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Big East Football: Title Picture Coming Into Focus (A Little)

Tomorrow's group of Big East games is small (just three games involving Big East teams), but the games are all important to the bowl and conference title picture. Here's a look at the three games this weekend and their implications. 

Miami at South Florida

Last season, South Florida did its best to earn a spot among the state of Florida’s "Big Three" by going to Miami and beating Miami, despite not having starting quarterback BJ Daniels. The upset win gave the young Bulls’ program road wins against Florida State and Miami in a short period of time, and ultimately cost Miami head coach Randy Shannon his job. This year, neither Al Golden nor Skip Holtz should hear losing their jobs, but, there is still plenty to play for in terms of postseason eligibility and in-state respect. This is the first time South Florida has been able to get one of the state’s "Big Three" to play them in Tampa, and it would go a long way toward establishing itself as one of the state’s powers to beat Miami in consecutive seasons.

While Miami has battled trouble both on and off the field for all of the 2011 season, Al Golden has done a remarkable job maximizing the abilities of the players he’d had left to work with. Multiple players have left the team in spring, or been forced to sit numerous games due to NCAA violations, still, the Hurricanes are 5-5 and have been competitive with every team on their schedule. Senior quarterback Jacory Harris has flourished under new offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch. Harris is currently completing 65% of his passes and has 19 touchdown passes with just 5 interceptions. To give the ‘Canes offense balance, Lamar Miller has been one of the nation’s most dependable running backs, averaging 116 yards per game rushing. When Miller is successful, Harris has been lights out throwing the ball deep on play-action.

For South Florida, what started out as a dream season turned in to a nightmare once Big East conference play started. The Bulls opened with a win over Notre Dame and were 4-0 and ranked in the top 20 before dropping their next four games. They finally stopped the bleeding last week against an equally struggling Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome. While the offensive stats are impressive, the Bulls passing game has disappeared in stretches, and they’ve once again become dependent on the running of BJ Daniels to move the ball. Daniels currently ranks 12th nationally in total offense, averaging 315 yards per game running and throwing. The Bulls will need every bit of that production and should have some success against a Miami defense that has struggled to stop mobile quarterbacks in previous weeks.

Louisville at Connecticut

Last year, Louisville hosted Connecticut and handed the Huskies their worst loss of the season. It was also their last loss of the season. After that, Connecticut win its final four games and rallied to win the Big East and earn a trip to the Fiesta Bowl. While neither team will likely have a chance to win the Big East this year, both still have realistic opportunities to reach the postseason and possibly build momentum for the future. A win clinches a bowl for Louisville. A win gets Connecticut back to .500 with two games remaining. Charlie Strong’s young team has played well on the road this season, winning at rivals Kentucky and West Virginia. Connecticut has struggled to get consistent quarterback play and injuries have hindered a defense that was supposed to be a team strength heading into the season.

For Louisville, every game this season (outside of perhaps the West Virginia game), has been determined by the performance of its offense. The Cardinals defense has been stellar and consistent, ranking near the top of the Big East in nearly every category. The Cardinals allow just 18.3 points per game. The problem? They only average 19.3 points per game themselves. Due to an extremely inexperienced offense that starts true and redshirt freshmen at every position, the Cardinals have struggled to consistently score points as evidence by their ability to score 38 points against West Virginia, only to return home and score just 14 against Pittsburgh. Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has settled in as the team’s starting quarterback (nine touchdowns, eight interceptions), but the Cardinals have yet to find a consistent, every-down back to balance the offense. Against Pittsburgh, Louisville rushed for just 115 yards, most of which came from Bridgewater on scrambles. The brightest spot on the offense so far has been freshman receiver DeVante Parker who already has four touchdown receptions despite only catching 14 passes this season. He’s the deep threat Louisville needs.

