Big East Football Race Heats Up Friday Night

The Big East football race gets its first really big game on Friday night, as Cincinnati visits Louisville. The Bearcats and Cardinals join Rutgers as the three undefeated teams in conference play, and all the head-to-head games are ahead of them. This conference has played good football this year, better than the ACC or Big Ten top-to-bottom, and the league champ will likely end up in the Orange Bowl. Let’s break down each team, see how they’ve gotten to this point and what lies ahead…

Let’s begin by saying that not all undefeated seasons are created equal and nowhere is that more true than the Big East in October. The conference begins playing league games early in September, and since they don’t have a league championship game, the regular schedule stretches all the way to December 1. Then add in that the conference has just eight teams and seven league games and what you get is a race that’s uneven for long stretches of time in terms of games played. Rutgers is 4-0 and more than halfway home. Cincinnati is 1-0 and just starting the road. Louisville is at 2-0.

Louisville has the league’s most exciting offensive player in quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. The sophomore is capable of running a fast-break type offense and doing it with high-efficiency. The Cardinals also have a good two-pronged rushing attack led by Senorise Perry, with Jeremy Wright producing at a pace good enough to start in a lot of places.

The Cards have beaten Kentucky—a win not as impressive now as it looked at the time. But their narrow escape against North Carolina looks better now than it did in September, given how well the Tar Heels have played in ACC games. The ‘Ville also has narrow escapes against Southern Miss, a game played in a downpour and last week against South Florida.

What Louisville doesn’t do consistently is play defense. North Carolina and Pitt were both very effective throwing the ball and South Florida pounded them on the ground. The defensive issues not only create problems for the Cards in the championship-type games that await, but also leave them susceptible to eventually getting caught in a spot they shouldn’t. Temple and UConn won’t be easy outs, nor will a road game at Syracuse.

Louisville gets Friday’s game with Cincy at home, as well as the game with Rutgers to close the season. Their challenge is not to be the exciting team that wins high-profile games, but then gives it back in winnable spots.

Rutgers scored a road win at Arkansas in September—although the Razorbacks were in meltdown. The Scarlet Knights also won at South Florida and have just won three straight league games against UConn, Syracuse and Temple. These three games have shown their obvious strengths, as well as exposed some potential problems.

The running game is very solid, with Jawan Jamison leading the way, consistently being in the 100-yard neighborhood on a per-game basis. Gary Nova, the sophomore quarterback, has grown into a mature and consistent passer. In the last three games he’s completed nearly 64 percent of his passes, gotten an average of 11 yards per completion and has 6/1 TD-INT ratio. Defensively, the Scarlet Knights are tough.

So if they run the ball, throw it and play defense, doesn’t that cover everything? Well, just wait. While Rutgers plays very efficiently on offense, they aren’t explosive and the games against UConn and Syracuse were competitive. And while Rutgers pulled away from Temple, they did dig a 10-0 hole. Nova has played well in game management situations and this is an almost impossible team to handle with a lead, but if someone—Louisville & Cincinnati for instance—can force them into a more open style of play, Rutgers can have problems.

Cincinnati beat Virginia Tech in non-league play. We can say that the win over the Hokies doesn’t look as impressive given this is not a vintage VT team. Taken individually that’s fair enough. But let’s put it in the context of Rutgers winning at Arkansas and Louisville blowing out Kentucky. You can explain each one away, but taken as a package doesn’t it suggest that the Big East is much better? Certainly not SEC/Pac-12/Big 12 caliber, but the best of the lot after that.

Anyway, the Bearcats also have a nice win over a good MAC team in Miami-Ohio, but they suffered a loss last week against Toledo, making them the only team of the Big East’s Big Three to have a loss, even if won’t affect the league standings.

Cincinnati is at its best with George Winn running the ball and versatile quarterback Munchie Legaux making big plays. In the season’s four signature games (Pitt, Va Tech, Miami-OH, Toledo), Legaux has completed 61 passes and made those count for an eye-popping 864 yards.

The flip side is that Legaux is not consistent. He’s only completed 52 percent of his throws, a low number in today’s environment of high-efficiency passing games and he was a woeful 15/36 against Toledo. Defensively, the Bearcats are vulnerable to strong running backs—Pitt’s Ray Graham and Toledo’s David Fluellen each had big games against them. With Louisville and Rutgers both having tough running backs, this is obviously a problem.

Cincy, with just one league game under its belt, still has home dates with South Florida & Syracuse and road trips to Temple and UConn, to go along with their games against the other two heavyweights.

So who’s the favorite? Simple math says you have to say Rutgers in the lead and Cincinnati at the bottom of the group, just on games played. But I think that view would have merit even if everybody was at square one. Rutgers is a very consistent team and fundamentally sound. Cincy is the most inconsistent of the group.

Which then leaves Louisville is the big X-factor, as they remain the toughest team to read. If the Cards and Scarlet Knights can both hold form, we’ll get a season-ending showdown on a Thursday night, November 29 (one week after Thanksgiving). The possibility exists for an Orange Bowl bid and conference MVP between Jamison and Bridgewater to be hanging in the balance. A lot of excitement’s ahead and it starts Friday night in the Big East.