(L-R) Head coach Dana Holgorsen and Geno Smith of the West Virginia Mountaineers celebrate after they won 70-33 against the Clemson Tigers during the Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium on January 4, 2012 in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Big East has seen surprising results during the bowl season that followed a disappointing regular season.
For much of the 2012 season, Big East football was the most disrespected BCS conference in the nation. Some thought the conference did not deserve it's automatic qualifying status. Others took to calling it the Big Least conference. However, the current bowl season has vindicated a conference that struggled mightily amidst turmoil and low expectations. Five teams earned bowl invited. 7-5 Louisville nearly won the Big East championship and put another dent in the conference’s credibility. Thus far, Louisville’s loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl has been the Big East’s only blemish during bowl season.
Co-Big East champion Cincinnati defeated Vanderbilt at the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. It took a huge effort from Pead for Cincinnati to put away a Commodores team that finished fourth in the SEC East. The Bearcats survived a pedestrian performance by senior quarterback Zach Collaros thanks to running back Isaiah Pead’s 149-yard, one touchdown game.
The Rutgers Scarlet Knights capped off a surprising nine-win season with a victory over Iowa State in the Pinstripe Bowl last week. The Scarlet Knights stifled the Cyclones offense and forced Iowa State into three costly turnovers. Iowa State threw for nearly 400 yards but Rutgers’ conservative approach did the job. Chas Dodd threw for 176 yards and one touchdown on 10-of-17 passing. Meanwhile, running back Jawan Jamison led the offense with 131 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries.
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It was a special victory for Rutgers. After the game, Greg Schiano stood at midfield, grabbed a microphone, pointed towards paralyzed offensive lineman Eric Legrand in the press box and shouted, "This one’s for you, buddy."
In a bittersweet performance for Big East fans, West Virginia staged the most dominating bowl rout in years over a Clemson team that was ranked in the top 10 in October. Geno Smith threw for 401 yards, six touchdowns and committed zero turnovers. Five minutes into the third quarter, the Mountaineers led Clemson 63-20.
Not only did the Mountaineers shatter records but they helped obliterated misconceptions about the Big East. After their Orange Bowl slaughter, West Virginia stars Tavon Austin and Smith both acknowledged that the disrespect towards their team and conference fueled them throughout the night. West Virginia’s 70-33 win was by far the most dominating display of the bowl season and put the nation on Mountaineer watch for 2012.
The Mountaineers return most of their starters on their explosive offense but may not be Big East contenders next season. Why? The outcome depends on whether or not a West Virginia court allows the Mountaineers to bypass a rule that forces teams to notify the Big East 27 months before it leaves the conference.
On the other hand, future Big East football members Boise State and Houston, who both fell short of undefeated seasons will keep the conference relevant on the national stage moving forward. Both won their bowl games in convincing fashion over BCS conference opponents.
The Big East’s final bowl team will take the field Saturday when Pittsburgh faces off against future Big East member, Southern Methodist in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Pittsburgh will be playing with its fifth full-time or interim head coach in 13 months after head coach bolted for Arizona State and texted his team the news. In an ironic twist, Grantham was hired after a deal between SMU’s June Jones unraveled. Wisconsin offensive coordinator won’t take over until after the bowl game, therefore the bowl game coaching responsibilities will fall to Grantham’s defensive coordinator Keith Patterson.
Since running back Ray Graham’s devastating knee injury, senior Zach Brown and freshman Issac Bennett have combined to rush for 422 yards over the final two games. The Mustangs prolific Run & Shoot offense is led by quarterback and turnover magnet J.J. McDermott. Mustang receivers Darius Johnson and Cole Beasley are also closing in on 1,000-yard seasons.
Unless, the Panthers offensive line has solved its protection issues, the Mustang defense will get plenty of hits on Panthers quarterback Tino Sunseri. Sunseri was sacked 54 times this season.
At the conclusion of the regular season, both teams were headed in opposite directions. Pittsburgh has won three of its last four games, while the Mustangs have lost four of their past six games and averaged only 8.5 points per game in those losses. A win by SMU would be another step towards their revival from the infamous death penalty levied against their program two decades ago and a victory by Pittsburgh would improve the conference’s bowl record to 4-1 overall. More importantly, a win by Pittsburgh reminds the nation not to count out the Big East.