By John Congemi
ESPN Regional Television Analyst
I have always loved college football and now that I have a chance to analyze it each week on television , it makes me appreciate the highs and lows the coaches, players and fans go through on a weekly basis. It also gives me the opportunity to evaluate teams, players and give my opinion on the Big East Conference.
This season the Big East Conference has not enjoyed the non-conference success that it has in previous years…there’s no getting around that fact. But sometimes writers, fans, and analysts forget that it was just last year that Cincinnati finished No. 3 in the BCS Standings and would have played in the BCS Championship game if Texas did not defeat Nebraska on the final play of the Big 12 game last December! Now, this year the number of non-conference wins is down throughout the league, but I also think the Big East looks to be more balanced this season. If you take a look at some of the national numbers you’ll see that five Big East running backs occupy spots among the top 31 rushers in the land (as I write this) and three are in the top 10 in all-purpose running! WVU’s defense is ranked fourth in rushing defense, and Cincinnati quarterback Zack Collaros is tied for fourth in points responsible per game at 19.0! We’re just getting to the midpoint of the season and you can see that teams around the Big East are starting to find their identities.
Teams like Syracuse and Louisville are clearly better that they have been over the last two or three seasons. They are definitely playing at a higher level, and adjusting to their new head coaches, and the schemes that have been installed both on offense and defense. You can tell that once Syracuse gets back to the full number of scholarship athletes, the playing field should level out for the Orange!
Louisville’s head coach Charlie Strong is building a team that believes in itself and has already given Kentucky and Cincinnati all they wanted in his first year at the helm. This team will be heard from as it moves deeper into the Big East schedule.
USF probably has the hardest job of adjusting to its new head coach Skip Holtz because there has only been one voice, and one way of doing things since the program began under Jim Leavitt. Holtz took over a Bulls’ program that was not struggling, but creating a new culture takes more than one season to develop. Once Skip is able to recruit to his strengths and style, USF has unlimited potential on the football field. B.J. Daniels has the ability to become a consistent threat at quarterback, but will need valuable game-time experience in this new offense for his ability to shine.
Two-time defending Big East champ Cincinnati seems to be hitting its stride after struggling early in the season. They had a tough loss against Oklahoma, but losing by two points to the Sooners may have jump started this offense under new head coach Butch Jones. Quarterback Zack Collaros is ranked 10th in the country in pass efficiency and threw five touchdown passes versus Louisville recently this season. As he goes, the Bearcats will follow!
UConn has rebounded nicely after a stumble against Michigan in their season-opener. It seemed like every defense that faced Michigan QB Denard Robinson in the first month of the season walked away with the same fate at the Huskies! But now the offense has stabilized and UConn looks to face West Virginia, Pitt and Cincinnati at home. The road loss to Rutgers hasn’t helped their Big East chances, but the Huskies still have time to rebound and make a run!
Speaking of quarterbacks, Rutgers has found a spark it was lacking earlier in the year. Tom Savage’s injuries have given freshman sensation Chase Dodd a chance to contribute. His fourth quarter magic against UConn and Army is just what head coach Greg Schiano needs for his offense. Dodd has earned some starting duty already in his young career and his ability to keep plays alive with his athletic ability just might be enough to give opponents fits on defense!
All of the country is aware of the spinal cord injury that occurred in the fourth of the Rutgers-Army game on Oct. 16. Junior defensive tackle Eric LaGrand was injured on a special teams play. He suffered a severe spinal injury. I hear that he is in good spirits after emergency surgery was performed. I pray for his full recovery.
Pittsburgh looked a lot closer to hitting its stride after defeating Syracuse 45-17 on Oct. 16. The theme of the Big East this season is breaking in young quarterbacks, and Pitt is no exception. Tino Sunseri finally had his breakthrough game throwing for four TD’s in the Carrier Dome, and 266 yards (both career highs). If he can continue to rely on the one-two punch of running backs Dion Lewis and Ray Graham, this offense will continue to grow and has the potential to dominate! Wideout Jon Baldwin must like that his quarterback seems to be growing into the position and that will only help his production on the outside. Remember the Panthers were picked by a wide margin to win the Big East Conference, and maybe finally looking like the team the writers voted for as they continue to improve.
Now the team that looks like they know who they are and where they are going is West Virginia. Head coach Bill Stewart might not agree with me, but I feel that the Mountaineers are the most balanced and seasoned team in the conference. If quarterback Geno Smith can become more consistent with is play, this offense has no limits! Gino can make the big play with his arm or his legs, but needs to stay away from making the bad play worse. Sometimes that’s a fine line and with more experience, he’ll make that determination much faster. Noel Devine and Jock Sanders are electric performers and can break a game wide open at anytime. The Mountaineer defense historically gets better as the season rolls along.
The Big East is a wide open book this year with multiple teams having legitimate chances to win the conference and represent the Big East in the BCS Bowl! Sometimes the conference gets scrutinized because there’s not one or two dominate teams that carry the Big East flag. I my opinion, I believe that it makes the conference that much better because every week you have to go out and prove it on the field. There’s respect among teams and coaches that gets your attention every time you take the field. That’s just the way it is in the Big East Conference and fans that follow it should be happy it’s that way!