Cincinnati vs. Louisville: Time to start watching the Big East title race (No, really!)

Ed Mulholland-US PRESSWIRE

The front-runners are obvious, but a reasonably deep, reasonably interesting Big East race begins in full Friday night when Louisville hosts Cincinnati. Can anybody beat Rutgers?

Last week, the Big East had more teams ranked in the AP Top 25 (three) than either the Big 10 (two) or ACC (two). Throw in soon-to-be member Boise State, and they had four.

It had three undefeated teams (Rutgers, Louisville, Cincinnati). Its leaders boasted one of college football's best defenses (Rutgers), best young quarterbacks (Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater) and best names (Cincinnati's Munchie Legaux). Throw in Syracuse's passing game and UConn's defense (led by the best player you should probably have heard of by now, sophomore linebacker Yawin Smallwood), and you've got quite a few things to like about Big East football, especially considering it just lost its conference champion (West Virginia) and a seemingly elite prospective member (TCU) to the Big 12.


Cincy vs. Louisville: Munchie Legaux firin' shots! || What the Bearcats must correct

Meanwhile, Duke leads the ACC Coastal Division, and a Wisconsin team that tried pretty hard to lose to Northern Iowa has already almost clinched a bid in the Big Ten title game. You won't find anybody who claims the Big East is a wonderful, elite conference, but it isn't exactly demonstrably worse than at least one, maybe two other BCS conferences.

Respect, however, has been hard to come by, to put it gently.

Now, to be sure, the above paragraph was rather rose-colored. (And that pushes the bounds of "rather.")

For starters, I had to use last week's AP rankings because Cincinnati went out and lost to Toledo last Saturday. And while Rutgers' (and to a lesser extent, UConn's) defenses are outstanding, there is little fun in watching the offenses of the Scarlet Knights or (especially) Huskies. South Florida (currently 2-5, 0-3 in the Big East) is a major disappointment, and while Pitt (still a Big East member for now) has improved, the Panthers are still 0-3 in conference and did still start the season with a 14-point loss to Youngstown State. (YSU has currently lost three games in a row to North Dakota State, Illinois State and Southern Illinois by a combined 65 points. But they did beat Northern Iowa by a larger margin than Wisconsin.) The Big East's current F/+ rankings are, shall we say, not elite.

Big East F/+ Rankings
30. Rutgers (7-0, No. 78 Off. F/+, No. 12 Def. F/+)
31. Cincinnati (5-1, No. 45 Off. F/+, No. 21 Def. F/+)
37. Louisville (7-0, No. 33 Off. F/+, No. 38 Def. F/+)
46. Syracuse (3-4, No. 28 Off. F/+, No. 48 Def. F/+)
51. South Florida (2-5, No. 22 Off. F/+, No. 79 Def. F/+)
58. Pittsubrgh (3-4, No. 50 Off. F/+, No. 64 Def. F/+)
73. UConn (3-5, No. 110 Off. F/+, No. 31 Def. F/+)
77. Temple (3-3, No. 91 Off. F/+, No. 70 Def. F/+)

And the soon-to-be conference members aren't adding a ton of quality to the party at the moment.

20. Boise State (6-1, No. 57 Off. F/+, No. 11 Def. F/+)
56. San Diego State (5-3, No. 56 Off. F/+, No. 54 Def. F/+)
62. Central Florida (5-2, No. 69 Off. F/+, No. 72 Def. F/+)
76. Houston (3-4, No. 77 Off. F/+, No. 55 Def. F/+)
96. SMU (3-4, No. 121 Off. F/+, No. 60 Def. F/+)
116. Memphis (1-6, No. 123 Off. F/+, No. 92 Def. F/+)

Average F/+ Ranking, Current Membership: 50.4
Average F/+ Ranking, 2013 Membership: 61.2

That's not good. Again, though, neither is the ACC (two teams in the F/+ Top 38, with division leader Duke coming in at 72nd, one spot ahead of UConn). And of the four eligible members of the Big Ten Leaders Division, only one (No. 21 Wisconsin) ranks in the Top 50. There is a lot of less-than-elite football being played outside of the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12 right now (those three conferences currently account for 13 of the top 16 teams, according to F/+), and the Big East neither stands out for its quality or lack thereof.

What the Big East DOES have going for it, by the way, is an increasingly interesting conference title race. Heading into the last weekend of October, five of eight conference members are within one game of the conference lead in the loss column. Part of that is because of the weird spacing of conference games (Cincinnati has played one Big East game, and Rutgers has played four), and part of that is because there are also three 0-3 teams (Pitt, UConn, USF).

Regardless, there is a potentially interesting battle taking shape between Rutgers (4-0 in conference), Louisville (2-0), Cincinnati (1-0), Temple (2-1) and Syracuse (3-1). One of them, like it or not, will be playing in a BCS bowl this January. Who will it be?

