By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
Sports Network (Philadelphia, PA) - Although the Big East may be lagging behind the other power conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision, it doesn't mean there is a lack of talent to be found at its member schools.
Whether they are returning stars or getting their first chance to prove themselves with expanded roles, there are plenty of players who have the ability to lead their teams to the league's automatic BCS bowl bid. With the 2012 season just a few months away, the following is a list of some of the Big East's best:
Matt Brown, RB, Temple - After getting ousted from the conference following the 2004 season, Temple returns to the Big East this fall, and Matt Brown will try to lead them to success. A dynamic kick returner in 2011, Brown also managed to rack up 916 rushing yards on 155 carries while splitting time with Bernard Pierce in the backfield. With Pierce now a member of the Baltimore Ravens, Brown will get his chance to prove he's capable of being the team's feature back.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh - Graham was well on his to be being the conference's top back last season, rushing for 958 yards and nine TDs before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Connecticut in late October. The Panthers expect to have him back healthy, but whether or not he regains his explosiveness is a huge question.
Gary Nova, QB, Rutgers - The freshman gunslinger took his lumps in 2011, throwing for just 11 touchdowns against nine interceptions. Nova did show flashes of brilliance, including a 271-yard, two-touchdown performance in a 21-20 win over Navy on October 15, but he will need to hold off junior Chas Dodd if he wants to prove himself as the starter for coach Kyle Flood's squad this season.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh - Donald made huge strides from his freshman to sophomore campaigns, transforming from a solid rotation player to one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league. The 270-pounder finished second in the Big East in both sacks (11.0) and tackles for loss (16.0) in 2011, and he will be looking to top those numbers this fall.
Khaseem Greene, LB, Rutgers - Greene was a beast last year, earning the Big East's co-Defensive Player of the Year award after amassing an astounding 140 tackles. The dream season came to a nightmarish end however as broke his right leg during the Pinstripe Bowl. His recovery has been going well this off- season, but it will be interesting to see if the fifth-year senior can return to his dominant form.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville - The reigning Big East Rookie of the Year was one of the most decorated true freshman in the country last year. Bridgewater led his team to a share of the league championship by throwing for 2,129 yards and 14 touchdowns, while finishing second to Smith in the conference with a passing efficiency of 132.4. Bridgewater already has great chemistry with wide receiver and high school teammate Eli Rogers, and the duo should improve as time goes on.
Ryne Giddins, DE, USF - Giddins showed plenty of ability in his first season as a starter, registering 11.0 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery in 2011, earning Second-Team All-Big East honors. Giddins anchors the Bulls' defensive line and is bound to draw plenty of double-teams from opposing offenses, but he has the skills to be effective regardless.
Walter Stewart, DE, Cincinnati - With Derek Wolfe (21.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks in 2011) joining the Denver Broncos during the most recent NFL Draft, Stewart becomes the anchor on the Bearcats' defensive line. The versatile performer started all 13 games as a junior, recording 11.0 tackles for loss, 6.0 sacks, eight pass breakups, four forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.
Lyle McCombs, RB, Connecticut - Last year, McCombs made the kind of impact that not many freshman are able to do, finishing second in the conference with 1,151 yards while rushing for seven touchdowns, and he goes into this season as the unquestioned featured back behind an improved UConn offensive line. If he can stay healthy - he's just 5-8 and 166 pounds - McCombs may be the league's top rusher in 2012.
Alec Lemon, WR, Syracuse - 2011 was a struggle for Syracuse, finishing with a 1-6 conference record, but it certainly wasn't Lemon's fault. The talented wideout finished in the top-five in the Big East in receptions (68) and receiving yards (834), and the 6-2 senior provides a reliable target down field for the Orange quarterbacks.
05/30 11:52:44 ET