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Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Updated: November 14, 9:55 AM ET
Big East craziness a microcosm of national scene

By Joe Starkey
Special to ESPN.com

How nutty is the Big East Conference this season?

Try to follow the bouncing ball: Syracuse beat Louisville, which beat Cincinnati, which beat South Florida, which beat West Virginia, which beat Rutgers, which beat South Florida.

Andre Dixon
You can go around in circles trying to decipher the Big East.
Did we mention conference leader Connecticut?

Sorry.

Connecticut beat Pitt, which beat Cincinnati, which beat Connecticut. Badly.

Yeah, it's a little confusing, kind of like the college football landscape at large. The bottom line is that with three weekends left, seven of eight teams are in contention for at least a share of the Big East title.

Only Syracuse has been eliminated -- and the visiting Orange can really throw things into a tizzy if they upset No. 24 UConn on Saturday (ESPN2, noon ET).

"It's amazing," said UConn coach Randy Edsall, whose team was picked to finish seventh in the conference. "[The Big East season] is a seven-round championship fight. You're going to have to be in there slugging for seven rounds. The people who win it are the ones who can withstand all the rigors, the punches, the body blows."

No. 22 Cincinnati, under first-year coach Brian Kelly, absorbed a couple of body blows earlier this season -- back-to-back losses to Louisville and Pitt -- but bounced back to put itself in title contention as it prepares for Saturday's visit from No. 6 West Virginia (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET).

The game is being hailed as the biggest in Cincinnati's football history, which began in 1885.

"Anything less than a Big East championship now would be a disappointment," Kelly said.

Has the Big East been everything Kelly expected after arriving from Central Michigan and the MAC?

"Yeah, I think I came in knowing full well that No. 1, from top to bottom, you probably had the most balanced BCS league in the country," he said. "And No. 2, to win a championship, you [would have to] go through West Virginia, and that seems to be the case."

Indeed it does. The Mountaineers have won at least a share of the Big East title three of the past four years and control their fate going into their final three games.

Here is a look at each team's situation, keeping in mind that head-to-head competition is the first tiebreaker:

UConn (8-2 overall, 4-1 Big East): vs. Syracuse on Saturday; at West Virginia on Nov. 24. If the Huskies win out, they'll win the league outright and go to a BCS bowl game. If they defeat merely Syracuse, up to four teams will lose a chance at the league title, and the Huskies could still win a share of it.

West Virginia (8-1, 3-1): at Cincinnati on Saturday; vs. Connecticut on Nov. 24; vs. Pitt on Dec. 1. Win out, and WVU wins the league title. The Mountaineers also are likely the only conference team that could be ranked high enough to earn an at-large bid to a BCS bowl.

Cincinnati (8-2, 3-2): vs. West Virginia on Saturday; at Syracuse on Nov. 24. The Bearcats, coming off a 27-3 victory over UConn, have a good shot to win the conference title if they win out and Connecticut loses. It wouldn't be a guarantee, however, because Pitt, with only two conference losses, beat the Bearcats.

Pitt (4-5, 2-2): at Rutgers on Saturday; vs. South Florida on Nov. 24; at West Virginia on Dec. 1. If the long-forgotten Panthers upset Rutgers -- which is having quarterback issues because of starter Mike Teel's injured thumb -- they might have something significant to play for in the final two weeks.

South Florida (7-3, 2-3): vs. Louisville on Saturday; at Pitt on Nov. 24. Some heartbreaking losses have the Bulls needing a miracle to win a share of the league title, but two victories would give them another nine-win season and a decent bowl game.

Rutgers (6-4, 2-3): vs. Pitt on Saturday; Nov. 29 at Louisville. At the beginning of the season, one could have imagined the Louisville game as having major ramifications. It still might, likely in terms of bowl eligibility, only. The Big East has five bowl tie-ins but might have seven eligible teams, so six wins is no guarantee of a bowl game.

Louisville (5-5, 2-3): at South Florida on Saturday; vs. Rutgers on Nov. 29. Narrow losses, including a seven-point loss at West Virginia, crippled the Cardinals' title hopes. They still would make an attractive bowl team because of star quarterback Brian Brohm.

Syracuse (2-8, 1-4): at UConn on Saturday; vs. Cincinnati on Nov. 24. It has been another largely disastrous season for the Orange, but they could play a significant role in determining the league champion. They already have, by shocking Louisville at Papa John's Cardinal Stadium.

Consider what happened in the Big East three years ago, and you'd be a fool to discount any scenario. Then-No. 18 Boston College, in its final year in the conference, needed only a home victory over Syracuse and lame-duck coach Paul Pasqualoni in the season finale to earn a BCS bowl bid.

Didn't happen.

Syracuse pulled a 43-17 stunner.

In the end, Pitt, Syracuse, West Virginia and BC had identical 4-2 league records in a reconfigured conference that had lost Virginia Tech and Miami and hadn't yet added Louisville, South Florida or Cincinnati.

Pitt won because it was the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings. That marked the only time -- so far  in the Big East's 17-year history that a two-loss team won the league title.

The most compelling matchup this weekend pits Cincinnati against West Virginia. The Mountaineers lead the all-time series, 13-1-1, and have won the past two by a combined score of 80-24 -- but this is a much different Cincinnati team.

Kelly has upgraded the offense from analog to digital, installing a no-huddle spread that is averaging 36.6 points per game, second only to West Virginia (40.4) in the conference.

After going 5-60 against ranked teams in its history, Cincinnati has won four such games in a row, including three this season.

"They're very athletic and playing with a lot of confidence," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I believe they've completely bought in to what coach Kelly is doing. It's going to be tough atmosphere."

And a crazy one -- but what else would you expect in the Wild, Wild East?

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.