Big East makeover already starting

BY foxsports • September 28, 2011

Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros doesn't need another reason to help the Bearcats win the Big East.

Conference realignment? Not his problem. Pittsburgh and Syracuse bolting to the ACC in 2014, with Connecticut practically begging to go too? Collaros will be long gone by then. Who's in, who's out, who's next, all of it is met with a shrug of the shoulders.

''Me being a senior, it's like: Whatever,'' Collaros said. ''I just don't like any of the Big East teams. That's all (the motivation) I need. They can go play wherever they want, as long as UC is all right in the long run.''

The short run is looking pretty good for the Bearcats - and the rest of the Big East's ''leftovers'' - too.

Who wants to wait three years to shake things up? In the Big East, the makeover is already underway.

South Florida is unbeaten, ranked 16th and surging behind quarterback BJ Daniels. The Bearcats (3-1) can tie last year's win total with a victory on Saturday against Miami (Ohio). Louisville is showing signs of life under Charlie Strong and freshman quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Preseason favorite West Virginia (3-1) can't run the ball. Pitt (2-2), picked to finish second, is enduring some very visible growing pains as it adapts to coach Todd Graham's ''high octane'' offense. Syracuse (3-1) needed a blown extra point call by the referees to beat Toledo in overtime last weekend.

Conference play officially begins Thursday when the Panthers host USF, an opportunity for the Panthers to gain some traction under Graham and a chance for the Bulls to show they're for real.

Pitt coach Todd Graham downplays talk that Pitt and Syracuse are Public Enemy No. 1 now that the schools are short-timers.

''I really don't think that's an issue at all,'' he said.

Maybe, but things could get awfully uncomfortable. Two months ago, the Big East was counting the days until burgeoning power TCU came aboard next fall. Now it's fighting for it's life after a pair of the conference's cornerstones opted for the greener - at least financially - pastures in the ACC.

Things got ugly when Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College did the same thing nearly a decade ago. While it's a little early for the vitriol to start given the amount of lag time, there's little doubt the five schools who have pledged to hang in there want to showcase they'll be just fine without the Panthers, Orange and Huskies thanks.

It worked, kind of, last decade.

Miami was forced to share the Big East title with West Virginia during its last year in the conference in 2003. Boston College was relegated to co-champion in a watered-down league in 2004.

Pitt and Syracuse will have some work to do if they want to even get that close in a conference race that looks more open by the week. Then again, maybe no one should be surprised. Five of the league's eight teams have shared the title since the league added USF, Louisville and Cincinnati in 2005.

''The Big East is very unpredictable,'' Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead said. ''You can't really call a game, which makes it fun. You don't really have a powerhouse that seems to win every year.''

The players insist they're mere pawns in this game. Their job is to win games regardless of what name is sprawled across the top of the conference standings.

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith has spent the last two years learning to hate Pitt. The fact Pitt is leaving and possibly ending ''The Backyard Brawl'' series with the Mountaineers is something he can't control.

''There's already an incredible amount of animosity toward Pitt just for the fact that it's a great rivalry,'' Smith said. ''And as far as Syracuse goes, they beat us last year, so we feel we owe those guys one. So there's no added pressure or animosity toward those guys. We really couldn't care less about the changes going on with conferences. We really can't control it. The only thing we can control is what we do on the field.''

Perhaps the real animosity is saved for the ACC. The Big East is 3-1 against ACC schools this year, including Cincinnati's 44-14 whipping of N.C. State on national TV last week.

It was a game that showcased Cincinnati's blossoming offense under second-year coach Butch Jones and sent a message to the rest of the Big East that the Bearcats might be back after posting consecutive titles in 2008 and 2009 under Brian Kelly.

Consider Cincinnati another ingredient in what could be a very combustible conference race, one that gets blown up each week.

A competitive two months followed by a win in a Bowl Championship Series game by a school other than Pitt and Syracuse would certainly help the Big East's hopes of keeping their automatic BCS bid.

Then again, maybe not. The college football landscape is changing so quickly these days, there's little reason to hold a grudge.

Pitt wide receiver Mike Shanahan isn't concerned about being targeted. He already assumed teams were out to beat the Panthers. Last he checked, Pitt could still win the Big East this year.

''I think we're just as good as any of those other teams,'' Shanahan said. ''I think other teams see us as a threat. I don't think anybody's looking forward to playing us.''


AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati and John Kekis in Syracuse, NY contributed to this report. Follow AP Sports Writer Will Graves on twitter at

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