Big East Bowl Preview: Pitt, Cincy, UConn

Despite posting a 3-0 record in bowl season so far, the Big East has been under the radar. The conference has a chance to remedy that if the conference champ Bearcats can win the Orange Bowl. Pittsburgh and UConn also have chances to make statements and gain momentum for next year, as the Big East has a realistic shot at running the table in bowl season.

Brut Sun Bowl:  #18 Pittsburgh (9-3, 5-2 BE) vs. #24 Oregon State (8-4, 7-2 Pac-10)Wednesday, December 31st, 2:00PM, CBS

Overview:  Coming into this matchup, the hype surrounded two of the nation's premiere young running backs in LeSean McCoy and Oregon State's Jacquizz Rodgers.  McCoy built on his sterling freshman campaign by averaging over 115 yards per game on the ground and drawing comparisons to former Pitt legend Tony Dorsett.  Rodgers, on the other hand, piled up nearly two hundred yards on the ground in Oregon State's thrilling upset of top-ranked USC.  Rodgers was the only tailback this season to solve the riddle that is USC's swarming defense.  Jacquizz (and his brother, James, a wideout) will be sidelined for this game with late-season injuries, however.  This casts a slight damper on the game, taking the glitz and glamour out of it.  This game will now likely be decided by the quarterbacks:  Bill Stull and Lyle Moevao.  Both have posted solid, if not gaudy numbers.  The Beavers also feature Samie Stroughter, a big-play wideout who needs just 48 receiving yards to top the one thousand yard mark for the season.  Oregon State's last visit to the Sun Bowl was a memorable one, as they went for a two-point conversion in the final minute to earn a gutsy 39-38 come-from-behind victory over Missouri two years ago.  The Beavers will feature backup running back Ryan McCants in this contest.  He got the start in the Civil War against Oregon.  The Ducks took an early lead and McCants got few rushing opportunities.  He should get his chance to shine in this one, which features two evenly matched opponents.  Oregon State ranks just ahead of Pittsburgh in most offensive categories, while the Panthers' defense edges out Oregon State's.  This will likely be a high scoring contest that could come down to which team gets last possession or which kicker can connect in the clutch.

3 Things Pitt Must Do To Win:

-Win the battle of the clock.  It will be imperative for Dave Wannstedt's club to dictate the pace of the game.  Oregon State has a high-flying offense, even without Jacquizz Rodgers.  Expect a heavy dose of LeSean McCoy and don't be surprised to see the Beavers stack the box and force Bill Stull to beat them with his arm.

-Force turnovers and generate defensive pressure.  Pitt's front four isn't overly known for getting to the opposing quarterback, but they'll need to if they want to slow down Lyle Moevao's aerial attack.  Wannstedt has repeatedly praised the Beavers' offensive line in the days leading up to this game, as they've surrendered just twelve sacks all year.  And, as with any game, winning the turnover battle will be vitally important to the outcome.

-Get off to a fast start.  Pitt is a team that primarily focuses on running the ball and isn't that good at coming from behind.  Couple that with an Oregon State squad coached by Mike Riley, who's 4-0 in bowl games since returning to the school in 2003, and Pitt will have a difficult assignment if they can't get off to a good start.  Not that they're doomed if they don't score first, but I don't like Pitt's chances if they can't put some kind of points on the board on their couple of possessions.

Prediction:  Oregon State 31, Pittsburgh 27

FedEx Orange Bowl:  #12 Cincinnati (11-2, 6-1 BE) vs. #21 Virginia Tech (9-4, 5-3 ACC)

Thursday, January 1st, 8:30 PM, FOX

Overview:  The Bearcats are one of the nation's most underappreciated teams.  They've went through more quarterbacks this season than Paris Hilton has BFFs.  Despite that, Brian Kelly guided this team to an outright Big East title and an 11-2 record.  One of those losses was on the road to an Oklahoma team that's in the national title game.  And that game was merely an eight-point game in the third quarter until, surprise, Cincy lost its starting QB.  Bob Stoops' club piled on from there and made the final score a bit ugly, but don't let that fool you.  The Bearcats were playing right with the nation's best.  Meanwhile, they face a Virginia Tech squad that has struggled mightily away from the comforts of Blacksburg (2-4 on the road).  And Tech has lost its last four BCS games, including last year's 24-21 setback against Kansas.  The ACC has lost its last eight, while the Big East has won its last three (yeah, don't tell that to the national media).  So what will make this an exciting game?  Well, it will come down to two of the nation's better defenses and a heavy dose of Beamerball.  Expect Virginia Tech to play ball control and the field position game extensively.  While the Hokies' defense isn't as widely recognized as usual, it will still put a lot of pressure on Cincy's passing attack.  Expect Frank Beamer to feature the run extensively with freshman running back Darren Evans.  Sophomore QB Tyrod Taylor is a dual threat that will stretch Cincy's defense.  This will be a low scoring defensive struggle in the teens and twenties; that's what'll keep it close.  But you can expect a fundamentally well-played football game, and for all the bluster ‘experts' do, they're only predictions.  No one saw West Virginia surprising Georgia in the Sugar Bowl a few years ago and bowl season is where upsets flourish. 

