At nearly the halfway point in the season, there are three teams that look like viable contenders for the Big East championship and the automatic berth in a BCS bowl: West Virginia, Pitt, and the winner of Thursday night's Cincinnati-South Florida game.
None of the four teams has a Big East loss. After Thursday, one will.
And though one conference loss doesn't disqualify a team from the crown, it certainly puts them in fourth place in the chase. Here is a look at the four teams, how the rest of their seasons shape up, and which has the easiest and hardest route to the title.
Start with the undefeated teams, in alphabetical order:
The Bearcats are 5-0 and 1-0 in the Big East. The remainder of their conference schedule looks like this: at South Florida, Louisville, at Syracuse, UConn, WVU, at Pitt. This is a tough conference schedule.
The Bearcats get two quality opponents at home in WVU and UConn but must play South Florida and Pitt on the road. Cincy is No. 1 in the Big East in scoring offense, passing offense, and total offense, second in scoring defense, and fifth in total defense.
Cincy has looked the most consistently impressive on offense, certainly, but also on defense. The Bearcats have a dangerous wide receiver and return man in Mardy Gilyard and a Heisman Trophy dark horse in quarterback Tony Pike. Cincy is the highest-ranked Big East team, at No. 8 this week.
The Bulls are also 5-0 and 1-0 in the Big East. The rest of their Big East schedule looks like this: Cincy, at Pitt, WVU, at Rutgers, Louisville, at UConn.
Playing Rutgers and UConn on the road is easier than playing South Florida and Pitt on the road, as Cincy must. Getting Cincy and WVU at home is a scheduling gift for the Bulls.
USF is second in scoring offense and third in total offense, and is not surprisingly first in scoring and total defense. (They are allowing 9.4 points per game.)
The Bulls have their typical fast and aggressive defense, led by all-American rush end George Selvie.
Quarterback B.J. Daniels has stepped in well for out-for-the-season Matt Grothe. Daniels looked terrific in his first start, against a fading-fast Florida State, and looked...okay against Syracuse.
South Florida is ranked 21st nationally.
The Panthers are 4-1 but already are 2-0 in conference. The rest of their Big East slate: at Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse, at WVU, Cincy. Pitt has the easiest remaining conference schedule of any of the four teams, having to travel only once to play a quality opponent, West Virginia.
This gives Pitt the inside edge at least in scheduling among the four teams.
Pitt is third in scoring offense and fourth in total offense. The Panthers are fifth in scoring defense and second-from-last in total defense. Pitt has quality tailbacks, and booed-by-his-own-fans quarterback Bill Stull is getting better as the season progresses.
That said, only a UConn fourth-quarter collapse allowed Pitt to win that game and they looked pretty porous in a loss to North Carolina State. Pitt is unranked.
The Mountaineers are 4-1 and 1-0 in conference. The rest of the conference schedule: UConn, at South Florida, Louisville, at Cincy, Pitt, at Rutgers. The Mountaineers must face possibly the two best teams on the road in South Florida and Cincy and catch only quality opponent Pitt at home.
This is the toughest remaining schedule of any of the four teams. WVU is fourth in Big East scoring offense, second in total offense, and predictably, first in rushing offense.
The Mountaineers are sixth in scoring defense and fourth in total defense.
Running back Noel Devine is leading the conference in rushing and quarterback Jarrett Brown is second in the league in passing. Were it not for six turnovers in the Auburn game, WVU would be undefeated. WVU is unranked.
So, let's form two rankings, and here we get subjective. The first will rank each team's remaining schedule from easiest to hardest. The second will rank each team's overall quality from best to worst.
Adding the two rankings, the team with the smallest number should end up winning the title.
Remaining schedule, from easiest to hardest:
2. South Florida
Overall quality, from best to worst:
2. South Florida
South Florida: 4
Interestingly, this ranking puts at the top the two teams that will face each other this Thursday, which makes it something of an elimination game.
Both teams have but one tough road game left after Thursday, at Pitt, which will give Pitt a say in the league championship. I went back and forth on whether WVU or South Florida should be ranked third in overall quality, but the Big East stats fall South Florida's way, so they get the nod.
For WVU fans, there is this silver lining: Because the Mountaineers have the toughest Big East schedule remaining, if they win out—and let me make this clear, they are capable of doing just that if they continue to limit turnovers—then the computers and human polls will love them.
But it's a lot of brush to cut through to get there.
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