It wouldn’t be Big East football if it wasn’t wild and woolly down to the end. The conference gets the ESPN spotlight this evening when West Virginia goes to South Florida (8 PM ET) and has two more nationally televised games on Saturday with Syracuse-Pitt (Noon, ESPN) and UConn-Cincinnati (Noon, ESPN2). Three teams have shots at the conference’s automatic BCS berth (likely in the Orange against the Virginia Tech-Clemson winner), yet none control their own destiny. Every team is still bowl eligible and seven of the eight could make it.
Let’s start with tonight’s game and the championship picture. Louisville (5-2, 7-5 overall) is one of two teams that have completed its season (4-3, 8-4 Rutgers being the other). The Cardinals hold a ½ game lead on West Virginia (4-2, 8-3) and Cincinnati (4-2, 8-3). If this race ends in a three-way tie than West Virginia will win, based on higher BCS ranking. So even if they win tonight, the Mountaineers still need to root for a Cincinnati win on Saturday. By the end of tonight, the Bearcats will either be out or will control their destiny—they win a two-way tie with Louisville based on a head-to-head win. Louisville is guaranteed to still have a rooting interest in Saturday. As long as Cincinnati loses, the ‘Ville wins either a tiebreaker with West Virginia, or would obviously claim the crown outright if both teams lose. Got all that?
The three contenders, along with Rutgers are already locked up for bowl eligibility. The remaining four are all 5-6 and face win-and-you’re-in spots. South Florida’s back is to the wall tonight. UConn faces the same situation on Saturday. Syracuse-Pitt is a head-to-head battle for a bowl spot. The Big East has six bowl tie-ins, including the BCS, but keep in mind that Notre Dame is included in their pecking order and at 8-4 the Irish are in good shape to get the Champs Sports Bowl nod, the first non-BCS game. So depending whether extra bids open up at the bottom of other leagues, the Big East may have seven eligible teams fighting for five available slots.
That’s the landscape, now let’s get to the matchups…
West Virginia-South Florida: I expected more from WVA last week in their narrow escape over Pitt 21-20. The defense did come up big at the end with three sacks on the last Panther drive, but given how poor Pitt’s pass protection is, I would not expect that to repeat itself. Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith is the best skill position player in this conference, both throwing and running the ball and I expect him to find a way to pull it out against a Bulls team that’s been up and down all year. But this one will be a nail-biter and a good way to get the final weekend of the regular season kicked off tonight.
Syracuse-Pitt: The Panthers have played their best football in the second half of the season, even given the pass protection issues noted and the October loss of running back Ray Graham for the season. Head coach Todd Graham deserves a lot of credit for getting this team to improve in its first year. Syracuse lost badly at home last week to a Cincinnati team playing without starting quarterback Zach Collaros. So who am I taking? It was going to be Pitt, but then I remembered a key life lesson I learned in eight years spent in the Steel City—Pitt football always rips your heart out. Somehow, ‘Cuse QB Ryan Nassib will have his best game of the year (realistic), Pitt counterpart Tino Sunseri will be under pressure all day long and make mistakes (realistic) and the Panthers find a way to kick a bowl bid away.
UConn-Cincinnati: As mentioned, the Bearcat stepped up big with Collaros out and kept their title hopes alive. UConn came through and derailed Rutgers’ title hopes last week though and I’m looking for the Huskies to do the same here. They’ve won three of their last five, all in conference play, and can control tempo with 1,000 yard back Lyle McCombs running the ball. Call a road upset for UConn.
My scenario sends Louisville on the Orange Bowl. A 7-5 BCS participant, along with the realignment issues damaging the league will hopefully be the final death knell for this league’s preferential treatment in major bowl selection.