After the Big East emerged from non-conference play with a bruised ego, the league hopes the entertainment factor in the conference race will make up for a rough September.
The Big East's last two unbeaten teams, South Florida and Connecticut, lost last week, leaving the Bulls as the highest-ranked team in The Associated Press poll at No. 19. Pittsburgh, which defeated the Bulls 26-21, is the league's only other ranked team, at No. 24.
It's a change of pace for a conference accustomed to featuring pivotal games in the national title hunt in October and November.
"I don't think there's any one team dominating any one aspect," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "That showed up a little in our non-conference play. We've had some good wins and some disappointing games as a conference."
The Big East went 6-7 against the "Big Six" conferences. That doesn't include Pitt's loss to Bowling Green, Syracuse's loss to Akron and Rutgers' losses to Fresno State and Navy.
In four of the computer rankings used in the BCS standings, the Big East is ranked sixth among the major conferences. The league will have few opportunities to improve that image outside of the league. Only West Virginia (against Auburn) and Pitt and Syracuse (both against Notre Dame) face major non-conference opponents the rest of the season.
As far as marquee teams, the Big East is lacking at this point of the season compared to past years. In 2007 and '06, the Big East had three teams ranked in Week 6 each season, including two teams in the top 10. USF is the only ranked Big East team in the Harris and coaches' polls, the two human components of the BCS.
Coaches say the league is more even than it has been since 2005, when the league added USF, Cincinnati and Louisville to replace Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. Pitt, the only team to play two league games, leads the Big East at 2-0.
"Everybody dies for this in the NFL and baseball," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said of the parity. "They want games to mean something in November. I guarantee you this: There will be a lot of Big East games that will mean a lot in November."
The Big East traditionally has scheduled its top conference games to finish the season. The move paid off when unranked Pittsburgh knocked rival West Virginia out of the national championship game on the last day of the regular season last year. A year earlier, West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers were undefeated in November. The result was consecutive Thursday night matchups between undefeated Big East teams.
Those types of national matchups likely won't happen to finish 2008, but Big East coaches say the league won't lack for excitement.
The departures of Louisville's Brian Brohm, West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Rutgers' Ray Rice has diminished the league's star power, but the trade-off has been more parity and a more physical league, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said.
"This is a black-and-blue league," Stewart said. "By that I mean when you play our league, and I don't care who you play, your guys are in the training room. Guys are trying to do what I'm trying to do and that's run the ball and control the ball more."
Rutgers WR Kenny Britt vs. Cincinnati CB Mike Mickens. Britt is in the national top 10 in catches per game and yards per game, but he hasn't scored a touchdown. He's coming off a 12-catch, 151-yard performance against West Virginia last week, but he runs into the best cornerback in the league this week. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly says it will take a team of players to contain Britt, but Mickens (two interceptions, six pass breakups) likely will be the leader of that team.
PLAYER TO WATCH
West Virginia LB Anthony Leonard. The Mountaineers are in need of stability at middle linebacker after starting four players at the position in the first five games. West Virginia will be without Reed Williams for the rest of the season after an ill-fated comeback from shoulder surgeries. West Virginia is settled on Leonard for now after a nine-tackle performance against Rutgers last week, but the Mountaineers will need production from the position in the newly run-oriented Big East.
Pitt RB LeSean McCoy has run for 291 yards in his past two games after rushing for 242 in the first three. … Pitt LB Scott McKillop had 12 tackles and two sacks last week against USF. … Cincinnati DE Connor Barwin, a converted tight end, had two blocked punts against Marshall. He also is the team leader with four sacks. … Syracuse RB Curtis Brinkley has rushed for 264 yards in the past two games.
West Virginia is tied for fifth in the league in total offense (357 yards per game) with Pittsburgh, ahead of Rutgers and Syracuse. … Connecticut quarterbacks are last in the league in passing efficiency, with nine interceptions and two touchdowns. … After losing to Pitt, USF is 1-3 in Thursday night games. … Rutgers QB Mike Teel has thrown seven interceptions in two games against Cincinnati.
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING
"You're hopeful that your preparation that you put him through is going to carry the day. I knew that he's a young man that does not succumb to the emotion of the moment. He's a very level-headed, grounded kid. I knew that playing at Marshall, the atmosphere was such that he could control his emotions." – Cincinnati's Kelly on new starting quarterback Chazz Anderson.
"I agree. We don't know why. I don't think I would have prepared them any differently. I didn't think we had the energy we needed. Sometimes the energy comes with making plays. Part of it is making plays; the other I don't know." – USF coach Jim Leavitt on the assessment that his sideline lacked energy in the loss to Pitt.
"I don't think it is one thing. It was little things in a lot of areas – some being inexperience, some, maybe earlier in the year, veteran guys pressing a little bit, not coaching well enough." – Rutgers coach Greg Schiano on his team's struggles.
"The quality of football in this league – I don't think has diminished. I know in some people's eyes it has. I think just people in this league are all playing pretty dang good right now and are all capable of beating each other." – Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe.
West Virginia QB Pat White did not practice Tuesday, but Stewart said it was for precautionary reasons. White was taken out of the Marshall game two weeks ago with a thumb injury and took a blow to the head in last week's win over Rutgers. … The quarterback competition is over at Cincinnati. Anderson will hang on to his starting spot, and Zach Collaros will be the backup. Former starter Tony Pike (broken left arm) is cleared to practice in non-contact drills. … Syracuse RB Delone Carter (hamstring) is expected to return this week. … USF LB Brouce Mompremier (neck) has been cleared to return to weightlifting and conditioning drills. DE George Selvie (ankle) and DT Terrell McClain (ankle) returned against Pittsburgh after missing the win over North Carolina State. … Rutgers RB Kordell Young, the starter in the opener, returned to practice this week after missing four games with knee injuries.