For my money, based on consistency, yards per catch, touchdowns, and clutch play, Stedman Bailey is the best receiver in the Big East. Eat your heart out, Mohamed Sanu.
The season is over, the votes have been calculated, and the preseason awards will be unveiled in short order. With the prolific passing attack unveiled by Dana Holgorsen this year, WVU QB Geno Smith and his receivers figured to feature prominently in the league leaders in passing and receiving. Fortunately for WVU, dreams of a wide open passing attack came to fruition, as Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin both eclipsed the WVU record for receiving yards in a season and Austin set a new mark for total receptions. But the pair does not sit alone atop the Big East statistical leaderboard for receiving. They are joined by Rutgers junior Mohamed Sanu and Syracuse junior Alec Lemon. At the close of the regular season, the stats shake out like this:
Bailey - 67 receptions for 1197 yards and 11 TD for an average of 17.9 YPC
Austin - 89 receptions for 1063 yards and 4 TD for an average of 11.9 YPC
Lemon - 68 receptions for 834 yards and 6 TD for an average of 12.3 YPC
Sanu - 109 receptions for 1104 yards and 7 TD for an average of 10.5 YPC
Given those stats, who should be selected for Big East postseason honors? Bailey is clearly the big-play guy out of the group, but also caught the fewest balls. Austin has the second most receptions, but fewer yards per catch. Sanu catches a lot of balls and scores touchdowns, but has the fewest yards per catch. Lemon is pretty solid across the board. So it's hard to distinguish, so let's take a game-by-game look.
For quick reference, because I know you're going to ask, here are the NCAA passing defense rankings for this year. For teams that appear on the above schedules, we have: 8 LSU, 10 Rutgers, 13 Army, 32 WVU, 37 Bowling Green, 61 Louisville, 67 Ohio, 70 Pitt, 71 Wake Forest, 73 Maryland, 77 Navy, 84 USF, 88 Tulane, 90 UNC, 98 Syracuse, 100 Marshall, 101 USC, 105 Cincinnati, 109 Toledo, 114 UConn,
In light of those defensive rankings, there are a few performances that stand out:
Bailey - Bailey hauled in 8 passes for 115 yards and a TD against LSU, but was limited to 2 catches for 51 yards and a TD against Rutgers (albeit in the snow), 3 against Pitt and 4 against Bowling Green. He went only three games in which he did not find the end zone - Norfolk State, BG, and USF. That definitely says something for his consistency. Additionally, SteadyB had 7 100-yard games, and only 2 games of fewer than 75 yards. That's impressive.
Austin - Austin racked up 187 yards on 11 catches against LSU. Those numbers are simply astounding. For Austin to have the single best yardage total in a game against the #8 pass defense in the country (especially while his teammate had an excellent game of his own) really makes a statement. He totaled at least 6 catches in every game but 2 (BG and Marshall), but found the end zone only 4 times on the season. Definitely consistent, but when you're catching screens and shovel passes as often as Tavon does, it's easier to be consistent.
Lemon - Had one catch against a putrid Toledo pass defense, 3 against Cincinnati, and 2 against Tulane, which were the three worst defenses he faced. Total touchdowns: 1. But against the best? 4 against Rutgers, and 3 against WVU. Clearly, Lemon feasted on the midding teams on the schedule and Rhode Island. And by midding, in this group we're talking about the lower half of college football. He certainly isn't going to catch anyone's attention with that.
Sanu - I'll admit that when I started this exercise, I figured to find that Sanu did most of his damage against the weak part of his schedule, namely Ohio, Army, and Navy. Well, I was wrong. Sanu's only truly bad game was against Pitt where he was held to only 2 catches, but Rutgers won that game 34-10, so clearly he wasn't needed. The only loss where Sanu didn't come up huge was the snow bowl against WVU. Does it help that Sanu is the Knights' only stud receiver? Maybe. But I think it makes his feats all the more impressive when opposing defenses are keying on him.
If I'm picking 2 all Big East receivers, I'm taking Sanu and Bailey. Lemon simply didn't come through in the big games for Syracuse, and beefed up his stats against the soft underbelly of his stats. Austin was good, and is versatile, but given the type of receiver he is, I would expect that from him. To me, Bailey is the guy who makes WVU's offense go. He can take the top off the defense with his big plays and he has the hops and hands to go up and get the ball in the air. He was huge in all three of WVU's losses, and got into the end zone far more than anyone on the list. Sanu had a few monster games, but did it against fairly solid teams, all things considered. He doesn't average many yards per catch, but he does get into the end zone, which is important for the Rutgers offense. My ranking? 1. Bailey, 2. Sanu, 3. Austin, 4. Lemon.
[h/t to wvu07 for the post idea and ESPN.com for the stats]