Big East is getting offensive — in a good way
After a lackluster season in the Big East that finished with none of its teams ranked in the Top 25, the conference that's forever fighting for national respect is about to get a lot more entertaining.
Maybe not better, but definitely more entertaining.
There are three new coaches in the conference this season and two of them — West Virginia's Dana Holgorsen and Pitt's Todd Graham — bring reputations for producing high-scoring and fast moving offenses.
Holgorsen was hired after last season to be offensive coordinator and head-coach-in-waiting behind Bill Stewart. He didn't have to wait long. Stewart was forced out in June. Now Holgorsen, who coached under Mike Leach at Texas Tech and last season directed the third-ranked offense in the nation as Oklahoma State's coordinator, is a head coach for the first time.
Big things are expected of West Virginia's Geno Smith, the top-rated passer in the Big East last season, playing in Holgorsen's spread offense.
"I knew about his resume. The quarterbacks he's had and the numbers he's put up," Smith said. "The offense has been proven, it's been putting up numbers. I think I give it a different dynamic because I'm able to do more things. I'm athletic. I can run around a little bit, extend plays. And I can make throws."
The other half of the Backyard Brawl rivalry will also have a new-look offense.
Graham was hired after Pitt's first pick to replace Dave Wannstedt, Mike Haywood, was fired after being charged with domestic violence in Indiana.
Graham is a defensive coach by pedigree, but he's a proponent of the type of up-tempo, spread offenses that teams such as Oregon and Auburn use. In fact, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn worked for Graham at Tulsa.
Graham had the Panthers moving at a whole new gear during the spring.
"We weren't even halfway through practice and people, their legs were dead already," safety Jared Holley said. "I think it's exciting. You hear about Oregon and their offense and how fast they run plays and wonder what that's like.
"It's a bit of a challenge. I think we really bought into it."
The other coaching change comes with far less fanfare. Defending champion Connecticut hired longtime Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni to replace Randy Edsall, who left for Maryland.
WEST VIRGINIA — Key players: QB Geno Smith; WR Tavon Austin; CB Keith Tandy. Returning starters: 9 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Holgorsen doesn't have anything to do with the defense, so keeping highly regarded coordinator Jeff Casteel on staff was key. ... West Virginia was second in the nation in sacks last season and No. 3 in scoring and total defense. ... With Noel Devine gone, Mountaineers are looking for a new go-to back. Maybe freshman Vernard Roberts?
CINCINNATI — Key players: QB Zach Collaros, LB JK Schaffer, RB Isaish Pead. Returning starters: 5 offense, 11 defense.
Notes: The No. 1 goal of Year 2 under coach Butch Jones for the Bearcats: fewer mistakes. Cincinnati was the only team in the Big East to average more than 400 yards per game in offense, but the Bearcats were last in the Big East with a minus 15 turnover margin. ... They also had the second most penalty yards per game. ... Will play two home games at Paul Brown Stadium, home of the NFL's Bengals.
SOUTH FLORIDA — Key players: QB B.J. Daniels, LB DeDe Lattimore; DE Ryne Giddins. Returning starters: 3 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Remember RB Darrell Scott• He was one of the most heralded recruits in the country in 2008• He washed out in two years at Colorado and transferred to USF. After sitting out last year, he gets a chance to shed the bust label this season. ... Bulls open at Notre Dame, where Skip Holtz graduated from in 1986 and was once an assistant for his father, Lou.
PITT — Key players: QB Tino Sunseri; DE Brandon Lindsey; S Jared Holley. Returning starters: 6 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: Panthers need to improve their efficiency in the red zone. They scored only 26 touchdowns in 51 trips inside the opponents 20 last season. That's too many field goals. ... The nonconference schedule has a trip to Iowa (Sept. 17) and home games against Notre Dame (Sept. 24) and Utah (Oct. 15).
CONNECTICUT — Key players: DT Kendall Reyes, OT Mike Ryan, CB Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Paul Pasqualoni is the other new coach in the Big East, new to his current school, that is. Pasqualoni spent 14 years with Syracuse, winning 64 percent of his games. He was not, however, a popular choice among UConn fans to replace Randy Edsall. ... USC transfer RB D.J. Shoemate could help make up for the loss of Jordan Todman.
RUTGERS — Key players: QB Chas Dodd; DE Manny Abreu; WR Mohamed Sanu. Returning starters: 10 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Greg Schiano is entering his 11th season as Rutgers coach. No other Big East coach has been in the league more than two years ... The Scarlet Knights lost their last six games and allowed 144 points in the final three, bringing back memories of the days when Rutgers was just about the worst program in college football. This turnaround shouldn't be anywhere near as tough for Schiano.
SYRACUSE — Key players: QB Ryan Nassib, DE Chandler Jones, RB Antwon Bailey. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Coach Doug Marrone's rebuilding job at his alma mater kick into high gear last year. The Orange had a winning record and won a bowl for the first time since 2001. ... Defensive gains have made the biggest difference. Orange have gone from 114th to 37th to seventh in nation total defense the last three years, though it looks as if it will be difficult to avoid taking a step back after losing several key players.
LOUISVILLE — Key players: S Hakeem Smith, RB Victor Anderson, DE B.J. Butler. Returning starters: 4 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: If coach Charlie Strong can continue the progress in his second season that he made in his first, an inexperienced quarterback will have to blossom. Will Stein, who made two starts in 2009, is the front-runner, but freshman Teddy Bridgewater has a chance to play soon. ... Louisville allowed only 17 sacks last season, but has only one returning starter on the line.