By Marc Lawrence
This always-powerful basketball conference has come a long way toward establishing a football pedigree since it rejected Penn State's application for admittance in 1985.
Under its current alignment, which has been in place for five seasons, the BIG EAST is a combined 159-61 in non-conference games (.721). That stands as the best five-year non-league record in the history of the conference and second among FBS conferences, only behind the SEC.
It's 36 non-conference wins in 2009 rank second in conference history, behind only the league's 37-8 mark in 2006. Included in the success outside the conference is a sterling 16-6 mark in bowl games the last four years.
Six of the eight current BIG EAST teams have won at least a share of the BIG EAST title in the last five years, with only Rutgers and South Florida on the outside looking in.
Despite Joe Paterno's eventual ties with the Big 10 Conference, the BIG EAST is doing just fine these days, thank you.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
CINCINNATI - 8 / 6
TEAM THEME: COACHING CAROUSEL
The Central Michigan/Cincinnati feeding frenzy continues as Butch Jones once again follows in the footsteps of the departed Brian Kelly. Unfortunately for Jones, the cupboard is a little bare as QB Tony Pike and star WR Mardy Gilyard are among those gone from last year's 12-win squad. However, QB Zach Collaros, last season's emergency sparkplug is back and he'll lead an offense that committed only 10 turnovers in 2009, the fewest in the nation. In his short stay in the Queen City, Kelly certainly left an impact. The Bearcats were a surprising 8-2 versus ranked opponents under his guidance and were ranked in the Top 25 a total of 28 weeks. Cincy had been ranked a total of just six weeks the previous 70 years! Jones didn't miss a beat after taking over the Central Michigan program. The question is... can he keep the Bearcats rocking?
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Fresno St (9/4)
CONNECTICUT - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: YOUNG & RESTLESS
An eight-win season could have easily resulted in a double-digit win campaign had UConn turned a couple of close losses into victories. Randy Edsall's Huskies lost a total of five games by a combined 15 points, with none coming by more than four points. The young talent started to blossom late in the year, ending the season on a four-game win streak, capped by a bowl win over South Carolina. QB's Zach Frazier and Cody Endres, both of whom started games last season, are back along with 1,100-yard runner Jordan Todman. "I am very happy with how our off-season conditioning program has gone. Our players have shown a commitment that they want to be even better in 2010," said Edsall. If Edsall can fine-tune a ‘D' that slipped 91 YPG, and experience can turn a couple of close losses into wins, who knows what excitement can be in ‘Storr' this season?
PLAY ON: vs. West Virginia (10/29)
LOUISVILLE - *9 / 6
TEAM THEME: HOLD THE ANCHOVIES
The fire that raged under the seat of deposed head coach Steve Kragthorpe has been extinguished now that Charlie Strong is in the house. Strong brings offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, the former UNLV head coach, and his spread offense to Papa John's Stadium. The delivery may take some time, however, as the WR's are the thinnest group on the Cardinals' offense and QB Adam From was in and out of the lineup with injuries last season. There is no truth to the rumor, though, that Strong and Sanford were seen viewing video of ‘Papa John' Schnatter tossing the pigskin. A reasonable non-conference menu shouldn't have the Louisville faithful starving for victories early - but they may want to order seconds as six of the final seven games are against bowlers. Eat up!
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Syracuse (11/6)
PITTSBURGH - 5 / 6
TEAM THEME: CAT'S MEOW
A 10-win season could have been even better had the Panthers not missed an extra point on the final score of the game against Cincinnati. That chip shot denied Pittsburgh a Big East title and a BCS bowl. The Panthers don't return a lot of quantity in 2010 but there is plenty of quality. RB Dion Lewis, the most decorated freshman in the nation last year (1,799 yards, 17 TD's) is back, as are a pair of outstanding wideouts in Jon Baldwin, a Biletnikoff candidate, and Mike Shanahan. QB Bill Stull is gone but his backup, Pat Bostik, red-shirted last season and has started nine games. On the other side of the ball, DE's Greg Romeus and Jabaal Sheard are arguably the best pair in the land. Last year's No. 15 ranking was Pitt's highest finish since 1982. A tough non-conference schedule (at Utah, vs. Miami) will let us know early if Wanny's Panthers will continue to prowl.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Utah (9/2)
RUTGERS - *6 / 6
TEAM THEME: BANK ON IT
They've been playing some good football "on the banks' the last four years as Rutgers is one of only four teams in the nation to win four straight bowl games. Averaging nine wins per season over that span, Greg Schiano's Knights are primed to make a run at the Big East title. That elusive crown may have to wait another season as the schedule finds them visiting Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Nonetheless, there is optimism on the Scarlet sidelines with QB Tom Savage returning for his sophomore season. Savage started 11 games in 2009 and leads all active Big East signal callers in games started, going from the least experienced to the most in one season. RB Joe Martinek, the Knights' leading rusher, also makes his way back to New Brunswick. Despite a tough schedule, there's no shame in backing these Scarlet Letter(men).
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Connecticut (10/8)
SOUTH FLORIDA - *9 / 5
TEAM THEME: A HOLTZ NEW ERA
Year 13 wasn't lucky for legendary coach Jim Leavitt as he was relieved of his duties after allegations of player abuse. Even a sterling 95-57 record couldn't save his job. Enter Skip Holtz, winner of back-to-back conference titles - one of only four coaches nationally to do so over the last two seasons. QB B.J. Daniels, the entire offensive line and three of the top four running backs return, ensuring the smile on Skippy's face is not clown-like. Four of the first five games are in Tampa, practically assuring the Bulls of a quick start. However, Holtz will need to overcome a hard-to-shake Leavitt trait: 15-0 SU in the season's first five games over the last three years but just 8-13 SU in the final seven games (maybe the real reason Leavitt is gone!). New DC Mark Snyder (ex-Marshall boss) and OC Todd Fitch (with Holtz at ECU) should keep the Bulls running.
PLAY ON: vs. Connecticut (12/4)
SYRACUSE - 5 / 10
TEAM THEME: FRESHLY SQUEEZED
Doug Marrone did a nice job in his first season with the Orange. Despite WR Mike Williams, a Biletnikoff finalist, quitting the team in midseason, the ‘Cuse still managed to win more games than in either of the previous two seasons. The offense finally averaged in the 20's, albeit low 20's, for the first time in five seasons and the defense improved significantly. Not satisfied, Marrone will also assume the offensive coordinator duties in 2010. If the Orange can squeeze out a couple of winnable road games to start the season, they should be able to get off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1991 - not bad for a team that hasn't won more than four games in a season since 2004. While Marrone certainly has the Orange heading in the right direction, we're still not confident they're ripe enough for the taking. We'll know more after their meeting with the improved Huskies.
PLAY ON: vs. Connecticut (11/20)
WEST VIRGINIA - 8 / 9
TEAM THEME: MUTTON, HONEY
After serving as Bobby Bowden's sacrificial lamb in last year's Gator Bowl, the Mountaineers are anxious to get back to work in 2010. Behind 17 returning starters, including an experienced offensive line that took 839 of 855 snaps in 2009, and multi-talented RB Noel Devine (1,465 rushing yards on 6.1 YPR), WVU enjoyed its first undefeated home record since 1993. It won't be cruise city, however, as head coach Bill Stewart must develop a new starting quarterback for the third straight year. It hasn't mattered in the past, though, as the stump-jumpers have posted 5-2 conference records in each of the last four seasons. With a seventh straight bowl in the offing, look for the Mountaineers to improve on a sterling 83-46-1 SU all-time mark in Big East play since their inaugural 1991 season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Pittsburgh (11/26)