NEWPORT, R.I. - At the annual Big East Conference Media Day Tuesday, West Virginia was tabbed as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2011 title in the conference's preseason media poll.
The Mountaineers received 21 of a possible 24 first-place votes and had 188 points in the preseason voting of media representatives from each of the eight BIG EAST markets. As for the other first place votes, two went to Pittsburgh and another to USF.
In a league expected to be full of parity, the Mountaineers have won or shared the BIG EAST title five times in the last eight years and have placed no lower than second in the standings in nine consecutive seasons. First-year headman Dana Holgorsen takes on a program that is one of just four schools nationally (along with Boise State, Ohio State and Virginia Tech) that has won at least nine games in each of the last six year.
Last season the Mountaineers finished as co-champions in the Big East with a 9-4 overall record, and a 5-2 record in conference play.
This season, Holgorsen will take the reigns, and is expected to provide an up-tempo exciting offense. Leading that offense will be junior quarterback Geno Smith, who threw for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2010, and Tavon Austin, who had 787 yards receiving and 9 total touchdowns. The defense is paced by defensive end Bruce Irvin, who registered a BIG EAST-leading 14 sacks and cornerback Keith Tandy, who led the conference with six interceptions.
"We're not going to change what we have. We can take our best football players and fit them in," Holgorsen said.
West Virginia opens their season Sept. 4 at home against Marshall.
Pittsburgh had 162 points in the preseason poll. As is the case with West Virginia, Pitt shared the BIG EAST title in 2010 and is led by a new head coach with impressive offensive credentials. Todd Graham takes over on the Panther sideline after leading Tulsa to three 10-win seasons in four years. Graham will look for big things from returning quarterback Tino Sunseri, who threw for more than 2,500 yards last year, and tailback Ray Graham, who ran for 922 yards.
USF was picked third in the preseason poll with 151 points. The Bulls and head coach Skip Holtz won five of their last seven games in 2010 to make their sixth straight bowl appearance. The Bulls will have to replace four All-BIG EAST players from last year's defense, but should find the offensive load easier to manage with the return of quarterback B.J. Daniels, who enters his third year as a starter.
Syracuse returned to the BIG EAST title hunt last season under coach Doug Marrone, and the media expects the Orange to be in the picture once again with 98 points in the preseason poll. Syracuse returns starting quarterback Ryan Nassib, its top five receivers and four starters from the offensive line.
Cincinnati was tabbed fifth in the preseason poll with 96 points. Head coach Butch Jones enters his second year with the Bearcats and has the BIG EAST's top retuning passer and runner. Quarterback Zach Collaros threw for 2,902 yards and 26 touchdowns, while tailback Isaiah Pead ran for 1,029 yards and six TDs.
Connecticut, which won a share of its second BIG EAST title in four years and played in a BCS bowl game for the first time in 2010, was picked sixth in the preseason poll with 76 points. Head coach Paul Pasqualoni enters his first year with the Huskies, but holds the distinction of having the most BIG EAST wins of any coach in league history from his 14-year career at Syracuse.
Louisville was picked seventh with 60 points in the preseason poll. Head coach Charlie Strong brought the Cardinals back to the postseason in his first year at Louisville, but will have to replace four All-BIG EAST First Team choices from that group.
Rutgers was picked eighth in the preseason poll after the Scarlet Knights dropped their last six games of the 2010 season. Coach Greg Schiano finds 10 returning offensive starters in the fold, however, suggesting that the slide might be short-lived.