Big East Turnaround Benefit UM?

One quick look at the Big East Conference before the season started probably couldn't have stopped the University of Miami football team from thinking they would add another league championship to their growing collection.

But several months later, putting another Big East championship trophy on display at the Hecht Center isn't such a certainty. The Hurricanes have a little company this time around in the battle for conference supremacy as the season heads down the stretch. Company the Hurricanes aren't quite accustomed to.

For all the national championship conversation surrounding them, the Hurricanes might want to turn their attention to winning the Big East, first. Syracuse (7-2, 4-0), Boston College (6-2, 4-1) and Virginia Tech (6-1, 3-1) are all part of a four-team race, including the Hurricanes, for the conference crown this season. The Hurricanes will meet all of them in three of their final four games of the season.

After facing Temple this Saturday, the Hurricanes travel to BC on Nov. 10. The Orangemen visit the Orange Bowl Nov. 17, while Miami closes out the regular season Dec. 1 against the Hokies in Blacksburg.

Miami, the reigning Big East champions, has won the conference championship five times since joining the Big East in 1991. Miami is currently 49-9 against Big East opposition since their inclusion in the league. Already this season, the Hurricanes have disposed of Pittsburgh (43-21), Rutgers (61-0) and West Virginia (45-3). The last Big East team to defeat Miami was Virginia Tech- in October of 1999.

"I think the league is much tougher than the respect it gets," said University of Miami head coach Larry Coker. "We definitely have our work cut out for us the last several weeks of the season. Boston College, Syracuse and Virginia Tech are all fine, fine football teams."

Coker expressed ‘surprise' that Syracuse could go into Blacksburg and come away with an upset victory over then-No. 4 Virginia Tech. Maybe he shouldn't have because the Orangemen have resurrected a season that didn't start out too well.

Faced with one of the toughest schedules in the country, Syracuse opened the year with consecutive losses at Georgia Tech and Tennessee. Since then, the Orangemen have ran off seven straight victories. Syracuse has won seven straight games for the first time since 1997.

Syracuse has made it possible with a controlled offensive philosophy and a swarming defense. Senior back James Mungro, third in the Big East in rushing, has anchored an effective running game with 859 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback R.J. Anderson (38-of-88, 724 yards, 4 TDs, 1 INT) has created plenty of offense with his ability to run with the football, while Receiver David Tyree has developed into the team's deep threat. Tyree leads the team with 16 receptions, 208 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Senior defensive end Dwight Freeney is the main clog in a unit that has allowed four touchdowns in the last month. Freeney has 14.5 sacks on the season, including one against Virginia Tech last week. The mark is one short of breaking the school-record for sacks in a season established in1984 by Tim Green. Linebacker Clifton Smith had 11 tackles and a sack in the victory over the Hokies and was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week.

Freeney has had such an impact this season he is slowly gathering up support as a Heisman Trophy candidate- from his own coach.

"I would think that they should at least put him in the race," said Syracuse coach Paul Pasqualoni. "He means so much to us."

But the Orangemen (No. 19 in the AP) are not as much a pressing issue for the Hurricanes- Boston College is.

The Eagles, coming off a 21-17 come-from-behind victory over Notre Dame, could pose a serious challenge to UM's championship hopes of any kind when the two teams meet next week. Junior running back Williams Green leads the Big East with 1,164 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns. Starting quarterback Brian St.Pierre is also putting together a strong campaign (1,475 passing yards, 19 TD passes). Defensively, Sean Guthrie has been consistent all season in helping the Eagles get to the quarterback. Guthrie, a senior out of Miami, leads the team with 6.5 sacks.

Despite their national title aspirations taking a hit last week, Virginia Tech will also pose formidable task for Miami in the regular-season season finale. The Hokies have defeated Miami five of the last seasons. Cold weather, including snow flurries, could await the Hurricanes in Blacksburg.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy," Coker said. "If we win the rest of our games, we definitely would have earned it."

IN THE RAIN

The Hurricanes opened preparations for Temple with a two-hour practice in sporadic rain, Tuesday afternoon at Greentree Field. The Hurricanes hold a 9-1 all-time series lead over Temple. The series dates back 71 years.

Back-up running back Willis McGahee (knee sprain) and defensive end Andrew Williams (knee sprain) did not take part in the week's first practice and will not play against Temple. Defensive end Cornelius Green (turf toe) and Daryl Jones (ankle sprain) returned at full-speed after missing practice last week. Both have been cleared to play,

LOMBARDI HOPEFULS

UM's Bryant McKinnie and Joaquin Gonzalez are among the 12 players that remain in contention for the Lombardi Trophy, awarded to the nation's top lineman. The award-winner will be revealed Dec. 5 in Houston.

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