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January 18, 2011

Big East: A season to forget

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Coaching turnover and inexperience at quarterback took its toll on the Big East in a forgettable season for the conference.

The Sagarin ratings showed that the Big East ranked sixth among all conferences, but you'd be hard pressed convincing detractors otherwise. The league's BCS representative, Connecticut, was unranked after losing to Michigan, Temple and Rutgers early in the season and surprised no one by losing 48-20 to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Although the Big East went 4-2 in bowls, the league finished without a ranked team. The Big East won 60.9 percent of its games against non-conference competition, its worst mark since 2005. In comparison, the Big East won 73.4 percent of its non-conference games from 2006-09.

The best bit of news for the league may have been that TCU, which will join the league in 2012, capped an undefeated season with a victory over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.

At least on the quarterback front, the Big East will be far more experienced under center in 2011. Rutgers' Tom Savage -- as a sophomore -- entered 2010 with the most starts in the conference (he has since decided to transfer). But in 2011, Connecticut and Louisville will be the only league teams without a returning starter at quarterback.

But the coaching turnover in the league continues. Connecticut's Randy Edsall became the fourth coach in five seasons to lead a Big East team to a BCS game only to leave for another job the next year. Rutgers' Greg Schiano is the only coach in the league to be at his school for more than four seasons, and five of the league's coaches will be in either their first or second season in 2011.

Biggest surprise: Syracuse. The Orange edges out Louisville for the best turnaround in the Big East. Syracuse had been dreadful under Greg Robinson. But in Doug Marrone's second season, Syracuse improved from 4-8 to 8-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big East, capping the season with an exciting bowl win over Kansas State. The next step will be to reward the home fans with a win at the Carrier Dome. Syracuse's only home wins this season came over FCS members Maine and Colgate.

Biggest disappointment: Cincinnati. The Big East had its worst season since 2005, so there were a handful of disappointments (Pittsburgh and Rutgers among them). The biggest, though, was Cincinnati. The Bearcats went from 12-1 to 4-8 in a single season, and the two-time defending league champion won only two Big East games. Few, if any, expected Cincinnati to repeat its undefeated regular season, but the return of QB Zach Collaros, RB Isaiah Pead and WR Armon Binns was enough to make most believe Cincinnati would be competitive. Cincinnati lost five of its last six games.

Best postseason performance: Syracuse's Ryan Nassib and Marcus Sales. A questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Kansas State's final touchdown worked in Syracuse's favor, but either way, the game was huge for Nassib and Sales. Nassib had his best game of the season, going 13-of-21 for 239 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Sales was the main beneficiary with his best game of the season as well (five catches for 172 yards and all three touchdown catches). It could be a building moment for the tandem as Syracuse loses RB Delone Carter next season.

Worst postseason performance: West Virginia. The same team that delivered recent BCS upsets of Georgia and Oklahoma brought an uninspired performance against N.C. State, losing 23-7 in the Champs Sports Bowl. Russell Wilson passed for 275 yards and two touchdowns on a defense that had been solid all season. Noel Devine, who had been hobbled for most of the year, rushed for only 50 yards in his final game.

Underclassmen turning pro early: Pittsburgh WR Jon Baldwin, Pittsburgh FB Henry Hynoski, Pittsburgh RB Dion Lewis, West Virginia FS Robert Sands, Connecticut RB Jordan Todman.

Next season's breakout offensive player: Rutgers RB Jordan Thomas. Greg Schiano wants the Scarlet Knights back in a more conventional offense (rather than the two-quarterback, Wildcat-heavy mess from 2010). New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti was brought in from Pittsburgh to help deliver that. The biggest beneficiary may be Thomas, who rushed for 183 yards on 27 carries in the final two games of the season against two of the better defenses in the league (Louisville and West Virginia).

Next season's breakout defensive player: USF LB DeDe Lattimore. Lattimore started all but one game as a freshman, finishing second on the Bulls in tackles (69). He's poised to be an all-conference performer as a sophomore. The Bulls lose leading tackler Jacquain Williams, but Lattimore and junior Sam Barrington could form the conference's top linebacker tandem in 2011.

Player most on the spot next season: USF QB B.J. Daniels. Daniels was the preseason All-Big East quarterback but struggled with turnovers (13 interceptions) in the Bulls' new offense. After missing the last game and a half of the regular season with an injury, Daniels rebounded in the bowl upset of Clemson, going 20-of-27 for 189 yards and two touchdowns. He'll try to carry that momentum into his junior season. If not, sophomore Bobby Eveld will be waiting in the wings.

Next season's conference champion: West Virginia. New coordinator Dana Holgorsen should liven up the offense. He has the personnel to do it with All-Big East QB Geno Smith returning. Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is one of the best in the business, but he must replace some key veterans -- T Chris Neild, LB J.T. Thomas, CB Brandon Hogan and Ss Robert Sands and Sidney Glover.

National title contenders: None. Big East coaches need to worry about getting a team in the final top 25 before worrying about teams contending for the national title.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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