Admit it, you didn't think Noel Devine would be here.
Here being in uniform, enrolled at West Virginia as a senior. Here being in the first tier of candidates favored for the 2010 Heisman Trophy. Here being within 1,800 yards of his school's career rushing record. Here, being a leader in a program that accepted him and his baggage three years ago. The prospects didn't look good. Devine came out of high school with two children, no parents (both of whom reportedly died of AIDS) and a failed mentoring relationship with Deion Sanders.
"Some people," Prime Time said after Devine took his wife's Escalade and drove himself to the airport for a flight home, "don't want to be helped."
Look who's killing it now. The NCAA is trying to drive "mentors" like Sanders out of college football. Ask Dez Bryant. Meanwhile, West Virginia's tailback could cut one of those stifle-your-laughter NCAA student-athlete commercials with a straight face. And a clear conscience.
The worst thing that can be said about him is that Devine doesn't digest shellfish well. He missed the Big East media day earlier this month with a case of food poisoning that caused him to lose seven pounds. Devine blamed it on trying clams for the first time.
"I'd never had them," he said. "I wanted to try the experience."
The Noel Devine Experience in Morgantown has been a wild ride. Coming out of Ft. Myers, Fla., Devine's speed and talent were hard to match. His prospects, it seemed, were grim. But here he is in the year of the comeback, never having had to make one.
"Noel Devine is a great teammate and a trust for the program and the coaching staff," coach Bill Stewart said. "His temperament has improved and he's getting better with his reasoning and listening. He wants to be the first person in his family to earn a college degree ... He's living right and doing right."
There were those who doubted his size, 5-feet-7, 175 pounds, coming out of high school. There were those who doubted his staying power. After averaging 8.6 yards per carry as a part-time freshman, Devine followed up with seasons of 1,289 and 1,465 yards. He needs 1,784 yards as a senior to surpass Avon Cobourne on West Virginia's career list.
|Noel Devine needs 1,784 yards as a senior to surpass Avon Cobourne on West Virginia's career list. (Getty Images)|
The rushing stats of Pittsburgh sophomore Dion Lewis were better last season, but Devine is clearly the league's most exciting player. Add in his pass-catching and kick returning abilities and West Virginia is once again a contender in the Big East.
While Devine has been solid, his conference's future has looked shaky. As recently as mid-June it was uncertain if there would be a Big East. Had the Pac-10 been able to land those six Big 12 teams, it would have caused a chain reaction of major conference realignment that might have meant the end for the Big East.
It not only survived, but is thriving in 2010. Devine and Lewis are the conference's two best Heisman candidates. Rutgers' Tom Savage and Cincinnati's Zach Collaros have bright futures at quarterback. The Bearcats are coming off consecutive BCS bowls. UConn's Randy Edsall is arguably the league's best coach. He and the Huskies will be dangerous with 16 returning starters.
"The sky's the limit," said Devine who might as well have been talking about the league as a whole. "I'm going to kill it this year."
Offensive player of the year
Dion Lewis, RB, Pittsburgh: This is kind of a hand-in-hand Heisman pursuit for Pittsburgh's sensational sophomore. If the Panthers win 10, Lewis has a chance. But Pittsburgh won't win 10 without Lewis being great. It could happen. Lewis will run behind a line that is trying to produce a 1,000-yard rusher for the fourth consecutive year. Credit Dave Wannstedt, who likes to pound it old school. The durable (25 carries per game as a freshman), fast and shifty Lewis could approach 2,000 yards this season if the line comes around.
Defensive player of the year
Greg Romeus, DE, Pittsburgh: There was a time when Romeus couldn't get into a three-point stance. That time would have been four years ago when he arrived as a project from South Florida. Romeus contributed eight of the team's nation-leading 47 sacks last season. If you have to share the Big East defensive player of the year, it might as well be with a teammate. Fellow defensive end Jabaal Sheard has 10 1/2 sacks over the past two seasons.
|Big East Quick Hits|
|Best offense: Cincinnati|
|Best defense: Rutgers|
|Sleeper team: Rutgers|
|Coach of the year: Dave Wannstedt, Pittsburgh|
|Offensive player: Dion Lewis, Pittsburgh|
|Defensive player: Greg Romeus, Pittsburgh|
|Game of the Year: Pittsburgh at Cincinnati, Dec. 4|
Predicted order of finish
1. Pittsburgh: A Heisman-worthy tailback (Lewis). An NFL-worthy receiver (Jonathan Baldwin). An All-American defensive end (Greg Romeus). Coming off his first 10-win season at Pittsburgh, Dave Wannstedt's Panthers are becoming a prohibitive favorite in the Big East. Expect another 10-win season, 1,800 yards from Lewis and a BCS bowl for Pitt. The schedule could be the difference in the Panthers achieving elite (top 10) status this season. They open at Utah, then get I-AA power New Hampshire nine days later. Miami comes to Pittsburgh after an open date. The Miami and Notre Dame games are sandwiched around a home game against Florida International. Must-see game: Dec. 4 at Cincinnati. Romeus still wakes up every day thinking about how his team blew a 31-10 lead with the Big East title on the line. A BCS bid could be on the line again.