Rutgers

Remaining Big East Games: at Cincinnati (Nov. 17), at Pittsburgh (Nov. 24), Louisville (Nov. 29)
Record vs. Other Four: 2-0

The Scarlet Knights have allowed more than 15 points in a game just once all season, and that was in a 35-26 win at Arkansas, a team that still has a rock solid offense. With two reasonably easy home games ahead -- Kent State on Saturday, then Army on November 10 following a bye week -- it is certainly conceivable that Rutgers, currently 15th in the BCS standings, will be a Top 10 team when it heads to Cincinnati on November 17. And lord knows that the Bearcats are inefficient enough that Rutgers should leave town still undefeated.

We can look at the November 29 battle with Louisville as a default Big East Championship game, and it may be just that, but an undefeated season could still be in play for first-year coach Kyle Flood at that time, too, even despite an iffy offense.

Louisville

Remaining Big East Games: Cincinnati (Oct. 26), Temple (Nov. 3), at Syracuse (Nov. 10), UConn (Nov. 24), at Rutgers (Nov. 29)
Record vs. Other Four: 0-0

If you indeed think of this as a five-way title race, Louisville will have the most say in the battle, win or lose. The Cardinals have yet to actually face any of the other four teams involved here.

Louisville has actually pulled off an interesting feat so far in 2012: They have remained undefeated while looking as unimpressive as possible. Teddy Bridgewater has been as good as one could have hoped -- 73 percent completion rate, 11 touchdowns to three interceptions -- but the rest of the team has been average to above average at everything.

Despite beginning the season ranked 25th in the AP poll, seven wins have advanced UL just nine spots to 16th. That's what happens when you beat North Carolina, South Florida a disappointing FIU squad and an awful Southern Miss team by a combined 18 points. Yes, Louisville is undefeated, but with a rough stretch run and a trip to Rutgers on the horizon, it is difficult to give Charlie Strong and company TOO strong a chance to win the conference.

Cincinnati

Remaining Big East Games: at Louisville (Oct. 26), Syracuse (Nov. 3), at Temple (Nov. 10), at Rutgers (Nov. 17), South Florida (Nov. 23), at UConn (Dec. 1)
Record vs. Other Four: 0-0

Law of averages caught up with Cincinnati last week. After sleep-walking through most of two dreadful performances versus bad FCS teams (Delaware State, Fordham) and really only looking good once all season (a romp over Pitt in the season opener), the Bearcats were bitten by a tricky road trip to Toledo on Saturday. Cincy fell, 29-23, and now enters conference play a bit of an unknown.

At times, this team has shown quality offense (running back George Winn averages 101 yards per game, and Munchie Legaux is averaging 283 yards of total offense per game) and defense (Cincy is allowing 16.8 points per game and, as usual, has racked up the tackles for loss), but the overall product has been iffy. Trips to Louisville and Rutgers make the Bearcats' title big a tricky one.

Temple

Remaining Big East Games: at Pittsburgh (Oct. 27), at Louisville (Nov. 3), Cincinnati (Nov. 10), Syracuse (Nov. 23)
Record vs. Other Four: 0-1

The conference newcomers, a wonderful reclamation story, have at the very least proved capable of immediately competing in the Big East. Steve Addazio's Owls took out South Florida at home, then knocked off UConn in overtime on the road.

Temple rushes the passer well, and Boston College transfer Montel Harris has looked solid since taking over the No. 1 RB role three weeks ago (last three weeks: 73 carries, 356 yards, three touchdowns).

But the offense is still iffy at best, and the best aspect of the team is probably the punting game. If Temple can win at Pitt on Saturday, there could be some staying power here, but it will take some luck (i.e. breaks in close games, plus a couple of losses for Rutgers) for the Owls to still have a chance at the title in its November 23 season finale.

Syracuse

Remaining Big East Games: at South Florida (Oct. 27), at Cincinnati (Nov. 3), Louisville (Nov. 10), at Temple (Nov. 23)
Record vs. Other Four: 0-1

Doug Marrone's Orange had a golden opportunity to make themselves a player in the conference title race, but turned the ball over four times and missed two field goals in a 23-15 loss at Rutgers. Now, with three road games remaining in four conference contests, Syracuse might struggle to put together enough wins to win its final Big East race.

That said, the Orange quite easily have the most interesting offense in the conference right now -- in case you didn't notice, quarterback Ryan Nassib is on pace for 4,000 passing yards (if the 'Cuse can become bowl-eligible, anyway), and receivers Marcus Sales and Alec Lemon are each on pace for at least 800 receiving yards. If the Orange can win at USF and Cincy in the next two weeks, they might have a really good chance, but that is a pretty large "if."

With Friday night's Cincinnati-Louisville battle on ESPN, the Big East race starts in full, and believe it or not, it could be pretty entertaining. The front-runners are obvious, but the separation between No. 1 and No. 5 is not great (really, that's always been the conference's biggest asset and liability: there are few truly bad teams and few elite ones), and while Rutgers pursues an undefeated season, it still has quite a bit of work to do to secure its first conference title as well.

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