Over the next ten days, Big East Coast Bias will take a look at the ten games that we think will be the most vital in crowing the Big East football champion in 2011. It's difficult to narrow the list down to ten, so take the list with a grain of salt, but in looking over the conference's contenders and the schedule for 2011, these are the games we think we will look back upon and see were the most critical in determining the Big East's champion. Up first, our number ten game, South Florida at Connecticut.
We'll start looking at the games that will determine 2011 by looking at the game that finally determined the 2010 champion. Heading into November, UConn needed a series of breaks to be able to win the Big East after opening 0-2 in conference with losses to Rutgers and Louisville. One by one, the Huskies got them. They went on a four game winning streak to close the season, notching wins over Pitt and West Virginia by a combined five points, then beating Syracuse and Cincinnati to set up the season final with USF that would send them to the Fiesta Bowl with a win. Though the Huskies gained just 232 yards of total offense, thethey held USF, playing without BJ Daniels at quarterback, in check for most of the game. With a critical first and goal late in the game, South Florida failed to score a touchdown, instead settling for a game tying field goal that left enough time for UConn to drive down and kick the game winning field goal as time expired.
This year, the Bulls are the likely Big East title contender and, instead of the game being the season finale in muggy Tampa, it falls on a cool October Saturday in East Hartford, CT. South Florida will enter the game very well rested. Whereas last year, the Bulls came home to face UConn after playing an emotional road game at Miami, this year, the Bulls will have ten days to rest and prepare for the Huskies. The Bulls play at Pittsburgh on a Thursday night before their bye week. This means they should enter the game much healthier than they did last season. There may very well be a real sense of urgency for South Florida as well. If things don't go well and the Bulls lose on the road at Pitt to open Big East play, starting 0-2 in conference would likely end their chances of winning the Big East before October is halfway over.
In 2011, it will be UConn that comes into the game on the heels of what should be a very, very difficult game in Morgantown the week before. In fact, the Huskies face the league's three best teams in a four week stretch, traveling to Morgantown, coming home to face South Florida, and then travel to Pittsburgh after the bye week. The Huskies will very likely know their chances of winning the Big East or perhaps even making a bowl game at all after the first seven games of the season. The Huskies have five winnable non-conference games against Fordham, Vanderbilt, Iowa State, Buffalo, and Western Michigan before starting Big East play at West Virginia. Best case, the Huskies come into play with a 5-1 record and are looking at becoming bowl eligible with a win. Worst case, they're already 3-3 with Big East conference play still ahead of them, desperately looking for three more wins.
This year's game seems decidedly in South Florida's favor, and barring another game where the Bulls are lulled into the UConn trance, they should win. BJ Daniels and the rest of the team should be healthy and by week six, the Bulls should have suitable replacements for the defensive players lost to the NFL comfortable in their new roles. Still, it's not automatic. The Bulls are just 1-3 in the past four years against UConn and the Huskies' defense should be outstanding. Nine starters return from last year's stellar unit and now they're lead by one of the best defensive minds in football - Don Brown. Brown was a clever, aggressive coordinator at Maryland and will inherit a Huskies defense that has a better front four and a dependable secondary. The problem for UConn will be on the offense. With the departure of the team's leading passers, leading rusher, and the leading receivers, it's reasonable to wonder just where the points will come from.
After this game, South Florida could be 2-0 in conference play with wins over the 2010 co-champions, or they could rebound from a tough loss at Pitt. Worst case (for USF), UConn saves its season and South Florida finds itself out of the Big East race before its truly started.