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November 26, 2009
Weekend preview of the Big East
On paper, at least, this week doesn't matter for the Big East's top two teams.
No matter what happens this week, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh will play for the Big East title and a BCS berth next week.
Still, if Cincinnati defeats Illinois and Pittsburgh beats West Virginia for the third year in a row, it will set up the first top-10 game in the conference since Nov. 6, 2006, when No. 5 Louisville defeated the third-ranked Mountaineers 44-34.
Between the Thanksgiving weekend and the de facto Big East championship game on the horizon, though, Pitt and Cincinnati are battling complacency.
Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt may have the easier task in preparing his team for Friday's "Backyard Brawl" with West Virginia. With an upset, the Mountaineers (7-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big East) could put themselves in good position for a trip to the Gator Bowl, the Big East's only non-BCS New Year's Day bowl slot.
"This is a game where the biggest challenge is making darn sure ... we take care of business from a practice and preparation standpoint leading up to the game," Wannstedt said. "Our players know their guys, and we've recruited their players and they've recruited most of the guys on our team."
Pitt still is reaping the rewards from its last trip to Morgantown, a 13-9 upset of then-No. 2 West Virginia in 2007 that knocked the Mountaineers out of the national championship game. Pitt is 18-5 overall and 10-2 in the conference since that upset. West Virginia is 17-7 and 8-4 since the loss.
"That win, when you look back on it, it gave us life," Wannstedt said.
While Pitt is playing in a conference rivalry game, Cincinnati is stepping outside of the Big East to play Illinois (3-7) in a late-season non-conference game. Nine of the 11 Big Ten teams already have finished their seasons; Illinois - which plays host to Fresno State next week - and Wisconsin still have games remaining.
"It's not ideal," Bearcats coach Brian Kelly said of the late non-conference game. "The Big Ten had made a decision they wanted to play later in the season to make sure teams aren't laying off before bowl games. And on our end, we have only seven [conference] games. It makes for partners in this instance.
"It's not the ideal situation, but it's one we're living with."
If anything will help Cincinnati remain focused, it will be the return at quarterback of a fully healthy Tony Pike from an arm injury. Pike has not started since an Oct. 15 victory over USF, though he did throw two touchdown passes in red zone duty against West Virginia on Nov. 13.
The two-week layoff since then has been enough time for Pike to get back to full strength.
"It's worked out well for Tony Pike in particular because it gives him an extra week to heal," Kelly said.
KEY MATCHUP: West Virginia RB Noel Devine vs. Pitt RB Dion Lewis. While they won't directly face each other, it's a safe bet the winning team will have the more effective running back. Every season, it seems as if the Big East has at least two elite running backs (Donald Brown and LeSean McCoy last season, Ray Rice and Steve Slaton in the two previous seasons). Devine and Lewis, who have combined for 2,389 yards and 23 touchdowns, are this season's edition.
PLAYERS ON THE SPOT: USF's. At the start of the season, USF coach Jim Leavitt, QB Matt Grothe and DE George Selvie didn't flinch when asked if they'd rather win the Big East or beat the two Florida schools on the schedule. Winning the league won out. That no longer is an option, but the Bulls still can sweep the ACC's in-state schools. USF won at Florida State in September; Saturday, Miami travels to Tampa. A sweep would give the Bulls added impetus on the recruiting trail.
PLAYERS ON THE SPOT II: Connecticut's. The Huskies moved to 5-5 with last week's 33-30 upset at Notre Dame. That means they're one win away from bowl eligibility with home dates against Syracuse and USF, which lost 31-0 in its last trip to Storrs, left on the schedule. This week against Syracuse, the Huskies must find a way to get the ground game going against one of the nation's best run defenses. Syracuse is the only Big East team holding opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards per game. The Orange held Rutgers to 26 rushing yards last week while recording 13 tackles for loss.
NUMBERS GAME: Rutgers went into the 31-13 loss to Syracuse leading the nation in turnover margin, but the Scarlet Knights were minus-2 against the Orange. Rutgers QB Tom Savage doubled his interception total with two picks, and the defense failed to force a turnover for the first time all season.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"This is the silly season, you know? This is where it happens every year. We've been having this conversation for the last two years, so this isn't new ground for our players. The truth is this happens every year. It will continue to happen while I'm at the University of Cincinnati because nobody thinks that Cincinnati is a destination job, so it just happens this way." - Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, who has been rumored to be a candidate for the Notre Dame job if Charlie Weis is fired
"For us, we've never been a part of Miami-Florida State, Florida-Florida State [rivalries]. I thought if there is a way to play one of those schools and build a game, it would help build our program. Miami agreed to play us for a stretch, and hopefully it will continue." - USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose team will play Miami each of the next five seasons
"We've been working very hard to get a win for 'Jazz' [Jasper Howard] and his family after his death. Each week that went by, it seemed like there was a little more burden upon us to get that done." - UConn coach Randy Edsall
ETC.: UConn RBs Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon have both rushed for 100 yards in a game three times this season - against Ohio, Baylor and Notre Dame. Louisville RB Victor Anderson had shoulder surgery Tuesday and will miss the final game of the season against Rutgers. He has not played in a full game since Oct. 10. Louisville has lost nine consecutive road games. USF QB B.J. Daniels became the first player in Big East history to pass for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in last week's victory over Louisville. After allowing 214 rushing yards to Syracuse, Rutgers is allowing 148.4 rushing yards per game against Big East opponents. Non-conference opponents rushed for an average of 71 yards against Rutgers. Syracuse is first in the Big East and ninth in the nation in rush defense (92.6 yards per game). Pitt's Dorin Dickerson is a finalist for the Mackey Award, given annually to the nation's top tight end. Big East coordinator of officials Terry McAulay text-messaged Connecticut coach Randy Edsall after the win over Notre Dame to acknowledge two erroneous offensive holding calls in the final minutes of regulation. Rutgers RB Kordell Young likely is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. If Notre Dame loses to Stanford and falls to 6-6, the Gator Bowl would have to take a Big East team rather than the Irish. Even if Notre Dame wins at Stanford, the Irish are not guaranteed a Gator Bowl berth.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.