Josh Vitale

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5 Sleepers to Watch: Big East

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Big East has always been seen as one of the weakest BCS football conferences. It only has eight teams, and none of them finished better than 9-4 in 2010. But even with that reputation, the conference does have plenty of fantasy talent you can take advantage of in your drafts. With sometimes low-level competition in the Big East, there's more potential for the conference's shining stars to put up huge numbers, benefiting your fantasy team immensely.

These players may not be household names quite yet, but when the college fantasy football season gets under way, these are talented guys that could be worth a spot on your team's roster.

Here are the top five sleepers to watch in the Big East:

Other Conferences: SEC | ACC | Big 12 | Big 10
Top 10 Rankings: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers

Geno Smith – QB – West Virginia

Sometimes all it takes to turn a player from a solid bench-warmer to a fantasy stud is an offensive system change, and with Dana Holgorsen bringing his high-powered offensive attack from Oklahoma State, Smith is primed to do just that. Smith finished his sophomore campaign with a solid 2,763 yards, 24 touchdowns and 217 rushing yards, but with the Holgorsen era set to begin in West Virginia this season, fantasy owners can expect those numbers to skyrocket.

Though he is blessed with plenty of physical talent, Smith played last season in a decidedly run-first offense, which hampered his fantasy numbers. But Holgorsen, Oklahoma State's former offensive coordinator, will bring in the system that turned Cowboys' quarterback Brandon Weeden into an offensive star last season, putting Smith in line for a numbers boost in 2011. Smith doesn't have the same passing ability as Weeden, but if you couple his rushing ability with a more fantasy-friendly offensive system, Smith could end up being a star this season.

2011 Projection: 3,400 passing yards, 28 touchdowns, 400 rushing yards, two touchdowns

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Zach Collaros – QB – Cincinnati

It may be difficult to consider the top passer in the Big East last season a sleeper. But on a team like the Bearcats, fantasy talent sometimes flies under the radar, and Collaros is a player that deserves to be owned in most fantasy leagues. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards last year in his junior season and scored 26 touchdowns, both career-highs, and his skills should continue to improve as he enters his senior season, especially with the positional talent around him.

Cincinnati may be one of the weaker teams in the conference, but from a fantasy perspective, they may be one of the strongest. RB Isaiah Pead and WR D.J. Woods are solid position players, and it's a good bet that they will finish with over 1,000 yards. With that type of offensive balance, Collaros is in a perfect position to put up nice fantasy numbers. He threw for more than 250 yards in six games last season and threw for at least three touchdowns six times as well. The Bearcats may not make much noise in the Big East this season, but they may spend much of the year playing from behind, making Collaros a solid fantasy investment.

2011 Projection: 3,200 passing yards, 30 touchdowns, 250 rushing yards, two touchdowns

Antwon Bailey – RB – Syracuse

Keeping with the theme of good fantasy talent on sub-par teams, we get to Orange running back Antwon Bailey. Bailey was the backup to Delone Carter last season, but if his numbers in a secondary role are any indication, he could become a star in 2011, as Carter has moved on to the NFL.

Bailey only had half the carries Carter racked up, but still finished with 554 yards on 114 carries, good for almost five yards per carry. And with Bailey now in the primary running back role with not much experience behind him, he should get the lion's share of the carries for the Orange this season. Carter finished last season with more than 1,200 yards and nine touchdowns, and while Bailey may not me quite as talented, those numbers will certainly be in reach for him this season. If you need a running back prospect late in your draft, look no further than Bailey.

2011 Projection: 1,100 yards, 11 touchdowns.

Ray Graham – RB – Pittsburgh

After producing star-rushers LeSean McCoy and Dion Grant in the past few seasons, the Panthers' rushing attack has proved itself to be a fantasy goldmine, and it shouldn't miss a beat no matter who is in the backfield. And with Grant now in the NFL, Ray Graham seems poised to be the next stud running back in Pittsburgh. And based on his numbers in a backup role last season, he could be a great value play on draft day.

Graham only totaled 149 carries for the Panthers last season, but he finished the season with 922 yards and eight touchdowns, not far behind Grant's 1,061 yard, 13 score stat-line. Both players had similar numbers in 2010, even though Graham 71 less carries than Grant, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Though his numbers were padded slightly by a 277 yard effort against Florida International in early October, Graham still put together a solid fantasy season, even as a backup. And with Graham likely heading into a full-time starter's role in 2011, you can expect his numbers to increase dramatically, making him potentially a late-round bargain.

2011 Projection: 1,250 yards, 14 touchdowns

Tavon Austin – WR – West Virginia

We've already learned how much the Mountaineers' new offensive attack will help quarterback Geno Smith, but the person who may benefit the most from Holgorsen's style of play will be Austin. Austin's 787 yard, eight touchdown stat-line last season was solid enough for fantasy purposes, but in an offense where he was sharing touches with the similarly talented Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, Austin was never given the opportunity to truly shine.

But with both Devine and Sanders now in the NFL, Austin looks ready to take over their portions of the offensive production. Both Austin and Sanders finished with fairly equal receiving numbers, but with Sanders gone, much of those targets will likely go to Austin. And if Holgorsen's work with Justin Blackmon, arguably the top receiver in college football, is any indication, Austin could be in line for a huge season in 2011. Don't expect Austin to put up the lofty numbers that Blackmon has the ability to produce, but 1,000 yards and double-digit scores are a more than reasonable expectation.

2011 Projection: 1,200 yards, 11 touchdowns

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