- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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1. Conference play begins: The Big East was brutal in nonconference play, but the plus side of that is every team must feel like it can compete for the league title. The race for the league crown officially begins this weekend with two league games as we start to sort the contenders from the pretenders.
2. UConn's run game vs. Rutgers' defense: It's your classic push/pull conflict in Friday night's conference opener. Connecticut leads the Big East in rushing at 209 yards per game and has the league's top tailback in Jordan Todman. Rutgers is ranked seventh nationally in rushing defense, allowing just 80 yards per game on the ground. Odds are that the Scarlet Knights are going to score a lot in this game, so if they can't win this battle, it could be a difficult night.
3. Rutgers' quarterback situation: Can Tom Savage play despite bruised ribs and busted-up fingers on his throwing hand? Will true freshman Chas Dodd be asked to win a conference game? Will Mohamed Sanu spend the night in the Wildcat? Rutgers has all kinds of questions at the most important position as its most important games begin.
4. How real is Syracuse?: The Orange are off to their best start in years at 3-1 but now must do something they've never accomplished: beat South Florida. Ryan Nassib leads the Big East in passing efficiency, but the Bulls are tops in the league in pass efficiency defense. Both teams have feasted on the chaff of their schedules; let's see how they do with the wheat.
5. B.J. vs. the blitz: One thing we know Syracuse defensive coordinator Scott Shafer likes to do is bring pressure. You can bet Shafer saw Bulls quarterback B.J. Daniels toss four interceptions against Florida and would like to get him similarly rattled under heat on Saturday. Has Daniels' decision-making improved? He'll get Sterling Griffin back at receiver, which should help his options. But he'll have to keep his cool when guys like Chandler Jones, Doug Hogue and Derrell Smith are chasing after him.
6. Pitt vs. the spread: It's no secret that Pittsburgh has had trouble defending the spread offense and particularly Brian Kelly's brand of playcalling. The Panthers will face their old Big East nemesis in South Bend this week, but Notre Dame's attack should look pretty similar. Moving Dom DeCicco down from safety could be a boost for the linebackers trying to cover guys like Theo Riddick and Kyle Rudolph in space, but Pitt's defense will have to play a whole lot better than it did against Miami or Utah to give the team a chance.
7. Can Pitt's offense get going?: Other than Ray Graham, the Panthers' offense hasn't done a whole lot this year. Even against Florida International last week, Pitt had 16 points after three quarters. Notre Dame's defense isn't special, but the Irish have enough playmakers to cause problems if the newly restructured offensive line isn't sound. Dion Lewis will also return to the starting lineup and try to help Graham and the running game. It would be nice if Jon Baldwin, who had five catches for 142 yards last year against the Domers, could get involved, too.
8. Devine's durability: Noel Devine is still trying to recover from a bone bruise underneath his right big toe. Bill Stewart has a decision to make this week against UNLV: Let Devine work his way back or rest him for next Thursday's conference game against South Florida? Stewart will want to protect his star running back as much as possible, but job No. 1 is to beat the Rebels.
9. Cincinnati's comeback: The Bearcats finally looked like the defending Big East champs in a close loss to Oklahoma. That was two weeks ago. Can Cincinnati carry that momentum over into what should be a fairly sweat-free win against Miami of Ohio at home? Zach Collaros and the offense should slice through the RedHawks defense. At 1-3, Cincinnati needs to keep the positive vibes going, but mostly it just needs a victory.
10. Louisville over .500?: The Cardinals are heavily favored to beat a bad Memphis team at home, and their fans always enjoy defeating their old conference rivals. A win would make Louisville 3-2 for its first winning record of the season. For a team that won just four games a year ago, that would represent some pretty good work by Charlie Strong and his staff.
1hDavid M. Hale