Welcome to the Big East, a toss-up like no other
Paul Pasqualoni remembers the good old days - when the Big East wasn't such a toss-up.
''When we started in this thing (in 1991), Miami had the best players in America. Miami was hard to beat,'' said Pasqualoni, who spent 14 years at Syracuse and now is in his first season at Connecticut. ''They won like the first 13 championships. Virginia Tech in some of those years was the best - they had some terrific teams. They had a guy named Michael Vick. They were good ... but Miami was the dominant force in the league. There was no question.
''Realistically, some of the teams in the league in those years were not going to beat Miami,'' he said.
No need to worry about that now. The Big East is struggling to stay together and keep its automatic BCS bowl bid. The Hurricanes are in the Atlantic Coast Conference along with the Hokies and Boston College, soon to be joined by Syracuse and Pittsburgh, while West Virginia gets ready to leave for the Big 12.
It's kind of a shame, really, that the league's lineup is going to change because this Big East season has been as riveting as a roller-coaster ride. It's up one week, down the next for just about every team.
Preseason conference favorite West Virginia was on a roll, ranked No. 11 when it ventured into the Carrier Dome in late October. The Mountaineers, who hadn't lost to the Orange under that Teflon roof in a decade, departed wondering what had hit them after a 49-23 thumping.
West Virginia sits at 2-2 in the conference, tied with Pasqualoni's Huskies and Pitt. Rutgers is a half-game ahead in third at 3-2, surprising Louisville is second at 3-1, and suddenly resurgent Cincinnati is unbeaten in three games.
The Bearcats, who finished 4-8 last year in Butch Jones's first year at the helm, can swipe that elusive BCS bowl bid by winning out. Nobody's counting on anything, though, and for good reason.
The Bearcats have beaten Louisville, South Florida and Pittsburgh in the last three weeks, but they had to rally from behind in the second half of each game. Last week against the Panthers, Cincinnati trailed 23-13 in the third quarter, stormed back to take a 26-23 lead and held on when a 50-yard field goal attempt by the Panthers sailed wide in the closing seconds.
Now the Bearcats face West Virginia, which is coming off a 38-35 loss to Louisville that knocked them out of the Top 25 and out of the group of top contenders in the league.
Mountaineers quarterback Geno Smith is exhibit one in this topsy-turvy season. He passed for over 400 yards last week and was named Bid East offensive player of the week - and his team lost!
''We feel like we should win every Big East game,'' Smith said. ''We should have won every game, but we didn't.''
''You can't take anybody lightly,'' Bearcats senior quarterback Zach Collaros added. ''One week you'll see a team look really bad, the next week they look like the best team in the league. If you go out there and sleep walk, it's going to catch up with you. You can't do that in this league.''
Syracuse found that out quickly. The Orange, unbeaten on the road in the conference last year, is 0-2 so far in 2011, and both losses have come since that shocking victory over West Virginia.
''When you're in a conference that is up and down, where teams that are supposed to be losing are winning and vice-versa, you say, `That could be us.' " Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead said. ''So we need to make sure that's not us.''
Now, the Orange, who played three overtime games in their first five and won two of them, face a South Florida team that figured to challenge for the league title before the season and still hasn't won a Big East game in four tries.
Yup, the Bulls are dead last.
''We can sit here and argue we're three plays away from being 7-1 and Syracuse can say the same thing, and so can Rutgers and everybody else,'' South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. ''The difference from winning and losing is that close.''
So, is that a distraction? Does it make it more difficult to get ready?
Not in the mind of Rutgers coach Greg Schiano.
The Scarlet Knights faced a two-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter at South Florida last weekend, got two late scores to tie it, and won its second overtime game of the season.
''It's not a distraction. I love it,'' Schiano said. ''I spent three years in the National Football League as an assistant coach, and this league reminds me of that - and I don't mean by the talent level, but the competitiveness and the parity. You look at the National Football League, any team can beat any other team every week. It makes for great excitement for the fans. You never know what's going to happen, and I think that's great.''
So, too, does Pitt coach Todd Graham, who can use any kind of a boost after last week.
''You've got one team in the league that's unbeaten, then you have Louisville with one (loss) and then everyone else has two or more - and we play most of the guys left, so who knows what's going to happen?'' Graham said.
Added Pasqualoni: ''There are no bad teams in this league. There are teams that have better records, but that's the way it is. There is tremendous parity in this league. It's hard to win.''
AP Sports Writers Joe Kay in Cincinnati, Will Graves in Pittsburgh, and John Raby in West Virginia contributed to this report.