The best and worst of the Big East

Originally Published: December 11, 2003
By Jorge Milian | Special to

A final team-by-team look at the Big East

Boston College
The Eagles (7-5, 3-4) continued a pattern they have followed for five straight seasons. Win between seven and nine games, finish no better than third in the Big East and qualify for a second-level bowl game. The very definition of mediocre. Boston College opened the second half of the season by losing three of four games, including a particularly bad defeat at Syracuse. The Eagles were on the verge of bowl elimination before winning their last two games on the road, finishing up the regular season with a 34-27 upset of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Coach Tom O'Brien may have waited too long to hand over the starting quarterback duties to junior college transfer Paul Peterson, who seemed to give BC's offense a boost after replacing Quinton Porter as the starter. Peterson guided the Eagles to victories over Rutgers and Virginia Tech and a berth in the San Francisco Bowl. In the past five seasons, BC has been invited to the, Aloha, Music City, Motor City and, on Dec. 31, the San Francisco Bowl. Some great venues, but not exactly a who's who list of bowl games.

MVP: RB Derrick Knight. Knight was a workhorse for BC all season, leading the Big East in rushing with 1,599 yards while breaking Mike Cloud's school record for career rushing yards. Knight, 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds, finished his career with 3,603 yards, six more than Cloud. He saved his best for last, rushing for 197 yards in the victory over Virginia Tech. The best thing about Knight is that, like Pittsburgh's Larry Fitzgerald, his ability is surpassed only by his classiness.

Biggest Disappointment: The Eagles were a mess at home, losing four of six games at Alumni Stadium, including 0-3 against Big East opponents. For whatever reason, Boston College played much better on the road where it was 5-1, its best record away from Chestnut Hill since 1986.

What's next: The biggest item on BC's plate concerns when the school will move to the ACC. The Eagles are locked into the Big East through next season, but hope to switch conferences beginning with the 2005 season and pay a $1 million withdrawal fee. The Big East claims that BC is contractually obligated to stay through 2006 and must pay $5 million to get out. Stay tuned.

The Hurricanes (10-2, 6-1) are out of the national championship race for the first time in four years. While Miami wasn't as good as its been the previous three seasons -- especially offensively -- the Hurricanes are still one of the three or four best teams in college football. That's certainly true on defense, where Miami allowed more than 20 points only once. Even Oklahoma wasn't that good. The offense was anything but good and was the primary culprit in the Hurricanes' back-to-back losses to Virginia Tech and Tennessee. If not for the play on defense and special teams, Miami could have easily lost three or four games instead of two. Still, a conference championship -- the Hurricanes' seventh outright title in 13 Big East seasons -- and a berth in a BCS game for a fourth straight season is nothing to be embarrassed about.

MVP: S Sean Taylor. On a team loaded with defensive stars, the free safety was the best. Taylor was second nationally with nine interceptions -- three of which he returned for touchdowns -- and also was third on the Hurricanes in tackles. He did all this despite playing with a bum shoulder, which required arthroscopic surgery during the season and forced him to miss one game. Taylor is one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award. He may not win, but there's not a better defensive back in the country.

Biggest Disappointment: Miami must live with this fact: If the Hurricanes had been able to scrape together 11 points against Tennessee, they could have been playing in the Sugar Bowl instead of watching on television. Instead, Miami couldn't overcome an offensive meltdown and lost to the Volunteers, 10-3.

What's next: A new era begins next season for Miami when it moves to the ACC. Switching conferences won't affect the Hurricanes nearly as much as an expected sizable loss in talent. Of the 22 players that started the regular-season finale against Pittsburgh, 10 were seniors. Four juniors -- Vince Wilfork, Sean Taylor, Kellen Winslow and Antrel Rolle -- are good bets to skip their final seasons and head to the NFL. Still, the Hurricanes have shown an impressive knack for overcoming talent drains in the past. Next season shouldn't be any different.

Despite their season-long inconsistency, the Panthers (8-4, 5-2) entered their final regular-season game with a chance to win their first Big East title and BCS berth. Instead, Pittsburgh laid an egg, getting pushed around by Miami in front of a soldout crowd. If not for the outstanding play of quarterback Rod Rutherford and receiver Larry Fitzgerald, things could have been a lot worse for the Panthers. The running game was missing most of the season and the defense was a disaster. A season that began with the highest of expectations finished in bitter disappointment. "It's not the bowl we were hoping for, but just the same, we're excited about the opportunity," said coach Walt Harris, regarding his team's invitation to the Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. Harris may truly believe that, but after a season that started with Pittsburgh in the top 10 for the first time in two decades and ended with the Panthers out of the polls entirely, he might be the only one that does.

MVP: WR Larry Fitzgerald. He is not only one of the best players in Big East history, he's one of the most classiest, too. In sports these days, it's virtually impossible to find greatness and humility in the same athlete. Fitzgerald breaks that mold. Others (are you listening Kellen Winslow?) should take note.