Connecticut has been very similar to Louisville in that its defense has been consistent, but its offense has often let good defensive performances go to waste. Paul Pasqualoni refused to settle  on a quarterback for much of the season, but the job has finally landed in Johnny McEntee’s hands. Still, the offense requires little of the quarterback, instead, choosing to rely on a ball-control running game. Lyle McCombs has done a good job handling the ball as Connecticut’s next standout running back and needs only 19 yards to go over 1,000 for the season.  In order to win, however, the Huskies will have to throw the ball effectively as Louisville allows just over 100 yards per game on the ground.

Cincinnati at Rutgers

Cincinnati’s season might have turned on a single play in last week’s loss to West Virginia. With the Bearcats clinging to a tiny lead, quarterback and team leader Zach Collaros was tackled and went down awkwardly with what was later diagnosed as a broken ankle. The Bearcats couldn’t answer a late West Virginia score after he left the game, and now face the prospect of trying to hold onto their one game lead in the Big East with three games remaining with the backup quarterback in charge. Their first test comes Saturday against an improved Rutgers team with quarterback issues of its own. Chas Dodd began the year as the starter, only to give way to freshman Gary Nova. Now, after Nova struggled in consecutive games, Dodd is back under center with a chance to put Rutgers back into the Big East title race.

While the Bearcats offense has been much more balanced than it was in 2010, it still all relies on the quarterback being able to punish offenses through the air. With Collaros going down, that job falls to the wonderfully named Munchie Legaux. The sophomore filled in for Collaros against West Virginia and led the team into scoring position before the game tying field goal was blocked. Legaux is a great athlete and a running threat, but is not nearly the dependable passer that Collaros is. That being the case, the Bearcats’ offense will rely even more on tailback Isaiah Pead. Pead ranks in the top 20 nationally in rushing, averaging 103 yards per game on the ground. Defensively, the Bearcats have been stellar against the run, allowing just 83 yards per game. That’s good enough for second, nationally and is good news against a pro-style, ground-oriented team like Rutgers.

For Rutgers, the issues at quarterback have slowed the offense down some, but not completely. The offense has still been good enough for receiver Mohamed Sanu to break the Big East season receptions record (94) with two games left to play. He and Mark Harrison are as good as any pair of receivers in the country. The struggle has been in running ball and protecting the quarterback. A young and inexperienced offensive line has hampered the offense through Big East play. The defense has been greatly improved in 2011, allowing just 18 points per game and just 175 yards per game through the air. With Collaros out of the game for Cincinnati, that defense will clamp down even more and try to force Legaux to beat them throwing the ball.

The Conference Race

West Virginia is the only team in the conference that doesn't need Cincinnati to lose twice. So much of the Big East will be determined by what the Bearcats do, beginning tomorrow. Four others (Louisville, Connecticut, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh) can still win the Big East if Cincinnati loses two of its final three games. Louisville is in the enviable position of having wins over Rutgers and West Virginia, so the Cardinals could take a big step toward winning the Big East should Cincinnati lose. Rutgers would also still be in contention, but would need a lot of help in the final two weeks of the season to win. Should Cincinnati win tomorrow with Munchie Legaux filling in for Zach Collaros, it would mean Louisville, Connecticut, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh would effectively be eliminated from winning the conference outright, and give West Virginia a chance to win should the Bearcats lose just once more. 

Bowl Picture

West Virginia, Cincinnati, and Rutgers have already clinched bowl games. Louisville and South Florida can both do so with wins tomorrow. Connecticut can get back to .500 with a win over Louisville and would need to win one of its last two to get bowl eligible. Rutgers is a virtual lock to go to the Pinstripe Bowl and Louisville is most likely headed to either the BVAA Compass Bowl or the Beef O'Brady's Bowl. For any Big East team to get a shot at the Champs Sports Bowl, it must finish with the same or better record than Notre Dame, otherwise the bid will almost certainly go to the Irish. That means Cincinnati and West Virginia are the only real possibilities. We'll know far more about the bowl destinations after this week.