South Florida's success, Louisville's porous defense among season's surprises

Nosedives by Rutgers and Louisville have fostered a perception that the Big East is down this season.

Not true.

South Florida and Cincinnati have simply replaced Rutgers and Louisville in the AP Top 25 while West Virginia holds steady. Just like at the midpoint last year, the Big East has three teams in the Top 25 and two in the top 10.

Take a look:

Midpoint, 2006: West Virginia No. 5; Louisville No. 7; Rutgers No. 24

Midpoint, 2007: South Florida No. 5; West Virginia No. 8; Cincinnati No. 15

What's more, the Big East boasts three of the nation's 11 unbeaten teams -- South Florida (5-0), Cincinnati (6-0) and UConn (5-0) -- and has two teams (UConn, Rutgers) receiving votes in both polls.

(OK, in the interest of full disclosure, UConn's victories have come against Duke, Temple, Maine, Akron and Pitt, while Rutgers has beaten only Buffalo, Norfolk State and Navy -- but somebody's impressed, right?)

This time last year, the Big East was 22-8 against nonconference Division I-A competition. It is 20-9 this season. This time last year, the league was 1-3 against ranked nonconference opponents. It is 1-0 this season, thanks to South Florida's victory at then-No. 17 Auburn.

Moral of the story: The league is humming along at about the same pace it was in 2006, and is significantly improved from 2005, the year it re-formed after the last of three defectors -- Boston College -- took off for the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is only 5-11 against the Big East since the beginning of last season.

At the midpoint of the 2005 season, Big East teams were 12-12 against nonconference Division I-A opponents and 0-5 against ranked nonconference teams. Critics howled, questioning why the "Big Least" should have an automatic BCS bowl bid.

The howling has subsided, but not all is well.

For starters, the fact that Big East teams have combined to play only one ranked nonconference opponent doesn't exactly speak to aggressive scheduling, though Kentucky and Illinois soon entered the polls after beating Louisville and Syracuse, respectively.

The league also lost some luster when all four Heisman Trophy candidates -- quarterback Brian Brohm of Louisville; backfield stars Steve Slaton and Pat White of West Virginia; and tailback Ray Rice of Rutgers -- saw their campaigns crumble faster than the Buffalo Bills on "Monday Night Football." Not that any has played poorly, mind you, but it's hard to win a Heisman when you lose multiple games (Louisville, Rutgers) or come up small in a big one (White, Slaton vs. South Florida).

Meanwhile, original Big East members Pitt and Syracuse continue to sully the league's reputation with their consistently inept play.

That said, signs points to a wide-open, entertaining conference race with Cincinnati, South Florida and West Virginia as the favorites. Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly views the league schedule as a "marathon," and attrition will be a factor. It's unlikely anyone will emerge unscathed.

We'll see who's standing at the end -- and whether the Big East can possibly match last year's 5-0 bowl record.

Biggest Surprise

Well, nobody in his right mind predicted South Florida to be ranked No. 5, but we'll get into that in other categories. The biggest surprise was when Syracuse, a 36½-point underdog, traveled south and stunned then-No. 18 Louisville, 38-35. The Orange had not scored more than 20 points in 14 previous Big East games under coach Greg Robinson, but exploded on a Louisville secondary that has more holes than a Wiffle ball.

Biggest Disappointment

Louisville began the season ranked 10th, but raised a bunch of red flags when it allowed 42 points in a victory over Middle Tennessee. Then came a last-minute loss at Kentucky -- thanks to a blown coverage -- followed by the Syracuse debacle and a horrible home loss to Utah. The Cardinals are ranked 115th out of 119 teams in pass efficiency defense. Geez, was Amobi Okoye that good?

Midseason MVP

George Selvie arrived at South Florida as an offensive lineman, but was quickly converted to the defensive side of the ball. Good move. The sophomore defensive end leads the nation in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18). He averages 3.6 tackles for loss per game, nearly a full tackle more than the nearest competitor.

class="subhead">Midseason Coach of the Year

Jim Leavitt, South Florida. Cincinnati's Brian Kelly merits a mention here, but Leavitt's victories over Auburn and West Virginia give him the edge. West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez had all offseason to try to figure out a Bulls defense that stifled his spread option attack last November. He couldn't do it. Leavitt and his staff again found a way to bottle up West Virginia's stars and suddenly find themselves in the national championship discussion. Not bad for a program that just celebrated its 11th birthday.

Bowl Bound

South Florida, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Rutgers, Connecticut

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