Big East Preview 2001
by Will Stewart,
TSL Extra, Issue #10

Last year, the Big East had a pretty good season on the football field. Miami and Virginia Tech finished in the top 5 in the BCS Rankings, a feat tainted by the Canes narrowly missing a chance to play for the national championship and the Hokies being robbed of a much-deserved BCS bowl bid when the Fiesta matched Notre Dame up with Oregon State.

Six of the league's eight teams finished above .500, and five of those teams went bowling, a first for the conference (among the teams with winning records, only 6-5 Syracuse stayed home). And when the teams went on their holiday bowl trips, they did the league proud. The league went 4-1 in the bowls, with only Pittsburgh failing to win, falling to Iowa State in the Bowl.

In addition, the conference had a 28-9 out of conference record, best among the six BCS conferences. Even when non-Division-1A opponents are subtracted, the league was still 26-9 out of conference, still tops among the BCS conferences.

Entering the 2001 season, many of the league's marquee players return, and the Big East defenses in particular are primed for success. Last year, 5 Big East teams finished in the top 34 nationally in total defense, and this year, six teams return at least 8 defensive starters. Read that again: three-quarters of the league teams return at least 8 defensive starters.

The top returning players on defense are headlined by DL's Dwight Freeney of Syracuse, David Pugh and Chad Beasley of Virginia Tech, and Bryan Knight of Pittsburgh; LB's Ben Taylor of Virginia Tech, Clifton Smith of Syracuse, and Gerald Hayes of Pittsburgh; and DB's Mike Rumph and Edward Reed of Miami and Ronyell Whitaker of Virginia Tech.

Returning to do battle with those defenses are two players who were among the three co-Offensive Players of the Year in the Big East last year: RB Lee Suggs of Virginia Tech (last year's national scoring leader in TD's and points, with 28 and 168 respectively) and WR Antonio Bryant of Pittsburgh (the winner of the Biletnikoff Award, which goes to the nation's best receiver).

In addition to Suggs, the league-leader in rushing, the #2 rusher (William Green of BC) and the #3 rusher (Avon Cobourne of WVU) in the league last year return. And down in Miami, they bring back quarterback Ken Dorsey, #5 in the nation in passing efficiency last year, and he is fronted by a Hurricane offensive line that is possibly the best in the country.

There should be plenty of fireworks around the league this year, both offensively and defensively.

This year, the league welcomes three new coaches, two of whom are already shaking the very foundations of their programs:

  • Former Miami Offensive Coordinator Larry Coker takes over the Hurricanes as their new head coach. All Canes fans are asking him to do is not screw up the Miami resurgence.
  • Meanwhile, former Clemson Offensive Coordinator Rich Rodriguez has taken over the reigns at WVU, and he has immediately trashed WVU's old ball-control offense in favor of a wide-open attack similar to what he architected at Clemson. Rodriguez has turned the defense over to the well-traveled Phil Elmassian, who installed Virginia Tech's attack defense in 1993.
  • Lastly, at Rutgers, New Jersey native Greg Schiano, who was the defensive coordinator at Miami last year, has taken over the moribund Scarlet Knights program and has electrified the Rutgers fan base with recruiting successes that are extending from the 2001 recruiting season into the 2002 recruiting season.

For the most part, optimism abounds in the Big East. The Hurricanes and Hokies are poised for good seasons, Pittsburgh is on the rise, WVU and Rutgers have new coaches, and Boston College is coming off of two straight bowl appearances and 15 wins in the last two seasons.

But at Syracuse, the luster is off of a proud program that has finished 7-5 and 6-5 the last two years, and which may be facing a losing record in 2001. The Orangemen, who play a brutal non-conference schedule, could lose coach Paul Pasqualoni if they don't perform well this year.

Meanwhile, Temple has been summarily dismissed by the Big East Football Conference, effective at the end of this season (although that may change -- stay tuned). The Owls, who are poised to have their best team in a decade, are vowing to play well enough, on the field and at the box office, to force the league to reconsider. It's not likely that will happen, so this season could be Temple's swan song in the Big East.

My Big East Predictions

It used to be easy to predict the Big East finish. Just name Miami and Virginia Tech 1 and 2 (in any order), West Virginia and Syracuse 3-4, Boston College and Pittsburgh 5-6, and Rutgers and Temple 7-8.

