The College Football Notebook

November 12, 2009 2:00 PM

Big East Crunch Time

The Big East has enjoyed a banner year in 2009, the best since Miami & Virginia Tech bolted following the 2003 season. There’s a national championship contender in Cincinnati, another contender on their heels in Pitt, and three others (West Virginia, South Florida, Rutgers) all in hot pursuit. And the season comes to a head starting this weekend.

Action begins Thursday night on ESPN when South Florida travels to Rutgers. Then it really heats up on Friday, when Cincy plays host to West Virginia. The Mountaineers have lost one conference game, but between this game and their Backyard Brawl with Pitt the Friday after Thanksgiving, they control their own destiny. For their part, the Panthers host Cincinnati on December 5, a day that could see the Big East host its own de facto championship game the same day the SEC, ACC & Big 12 are holding their official ones.

And we haven’t considered another factor—Notre Dame. Assuming the Fighting Irish can’t claw their way back to the top 14 in the BCS and becoming eligible for a major bowl (about the safest assumption this side of the Democrats knowing they’ll hold Ted Kennedy’s seat in Massachusetts), they move into the Big East’s chain of command when it comes to bowl selection. The top prize after the BCS is the Gator Bowl against the ACC on January 1. From there it drops off to the Sun (which can also opt for a Big 12 team) and after that drops all the way to the Meineke Car Care. Suffice it to say there’s a lot at stake to the league holding the Gator Bowl and no team has more at stake here than Pitt—who happens to be hosting Notre Dame on Saturday night and can defend their conference’s bowl turf.

Let’s start by looking at the championship chase…

West Virginia looks nothing like a championship team and their 30-19 loss to South Florida last week was the latest bit of evidence. If they couldn’t win on the road in that one, what leads us to believe they can win in Cincinnati? The Bearcats have been extolled in this space quite frequently, and I’m happy to reiterate the basics—they’ve replaced ten defensive starters and thundered on. They won a big game on the road against Oregon State. They lost a Heisman-contending quarterback in Tony Pike, replaced him with Zach Collaros and just moved right on. They have an elite receive in Marcus Gilyard. And they have Brian Kelly orchestrating it all.

All that’s enough to make them the heavy favorite to close it out, but as they prepare for the biggest games, we do have to take a sober look at their shortcomings. They had to fight to survive at home against Fresno State because they couldn’t defend the run. Just last week, Cody Endres from UConn lit them up in their own backyard and nearly pulled an upset in a 47-45 shootout. The Bearcats are beatable. The path seems clear—find some way to slow down the offense and have enough of an attack yourself to hang 30 on the board, and you can pull it off. The problem with Friday night’s game is that West Virginia is not the team to do it and the Mountaineers fall out of the race in short order. Cincy wins 45-14.

Pitt does have the chops to pull an upset, and it’s a major mark of unfairness that this team is not viable for a BCS at-large spot if they should finish 10-2. Bill Stull is a solid and efficient quarterback, more than good enough to win with a running game that is powered by Dion Lewis. That will certainly be enough on Saturday night. The Fighting Irish haven’t stopped the run all season long (or the pass for that matter), and Lewis leads an attack that can both keep Jimmy Clausen off the field and score plenty of points themselves. Dave Wannstedt has built a team that is, at least this year, the best in the state, and they will win this game 38-20.

The Panthers real question is overcoming their past—since Tony Dorsett brought home the 1976 Heisman Trophy and national championship, this is a program that’s found a way to break the hearts of fans. Dan Marino never got over the hump, consistently losing the big game against Penn State in the early 1980s. Less dramatic, but of more recent vintage is the program’s tendency to always stub its toe at just the wrong time. It even extended to basketball, where the hoops program lost a heartbreaker in the East Regional final to overmatched Villanova. Now Wannstedt has Notre Dame, West Virginia and Cincinnati to close the year. Two wins would exorcise a lot of demons and three would be extraordinary.

South Florida & Rutgers have each lost twice in Big East play and are therefore not championship contenders, but could still angle their way up the ladder and into a more relevant bowl. Each could jump, realistically, as high as #3. Either way, both are having nice seasons at 6-2 and a national TV win would be a feather for either program. I liked Rutgers a lot at the start of the season, before souring on them after an opening 32-point loss to Cincinnati. While still ugly, that is seen a new light now and the Scarlet Knights’ only other loss is to Pitt. With homefield on their side, going to Jersey in November doesn’t seem like a great trip for South Florida, so I’ll take Rutgers in this one.

Finally, let’s come to Notre Dame. Many pundits have opined that the Irish could well lose two more times, to Pitt and then to Stanford. They are forgetting one more—UConn, the game sandwiched in between. If the Huskies could come within a missed two-point conversion of taking Cincinnati to overtime, can they not beat the reeling Irish? A 6-6 finish is very realistic for ND.

But we also have to acknowledge that going 9-3, or even 8-4 is possible for Notre Dame. If they win Saturday night, they get the inside track to Jacksonville. I have been disturbed by the mindset of the media, which is presumably that of ND diehards, which seems to be that such a trip is a failure. Has anyone been paying attention? Since Lou Holtz left South Bend, the program has done nothing to justify the snobbishness of pretending the Gator Bowl isn’t a worthy game. Particularly when beating potential opponents like Virginia Tech, Miami or Clemson would be a heckuva lot more than they’ve done in recent years. Furthermore, when you consider ND went 6-6 last year, how is 8-4 and the Gator anything but substantial improvement? Don’t read this as a brief arguing for Charlie Weis’ retention—because my actual prediction is that he’s going to lose all three. But if he does beat Pitt, split the last two and get the Gator spot, he should be rewarded for real improvement and reaching a level not too many Irish squads have achieved lately. A lot of Notre Dame’s Subway Alumni might want to start living in reality and can the Yankee-esque arrogance that characterizes so many of them.

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