2. Connecticut: Edsall already has shared a Big East title. It's time for him to win one outright and show people what UConn would look like in the Orange Bowl. The interest shown in Edsall by other programs (Virginia, Notre Dame, Kansas) makes him one of the hottest coaching commodities in the country. The problem is, beyond Donald Brown a couple of years ago, we don't know many of his players. The Huskies won't be anonymous much longer. Notre Dame transfer Zach Frazer hopefully gets a full season after being knocked out against North Carolina early last season. Eight defensive starters return, including Greg Lloyd Jr., son of the former Pittsburgh Steelers' great. The West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati games are at home. Must-see game: Sept. 4 at Michigan. A little secret between us: Connecticut has better talent than Michigan. It's just a question of showing it in the debut of the new Big House. Edsall should win this. Rich Rodriguez has to win this.
3. West Virginia: Stewart hasn't gotten enough recognition for winning 19 games in first two seasons (plus one bowl game). Those who thought the program would collapse without Rich Rodriguez were wrong. Stewart has recruited well, made the most of what Rich Rod left behind (see above) and kept West Virginia a Top 25 program. NCAA allegations could derail this program in the future, but for now the Mountaineers continue to be a BCS bowl contender. Must-see game: Sept. 25 at LSU. Pittsburgh might have the league title wrapped up by Nov. 26, the date of the Backyard Brawl. The trip to LSU gives us a glimpse at a Big East power going on the road to Death Valley. Let's just say it isn't exactly Cincinnati.
4. Cincinnati: Butch Jones is a fine coach with all kinds of upside. Unfortunately, Butch Jones is not Brian Kelly. It's natural that programs slump when a successful coach leaves. That will happen at Cincinnati where it will be impossible to win 12 games this season. What Kelly accomplished in Cincinnati qualifies as Halley's Comet frequency. There is enough left to compete for the Big East title and go to a bowl game, but win a Big East title? No. No way. Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati. A trap game for Oklahoma, perhaps the biggest game in Cincinnati's history. Those BCS bowls were nice, Bearcats, but you lost them. This is a chance to make a national statement against a national power.
5. Rutgers: There are 63 Scarlet Knights with at least three years of eligibility remaining. Being optimistic, that means Rutgers is the best young team in the Big East. Quarterback Tom Savage took his lumps as a freshman. With the incredibly fast Mohamed Sanu at receiver, Savage's 52.3 percent completion percentage should go up. Difference-making linebackers Damaso Munoz and Ryan D'Imperio are gone. Three biggies are on the road -- Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and West Virginia. Must-see game: Nov. 3 at South Florida. Greg Schiano has made Rutgers matter by recruiting heavily in South Florida while beating South Florida. The Scarlet Knights have won the last four meetings. Not to say that Florida recruiting is going to go away if Rutgers loses this one but it can't hurt to keep the streak going. Rutgers and South Florida are the only current Big East schools not to win at least a share of the Big East title.
6. South Florida: There is a lot of cleaning up to do post-Jim Leavitt. Skip Holtz has brought a positive vibe as one of the most respected coaches in the profession by his peers. Unfortunately, it's still all about talent. There is no way the defense is as destructive without George Selvie and Jason Pierre-Paul. The offense is missing iconic quarterback (at least for USF) Matt Grothe. Tailback Mike Ford was kicked off the team. Dual-threat QB B.J. Daniels is going to have to carry the team. Must-see game: Sept. 11 at Florida. A program desperate to make it the Big Four in Florida must show well against the Gators and at Miami on Nov. 27.
7. Louisville: The Cardinals are on their way back under Charlie Strong. Bobby Petrino proved Louisville could become a top 10 team by outscoring everyone. Strong would like to be more balanced. It won't be this year, but the Cards will win again. Must-see game: Sept. 4 vs. Kentucky. The Cardinals haven't beaten the Wildcats since Bobby Petrino (2006). No better opening statement for Charlie Strong -- or Joker Phillips. Both are making their debuts as head coaches.
8. Syracuse: The Orange are competitive again. That's a small step forward for a program whose best hope over the summer was being invited into the Big Ten. Ryan Nassib gets the quarterback job, delayed a year after Greg Paulus was brought in. The defense made strides and has some star power with talented ends Chandler Jones and Mikhail Marinovich, brother of Todd. Doug Marrone has turned around the attitude at Syracuse but the Orange are still a couple of years away. Must-see game: Oct. 16 vs. Pittsburgh. The 'Cuse are better. We all agree about that. It's time to prove it with the Big East favorites coming to town a week after Pittsburgh plays at Notre Dame.