By Neill Ostrout
For BIG EAST Digital Network
As balanced as the BIG EAST Conference has become, or perhaps always been, there is one thing you can count on nearly every season. West Virginia will be at or near the top of the standings.
Halfway through the college football season, the Mountaineers appear to once again be the team to beat in the league. Although it’s only just begun league play and technically trails 2-0 Rutgers at the moment, West Virginia, the top choice in the Big East’s preseason media poll is seemingly primed for another title run.
The Mountaineers have finished either first or second in the league standings in each of the last nine seasons and first-year coach Dana Holgorsen appears to have them headed for one of those lofty perches again.
West Virginia, whose only blemish was a loss to No. 1 LSU, stands at 5-1 overall and won its conference opener over Connecticut 43-16 Saturday.
“I couldn’t be happier with where we’re at right now,” Holgorsen said. “We’re getting better every week.”
The offense, led by quarterback Geno Smith, has obviously led the charge for West Virginia. Smith is third nationally in passing offense, thanks in part to the 450 yards he accounted for through the air against UConn.
But according to Holgorsen, it’s been a total team effort thus far.
“Coaches, players, everybody’s bought in and everybody’s excited about walking through the doors and excited about going to work every day,” Holgorsen said.
It hasn’t all been perfect for Holgorsen’s group. He, and others, had hoped the LSU game would have played out differently, but that’s part of the process the coach says.
“There’s going to be some adversity. We’ve faced some adversity and we’ve overcome it and moved on,” Holgorsen said. “But we’re pretty excited about where we are right now.”
If West Virginia’s positioning is as expected, the same can’t be said for its co-leader. Rutgers was picked last in the preseason poll but has begun conference play with two victories.
It’s too early to be overly excited about the Scarlet Knights’ chances at a league title, however, their coach cautions.
“What I’m excited about is the way our guys have come together, the chemistry we have on the team. That was my biggest concern,” Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. “We had as tough a year last year as we’ve ever had around here, and for a lot of reasons.”
In addition to missing out on a bowl for the first time in five seasons, the Scarlet Knights had to deal with the shocking injury to defensive tackle Eric LeGrand.
“There were a lot of questions we needed to answer, forget to the outside world, but to ourselves. And very little of that had to do with winning and losing,” Schiano said. “We know how to win. We’ve won here before. It was questions about doing some things that are very fundamental to playing the game as well as chemistry things. I wanted to see us get back to where we were. We’re not there yet but I like the direction we’re headed.”
The Rutgers defense has led the charge so far, forcing a nation-high 22 turnovers and scoring four defensive touchdowns. That has helped the Scarlet Knights begin BIG EAST play 2-0 for only the second time, the first since 2006.
Don’t expect any major celebrations by the Scarlet Knights just yet, though.
“The word ‘humble’ is one we use a lot around here, whether we’re on the winning side or the losing side,” Schiano said.
Cincinnati has yet to begin conference play - the Bearcats will take on Louisville for the Keg of Nails Oct. 15 -- but has already shown it could be a contender in the league. The Bearcats won four of their five non-conference games and are averaging an extremely impressive 45 points per game.
“I’ve really liked the way our football team has conducted their business, the way they’ve managed themselves not only on the field but off the field. We’re getting great leadership right now,” Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said.
The Bearcats have won three straight games since losing at Tennessee, including a shutout of rival Miami (Ohio). Cincinnati RB Isaiah Pead is averaging an impressive 94 yards per game, thanks to a gaudy 6.7 yards-per-carry average.
“Right now for us, to be sitting at 4-1 starting BIG EAST Conference play, is right where we need to be,” Jones said. “Obviously a new season starts on Saturday and it’s all about being a better football team week-in and week-out.”
Pittsburgh is also in search of improvement, or at least consistency, from week to week. The Panthers were dominant in a win over South Florida, only to fall to Rutgers a week later.
“We took two giant steps forward against South Florida then two steps back last week (against Rutgers),” first-year Pittsburgh coach Todd Graham said.
Panther running back Ray Graham continues to impress and is second nationally in rushing (149.8 ypg), trailing only Oregon’s LaMichael James.
But Todd Graham says the transition to a new offensive system hasn’t been completely smooth.
“It’s been more difficult than I thought it would be,” Graham said. “It really has a lot to do with just being prepared. The injuries have made it more difficult, but…we’re very capable. We just have to execute.”
Although Rutgers and West Virginia have started quickly in the race for 2011 Big East crown, it’s truly too early to count anyone out. Six of the eight league teams have records of .500 or better overall, and defending champion Connecticut began league play 0-2 last year before winning out to earn the BIG EAST’s BCS bid.
“Anybody can beat anybody on a given day and you have to make sure your players are ready,” USF coach Skip Holtz said, whose Bulls are 4-1 overall and 0-1 in league play.
South Florida opened the season with four straight wins, beating the likes of Notre Dame and averaging 49.8 points per game along the way. The Bulls lead the Big East in total offense (503.6 ypg) and rushing offense (223.3 ypg).
Syracuse has already played some of the most exciting games of the college football season. Three of the Orange’s first five games went to overtime, and their 37-34 win over Tulane last week wasn’t decided until the final play of regulation.
Syracuse (4-2, 0-1 Big East) is in the midst of a bye week, perhaps catching its collective breath.
“We’re going to take a good hard look at ourselves,” coach Doug Marrone said of his team’s plans for the off week.
Marrone said his Orange will work on pass defense, limiting big plays and eliminating turnovers, among other things during their extra practice time.
Louisville may sit at 2-3 as it begins BIG EAST play, but coach Charlie Strong isn’t pointing any fingers at individuals to assign blame. That’s because he’s pointing at the team as a whole.
“It’s all about us. We hurt ourselves,” Strong said.
Penalties have been quite a thorn in the Cardinals’ side so far this season.
“We have to be able to play smarter. We’re not a very disciplined football team right now,” Strong said. “We just have to continue to improve. We’ve had some injuries, but injuries aren’t going to stop you from playing well.”
Louisville has not scored, nor allowed more than 24 points in a game this season.
Strong hopes an improved running attack will help Louisville regain its form and make some noise in league play.
“We have to be able to run the football. That’s what we’re not able to do. We’re not running the ball so now you’re causing us to be one-dimensional and we have to throw it,” Strong said. “Now when we get back and throw it, people are able to sack us. Defensively, we’re trying to blitz so much so that we can get the ball back for the offense, and now you’re giving up big plays on defense.”
Connecticut, which played in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season after earning a share of the conference title for the second time, has started its defense with an overall record of 2-4. First-year coach Paul Pasqualoni says the Huskies’ schedule has had a lot to do with that mark.
“We’ve played, I think, some pretty solid Division I-A teams in Iowa State, Vanderbilt, Western Michigan was very explosive, and of course West Virginia deserves to be in the top 20,” Pasqualoni said.
Pasqualoni and his staff installed new offensive and defensive systems in the offseason.
“We’re taking baby steps. We’re getting better,” said Pasqualoni, the former Syracuse coach and the BIG EAST’s all-time leader in wins.
One thing that hasn’t been an issue according to Pasqualoni is team chemistry.
“The attitude of our players is very positive. We’re halfway through. It’s still relatively new to the kids, the systems, and they’re getting better at it,” Pasqualoni said.