- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
1. Focus: That's the key word this week, as the top three contenders in the Big East all are heavy favorites at home. Showdowns between Cincinnati, Pitt and West Virginia loom on the calendar ahead. But for those to matter, they need to take care of business this week against the heavy underdogs and not start thinking ahead to the stretch run.
2. Cincinnati's receivers vs. the UConn secondary: The Huskies got burned by Tim Brown on an 81-yard pass play to lose this week, but they've been pretty good against the pass this year and have the league's two co-leaders in interceptions (Robert Vaughn and Robert McClain). They will face a major challenge this week against the Bearcats' Mardy Gilyard, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. Syracuse had some small success slowing Cincinnati down last week by trying to keep everything in front of the defense. UConn might also want to make the Bearcats prove they can sustain long drives.
3. Attack of the backup Zachs: Cincinnati looks likely to go with Zach Collaros again at quarterback as Tony Pike continues to recover from his left forearm injury. Collaros has been outstanding the past two and a half games, though this will be the best team he's started against thus far. UConn's Zach Frazer is back at quarterback now that Cody Endres is out for the season with a shoulder injury. Frazer has been way too erratic this season, including three more interceptions last week at Rutgers, and can't afford those mistakes against the Bearcats.
4. Lindsey Witten vs. Jeff Linkenbach: Witten is tied for second in the nation in sacks with 10.5. Linkenbach has developed into the best left tackle in the Big East, in my opinion. If UConn can't get pressure on Collaros, it could be a long night at Nippert Stadium for the Huskies. Witten needs to bring the heat.
5. Dion Lewis: The Pitt freshman tailback was named a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award this week and floats on the periphery of the Heisman race. Syracuse has been surprisingly stout against the run this season, ranking first in the Big East with just 88.9 yards allowed per game on the ground. Another big game by Lewis against this defense should vault him into the lead for Big East player of the year and other award honors.
6. Paulus and the passing game: Syracuse quarterback Greg Paulus was booed at home last week and then received a passionate defense by his head coach Doug Marrone. Paulus has struggled in Big East play, and he just lost his best and maybe only big-play receiver in Mike Williams, who quit the team on Monday. How do he and the Orange offense respond?
7. West Virginia's pass defense: The deep pass has hurt the Mountaineers the past few weeks and much of the season. Louisville has the worst scoring offense in the Big East but is capable of pulling off some big plays in the passing game with guys like Scott Long, Trent Guy and Doug Beaumont. If West Virginia can tighten that part of its defense up, it should have little trouble at home against the last-place Cardinals.
8. Louisville's quarterback derby: Three guys -- Justin Burke, Will Stein and Adam Froman -- have started, and it's anybody's guess who will get the call this week. Coach Steve Kragthorpe said earlier this week that Burke and Froman, who were both hurt at Cincinnati, should be available for practice. If they're all good to go, Froman likely gets the nod. But West Virginia has to prepare for all three just in case.
9. Speed on the edge: The main difference between West Virginia and Louisville the past two years was that the Cardinals didn't have the defensive speed on the perimeter to contain the Mountaineers' playmakers unlike, say, South Florida. Pat White got outside with ease in last year's game in Louisville, and the Cardinals' quickness hasn't gotten significantly better. Expect at least one huge run, if not several, from Noel Devine and maybe even Jarrett Brown or Jock Sanders.
10. Cincinnati's competition: We're not talking about UConn, but the other contenders for the national title. Keep an eye this weekend on Alabama against LSU, Iowa against Northwestern, Boise State at Louisiana Tech and TCU against San Diego State. Any of them faltering would help the Bearcats' national title chances.