Biggest Disappointment: Take your pick. You could choose a running game that was limited to less than 75 yards rushing in five games or a defense that held opponents under 20 points only four times. We'll take the defense, which returned seven starters from a unit that finished 12th nationally in 2002, but was among the worst in the Big East all season.

What's next: The biggest question surrounds the future of Fitzgerald, a sophomore. Fitzgerald's father has said he is contemplating appealing to the NFL to allow his son to enter the draft in April. Under league rules, Fitzgerald is supposed to return to Pittsburgh for one more season. Forcing Fitzgerald to do that would border on criminal.

After finishing 3-20 in his first two seasons, Greg Schiano's coaching tenure finally began to bare fruit. Not only did Rutgers (5-7, 2-5) win more games overall and in conference play than it did since 1998, but the Knights were even competitive in the games they lost. In Schiano's first season, Rutgers' average margin of defeat was 33.3 points per game. Last season, it was 27.4 points. This season, seven opponents beat the Knights by an average of 15.4 points. The improvement was due primarily to the team's running game. After gaining only 620 yards on the ground last season and scoring five rushing touchdowns, Rutgers bettered those totals to 1,666 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Scarlet Knights ended the season on an uplifting note, dominating Syracuse, 24-7, and finishing out of the conference cellar for the first time in five seasons.

MVP: RB Brian Leonard. Leonard, a 6-2, 230-pound redshirt freshman fullback, made opponents do something they hadn't considered in years -- respect the Scarlet Knights' running game. Leonard rushed for 880 yards, the most by a Rutgers' running back since Terrell Willis gained 1,080 in 1994. Leonard also led the team in receiving with 53 catches for 488 yards and was first in scoring with 14 total touchdowns.

Biggest Disappointment: The Scarlet Knights blew second-half leads to Connecticut and Boston College on consecutive weekends, costing Rutgers a chance at their first winning season since 1992 and first bowl berth (and second in school history) since 1978.

What's next: Schiano and Rutgers can realistically begin entertaining thoughts of a winning season and, possibly, a postseason berth. That's especially true in a Big East without Miami and Virginia Tech, which have beaten the Scarlet Knights a combined 18 consecutive games.

After demolishing Boston College on Oct. 18, the Orangemen (5-6, 2-5) were 4-2 and seemed destined to make up for last season's losing record, the first at Syracuse since 1986. But Syracuse fell apart, losing four of its last five games -- including a one-sided 24-7 defeat to Rutgers -- and finished seventh (technically tied for sixth) in the Big East for the second consecutive year. The only question now is whether coach Paul Pasqualoni, who just completed his 13th season with the Orangemen, will survive the program's second consecutive non-winning season. Athletic director Jake Crouthamel, always quick to support the much-maligned Pasqualoni, has been non-committal. Appearing on a Syracuse radio station following Syracuse's embarrassing defeat to Rutgers, Crouthamel promised to "do the right thing" without specifying what that might be. Crouthamel said before the season that he expected the Orangemen to finish in the top three in the Big East. Syracuse hasn't come close to meeting that goal the past two seasons, finishing ahead only of Rutgers in 2002 and Temple this season.

MVP: RB Walter Reyes. Reyes started the season with a bang, rushing for a national-best 681 yards, including a 241-yard outing against Central Florida, in Syracuse's first four games. But Reyes, a junior, struggled after that, failing to register a 100-yard game the rest of the season. Still, Reyes finished fourth in the conference in rushing. Not bad considering the lack of offensive weapons to support the 5-10, 205-pound junior.

Biggest Disappointment: One can understand losses to Miami, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. But Rutgers? Syracuse entered the final two weeks of the season needing victories over the Scarlet Knights and Notre Dame to assure a bowl berth. No easy chore, but certainly not impossible. Instead, the Orangemen fell apart against Rutgers, playing their worst game of the season in a 24-7 defeat.

What's next: The first order of business is what to do with Pasqualoni. Crouthamel has been the coach's most loyal supporter, but that could be waning with Syracuse's recent run of substandard seasons and the increasing number of empty seats at the Carrier Dome. One can stick his head in the sand only so long. What should be most distressing to Orange supporters is the program's inability to take advantage -- especially in recruiting -- of the Donovan McNabb era. Since McNabb led Syracuse to the Orange Bowl in the 1998 season, the team is 17-18 in Big East games and is the only conference member to lose to Rutgers twice.

The Owls (1-11, 0-6) finished with their fewest wins in coach Bobby Wallace's six seasons, but they weren't nearly as bad as their record. With a little good luck, Temple could have won three or four more games. But Temple didn't become Temple because of its good fortune. The Owls lost three games in overtime and five by fewer than 10 points. Breakdowns in the kicking game dogged Wallace and his team all season long. What's amazing is that Temple performed as well as it did considering how the program's uncertain future has affected Wallace's ability to recruit over the past couple of seasons.

