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Big East comes up big on national landscape

| Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2009

Coach Brian Kelly of undefeated Cincinnati never doubted that Big East football would earn some respect on a national level.

He believed it even when the major preseason polls included as many teams from Sun Belt and the MAC as the Big East — none.

"We don't have to pound our chests about our league," Kelly said. "We think our body of work is going to be able to show where we are."

Not long ago, the Big East was a laughingstock by failing to land a team in The Associated Press and USA Today preseason polls.

It marked the first time in the 11-year history of the BCS that a conference with an automatic berth had no teams ranked in the major preseason polls. It was only the third time in 19 years that any AP poll didn't include a Big East team, the others coming in 1995.

But, in the final week of October, the eight-team conference has built an impressive resume in a season that began with a lot of question marks. In this week's AP poll, the Big East has three teams ranked in the top 20 — or as many as any conference in the nation.

No. 5 Cincinnati (7-0), No. 16 Pitt (7-1) and No. 20 West Virginia (6-1) are competing for the Big East championship and the BCS bowl bid that comes with it. In the BCS standings, Cincinnati is eighth, Pitt 15th and West Virginia 21st.

USF coach Jim Leavitt, whose team spent a couple of weeks in the top 25 before a recent two-game losing streak, realizes the Big East gets overlooked.

"I've thought that for years now," he said. "All you had to do was watch the Big East in the bowl games and the non-conference games, and you could see how strong it is. Now everybody will start talking about the Big East."

The Big East is 28-7 this year against non-conference opponents. Its winning percentage against non-league foes (.800) trails only the SEC (28-5, .848) among the nation's 11 FBS conferences.

Two of the Big East's non-conference losses came at SEC schools — turnover-plagued West Virginia blew a late lead at Auburn, and Louisville allowed a late touchdown at Kentucky.

Reverse one of those outcomes, and the Big East and the SEC — the de facto best football conference in the land — would have identical records in non-conference games.

And the Big East isn't rolling up wins against bottom-feeder teams. The conference is 18-7 against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents, including a 17-7 victory by fourth-place USF at Florida State. In upcoming weeks, Cincinnati plays Illinois, USF meets Miami, and Connecticut and Pitt play Notre Dame.

"At the Big East meetings ... the coaches, I think to a man, we said 'Let's just play it out.'" Kelly said. "And you know what, we're past the halfway point, and that's starting to pan itself out."

Big East players dot the nation's statistical leaders. West Virginia's Noel Devine and Pitt's Dion Lewis rank third and fourth, respectively, in rushing yards per game in Division I.

Pitt's Bill Stull is No. 3 in pass efficiency, Pitt tight end Dorin Dickerson is tied for the nation's lead in touchdown receptions, and Syracuse wideout Mike Williams is fifth in receiving yards per game.

Cincinnati is the second-highest scoring team in the nation (40.7 ppg), and Syracuse and West Virginia both rank in the top 10 in rush defense. Cincinnati and Pitt rank first and third in sacks, and Rutgers has the second-best turnover margin among 120 D-I teams.

Lewis has more votes on ESPN's Heisman Watch than any freshman in the country. Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said he believes Lewis' output matches any other running back. His 1,029 rushing yards rank second in Division I, trailing only Ryan Mathews of Fresno State.

"I think the numbers speak for themselves," Wannstedt said. "I think when you look at running backs around the country, no one has been more productive than him, and I think he's done it against very good competition."

A lack of star power and the lack of a clear-cut favorite were the main reasons for the low opinion of the Big East heading into the season.

The Big East lost many top players to graduation and had more players (27) drafted per team (3.38) than any other conference in the country. Gone were high-profile players such as Pat White, LeSean McCoy, Donald Brown and Kenny Britt.

The next class of stars was comprised of players lacking national name recognition — Devine, Tony Pike, Matt Grothe, George Selvie, Jonathan Baldwin, etc. They weren't on anybody's preseason Heisman Watch list and certainly didn't get a fraction of the attention heaped on stars from the SEC (Tim Tebow) and Big 12 (Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy).

There also was a lot of balance, but no standout team in the conference. Four members received first-place votes in the Big East preseason media poll. Five teams received votes in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.

"The Big East has always been this strong," Leavitt said. "Now people will see more and more of it."

The Big East is 12-4 in bowl games the past three years and has won three of its past four BCS bowl games. Pitt, Cincinnati and West Virginia still have to play each other, so there are plenty of chances for resume-building wins.

"Everything is front of us," Kelly said. "From our standpoint, we love our situation. Let's just keep playing. It's early in the race. It's anybody's game. We've got quality, quality teams in the Big East coming up. I think this thing's going to play out nice for the Big East."

Notes: Pitt junior strong safety Dom DeCicco was named the Big East defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance in the Panthers' 41-14 win over USF on Saturday. ... Senior quarterback Bill Stull has been named one of 15 semifinalists for the Davey O'Brien national quarterback award, and Dave Wannstedt is one of 20 coaches on the watch list for the Bear Bryant College Football Coach of the Year award.

Holding its own

The Big East is 18-7 this season against Football Bowl Subdivision opponents:

Conference — Big East record

ACC — 2-2

Big 12 — 2-0

Big Ten — 1-2

C-USA — 3-0

MAC — 4-0

Mountain West — 0-1

Pac-10 — 1-0

SEC — 0-2

Sun Belt — 2-0

WAC — 1-0

Independent — 2-0

Totals: 18-7

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