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October 27, 2011

Week 9 preview in the Big East

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | MWC | Pac-12 | SEC | Others

For most of this season, the Big East's future has been in question - and never more than this week, when reports indicated West Virginia will be the next out the door when it joins the Big 12.

Perhaps fittingly, the race for the Big East title is just as murky as the league's future.

Syracuse at Louisville, noon
West Virginia at Rutgers, 3:30 p.m.
A week ago, Rutgers was the Big East's only 2-0 team and West Virginia was the presumptive favorite with its top-15 BCS ranking. That changed Friday night, when West Virginia lost 49-23 at Syracuse and Rutgers lost 16-14 at Louisville.

That leaves Cincinnati - whose only loss came in a bludgeoning by Tennessee - in the league lead at 2-0, but West Virginia and Rutgers get chances to reassert themselves this weekend. And the opportunity comes against each other.

West Virginia defensive lineman Julian Miller told reporters this week the Mountaineers may have needed a loss as a sort of wake-up call. Coach Dana Holgorsen had hoped it wouldn't come to that, but if the end result is a more focused team for the rest of the season, he'll take it.

"We tried to prevent it on the front end for two weeks," Holgorsen said. "They [Syracuse] played harder, they played with more effort, they had more energy, more excitement. All we told them for two weeks was that very thing. Sometimes you don't get through to them. If something like that happens and it wakes us up to where we're doing what we're told, I'm all for it."

[Not so fast: Louisville blocks WVU's path to Big 12]

Rutgers had numerous missed opportunities against Louisville. San San Te missed two field goals, Mark Harrison dropped a sure touchdown pass and Gary Nova threw three interceptions.

In its matchup against West Virginia, Rutgers will try to get the same type of results as Syracuse. Rutgers' defense is built similarly with its ability to blitz and pressure the quarterback. Using that plan, Syracuse sacked West Virginia's Geno Smith four times and forced two interceptions.

"Sacks aren't always the most important thing," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "It's the hits and the quarterback pressures you get in addition the sacks."

Meanwhile, West Virginia will try to do what it's done since 1995: The Mountaineers have won 16 in a row over Rutgers.

"We're going to get their best shot," Holgorsen said. "If we want to win a championship this year, then we've got to be able to handle that. We didn't handle it last week, and we need to be able to handle it this week."

Best matchup: West Virginia's wide receivers vs. Rutgers' secondary. Rutgers' secondary is responsible for 12 interceptions this season while only allowing five touchdown passes. The key matchup could be CB Logan Ryan (two interceptions, seven pass breakups) against WR Tavon Austin (48 catches, 624 yards, two touchdowns).

Players on the spot: West Virginia's offensive line. Syracuse blitzed West Virginia three-quarters of the time last week, Holgorsen said. WVU's linemen had trouble in one-on-one situations. Rutgers will bring similar pressure this week. The Mountaineers' offensive line had shown cracks all season. Now, they need to show some improvement.

Keep an eye on: Louisville's run game. The Cardinals had their best rushing performance of the season with 187 yards and a touchdown in the win over Rutgers. Jeremy Wright had the first 100-yard game for the Cardinals this season and the longest run by a tailback (29 yards). The longest run of the season still belongs to Chris Philpott, who ran for 40 yards on a fake punt. The offensive line has been better since C Mario Benavides returned, allowing Alex Kupper to move from center to left tackle.

Numbers game: Looking for a reason USF has started 0-3 in the Big East? The Bulls have more turnovers than offensive touchdowns in three Big East games. USF has seven touchdowns (four rushing, three passing) and 10 turnovers (seven lost fumbles and three interceptions) in conference games. A year ago, USF had 11 offensive touchdowns and 11 turnovers in Big East games.

Quotes of the week

"All my connections are coaches. What do you think they're doing this week?" - West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, on if he's heard from anyone in the Big 12 on the Mountaineers' potential move to the conference. Holgorsen is a former assistant at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech

"We have to turn the page [after a win] when some people don't want to. Sometimes the people who love you the most hurt you the most when they start telling you how good you are." - Syracuse coach Doug Marrone

"There's not one thing you can put your finger on in any of this, which is frustrating as players and coaches. We have to find a way to get over the hump and win a game." - USF coach Skip Holtz

[Going bowling: Rivals.com 2011 bowl projections]

Poll watch: The Big East is hanging on in the BCS standings with West Virginia at No. 25. The Mountaineers are getting a boost from the human polls: They're ranked 23rd in the Harris poll and 24th in the coaches' poll. West Virginia has an average ranking of No. 30 in the computer rankings. Cincinnati is ranked in both human polls at No. 23 in the coaches' poll and No. 24 in the Harris.

Etc.: Louisville CB Anthony Conner had surgery Monday to stabilize a cervical fracture after sustaining a broken neck on a tackle against Rutgers on Friday. He is not paralyzed, but the injury is career-ending. Cincinnati starting CB Dominique Battle is out for the season with a torn ACL. He missed all of last season with a leg injury. USF WR Sterling Griffin will miss six to eight weeks with a fractured ankle. Pittsburgh S Jason Hendricks is out for the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury. Cincinnati ranks second in the nation in rush defense at 72.7 yards per game, trailing only Alabama. Syracuse TB Antwon Bailey has four consecutive 100-yard games and four consecutive games with a touchdown. USF QB B.J. Daniels' 409 passing yards against Cincinnati was a school record. Louisville has not won consecutive Big East games since 2006, Bobby Petrino's final season.

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

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