Big East Football: The 5 Best Conference Matchups in 2011

Joe MorganSenior Analyst IJanuary 21, 2011

Big East Football: The 5 Best Conference Matchups in 2011

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    Despite producing six bowl-eligible teams during the 2010 season, the Big East Conference can't shake off the reputation of being the worst of the six BCS conferences.

    Ever since losing the Miami Hurricanes, the Virginia Tech Hokies, and the Boston College Eagles to the ACC, the Big East has been fighting to regain their relevance.

    Granted, the Connecticut Huskies' embarrassing 48-20 loss to the Oklahoma Sooners in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl didn't do them any favors, but it's just a minor speed bump on the way to regaining national respect.

    Here's a look at the five best matchups the Big East has to offer in 2011.

Honorable Mention: Any Game TCU Plays

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    Alright, so the TCU Horned Frogs won't join the Big East until 2012, but that's not going to stop anyone from keeping an eye on the talented team.

    The Horned Frogs will spend one more season in the Mountain West Conference before moving to the Big East and becoming the top team in the conference.

    Every Gary Patterson-coached team has a great, hard-working defense and 2011's unit won't be any different.

    West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Connecticut, and South Florida will battle for the Big East title next season, but after that, there's a new sheriff in town.

    The BCS will have to start getting used to TCU being around.

5. West Virginia at South Florida

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    With dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels returning to Tampa for his junior season, expect the USF Bulls to be right in the thick of the Big East race.

    Daniels already has 3,754 career passing yards and 1,033 rushing yards and he'll be hungry to show off against a talented West Virginia defense that held him to just 119 passing yards and three interceptions in a 20-6 USF loss last season.

    The Mountaineers had the nation's No. 11 pass defense (174.6 yards per game) and No. 2 rushing defense (86.5 yards per game), so expect them to give Daniels all he can handle once again.

    South Florida will be looking to win a Big East title in 2011 under head coach Skip Holtz and beating West Virginia, the conference's premier program, would go a long way in accomplishing that goal.

4. South Florida at Pittsburgh

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    If Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls are for real in 2011, then this contest with the Pittsburgh Panthers is a must-win game.

    2010's game was played November 20 and if USF finds their matchup with Pitt on a similar date in 2011, then they'll have to battle the cold to win this one.

    The last time the Bulls played in the snow, they lost a 29-27 heartbreaker to UConn in 2009.

    Should they play in it again, USF will have to overcome the unfamiliar terrain against a very tough Panthers team.

    And if that doesn't scare them, this will: Dion Lewis set a career-high in rushing yards in the snow in 2010, running all over the Cincinnati Bearcats for 261 yards and four touchdowns.

3. Connecticut at Pittsburgh

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    A tough 30-28 loss on the road to the Connecticut Huskies cut the Pittsburgh Panther's two-game conference lead in half and eventually led to Dion Lewis and Co. failing to clinch the Big East title.

    Now, with defensive guru Todd Graham at the helm, the Panthers will be looking for revenge against the defending conference champions.

    UConn may have lost Randy Edsall and running back Jordan Todman (who torched Pitt for 222 rushing yards in last season's contest), but that shouldn't stop the Huskies from making this one of the best Big East games in 2011.

    This game is just as much a mental hurdle for Panthers as it is a challenging conference game and victory against Connecticut would be huge in their quest to win a Big East title.

2. Connecticut at West Virginia

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    The West Virginia Mountaineers were one Ryan Clarke fumble away from winning the Big East crown and accepting a bid to play in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season and it's eating at them.

    And with Bill Stewart's final season in Morgantown coming in 2011, the Mountaineers want to send out their players' coach the right way with a conference championship.

    In this rematch of the last season's unofficial Big East Championship Game, West Virginia will be looking to overcome 2010 demons in their attempt to win just their third outright conference title.

    The absence of Noel Devine will sting, but Mountaineer quarterback will be looking to prove that he can carry the team on his back and this game will be the perfect opportunity to start doing so.

1. Pittsburgh at West Virginia

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    The "Backyard Brawl" is one of college football's biggest, most intense rivalries and it will also be one of its biggest games of the 2011 season.

    The Pittsburgh Panthers and the West Virginia Mountaineers will be the top two teams in the Big East in 2011 and with more than just their storied rivalry on the line next season, prepare for a classic.

    A more experienced quarterback in Tino Sunseri and stud running back Dion Lewis will go up against a West Virginia defense that ranked third nationally in total defense (261.1 yards per game) in 2010.

    On the flip side, Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith will have a tough time doing much against a Pitt defense that ranked eighth nationally in total defense (305.1 yards per game) in 2010.

    At the end of the day, this game will have high stakes, low scoring, and a lot of rivalry-fueled, all-in-good-fun hatred.