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September 11, 2008

Big East: Conference could face tough year

MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

When the Big East fell, it fell hard.

Early last Saturday afternoon, Connecticut outlasted Temple for a rain-soaked overtime victory. Donald Brown's game-winning score was the only touchdown of the day.

Later, South Florida recovered from two UCF fourth-quarter touchdowns to defeat the Golden Knights in overtime.

Through two weeks, those are the league's two shining moments. The Bulls and Huskies are the Big East's only 2-0 teams. The league is 3-7 against Division I-A teams. Pittsburgh earned the conference's third win over a I-A team by beating Buffalo last week. However, the Panthers also have one of the league's demerits by losing to Bowling Green.

After three seasons of surpassing expectations since the ACC raid on the conference, the Big East has hit its lowest point since Pitt, in a four-way tie for first place, earned the right to lose to Utah in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl.

The four active teams this week will all play major conference opponents. When the league returns to a full schedule next week, four more teams will play against the "Big Six" leagues.

When asked about the league's 3-7 record against I-A teams through two weeks, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said, "I thought it would be better."

Maybe the cracks were evident early. League champion West Virginia has a new coach and lost running back Steve Slaton and underrated fullback Owen Schmitt. Rutgers is re-tooling without Ray Rice and ran into one of Fresno State's best teams in years. After going to Oklahoma for a 26-point loss, Cincinnati is down to its third-string quarterback, if you count Ben Mauk. At Pitt, perhaps the spotlight was too bright on a young team. And Syracuse is Syracuse.

"A lot of people are trying to get a feel for their teams and who does what," USF coach Jim Leavitt said. "That's pretty normal at the beginning of the year. There's a lot of football to be played. You can't measure a whole lot yet."

Leavitt is one of the lucky ones so far. His team is 2-0 and still has a chance to make a statement by defeating Kansas in Tampa.

The Bulls are the highest-ranked Big East team at No. 18 in the coaches' poll and No. 19 in the AP poll. West Virginia remains ranked 24th and 25th, respectively.

North Carolina at Rutgers, 7:30 p.m.
Kansas at South Florida, 8 p.m.
Penn State at Syracuse, 3:30 p.m.
Virginia at Connecticut, 7:30 p.m.

"I would say after two weeks it looks like South Florida is the team to beat," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "And don't underestimate West Virginia because of Pat White. But is there any clarity? No."

That might make the conference schedule much more interesting than what transpired in the first two weeks. The question is whether anyone will watch with any enthusiasm.

"What we knew going in at Big East media day (in July) is that this league is up for grabs and that anybody in this league has an opportunity and feels good about their opportunity to win a Big East championship," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said.

  • Jim Leavitt vs. Mark Mangino. When Kansas defeated South Florida 13-7 in Lawrence in September 2006, the two coaches were not household names. Now, they are considered among the best in the business after Leavitt built USF and Mangino took basketball-crazy Kansas to the Orange Bowl. Bill Snyder knew. He gave both their first full-time coaching jobs in the early 1990s at Kansas State. On the 1995 staff in Manhattan, Leavitt was co-defensive coordinator and Mangino was the recruiting coordinator. Three future head coaches were also on that staff: Bob Stoops, Mark Stoops and Dana Dimel.

  • Greg Schiano vs. Butch Davis. At least the Big East can cling to intriguing coaching matchups this week. When Rutgers faces North Carolina on Thursday, Schiano will coach against a former mentor. Schiano was Davis' defensive coordinator for two seasons at Miami (1998-99).

  • USF defensive end George Selvie. The All-American has one tackle for a loss and no sacks through two games. That number has to change if USF is going to win the Big East. Kansas starts two freshman offensive tackles. If they can contain Selvie, it could be a long night for the Bulls. If they can't, someone tell Todd Reesing to watch out.

  • Who needs two running backs? With Andre Dixon injured, Donald Brown has rushed for 360 yards and has scored five of Connecticut's six touchdowns this year. South Florida ended its series with rival UCF with a 4-0 record. Connecticut is one of four I-A teams who have not allowed a touchdown this season. The others are Florida State, Iowa and Kentucky.

  • The Big East can't even win in court. Former Cincinnati quarterback Ben Mauk lost an appeal when Hardin County Judge William Hart refused to grant a permanent injunction to allow Mauk to play. He was 0-for-5 against the NCAA in seeking a sixth year of eligibility. Syracuse faced Penn State every season from 1922-90. The Orange ended the series on a 2-18 skid against the Nittany Lions. UConn quarterback Tyler Lorenzen has thrown four interceptions and no touchdowns in two games.

  • "If we've got fans that are worrying about what hotel rooms they're going to stay in in December and January then they have the wrong agenda. They have to take care of games 1-2-3-4-5 before we get to 13. That's what I would tell the fans. If they jump off the bandwagon, then they jump off." West Virginia coach Bill Stewart

    ""What I learned about playing Oklahoma is don't bring a measuring stick, bring a Louisville Slugger." Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, whose team lost 52-26 to the Sooners in Norman.

    "For Dave, this isn't really a job, this is a passion. He's dedicated to building a winning program here and he has all of our support as he works at that." Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson giving coach Dave Wannstedt a vote of confidence in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review.

    "That's for me to know. I'll leave it at that. There was a lot of work to be done." Syracuse coach Greg Robinson, when asked where the program stood before he was hired in 2005.

    "If you think I'm worried about people criticizing the plays that we call ... that's the furthest thing from my mind. I could care less what anybody thinks about what we do from a play-calling standpoint. Because I know this: There's nobody out there that's putting in the time that we're putting into it every day, from 6 o' clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night." Connecticut coach Randy Edsall from the Hartford (Conn.) Courant

    "I don't know why everybody got all upset. It's a rule. It says in the rule book you can't throw the ball up. Do you feel bad for the kid, yeah. But it's part of the rule. The young man didn't mean anything by it, but it's a rule. If they didn't call it, then the official would probably get suspended for a game for not calling it." Edsall on the controversial unsportsmanlike conduct call on Washington quarterback Jake Locker. Edsall is a member of the NCAA rules committee.

  • ETC.
  • West Virginia has yet to make a decision on the playing status of linebacker Reed Williams, who had surgery on both shoulders. Stewart said he could be a game-time decision for Colorado on Sept. 18. Williams has not played this season and could take a medical redshirt. Cincinnati's estimate that quarterback Dustin Grutza would miss four weeks with a broken right leg turned out to be optimistic. He will undergo surgery and will be out indefinitely. Backup Tony Pike is likely to start, but Notre Dame transfer Demetrius Jones will get a look during the bye week as well. USF running backs Benjamin Williams and Mike Ford are questionable for the Kansas game with ankle injuries. Both dressed early this week but Leavitt said he will not play them unless they are 100 percent. Syracuse benched quarterback Andrew Robinson last week. Junior Cameron Dantley made the surprise start, completing 13 of 20 passes for 135 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. Syracuse will celebrate the premiere of "The Express" on Friday at the historic Landmark Theatre, a favorite venue of Ernie Davis and his teammates. The film is based on the life of Davis, the Syracuse running back who was the first black player to win the Heisman (in 1961).

    MORE PREVIEWS: ACC | Big 12 | Big Ten | Pac-10 | SEC

    David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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