For a time this offseason, it looked like the Big East conference would cease to play college football after this year. The Big East has survived and now has the chance to show, on the field, that it belongs as one of the sport’s premier conferences.
1. Who will win the conference? Pittsburgh Panthers. Using a signature Dave Wannstedt defense with an offense centered around Dion Lewis, Pitt will win the conference for the first time since 2004.
2. Who is the best player returning? Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh. The fab-freshman broke onto the scene last year with 1,799 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and 17 touchdowns. He rushed for over 100 yards in 10 of 13 games in 2009.
3. Which team will be the most improved? Louisville. New head coach Charlie Strong will take the first steps this year to right the ship. His defensive background will have a lot to do with this. Louisville surrendered 30 or more points in seven games (all losses) last year.
4. What will be the biggest surprise? Despite being the best player returning, Dion Lewis will not lead the Big East in rushing. This conference is full of strong runners. In fact, the leading rusher from all 8 Big East schools is back in 2010. No longer a secret, Lewis will have to fight for every yard this year. He will still have a good year. This is more about the overall strength of running backs in the Big East than it is about Lewis not producing.
5. Which coach is on the hottest seat? Doug Marrone, Syracuse. Okay, so he isn’t really on the hot seat, but he is the default choice. All Big East coaches are new to their school or they are having enough success that their jobs aren’t in jeopardy. In his first season (2009), Marrone led the Orangemen to four wins, which was their most in one season since 2006. He needs to show some progress this year, which might be difficult with a new starting quarterback. Unless Syracuse completely bombs the season, Marrone’s job is secure for 2011.