Five Questions Facing the Big East in 2011

The Big East. Apparently, it’s also a football conference. We looked at the SEC, the BIG, the Pac 12, the Big 12 and the ACC. So, it was only fair to look at the modest achieving cousin. Here are five questions facing the conference as it heads into 2011.

Does the Big East have a future? It’s tempting to view the Big East as major college football’s Island of Misfit Toys, but that analogy would imply it had a distinctive character. The conference has little national interest. It has little regional interest, because it has no region. It’s composed of scattershot lesser outposts in the I-95 corridor, the Appalachians, the Ohio River Valley, Florida and, in 2012, Texas. Even if the conference does score the monster rights deal it anticipates, it would barely be enough to wean its programs off eight-figure-per-year public subsidies. The conference does have a wave of exciting coaches and burgeoning programs, though it did in the mid 2000′s as well and they all left.

Can West Virginia be in the mix for the BCS Title Game? The Bill Stewart scandal happened, but excising the awkward limbo may be a blessing. Dana Holgorsen has put up big offensive numbers everywhere. He has Geno Smith, all the starting receivers and four offensive lineman returning. Jeff Casteel has a number of replacements to make on defense, but he’s one of the best coordinators in the game and has a knack for unearthing diamonds. The Mountaineers should have won 10-11 games in 2010. This year, they should be better and will be favored in every game except LSU, which is in Morgantown. Anything but a BCS bowl would be a disappointment. With some luck, the ceiling could be higher.

How will the Todd Graham transition work out at Pitt? Pittsburgh received a do-over, after zealous disciplinarian Mike Haywood was arrested and charged with domestic violence. The second time, the school reached into their pockets to hire Todd Graham. It was a bold move, but also risky. They will make polar opposite shifts on offense from conservative pro to spread and and on defense from a 4-3 to a 3-3-5. That’s the same switch Graham’s former boss Rich Rodriguez struggled to pull off at Michigan.

Graham isn’t an offensive guru, but he has a talent for hiring great ones. He struck gold twice with Guz Malzahn and then Chad Morris. He will hope he hired another, with Rich Rod protege Calvin McGee. The defense returns nine starters from last year’s top 20 unit. Though their coaches will be the co-coordinators who orchestrated Tulsa’s 111th ranked unit and Tony Gibson, last seen coaching Michigan’s secondary and special teams. Apparently, Greg Robinson wasn’t interested.

Even if Graham gets off to a solid start, the schedule will work against them. Pitt plays Iowa, Utah and Notre Dame non-conference. There isn’t one Big East game you would lock them down to win.

Last call for Greg Schiano? Schiano may not be the best game-day coach, but his program-building efforts have been superb. Schiano runs a clean, academically sound ship. He recruits very well. He has pumped Rutgers up to the point where losing is disappointing. That said, Schiano is pulling down big-time money at a black hole of an athletic department. The team stagnated following an 11-win 2006 and fell off a cliff last year. Things are much different from when he rejected the Miami and Michigan jobs a few years ago.

Rutgers’ schedule isn’t imposing. It’s easy to see them jumping back to seven or eight wins, but they must find some way to produce consistent offense. The unit returns ten starters from 2010, but Schiano must hope ex-Pitt offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti Jr. can turn Savon Huggins into the next Dion Lewis.

How will Charlie Strong fare in his second year? By all accounts Strong did a tremendous job during his first season at Louisville. He resurrected the program Steve Kragthorpe killed, by refashioning a terrible defense into a Top 30 one. He finished 6-6 and won a bowl game to build momentum. Last year was a grind. This year won’t get any easier.

The Cardinals lose virtually their entire offense. Quarterback? Gone. All-Conference running back Bilal Powell? Gone. Four Senior offensive linemen? Gone. A decent 2010 unit could be significantly worse. Strong will rely greatly on his defense. He returns a great defensive line and most of the starters up the middle, though they could be a bit short at corner, especially with Darius Ashley’s recent problems. There’s no doubt Charlie Strong will rebuild the program longterm, but, next year, it may be hard for them to surpass last season’s .500 finish.

[Photos via Getty]

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