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December 11, 2008

Big East hopes hinge on Cincinnati

MORE: All-Big East Team

Once again, the Big East is counting on a BCS victory by an upstart to rebuild the reputation of the conference.

After placing at least one team in the top 10 in each of the past three seasons since losing teams to the ACC, the league's only hope for a top-10 finish this season comes from a team that must win the Orange Bowl to get into the top 10.

Cincinnati's best season in school history comes with the added pressure of carrying the banner for a conference that took its lumps during the regular season. The Bearcats won 10 games in a season only once before coach Brian Kelly arrived. They've done it in both of Kelly's seasons.

The Bearcats were the surprise of the league. West Virginia was the preseason favorite despite the departures of coach Rich Rodriguez and the backfield duo of Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt. USF and Pittsburgh, which both beat the Mountaineers in 2007, appeared to be next in line. Instead, Cincinnati and its revolving cast of quarterbacks earned the first BCS bid in school history.

The Bearcats' season got off to a rough start when quarterback Ben Mauk was denied a sixth season of eligibility. Former starter Dustin Grutza reclaimed the job before sustaining a broken leg in the second game of the season. Tony Pike lasted two games before a broken arm knocked him out for three weeks.

When Pike returned at full strength Oct. 30 against USF, the Bearcats rallied for five consecutive conference victories for sole possession of the league championship.

While Cincinnati had its Cinderella story, other conference teams endured tough times. Pittsburgh's season was marred by a 27-17 loss to Bowling Green to start the season. West Virginia was upset twice in September, by East Carolina and Colorado. Rutgers rallied for six consecutive wins after a 1-5 start. Louisville and USF collapsed in the second half of the season. And Syracuse fired its coach.

That about covers it. It's safe to say new commissioner John Marinatto will have good bowl performances by league teams on his Christmas list.

LEAGUE AWARDS

Player of the year: Pittsburgh RB LeSean McCoy. Connecticut's Donald Brown led the nation in rushing, but we're going with McCoy, a sophomore who tied for second in the nation with 21 rushing touchdowns and topped 140 yards six times this season.

Coach of the year: Cincinnati's Brian Kelly. Despite starting three quarterbacks, the Bearcats won their first outright conference championship since winning the Missouri Valley in 1964. Although Cincinnati led the conference in passing yards, the Bearcats were helped by special teams and an opportunistic defense.

Freshman of the year: Louisville RB Victor Anderson. Anderson broke Louisville's freshman rushing record by nearly 400 yards. He ran for 1,047 yards, the most for a Cardinals player since Michael Bush in 2005.

Offensive coordinator of the year: Cincinnati's Jeff Quinn. Other than a misstep in a 40-16 loss to Connecticut, Quinn did an outstanding job under the circumstances with the quarterback rotation. Without the luxury of relying on a consistent ground game, Cincinnati still led the Big East in passing yards.

Defensive coordinator of year: West Virginia's Jeff Casteel. Casteel proved once again why he is one of the most underrated coordinators in the country. As always with West Virginia, yards allowed don't tell the story. The Mountaineers led the Big East in scoring defense and kept WVU in games while the offense struggled for an identity. Casteel did this despite replacing seven starters plus losing star linebacker Reed Williams to injury.

Best game: USF 37, Kansas 34, Sept. 13 in Tampa. This game looked important in September, when both were in the top 20. But neither has sniffed the rankings since the beginning of November. Still, this was a wild game in which USF scored 31 consecutive points to erase a 20-3 halftime deficit. Kansas tied it with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, but true freshman Maikon Bonani kicked the game-winning 43-yard field goal as time expired.

Biggest upset: Bowling Green 27, Pittsburgh 17, on Aug. 30 in Pittsburgh. Syracuse's win over Notre Dame was a bigger upset by Vegas standards, but the Falcons' 10-point win put Pittsburgh in a hole for the rest of the season. Plus, coupled with early losses by West Virginia and Rutgers, the Big East suffered a big-time perception problem that never really went away. Despite the win, Bowling Green still went 6-6 and fired coach Gregg Brandon.

Biggest surprise, player: Connecticut RB Donald Brown . Brown shared time with returnee Andre Dixon a year ago, but he was a one-man show this season. He led the nation in rushing with 1,822 yards and topped 100 yards in each of the first eight games and 10 times overall.

Biggest surprise, team: Cincinnati. The Bearcats won the Big East with two weeks left in the season, beat West Virginia for just the second time since 1969 and beat rival Louisville for just the second time since 1998 even if they jumped the gun on the "Ohio's BCS Team" announcement on their official Web site.

Biggest disappointment, player: Louisville QB Hunter Cantwell . Perhaps expectations were too high for Cantwell. Louisville was supposed to make a seamless transition from Brian Brohm to longtime backup Cantwell. He began the season as one of the top senior NFL draft prospects. But Louisville finished 5-7 as Cantwell threw 16 interceptions, including at least one in every conference game.

Biggest disappointment, team: USF. The Bulls started 5-0 and were ranked in the top 10 before another second-half collapse wrecked a promising season. Injuries caused problems. Stars Matt Grothe and George Selvie were hobbled at different times during the season, and several other starters endured season-ending injuries.

Underclassmen liable to go pro: Rutgers WR Kenny Britt, Connecticut RB Donald Brown, Syracuse NT Arthur Jones, Pitt RB LeSean McCoy, USF DE George Selvie.

Next season's conference champ: Pittsburgh. LeSean McCoy says he will return to school. If that happens, the Panthers almost certainly will be the preseason favorite. Star linebacker Scott McKillop is a senior, but Pitt received big contributions on both sides of the ball from freshmen and sophomores, starting with linebacker Greg Williams, safety Dom DeCicco and wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. If McCoy leaves, the conference is up for grabs.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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