Big East Preview: Bearcats Lose a Few Good Men, but Gain a Third Straight Conference Title
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The Big East is traditionally one of the latest conferences to begin conference play. This year, no two teams in the conference meet until October 8th, when Rutgers faces Connecticut. It’s not until the next week that the conference really starts to play each other, and as a small eight team group, the title is decided in a relatively short period of time.
The Big East doesn’t feature any elite, must see programs, so they take advantage of an ability to showcase their games on national television on weeknights. This small stage gives the Big East to display a rare meritocracy: rarely will one of it’s teams begin in the preseason top ten because they are tough to distinguish from each other based on hype. Usually, however, a team from this conference ends up in the top ten, a worthy inclusion in the BCS field, and another invades the top 20.
This year, Pitt begins as the highest rated team in the AP Poll at no. 15, with West Virginia checking in at no. 25. Cincinnati, who lost for the first time in last year’s Sugar Bowl, is unranked. Same with Connecticut, who may soon find themselves at the high point in the history of their football program. So while the Big East may not be at it’s level established a year ago, where it clearly plays at a higher level of football than the Big Ten, it’s still closer to a middle-of-the-pack BCS conference than the ugly stepsister of the bunch.
Pitt probably deserves to be the highest rated team, pre-season. They enter the year the toughest team, player for player, and they play the most difficult schedule in the Big East. They travel to East Hartford, they travel to Tampa, and they conclude the season at Cincinnati. Those are long trips for Pittsburgh. Their local rival, West Virginia, travels to them this year, where home field advantage has little meaning. Pitt also scheduled difficultly in the non-conference portion of their schedule: a long season-opening trip to play at Utah, a team who can match Pitt player for player and does it all with a more progressive approach. Then they bring in one of the most talented teams in college football, the Miami Hurricanes, to play at Heinz Field. And of course, because Dave Wannedstedt is haunted in his dreams by Brian Kelly’s comeback machine, he gets to travel to South Bend to play the Irish this season.
That would be a really difficult schedule for any program, but for a Panthers team that has been marred by inconsistency prior to a put-it-altogether 2009 season, it may well be a death sentence. Now, while the non-conference schedule has no bearing on who will win the Big East, it could combine to drop Pitt out of the top 25 before they begin conference play. A 3-2 team is unlikely to be ranked in the top 25 as they trade wins for losses. But the Panthers are unlikely to even run through their Big East schedule cleanly. They have two easy conference wins: at Syracuse, and vs. Louisville. Every other game could potentially trip up Pitt.
The difficult stretch for the Panthers comes in the final four weeks. Pitt is on the road three times and plays West Virginia at home in that stretch. They could come into this stretch on a roll — a mid-season run of Syracuse, Rutgers, and Louisville isn’t exactly the toughest part of their schedule, but Pitt would be fortunate to save 2-2 in November to close out the year. The key is making sure the wins and losses fall to the right teams…they almost certainly can not win the Big East by losing to Cincinnati, and a loss to either WVU or Connecticut might cause some tiebreaker scenarios as well.
Connecticut has scheduled considerably softer out of conference than Pitt, but not for lack of effort, as their opening week match-up at Michigan is one of the more intriguing games of that (this) week in college football. Then they play Texas Southern, Temple, Vandy, and Buffalo in the next four weeks. Temple is a potential pitfall in what is basically a road game, but you’d still have to expect a Connecticut team to win those games. Whether they enter conference play in the top 25 is entirely based on if they can beat the Wolverines on opening day. Michigan doesn’t do anything that isn’t highly publicized, which makes this a winning match-up for a UConn team that certainly doesn’t need that win to make noise in the Big East this year.
The other thing that Connecticut has going for it is that it’s road schedule in the Big East is very soft this year: Rutgers, Louisville, and Syracuse are all games that can be won, and the only reason not to expect a 3-0 run against those teams is because they are all road trips. The other road game is against USF in December, which is a nice draw for a team that plays it’s home games in the great northeast. The home schedule is brutal: WVU, Pitt, Cincinnati, in that order. Connecticut might not be good enough to make a stab at the conference title, but a 2 out of 3 at home puts them in excellent position to do so. And better now, for a growing program, than later when expectations demand production.
West Virginia plays a really tough game against LSU on September 21st in Death Valley, one where a win could put the Mountaineers on the map in terms of crashing the BCS Championship party. It’s a long trip to Baton Rouge, but that’s less of an upset than a 50-50 game. At that point, West Virginia has one of the most favorable travel schedules in the entire nation. They only have three road games in conference, and two of them are to Louisville and Pittsburgh, which are short bus rides. Their game at UConn is significantly further, and aside from a home game against the Bearcats, could be the lone place where their schedule bites them in their bid for the Big East Championship.
The real story here is Cincinnati and their quarterback, Zach Collaros. Cincinnati has *never* been projected to win the Big East in their short affiliation with the conference. This, despite losing just one conference game in the last two years. This, despite running the table in the regular season last year (playing Collaros plenty along the way), and dominating the Big East in competition most of the year. All of this in spite of a game on the road against Pitt where the Panthers dominated the first half, and Tony Pike threw the Bearcats back into sole possession of the Big East tile by coming from 3 TDs down to beat Pitt. What does a team have to do to begin with a top 25 ranking?
A Bowl win would be nice. The drubbing at the hands of Florida is likely why the Bearcats aren’t getting any love in the preseason this year, and it didn’t help that they team was blown out without Brian Kelly, who accepted the Notre Dame job before that game was played. Observers, as a group, are somehow skeptical of both Notre Dame with Kelly, and Cincinnati without him. Not really sure how that works out, but it is apparently possible to have your Haterade and drink it too.
Cincinnati’s schedule is easier than Pitt’s. They have the toughest game of anyone in the big east, as they will play the Oklahoma Sooners, a national title contender, at Paul Brown Stadium (where the Bengals play). OU is probably going to out-talent the Bearcats on the field in that one, which means that it will be a good litmus test to see where Butch Jones is at as a coach of a team with a recent history of success against good opponents. Does he help close the talent gap against OU, or does it really appear to be a big program drubbing on a wannabe team? I have OU winning the game regardless, but it’s an important game for Cincinnati to prove they belong after last year’s bowl disaster.
Like Pitt, Cincinnati faces it’s toughest tests in the final month of the season, including a trip to Connecticut that resulted in Cinci’s last conference (and regular season) loss. But for the Bearcats, all games are winnable. And with the homefield advantage versus a Pitt team that they came back on in the fourth quarter of last year’s effective Big East Championship Game, it looks like we will see another Pitt-Cincinnati match for a BCS Bowl berth.
And with both seasons hanging in the balance, Collaros and Cincinnati will be victorious once again, and head back to the BCS with a chance to deliver on their promise in this, less tumultuous, bowl season.