No. 23 Cincinnati has Big East title in reach
No. 23 Cincinnati is one victory away from taking control of the Big East race.
Of all the surprises in the conference this season - teams trying to desert, lawsuits flying back and forth - it's one of the bigger ones.
Cincinnati (7-1, 3-0) has the only perfect conference record in the Big East and can essentially put away another top threat on Saturday when it hosts West Virginia at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Bearcats have beaten Louisville, South Florida and Pittsburgh in the last three weeks, rallying from behind in the second half of each game. They overcame a nine-point deficit to beat Louisville at Paul Brown, and 10-point deficits at South Florida and at Pittsburgh.
They've been living on the edge without falling off, leaving them on the verge of a third Big East title in four years.
''You always talk about championship character, and our kids have shown resiliency,'' coach Butch Jones said on Monday. ''They've persevered and found ways to win football games.
''We've played some very, very good football teams. Those are three very talented football teams. Two of the three were on the road. So we're finding ways to win games.''
Their defense held on Saturday night in Pittsburgh for a 26-23 win that put them in control of the conference. Louisville is alone in second place with a 3-1 conference mark and 5-4 overall. Rutgers is third at 3-2 and 6-3 overall.
West Virginia and Connecticut are tied for fourth with 2-2 conference records. At the moment, it's a wide-open race - for second place.
''Right now, anything can happen,'' Pittsburgh's Todd Graham said on Monday. ''Other than Cincinnati, everybody else is right there.''
The Mountaineers are coming off a 38-35 loss to Louisville that knocked them out of the Top 25 and out of the group of top contenders. West Virginia finishes with games at Cincinnati, at home against Pittsburgh and at South Florida.
A win on Saturday would put the Bearcats way out in front heading into a closing three-game stretch against Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut.
The Bearcats won the league in 2008 and 2009 under Brian Kelly, going on to lose in the Orange Bowl and the Sugar Bowl those seasons. They slipped to 4-8 last season under Jones, who inherited one of the nation's least-experienced defenses.
''I think the thing that's lost is when we came in here, you look at the production that was lost to graduation,'' Jones said.
The Bearcats have stabilized and moved ahead in a league that has a lot of parity and plenty of confusion as it tries to reconfigure itself as some of its foundation teams, including West Virginia, get ready to leave.
West Virginia accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 and filed a lawsuit against the Big East last week, hoping to leave for the 2012 season. The Big East filed a countersuit to keep the school for 27 months under the league's bylaws.
So far, the Bearcats have been the league's most stable team.
''There's a reason they're first in the league right now,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. ''They're playing with tremendous effort, confidence, energy and things tend to go your way when you play with that kind of stuff.''