MVP: QB Walter Washington. Linebacker Rian Wallace had a solid season, finishing second in the Big East in total tackles and tackles for lost yardage, but it was Washington who added a vitality to the Temple team that hadn't been seen in years. Despite not taking over as the starter until the Owls' ninth game, Washington led the Owls in rushing with 579 yards and threw for eight touchdown passes, three more than Mike McGann, who started seven times. The 6-2, 246-pound junior college transfer had 945 yards of total offense in his last three starts against Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh and West Virginia.

Biggest Disappointment: An inability to kick the ball through the uprights crippled Temple all season. Jared Davis began the season by missing 9-of-13 field-goal attempts, including four in a triple-overtime loss to Cincinnati. Davis got himself straightened out and made 6-of-9 field goals to finish the regular season, but a missed extra point in overtime against Virginia Tech extinguished the Owls' hopes of an upset. What's next: The future remains perfectly gloomy for Temple, which will play its last season in the Big East next year before being banished to independent status. Recruiting will be an impossible task for Wallace, who hasn't been able to entice quality high school players to sign with the Owls and will now find it just as difficult to bring in talented junior college players as he did last season.

Virginia Tech
The Hokies (8-4, 4-3) have done more folding lately than a dry cleaner. For the third straight season, Virginia Tech collapsed down the stretch, losing four of its final six games. If not for a missed extra point in overtime by Temple kicker Jared Davis, it might have been five of six. Things seemed to take a turn for the worse when coach Frank Beamer began using back-up quarterback Marcus Vick regularly in place of starter Bryan Randall. Neither quarterback played particularly well after that and the Hokies went from being ranked third nationally to completely out of the rankings following a season-ending loss to rival Virginia. The defense can take its share of the blame, too. After dominating Miami, 31-7, on Nov. 1 and jumping back into the national championship picture, Virginia Tech allowed 123 points and nearly 1,800 yards in its last four games. For a team that has been in the national title race late into the past few seasons, the Hokies have awfully little to show for it.

MVP: RB Kevin Jones. You can't blame Jones for the Hokies' misfortunes. The junior tailback set a school-single season rushing record by running for 1,494 yards and 20 touchdowns. Only the Hokies' collapse down the stretch kept Jones from being a stronger Heisman Trophy candidate. He won't get a chance to win the award next season. Jones is leaving school to enter the NFL draft.

Biggest Disappointment: A week after crushing Miami and moving back into the national championship picture, the Hokies blew a late fourth-quarter lead against Pittsburgh and lost 31-28. Virginia Tech never recovered, getting lucky in a one-point win over Big East cellar-dwellar Temple before losing its final two regular-season games against unranked Boston College and Virginia. What's next: Virginia Tech finishes the season in the Insight Bowl, but you'd be hardpressed to find anyone in Blacksburg excited about that. Instead much of the talk between now and next September will concern who should be the Hokies' starting quarterback -- Randall or Vick. Coach Frank Beamer will have to decide on one quarterback or his team's first season in the ACC could be as tumultuous as its last in the Big East.

West Virginia
The Mountaineers (8-4, 6-1) seemed finished after falling to 1-4, but regrouped and were, arguably, better than Miami at the end of the regular season. When one considers that West Virginia lost three of its four games by a total of 11 points, it's not much of a reach to think the Mountaineers could have been in the national title race if good fortune had shined on them a little earlier. The key to the season's turnaround was the improved play of the offense, which scored a combined 57 points in the four losses, but rebounded to average 37.7 points during a seven-game win streak to close the regular season. Virginia Tech's Kevin Jones might have been a Heisman Trophy candidate and Boston College's Derrick Knight might be the Big East's leading rusher, but there wasn't a better running back in the league this year than Quincy Wilson. Rich Rodriguez may be the best coach in the Big East and one that will certainly begin to draw strong interest from other programs. With a win against Maryland in the Gator Bowl, West Virginia will have consecutive seasons of nine wins or better for the first time since 1982-83.

MVP: RB Quincy Wilson. Jones and Knight each rushed for more yards than Wilson, but no Big East tailback had as big an impact on his team's success as the Mountaineers' senior. Wilson played his best in big games, rushing for a combined total of 485 yards against Miami, Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech. More impressive is that Wilson piled up all that yardage behind a rebuilt offensive line that began the season with four new starters.

Biggest Disappointment: Bottom line for the Mountaineers is that they came within 11 seconds and three points of winning the Big East championship. Jon Peattie's 23-yard field goal in the waning seconds gave Miami a 22-20 victory. The loss didn't seem very significant at the time, but it turned out to cost West Virginia an outright claim on the conference championship.

What's next: After two seasons of surpassing expectations, only the unwise will again underestimate the Mountaineers. With Miami and Virginia Tech gone, West Virginia could end up ruling the Big East. The Mountaineers still have one game left this season, a rematch with Maryland in the Gator Bowl. The Terrapins dominated West Virginia, 34-20, on Sept. 20. How far the Mountaineers have come in the ensuing three months could be evident in the New Year's Day game.

Jorge Milian covers the Big East for the Palm Beach Post.