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Breaking down the Big East Conference

An in-depth look at the 2011 football season in the Big East Conference:

Can the Big East prove it can beat the best teams in the nation?

In nonconference games last season, Big East teams were 5-14 against BCS opponents and 0-6 against schools in the Top 25. The conference never will shed its weak-sister reputation that way. This year, the Big East plays 12 outside opponents from BCS conferences, plus Notre Dame, and Pitt plays three of them (Iowa, the Irish and Utah). West Virginia gets LSU at home. A WVU victory would be one of the most significant by a Big East team all season, but Pitt also must do its part.

What surprise team will emerge from the shadows to challenge for the conference title?

West Virginia garnered 21 first-place mentions among 24 voters in the preseason media poll, so the Big East looks to be a bit top heavy. The first thought was South Florida, which was the only conference team other than WVU and Pitt to receive votes in the USA Today coaches poll. But junior quarterback B.J. Daniels throws too many interceptions, and coach Skip Holtz keeps talking about the need to use a lot of freshmen. Here's a reluctant vote for Syracuse, which returns quarterback Ryan Nassib and his five top pass catchers. The Orange also played solid defense last year.

Will Big East defenses be able to keep up with the hurry-up offensive schemes at Pitt, West Virginia and Cincinnati?

Not without a struggle, but it's doable. Syracuse was seventh in the nation in total defense last year, but it plans to use two new starters at cornerback. South Florida lost four All-Big East defenders, but linebackers DeDe Lattimore and Sam Barrington are solid. At Connecticut, coach Paul Pasqualoni has a background steeped in defense — he was defensive coordinator of the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys before returning to the college game. He's been a coach since 1976 and has seen it all.

Will Pitt run its speed-based offense with enough efficiency to avoid killer turnovers?

Maybe. Coach Todd Graham's first seasons at Rice (2006) and Tulsa (2007) sent mixed messages. At Rice, the team's turnover margin was 21st in the nation (29 gained/21 lost), but at Tulsa the following season, Graham's team was 92nd (24/30) in a 10-4 season. A good sign is the experience and maturity of quarterback Tino Sunseri and running backs Ray Graham and Zach Brown. A bad sign: The Panthers are only one season removed from a slower, more careful approach on offense.

Will the upheaval on the West Virginia coaching staff disrupt what looks to be a talented team?

Student-athletes — the good ones, anyway — are usually quick to adjust to whatever roadblocks get in their way. Everyone knew coach Bill Stewart was living on borrowed time, and when he left abruptly in June, no one should have been surprised. Here is what the Mountaineers have in their favor: Coach Dana Holgorsen has been an offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State, and his teams have averaged 521 yards per game. And WVU quarterback Geno Smith led the Big East in passing efficiency last year (144.7).

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