At first glance, Sunday's Big East conference standings might not look like much of a surprise, given the way things were predicted to shake out in the pre-season. There's West Virginia at the top at 2-0, and there's Syracuse at the bottom at 0-3. But a look in the middle reveals a confusing jumble. USF at 1-2? Rutgers at 2-2? UConn 2-1? Everyone's beating up on everyone else, and not in the manner that was predicted. Rutgers, after scoring less this year than the guys from "A Night at the Roxbury" unleashes a 50-point barrage on Pitt. The Panthers, who would finish about ninth in the MAC, win at USF impressively before folding like Mark May's credibility. Cincinnati turns the ball over approximate 513 times in a loss to UConn with first place in the league on the line. And the Huskies, again largely overlooked in the pre-season, could easily have been 3-0 in the league if not for an abysmal placekicking performance in an ugly 12-10 loss to Rutgers. So what gives in the Big East? And more importantly, what's to come in November?
First off, the race for the Big East championship should be fun, and entertaining. Each team has strengths, flaws and injury concerns. That makes for an exciting race. It would be a surprise to see West Virginia finish the league slate unbeaten, although it could. And it certainly wouldn't be a shock to see a two-loss team win the title, just as WVU and UConn did a year ago.
Second, that fact shouldn't automatically lead to conclusions that the Big East Conference isn't any good. Comparing one league to another is a pretty meaningless exercise, anyway. It does make for easy writing and lots of debate, but it doesn't matter. After all, it wasn't the Big East defeating the Big XII in the Fiesta Bowl last year. It was West Virginia smacking down Oklahoma.
So don't let all of the columns and talk show blathering about conference strength bother you. Just enjoy the race. I'm sure many Mountaineer fans had a blast yesterday following the Rutgers-Pitt game online. There are going to be more surprises like that to come.
Now, for a quick look at the contenders.
West Virginia (2-0) has the early lead, but also has the toughest schedule remaining. Road trips to UConn, Louisville and Pitt won't be easy, and tough defense in Cincinnati and USF won't make the home games simple either. Do the Mountaineers have their offense on track, or was it a case of unfamiliarity against Auburn, whose defenders couldn't corral WVU's speedy runners or contain its passing routes? The Mountaineers have been through the rigors of the conference chase before, and its vets won't panic. But it won't be able to "out-talent" its remaining foes. It needs peak performances each week.
UConn (2-1) gets WVU and Pitt at home, and has road games at Syracuse and USF remaining. The Huskies' defense of their home turf will tell the tale of their 2008 season. After weathering a shaky few games at quarterback, has UConn found the answer in Cody Endres, who wasn't spectacular against the Bearcats, but was solid enough to complement uber-runner Donald Brown? They also seem to have solved their kicking woes, so they can't be counted out in the race by any stretch. They will need a win over the Mountaineers in order to set themselves up for the stretch run.
Pitt (2-1) would be ok if it just played good teams. Losses to Bowling Green, and now Rutgers, has to have consistency questions swirling. A non-conference game with Notre Dame diverts their conference attention this week, but with league games remaining at Cincinnati and UConn, and home tilts with puzzling Louisville and West Virginia, they have a lot of work to do to live up to the "favorite" label placed on them by alumnus May. The win over USF isn't looking as solid, now that the Bulls have apparently gone Texas Tech with their offensive scheme and dropped to 1-2 in the league.
Cincinnati (1-1) looked primed to make a run to the top of the league. With a great defense, and having weathered a terrible string of injuries at quarterback, the Bearcats were 1-0 in conference ant 5-1 overall before laying a turnover egg at UConn. The Bearcats still have a very good defense, and that can keep them in any of their remaining games. They might be the best of the one-loss teams at this point, and do have three of their five remaining league games at home (USF, Pitt, Syracuse), but if they can't fix their QB woes, they might not be able to make enough use of their talent to hand in the race. The Thursday night home game against USF this week should show whether the UConn performance was a one-game aberration, or a sign of things to come.
Louisville, somewhat overlooked this year, is still hanging in at 1-1 after holding on to defeat USF at home. The Cardinals still have a ton of offensive weapons, but haven't been able to put it all together has they did under Bobby Petrino. That has raised questions about the system of head coach Steve Kragthorpe, much as West Virginia's offensive problems have with Bill Stewart. It seems apparent, however, that the Cards have the ability to explode, and if they do, they could rocket up the standings. The schedule helps, with Cincinnati and WVU visiting the Pizza Palace, although road trips to Pitt and Rutgers could prove difficult, depending on which version of those teams is on display.
Rutgers (2-2) and USF (1-2) are still in the hunt, but both will obviously need help, as well as winning out on their own. One will eliminate the other on Nov. 15, when they square off on the Scarlet Knights' home turf. USF seems better equipped to make a run, but they will have to figure out how to do just that (run the ball) if they are to move up. Eight yards on the ground isn't going to cut it.
OK, so we've identified the players. Who's going to rise to the top? West Virginia has to show it can win a game on the road, but if it does that against the Huskies, it might have the slightest of inside tracks. Cincinnati could ride its defense to the heights, and USF as a dark horse might not be a bad place to lay longshot odds.
Those are just best guesses at this point, though. With the way the league has played out to date, just about anything is possible. There are a few sure bets remaining however, so lay your money down here:
Enjoy the competition! For those that like a nitty-gritty race to the wire, complete with scoreboard watching and gut-wrenching final minutes, this year in the Big East is the race for you.