3 Things Cincinnati Must Do To Win:

-Establish the running game.  In Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel, the ‘Cats have two backs that combined for nearly 1,200 yards.  This offense is not one dimensional like many people think it is.  Expect these two to open some eyes on the national stage.  Another unit that should shine in this contest is the Cincinnati secondary.  The Hokies' top two quarterbacks have just five touchdown tosses versus eleven interceptions.  If Cincy gets ahead early, this one could get ugly.

-Stay even in the special teams battle.  Don't have a kick or punt blocked.  Going up against Frank Beamer, the Bearcats aren't likely to win the special teams battle, but what they can do is stick to their fundamentals on punt block coverage and field goals.  Also, avoiding penalties will be critical for Cincy as Virginia Tech, while in the lowest fifth of the FBS (ranked around 100th in many offensive categories, except running), has the weapons to capitalize on second chances.

-Play loose.  Go out and play merely to have fun on the big stage.  The ‘Cats need to stay loose and not panic if Virginia Tech is able to get a defensive or special teams touchdown.  Cincy is a team built to erase deficits.  Featuring a passing game that doesn't place too much emphasis on one player, Brian Kelly's squad will likely finish the season with two wide receivers over the 1,000 yard mark.

Prediction:  Cincinnati 24, Virginia Tech 16

International Bowl:  Buffalo (8-5, 5-3 MAC) vs. Connecticut (7-5, 3-4 BE)Saturday, January 3rd, 12:00 PM, ESPN2

Overview:  This game pits two of America's better head coaches against each other in Turner Gill and Randy Edsall.  They've managed to do more with less and both coincidentally, were closely linked to Syracuse's recent head coaching search.  However, Edsall has something that the Bulls will have a tough time stopping:  Donald Brown.  He is one of the nation's most underappreciated rushers; suffice it said that if he posted those numbers even at a school like Miami (Fla.) or Virginia Tech, he would've been in the Heisman talk.  Anyhow, UConn will need to rely on its defense because its passing game has looked mediocre oftentimes this season.  Expect Buffalo to stack the box on defense.  On offense, Buffalo will likely be the polar opposite of UConn.  A high-flying aerial attack will be lead by QB Drew Willy, who finished the regular season with 25 touchdown passes versus just five interceptions.  However, UConn had pretty good luck stopping the last prolific aerial attack they faced, when they routed Cincy 40-16 this season.  Still, this one should test them though.  Willy has picked apart many teams, surprising not only the MAC (specifically, then-undefeated Ball State in the title game) but also non-conference opponents.  Buffalo is a well-coached team that won't quit and will not be overwhelmed by UConn's speed and talent.  An interesting stat to note in this one:  Buffalo's leading wideout, Naaman Roosevelt has more than five times the receiving yards as UConn's top receiving threat.  Roosevelt has over 1,300 yards and thirteen receiving touchdowns this season.  Stopping him will be a priority for UConn.

3 Things UConn Must Do To Win:

-Don't let it be a close game.  Easier said than done, but for what it's worth, Buffalo has triumphed in quadruple overtime, double overtime and overtime this year.  This is a team that's not going to fold at the end.  And the game, at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, is decidedly slanted towards the Bulls in location.  Expect their fans to come out in force to celebrate the team's first bowl berth in a half-century.  (By the way, if you haven't read up on the 1958 Buffalo Bulls football team, I would suggest doing so.  It's a fascinating read about how one team rose up and fought back against racism.)

-Keep their QB healthy.  While their problems haven't been quite as bad as Cincy's, the Huskies have struggled to keep their signal callers in pristine condition this season.  With a mostly-healed team after a long break, expect Randy Edsall to rely on Donald Brown, but not be afraid to throw a few deep passes to stretch the Bulls' defense in the early going.

-Don't overlook James Starks.  The Bulls' top rusher finished with over 1,300 yards and fifteen touchdowns.  The Bulls are a balanced offensive squad that will test UConn's defense.  If UConn's defense can bend but not break, this one will likely come down to whether or not the Connecticut offense has solved the inconsistencies that plagued it.  (They scored just 58 points in their five losses).  UConn stumbled to a 2-5 record down the stretch, but could potentially cap a 6-0 bowl season for the Big East.

Prediction:  UConn 27, Buffalo 24

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