Overview: According to the pollsters, West Virginia is the clear-cut favorite in the Big East. The Mountaineers are one of two teams in the league that controls its destiny for the conference title. The other is Connecticut, which faces West Virginia in Morgantown next week. The league race is far from over, though. Cincinnati and even Pittsburgh (which has remaining games against Louisville, USF and West Virginia) have mathematical shots at the outright Big East title. Syracuse is the only team eliminated from at least a share of the championship. With three weeks left in the season, there's a scenario out there that could leave the Big East with a five-way tie for the championship.
Best matchup: Louisville's receivers vs. South Florida's cornerbacks. Louisville's receiving duo of Harry Douglas and Mario Urrutia hasn't been as productive lately as they were earlier this season, but they still present the Cardinals' best chance for a win in Tampa. They will have to outduel the best cornerback tandem in the conference in Mike Jenkins and Trae Williams.
The pressure is on: Cincinnati. Emboldened by back-to-back wins over USF and Connecticut, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly says "anything less than a Big East championship now would be a disappointment." The Bearcats, a 6 1/2-point underdog at home, need to upset West Virginia on Saturday and still need some help from Connecticut and Pittsburgh along the way. Kelly's tenure in the Big East has been brief, but his players probably already have the impression that he's someone they don't want to disappoint.
Who's hot: Something has to give ? West Virginia is 13-1-1 all-time against Cincinnati but the Bearcats have won their past four games against ranked teams; three of those have come this season. ? Cincinnati DE Anthony Hoke has four sacks in his past two games, including three last week against Connecticut. ? Mike Williams' streak continues. The Syracuse wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games. He has eight of Syracuse's 18 offensive touchdowns this season.
Who's not: West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton fumbled a combined five times, losing three, against Louisville last week. ? Connecticut TB Andre Dixon has run for only 70 yards in the past two games since running for 167 against USF on Oct. 27. ? Louisville has failed to rush for 100 yards in four of its past five games.
Keep your eye on: Who will win the turnover battle in the Cincinnati-West Virginia game? Cincinnati leads the nation in forced turnovers with 35. West Virginia lost three fumbles last week, but has only 14 turnovers this season. Rounding out a sloppy win over Louisville, the Mountaineers were penalized 11 times. Meanwhile, Cincinnati is the most-penalized team in the nation with 9.7 per game.
Numbers game: West Virginia QB Pat White has run for 303 yards in the last two games. ? Louisville QB Brian Brohm has set a Big East record with seven 300-yard passing games this season. ? Rutgers TB Ray Rice ran for a school-record 243 yards against Army last Friday.
BIG EAST STANDINGS
Freshman to watch: Did USF find options in the running game or was it because the Bulls played Syracuse? It's the latter. Still USF freshman TB Mike Ford (134 yards, two touchdowns) and freshman WR Aston Samuels (101 yards on two attempts) both cracked triple digits in a 41-10 rout of the Orange last week.
Injury update: Rutgers is unsure who will start at quarterback against Pittsburgh. Starter Mike Teel played sparingly last week against Army because of a thumb injury. ? West Virginia WR Darius Reynaud should play against Cincinnati despite a "tweaked" leg. ? Syracuse QB Andrew Robinson (cracked rib) is expected return against Connecticut this week after missing last week's game against USF. ? Connecticut G Alex LaMagdelaine is out indefinitely with an apparent leg injury. ? Louisville DL Deantwan Whitehead and Brandon Cox are both questionable after leaving last week's West Virginia game with injuries. The Cardinals played with only 25 healthy defensive players in the loss to the Mountaineers. ? Pittsburgh TB LaRod Stephens-Howling (shoulder) and OT Joe Thomas (hamstring) are questionable for Rutgers.
They said it:
"Either referees don't like me, which I don't think is the case, or it's just the style of play." ? Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, whose Grand Valley State Division II championship teams and Central Michigan MAC championship team were heavily penalized. Cincinnati is the most-penalized team in the nation at 9.7 per game
"If I really wanted to play, I would have gone to a sorry team. I didn't expect a lot of playing time." ? West Virginia backup TB Noel Devine, a true freshman who has eight carries in the past three games. He hasn't had a rushing touchdown since the second game of the season
"This is what I anticipated. It was going to be a league where guys were going to beat each other up to see who can survive the longest. That's what it's turned out to be. It's a seven-round championship fight." ? Connecticut coach Randy Edsall
Bowl implications: It seems the Big East will send only one team to a BCS bowl, especially if West Virginia wins the league. That makes the final weeks of the season critical for the top Big East contenders ? the Mountaineers (3-1), Connecticut (4-1) and Cincinnati (3-2). All are assured of bowls with eight wins apiece. The only question is how prestigious will those bowls be. And despite an awful start, Louisville is one win away from being bowl-eligible for the 10th consecutive season. The Cardinals finish at USF and at home against Rutgers.
Etc.: West Virginia's White accused Louisville LB Preston Smith of spitting in his face last week, even after coaches Steve Kragthorpe and Rich Rodriguez dismissed the incident on Monday's Big East conference call. "He spit on me," White said Tuesday night. "I'm sure he doesn't want to admit that. It's a dirty thing to do. It's disrespectful." ? Louisville suspended CB Rod Council for the South Florida game for a violation of team policy. ? Rutgers' Jeremy Ito passed Virginia Tech's Shayne Graham to become the most prolific scoring kicker in Big East history with 374 career points. Ito had 11 points against Army last week. ? Syracuse freshman kickoff returner Max Suter has set the Big East single-season record with 1,042 yards on kickoff returns. Boston College's Will Blackmon held the old record with 922 yards in 2003. ? Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt will return to the sideline for the first time since Oct. 10, before he had surgery on his Achilles' tendon.