over a "Big Six" conference opponent.

Worst postseason performance: Cincinnati's defense. The Bearcats certainly didn't win the Big East on the strength of their defense, but the Sugar Bowl loss to Florida easily was the worst moment for Cincinnati's defense all season. Tim Tebow had a career day against the Bearcats with 533 yards of total offense.

Underclassmen liable to leave early: Rutgers OT Anthony Davis (already declared), West Virginia RB Noel Devine, USF DE Jean Pierre-Paul (already declared), Pittsburgh DE Greg Romeus, West Virginia WR Jock Sanders.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Cincinnati QB Zach Collaros. The Bearcats' backup showed a glimmer of his potential as a midseason replacement for Tony Pike. Now, he must prepare for full-time duty. He could be a great fit for new coach Butch Jones, who coached dual-threat QB Dan LeFevour at Central Michigan.

Next season's breakout defensive player: Pittsburgh LB Dan Mason. The Panthers will have some rebuilding to do up front, especially at tackle and middle linebacker. Mason did an admirable job filling in for an injured Adam Gunn early in the season with 17 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss against Navy and N.C. State.

Player most on the spot next season: Rutgers QB Tom Savage. Landing the four-star quarterback was something of a coup for Rutgers. Now Scarlet Knights fans will look for Savage to deliver. Passing for 294 yards and two touchdowns against UCF in the St. Petersburg Bowl further raised the bar.

Next season's conference champion: Pittsburgh. The Panthers will have to sweat out announcements from a few early entry candidates along with the possibility that defensive coordinator Bennett may return to his home state of Texas. No matter what, though, Lewis and WR Jonathan Baldwin will return. Those are two strong building blocks for any Big East contender.

National title contenders: None.


David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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