December 1, 2011

Week 14 preview in the Big East

MORE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | MWC

As usual, the Big East has been the punching bag among the automatic-qualifying conferences this season. But the Big East race certainly hasn't been predictable.

Four other Big Six leagues have conference championship games this week, but the Big East has three teams still in play for the league's BCS bid. And no team in the league has been eliminated from bowl contention.

THE SCHEDULE
THURSDAY
West Virginia at USF, 8 p.m.
SATURDAY
Connecticut at Cincinnati, noon
Syracuse at Pittsburgh, noon
The calling card for the league this season, for better or worse, has been parity. The Big East has just one team ranked in the top 25 of the BCS, West Virginia - and the Mountaineers are the only league team Syracuse has beaten.

The Mountaineers need help to win the league. WVU needs to defeat USF in Tampa on Thursday, then have Cincinnati, a nine-point favorite, beat Connecticut on Saturday. Then, the Mountaineers would need to remain the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings to win the tiebreaker over Cincinnati and Louisville.

Cincinnati needs to root for a USF win over West Virginia, then defeat Connecticut. The Bearcats own the tiebreaker over Louisville because of a 25-16 victory over the Cardinals on Oct. 15.

Louisville, which has completed its season, already owns a share of the Big East title. A Connecticut upset over Cincinnati sends the Cardinals to the BCS because Louisville defeated West Virginia 38-35 on Nov. 5.

Meanwhile, USF and Connecticut both are 5-6 and must win to become bowl-eligible. Pitt and Syracuse also are trying to become bowl-eligible when they play Saturday. The winner gets a bowl bid, the loser stays home.

Got that?

Every Big East team is flawed, and some of those flaws may come into play in the final week.

Pittsburgh has been beset by injuries, first on the offensive line (though G Lucas Nix has returned), then to RBs Ray Graham and Zach Brown. Tino Sunseri has been sacked than any quarterback in the country.

Syracuse has had issues, too. DE Chandler Jones missed the first part of the season, backup TB Prince Tyson-Gulley was lost for the season just after the best rushing day of his career and, two weeks ago, FS Phillip Thomas was suspended for the rest of this season and all of next. The Orange has lost four in a row, and if the losing streak reaches five, it will be Syracuse's sixth losing record in the past seven seasons.

"Every season, despite the records that I've been a part of, there's some types of ups-and-downs," Syracuse coach Doug Marrone said. "Has this been a tough year? Does it rank up with some of other ones? It does."

If there is a theme to this season, it's that the teams that have rebounded from adversity are in good shape. Louisville lost to Marshall and Florida International in a 2-4 start, but the Cardinals will finish with at least a share of the league title. Cincinnati lost its starting quarterback to injury during the stretch run. Even West Virginia, the preseason favorite, has had its issues. The line has struggled to protect QB Geno Smith, the rushing attack has been non-existent and the defense is just starting to play well.

DL Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin were quiet early in the season, but they have a combined 11 sacks in the past three games.

"Ever since conference play started, those guys picked up their game," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Defensively we had a lot of new starters. Just like any team, it takes a while for guys to play together."

That's bad news for USF coach Skip Holtz, who joins his colleagues at Pitt and Syracuse who have been unable to overcome key injuries. The result has been four consecutive losses for USF in which the Bulls led in the fourth quarter. Two losses have come on the last play in the game and a third in the final 12 seconds.

"You feel like you're putting your finger in the holes of the dam this year," Holtz said.

Holtz is talking about his team, but the same could be said about trying to pick a Big East champion.

[The Forde-Yard Dash: Handing out pre-bowl awards]

BEST MATCHUP: Connecticut DE Trevardo Williams and DT Kendall Reyes vs. Cincinnati's offensive line. Defensive line is the strongest position group across the board in the Big East, and Connecticut might have the best duo. With four sacks against Rutgers last week, Williams moved to No. 2 nationally in that category (12.5 sacks this season). Reyes is an NFL prospect. Beyond causing problems for quarterbacks, Connecticut is third nationally in rush defense (84.2 yards per game). The Huskies will try to disrupt Cincinnati the same way Rutgers did in a 20-3 win two weeks ago - by containing Isaiah Pead and forcing the Bearcats' inexperienced quarterbacks to make a play. While Cincinnati allowed three sacks to Rutgers, the Bearcats allowed none to Syracuse in a 30-13 win last week.

PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Pittsburgh RB Isaac Bennett. Zach Brown is questionable with the sternum injury that knocked him out of last week's 21-20 loss to West Virginia. Whether Brown is healthy or not, Pitt needs to run the ball to take the pressure off Tino Sunseri, who was sacked 10 times last week. Bennett rushed for 18 yards on eight carries in the second half against the Mountaineers.

KEEP AN EYE ON: Cincinnati's quarterback rotation. As many as four quarterbacks will see significant time in Cincinnati this week between Connecticut's rotation of Johnny McEntee and Scott McCummings and Cincinnati's duo. Starter Munchie Legaux (13-of-22, 169 yards, two touchdowns) was much improved in his second start of the season, but coach Butch Jones says backup Jordan Luallen will continue to be part of the game plan. Luallen rushed for 77 yards on eight carries while completing 2-of-3 passes in last week's win over Syracuse.

NUMBERS GAME: West Virginia QB Geno Smith needs 284 passing yards to set the Big East single-season passing record. Louisville's Brian Brohm has the record with 4,024 yards in 2007. Smith averages 340.1 passing yards per game.

[Wetzel podcast: BCS sucks drama out of championship week]

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

"I don't think anyone saw this coming. When we were 2-4, I was sitting here thinking, 'Will we win another game?' It's amazing the turnaround this football team has made." - Louisville coach Charlie Strong, whose team has clinched a share of its first Big East title since 2006

"You can't be a fan or care for any other games unless you win." - West Virginia DT Julian Miller, to WVSports.com

"I've been in this league 11 years, so I've seen a lot. Back in '04 when the league reformulated, that was an eventful year. As much as has gone on with the league and continues to go on, I'd say this is the most turbulent." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano

[Video: College football upset watch]

POLL WATCH: West Virginia re-entered the BCS top 25 last season, at No. 23. Even if the Mountaineers win and don't go to the BCS, the Big East still will finish the regular season with a team in the BCS top 25, something the league didn't do last season. Cincinnati was the only other league team ranked in any poll, checking in at No. 25 in the coaches' poll.

ETC.: West Virginia will start redshirt freshman Quinton Spain and sophomore Curtis Feigt on the right side of the offensive line, replacing G Tyler Rader and T Pat Eger. The Mountaineers had used the same starting five on the offensive line in every game this season. ... Corey Smith will remain West Virginia's punter after averaging 57.3 yards per kick last week against Pitt. He had been benched Oct. 1, but re-entered the lineup after Michael Molinari struggled against the Panthers. ... Cincinnati is playing its first game at on-campus Nippert Stadium in 71 days. That span has included two home games at the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium and four road games. ... Syracuse RB Antwon Bailey hit 2,091 career rushing yards last week against Cincinnati, surpassing the great Jim Brown on the school's career rushing list. ... Syracuse WR Alec Lemon has tied a school single-season record with 60 receptions. His next catch will break a tie with Mike Williams (2007) and Kevin Johnson (1998). ... With two touchdown catches against USF last week, Louisville WR DaVante Parker has six touchdowns on 17 receptions in 10 games. ... Connecticut return man Nick Williams averaged 42.7 yards on three kickoff returns against Rutgers and also returned a punt 30 yards.

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David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can follow him on Twitter.



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