Rutgers, Cincinnati early surprises in Big East

September 26, 2012

It's the kind of score that makes you take notice.

Rutgers 35. Arkansas 26. Right smack dab in the middle of SEC country.

And while first-year coach Kyle Flood insists he wasn't trying to do the beleaguered Big East a solid when he guided the Scarlet Knights to a convincing road victory over a team that began the season talking national championship, he may have done it anyway.

''It's something you absolutely take note of,'' Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.

Then again, it's not like there's much else for the embattled conference to choose from. At least at this point in the season.

On the same day sophomore quarterback Gary Nova tossed five touchdown passes to send the Razorbacks hurtling toward chaos, South Florida was getting knocked off by Ball State, Connecticut couldn't keep up with Western Michigan and Syracuse was turning it over four times against Minnesota.

Oh, don't forget new/old Big East friend Temple made it 71 years and counting since it last beat Penn State.

Not exactly the kind of afternoon a league in the midst of a transition wants to put on its resume.

Yet all is not lost. If anything, the 23rd-ranked Scarlet Knights (4-0) and their early-season success has made things more compelling. A conference that appeared to be lumped into two groups - preseason favorite Louisville and everybody else - now suddenly could provide some drama.

While the 19th-ranked Cardinals (4-0) have gone about their nonconference business with solid if not always spectacular results, they appear to have company at the top.

In addition to Rutgers, Cincinnati (2-0) looked dominant while whipping Pittsburgh three weeks ago, though a stern test awaits this weekend in a ''home'' game at FedEx Field just outside Washington, D.C., on Saturday against Virginia Tech.

Coach Butch Jones isn't sure what to expect with 65 first- and second-year players on the roster playing in what will likely be a largely pro-Hokie crowd. That's fine by him. He views what Frank Beamer has done at Virginia Tech as a model for what programs from non-traditional college football hotbeds can become. Of course, the Bearcats - with all of two BCS bowl appearances to its credit - aren't quite there yet.

''We're still in the infant stages of building this into what Virginia Tech has,'' Jones said. ''It's proven it can be done.''

The Big East could certainly use a Virginia Tech or two to emerge as it tries to reconstitute itself in 2013. What it could use now, however, is another win over the Hokies.

The conference already has one this season after Pitt drilled them 35-17 two weeks ago. It is a bit of a hollow victory for the league considering the Panthers - along with Syracuse - are joining the Hokies in the ACC next fall.

Still, it counts for now, and it gives Pitt (2-2) belief it could leave the Big East with a bang. Yes, the same school that started September losing to a Football Championship Subdivision program for the first time ever is talking conference championship.

''I think we're believing in it more,'' wide receiver Devin Street said. ''With those first two games, it was tough. We were down. I think we have a lot of confidence right now, but we still have room to improve.''

So do the other teams trying to close the significant gap between themselves and Cincinnati, Louisville and Rutgers.

Syracuse's mini-renaissance under Doug Marrone appears all but over. The Orange (1-3) have lost eight straight games to Football Bowl Subdivision opponents and haven't beaten a Big East team since stunning West Virginia last October.

Penalties and turnovers have again been an issue for Syracuse, which was flagged 10 times and fumbled it away twice last weekend against Minnesota.

''I have done a very poor job over four years of making our team get better,'' Marrone said. ''There have been pockets where it's been good and pockets where it's been very costly.''

The same could be said for Rutgers and South Florida, who have flirted with national relevance at times over the last half-decade only to fade into the background.

The last time the Scarlet Knights were 4-0 was in 2006, when running back Ray Rice and coach Greg Schiano led them to a breakthrough season that included knocking off unbeaten Louisville in November to end the Cardinals' hopes for a national championship.

The highs haven't been quite as high since, though Flood has done a pretty good job of giving Rutgers a needed jolt after Schiano left for the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Scarlet Knights are the only team in the country with three road victories, part of a methodology Flood embraces to play anyone, anywhere. The only downside? Getting his players to make sure they don't believe their own hype.

''I don't know if you can avoid that,'' Flood said. ''I think what happens is, even if you don't read the press clippings, other people do ... For us it's about expectations.''

And Flood, a former assistant to Schiano, expects Rutgers to be competitive. The rest of the conference too, no matter what the preseason - or the nonconference season - might indicate.

''We were picked last in the conference one year and we ended up winning nine games,'' he said. ''The preseason polls ... we don't pay much attention to them. It's not until you start playing your conference games, that's where everything shakes out.''


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