The Big East football season is just around the corner; 2012 will be the last year before the conference gets a major facelift. Houston, SMU, UCF, Memphis, San Diego State and Boise State will all be added to the conference next fall as Syracuse and Pittsburgh move to the ACC.
But for this year, there are still many questions to be answered. Are Hakeem Smith and Louisville the team to beat? When will Pitt star Ray Graham come back from his horrible knee injury? Has UConn found its next great running back? Can B.J. Daniels finally lead USF to a BCS Bowl?
Every team has that one guy they’re hoping can have a big year. Here are the biggest difference-makers for each Big East team.
Anthony McClung, WR, Cincinnati
The speedy wideout finished his sophomore campaign on a strong note with eight receptions for 142 yards and two touchdowns in a win over UConn. With Zach Collaros and Isaiah Pead graduating, look for McClung to emerge as a leader on and off the field. If healthy, McClung should have 70-80 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in 2012. Head coach Butch Jones and the Bearcats will look to win the conference outright this year beginning on September 6 vs. Pittsburgh.
Hakeem Smith, SS, Louisville
Hakeem Smith enters his junior season as the 2010 Big East Rookie of the Year, a two-time All-Big East selection, and the most feared safety in the conference. Smith recorded 85 tackles, broke up nine passes and had one interception last season. He is one of nine returning starters on a Louisville unit that ranked nationally in the top 20 in scoring defense (20.1 ppg) and rush defense (100.5 ypg). Smith and the Cardinals host Kentucky in the Battle for the Bluegrass State on September 2.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
If you weren’t paying attention the first half of last season, then you missed the newest star in the Panthers backfield (and maybe the Big East). Graham led the nation in rushing with 945 yards and nine touchdowns through seven games last year before his season was cut short due to a knee injury. In 2011, he averaged 8.9 yards per carry in the fourth quarter, helping an otherwise dismal Pittsburgh team to wins over Buffalo (201 yards, 3 touchdowns) and South Florida (226 yards, 2 touchdowns). Pittsburgh begins its final Big East season at home against Youngstown State on September 1.
Kasheem Greene, LB, Rutgers
Kasheem Greene broke onto the national scene as a junior after making the move from safety to outside linebacker in 2011. He led the Big East with 140 total tackles, including 14 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks en route being named Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Greene missed all of spring practice due to a leg injury suffered in the Scarlet Knight’s 27-13 win over Iowa State in the Pinstripe Bowl. Expect Greene to be ready for the season opener at Tulane on September 1.
B.J. Daniels, QB, South Florida
Other than Louisville, USF was the only team to receive first place votes in the preseason Big East media poll. The reason; dual-threat quarterback B.J. Daniels. Daniels averaged 236.7 passing yards per game last season, including 409 passing yards and three touchdowns against Cincinnati. He also rushed for 587 yards and six touchdowns. The Bulls lost five games last year by 6 points or less due to inconsistent play by Daniels. If he can put it all together, look for South Florida to challenge for the conference crown.
Ryan Nassib, QB, Syracuse
Fifth-year senior Ryan Nassib is ready to take ‘Cuse to the next level in its last season in the Big East. He led the Orange to a bowl victory over Kansas State in 2010 and helped them jump out to a 5-2 start last season, which included a 49-23 shellacking of West Virginia. In 2011, he notched career-highs, completing 62.4% of his passes and throwing for 22 touchdown passes and 2,685 yards. If it was not for Greg Paulus’ one-year stint as the Syracuse play-caller, Ryan Nassib would be under center for the fourth consecutive year. Nonetheless, Nassib will guide the Orange through a loaded schedule starting September 1 vs. Northwestern.
Montel Harris, RB, Temple
With only ten returning starters, the Owls have been deemed inexperienced in their “inaugural” Big East season. But experience arrived when running back Montel Harris transferred to Temple in July. The former Boston College star was dismissed from the Eagles after violating team rules and will be able to play immediately. Harris’ 3,734 rushing yards broke the all-time BC rushing record in just over three seasons before an injury sidelined him in 2011. Harris will replace Bernard Pierce, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens after 1,481 rushing yards and 27 rushing touchdowns. Harris and the Owls kick off 2012 against cross-city rival Villanova on August 31.
Lyle McCombs, RB, UConn
Terry Caulley, Donald Brown and Jordan Todman ruled the UConn backfield. Lyle McCombs is trying to follow in their footsteps. McCombs, as a freshman, exploded onto the scene with six 100-yard rushing games and seven rushing touchdowns, earning a spot on the FWAA Freshman All-America Team and All-Big East Second Team. The Staten Island native’s 1,151 rushing yards were the fourth most by a freshman in Big East history. McCombs hopes to lead the Huskies back to the postseason, beginning with “The U-Game” vs. UMass on August 30.
Other Players to Watch For:
- Walter Stewart, DE, Cincinnati
- Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
- Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
- Logan Ryan, CB, Rutgers
- Ryne Giddins, DE, USF
- Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse
- Matt Brown, RB, Temple
- Ryan Griffin, TE, UConn