Big East Preview: Pitt Finally Claims The Crown

John P. WiseContributor IIISeptember 1, 2010

PITTSBURGH - DECEMBER 05: Dion Lewis #28 celebrates with teammates Joe Thomas #56 and Lucas Nix #52 of the University of Pittsburgh Panthers in the first quarter after scoring a touchdown against the Cincinnati Bearcats on December 5, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

One Great Season

Among power conferences, the Big East has become the butt of jokes in some college football circles, but what folks overlook is that it's actually been a pretty good league.

Thanks to three different teams, the Big East has had five squads finish in the AP top 10 in the last five years. The Pac-10, thanks mostly to USC, also has produced five and the ACC, the league to which former Big East brothers Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech bolted, has sent only three teams to such a lofty perch over that period.

Remember 2006, when Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville all were ranked in the top 10 with a combined record of 25-2 at one point in November? That same week, only the mighty SEC had a comparable mark, with Florida, Arkansas and LSU also among the AP elite at 26-4. Not bad company.

EXTRA: College Football Preview Section

And how about the next season, when South Florida climbed all the way to No. 2 as late as mid-October? Then Brian Kelly took Cincinnati on that dominant two-year run in 2008-09.

Pittsburgh has been in the mix a few times and this preseason, Connecticut is a stylish pick. What does all this add up to, you ask? Well, put it this way: The only team that hasn't been or won't be a contender is Syracuse. That's seven of your eight teams — 88 percent — with a legitimate chance to win the conference in just a five-year span. That's an impressively competitive league.

And on my excellent, nationwide, One Great Season college football tour last year, the two best games of the 15 I covered were Big East games. West Virginia won the Backyard Brawl over Pittsburgh on the last play of the game, and Cincinnati broke the Panthers' hearts a week later with a thrilling, 45-44 win that wasn't decided until the final minute.

The Big East's reward for producing competitive and exciting football? Near extinction.

Just this summer, the Big East seemed dead in the water as the Big 10 was rumored to have been looking at a couple of its teams. But it only took Nebraska from the Big 12, and the Big East got a big break.

It remains to be seen how much longer the league will stay intact, at least during football season, but for those more interested in the here and now, the Big East race should be another tight one in 2010.

With the departures of Kelly and some offensive firepower, Cincinnati is expected to take a slight step back, but with Zach Collaros returning at quarterback, the Bearcats could still find a way to win a third straight title.

Pittsburgh and West Virginia, however, are getting the most hype to win the league, and deservedly so. The Panthers have an unproven quarterback in Tino Sunseri, but they have a superstar on each side of the ball. Running back Dion Lewis is a Heisman contender, and defensive end Greg Romeus also will be in line for national accolades.

West Virginia is also breaking in a new quarterback, but like Pittsburgh, has a stud running back who will lead the offense. Noel Devine has been turning in highlight-reel runs since his freshman year, and now in his senior season in Morgantown, he's hoping to carry the Mountaineers back to the top of the conference.

UConn is a cute pick by some this preaseason, and the Huskies certainly made some nice strides last year. They finished 8-5, including a win over SEC middler South Carolina in the Bowl. And UConn's five losses were by a combined 15 total points. With Randy Edsall at the helm, 16 returning starters and a friendly schedule, Connecticut definitely will challenge the league's top teams.

Rutgers and South Florida will play .500 football, while Louisville and Syracuse will fight for seventh place.

Predicted Order Of Finish:

West Virginia
South Florida

Interesting Storylines: Three new coaches take over at Cincinnati (Butch Jones), Louisville (Charlie Strong) and South Florida (Skip Holtz); Late-season shuffling in the standings is afoot as the projected top four teams begin a round-robin on Oct. 29; Pitt's Dave Wannstedt seeks only his second division or conference championship in 17 years as a head coach in both the NFL and the NCAA.

One Game You Can't Miss: West Virginia at Pittsburgh, Nov. 26