Several factors bring WVU's game at Cincinnati in November into my spotlight. First, it follows WVU's back-to-back (albeit separated by 11 days) contests against Rutgers and Louisville. If there's going to be an emotional letdown, this is the place. However, that's not the only reason. Cincinnati has forged a hard-hitting defense that has kept it in games, and the Bearcats always seem to play WVU tough. The final scores haven't always been representative of the contest on the field, so the Mountaineers can't overlook a team that appears to be on the upswing. Remember that the ‘Cats downed both South Florida and Rutgers a year ago. A trip to Nippert Stadium isn't one of the most intimidating road trips on the planet, but strange things can happen away from home.
O.K., I know the Cuse doesn't have much juice (sorry, couldn't resist) on the national level. But it still has a game that's important to the program, and that's its opener with Washington on ESPN. The Orange have been trying to get things started under head coach Greg Robinson, but injuries, changed schemes and shaky recruiting have left things in a dicey state. Year three is the typically point when results from new regimes are expected, and there would be no better place to begin than a home ESPN contest against another foe that was once a national power but has also fallen on some lean times. If the Orange don't win this game, it could signal another battle to say out of the cellar of the conference.
The Bulls battle Elon in their home opener…o.k., you didn't think I was serious, did you? Everyone else is looking at the Bulls' trip to Auburn as a gauge of how far USF has progressed, but that's the easy way out. The game that catches my eye is the contest against Central Florida just before USF finishes up with six Big East games. This is a rivalry contest for the Bulls, and winning it not only helps in the short term, but also gives an advantage in both recruiting battles and bragging rights. It may not be Texas-Oklahoma in terms of national hype, but this game is an important one as USF continues its battle to separate itself from the "other" Florida schools and make a name for itself along with the big three of Florida, Florida State and Miami.
The Scarlet Knights' contest with Maryland on September 29 was something of an easy pick for this list. It's their only out of conference game with any national zing, and beating the Terps is typically no easy task. You can't blame Rutgers for not loading up on out of conference heavyweights as it rebuilt its program, but since that path has been taken, it makes winning this game all the more important. Although Navy could catch the Knights napping if they aren't ready to play, it's the Maryland contest that will set them up for another run at national prominence – if they can get the win.
Las year, the Panthers gakked up a double overtime loss to Connecticut that likely cost it a bowl bid. This year, the Huskies again occupy a key spot on the schedule. After traveling to Michigan State, Pitt returns home to face UConn before again hitting the road against Virginia, and the Panthers need to ensure they don't lose focus on their Big East opener in between the road tests. The UConn game isn't being singled out just because Pitt lost to the Huskies last year, either. UConn is likely to again focus on a ground-based offense, which should provide a good read on how well the Panthers have rebuilt their rushing defense, and Pitt certainly needs a Big East win to help erase the ugliness of the five-game conference losing streak they ended last year with. Win it, and Pitt should be headed back to another bowl. Lose it, and the heat might be turned up under head coach Dave Wannstedt.
While UL's out of conference games at North Carolina State and against Utah are somewhat intriguing, the trip to South Florida in November really catches the eye. In real estate, the three most important factors are location, location and location, and that factor applies here as well, as the game against the Bulls comes between the Cards' monster contests at West Virginia and against Rutgers. Fortunately for Louisville, these three games are spread out over 21 days, but as the Bulls have proved over the past couple of years, they are capable of knocking off league heavyweights. Of course, the location factor also helps UL somewhat, as this game doesn't take place until November 17. An earlier date, with a new Cardinal coaching staff, might have been more to the Bulls' liking.
Attaining small goals should be the focus for a UConn team fighting to return to the .500 mark, so I'm looking at the opener with Duke as the first step in that direction. Granted, beating the Blue Devils will make about as much of a splash as Rutgers downing Norfolk State, but for the Huskies this contest is an important one. Connecticut needs a win in its opener to wash the bad taste of last season away, and a win over the ACC school could set them up for at least a 4-1 start before they travel to Virginia in mid-October. A loss, on the other hand, could hearken a repeat of last year's 2-3 start that sent them spinning toward the bottom of the league.
The Bearcats are the most underrated team in the league, and also perhaps the most inconsistent. UC dominated South Florida and Rutgers in 2006, yet lost an ugly contest to Pitt and barely held on for wins over Akron and UConn. While Cincy's league schedule doesn't set itself up for a good start (at Rutgers and vs. Louisville), the Bearcats' next foe, Pitt, could well set the tone for the season. A 4-1 start against a rather light non-conference slate is a possibility, but so is a 4-3 record heading into the Pitt game. Should UC find enough offense to complement its stingy defense, a win over Pitt could put them into position for an upper-echelon finish.