But this year, with so many coaching unknowns in the league, and with the middle teams in the league gradually changing their status (Pittsburgh is up, Syracuse is down, and no one knows where WVU is going), the picture becomes murkier.

Last year, I correctly predicted Miami and VT at 1-2 and Temple and Rutgers at 7-8, but I botched the middle four teams (that's a success rate of 50%, and if you read this month's "Inside the Numbers," you'll see that that whips the Big East media's average of 28% of teams picked correctly). I predicted BC-WVU-Syracuse-Pitt for the middle four, and it ended up Pitt-Syracuse-BC-WVU. I will not make the same mistake again of underrating Pittsburgh and overrating Boston College.

Here are this year's predictions:



"Swing" Games



@ Pitt (9/27), @ VT (12/1)



@ Pitt (11/3), Miami (12/1)



Miami (9/27), VT (11/3)



Temple (10/20), WVU (11/10), BC (11/24)


Boston College

WVU (9/1), Temple (10/6), @ Syracuse (11/24)



@ BC (9/1), @ Syracuse (11/10), Pitt (11/24)



@ BC (10/6), @ Syracuse (10/20), @ WVU (11/17)



Syracuse (10/6), @ Temple (10/13)

The "swing" games shown above are the important games that will determine where a team finishes in the league. They are the iffy games that could cost a team dearly (VT losing at Pitt, for example) or help a team greatly (Rutgers winning at Temple) in the league standings.

The Top Three

I'm giving the #1 nod by a slight edge to the Hurricanes, due mainly to their experience and talent at quarterback and along the offensive line, two of the most important components of a football team. That edge could very well be balanced out on Dec. 1st by Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech's special teams, and a frenzied Lane Stadium crowd.

I went back and forth about this, but the real reason I'm giving Miami the #1 slot is because I think that outside of the Tech matchup, they'll dominate every other team in the league. But on the other hand, I'm not sure the Hokies will dominate everyone other than Miami. The reason? Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh is a team that could rock the league by upsetting either Miami or Virginia Tech at home, and Tech seems the most likely candidate to fall to the Panthers, because Pittsburgh always battles the Hokies closely (17-7, 30-17, and 37-34 the last three years). By contrast, with the exception of a 21-17 loss in Pitt Stadium in 1997, the Hurricanes have dominated the Panthers, including winning the last three games by a combined score of 106-20.

So while Miami only has one "danger" game on their Big East schedule (@ Virginia Tech), the Hokies have at least two (Miami and @ Pittsburgh). The Hokies could very well win the Big East, but it's more likely that Miami will.

If Pittsburgh is unable to upset the Hokies or Canes, then of course, the December 1st battle between Miami and Tech in Blacksburg will be the only game that matters in determining the league champion, provided Tech and Miami take care of business elsewhere.

Like ABC, I'm playing it safe and predicting that the Dec. 1 game will the defacto Big East championship game. Barring unforeseen injuries, this year's Tech/Miami game should be the most competitive since 1995-1998, when the two teams staged classic battles.

The Rest

Syracuse is an unlikely pick for #4 in the league, but I put them there because of their schedule. If you assume that the Orangemen are going to lose to VT, Miami, and Pitt, and they're going to beat Rutgers, that leaves three league games that will determine Syracuse's fate this year: WVU, Boston College, and Temple -- and all three games are played in the Carrier Dome.

To finish #5, Boston College must take care of Temple and WVU at home. The Eagles can ratchet themselves up in the standings if they can win a road game at Pittsburgh or (more likely) a road game at Syracuse.

WVU's problem with finishing higher than #6 is that the Mountaineers' two big swing games, Boston College and Syracuse, are both on the road. WVU has lost their last two games at BC and their last three at Syracuse.

Temple will be much improved this year, but like WVU, their swing games are all on the road: Boston College, Syracuse, and West Virginia. If the Owls were playing two or more of those teams at home, I might pick them to be #5 or #6 in the league. One good thing for the Owls: all three road games are on familiar artificial turf.

And while Rutgers' recruiting may be improving, that doesn't provide them with immediate help, so they will still bring up the rear in the league.

Team Capsules

For more information on the Big East teams, including returning starters, schedules, and prognosis, see Big East Team Capsules elsewhere in this issue.



Copyright © 2001 Maroon Pride, LLC