Thursday night’s nationally televised showdown gives all Big East fans a chance to sit back and enjoy the spotlight on the conference as its only two ranked teams meet in a very important early season matchup. However, unless you’re a Cincinnati or South Florida follower there may be some confusion as to whom you should be rooting for on Thursday.
The Big East has a problem that the other BCS conferences don’t normally deal with: legitimacy. Since the conference shakedowns occurred five years ago, the Big East has been on the defensive. However, success in BCS games and respectable bowl and non-conference records subdued criticism, at least until this past off-season.
After Cincinnati lost the Orange Bowl and many of the conference’s top playmakers moved on to the NFL, it was decided in the media that no team deserved a spot preseason Top 25. This, mixed with the success the Mountain West Conference has had over the last few years, sparked a debate that maybe the Big East should be replaced at the automatic qualifier table.
The drought of having no ranked teams in 2009 didn’t last very long as Cincinnati and South Florida have both taken care of business in the games they were supposed to win and won road games over other BCS conference schools leading both teams to 5-0 records. Despite a couple of other non-conference BCS road games slipping away from Big East teams, (West Virginia and Pitt blowing fourth quarter leads against Auburn and N.C. State respectively) the conference has won when it should and has no embarrassing non-conference losses, therefore gaining some new found respect for the Big East.
Now, heading into Thursday Cincinnati finds itself all the way up to No. 8 and on the periphery of national title contention, while South Florida has moved into the Top 25 at number 21. So if you’re a Mountaineer, Panther, or Scarlet Knight who should you be rooting for on Thursday?
Most neutrals will probably say it doesn’t matter in terms of “legitimacy” for the conference as long as the winner goes on to win the conference with as few losses as possible and stays ranked in the Top 10. For the sake of the conference’s reputation this is probably true, but which team has the best chance of staying in the spotlight for the long haul?
Based on recent history betting on the Bulls to carry the conference banner would probably not be wise. South Florida has ascended up the polls to number two and number 10 in the last few seasons before going on late season losing spells. This season’s schedule sets up for more of the same.
Following Thursday’s game the Bulls travel to play another Big East contender in Pittsburgh and then six days later host always tough and somewhat under the radar West Virginia. So if the Bulls do take out the Bearcats, consecutive wins over Pitt and WVU in the coming weeks seems unlikely at best, meaning the Big East would be without a team in the Top 10, not to mention near national title discussion, heading into November.
Cincinnati on the other hand seems to turn up their level of play in the second half of the season as they’ve only lost two games in November over the last three seasons. On top of that the Bearcats schedule sets up very nicely for them to continue to move up the polls as they play host to Louisville, travel to Syracuse, and then return back to Nippert Stadium to host Connecticut. Therefore, a win Thursday night will set in motion a scenario where the Bearcats could be 9-0 and flirting with the Top Five before hosting West Virginia.
The bottom line is that if Cincinnati can win on the road against South Florida they have a greater chance than the Bulls to stay unbeaten deep into November, therefore giving them a chance at playing for a national championship and at the very least it keeps a Big East team in the forefront of college football discussions while also showcasing other prominent match-ups later in the season. All of which helps the Big East remain legitimate in the world of college football.