While league coaches have conceded this is a down year for the Big East, USF coach Skip Holtz sees the league moving more in circles.
"Most leagues you get into, there's a top and a bottom. In this league, everyone is in the middle," said Holtz, in his first season with the Bulls. "It's kind of like NASCAR. Everyone has the same engine; it's just who does the best job of driving that week."
West Virginia spent time as the conference's only ranked team through mid-October before Pittsburgh passed the Mountaineers with a 3-0 start in league play. A week ago, Pitt was undefeated in the conference, the other seven teams each had two league losses and the conference had no bowl-eligible teams.
This week, the Big East has three bowl-eligible teams and Pitt isn't one of them.
"You looked at it a week ago, one team didn't have a loss and everyone else had two," Holtz said. "That's why I chuckle as people try to project who's going to what bowl and who's going to finish where in the league when you've got seven teams that are all tied."
The Big East champion most likely will head to the Fiesta Bowl, which has the final pick for BCS at-large teams. That team will have, at most, nine wins. If conference leader Pitt wins out, the Panthers will take an 8-4 record into a BCS game.
Fans of schools in other leagues may wince at the prospect of an unranked eight-win Big East champion in the BCS, but within the conference, the goal of a BCS slot remains realistic for up to five teams.
While no Big East team has been mathematically eliminated from the title chase, Cincinnati (3-6, 1-3 Big East), Rutgers (4-5, 1-3) and Louisville (5-5, 2-3) are extreme long shots.
That leaves Connecticut, USF, Syracuse and West Virginia in the race to overtake the Panthers. Pittsburgh has lost to Connecticut and beaten Syracuse. The Panthers' final three games are against USF, West Virginia and Cincinnati.
Bowl bids remain a possibility for every team in the conference, as no team at this point is guaranteed a losing record. On the other hand, only Syracuse (7-4, 4-2) is guaranteed to finish the regular season with a winning record overall and in conference play.
"Every league goes through ebbs and flows, and obviously this has not been the Big East's best year nationally," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "But we've had some great years in the last four years. A lot of leagues go through ebbs and flows."
How narrow is the margin in the Big East this season? Two fourth-down gambles re-shaped the conference race last week. Thursday, Connecticut iced its 30-28 upset of Pitt by going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Huskies' 19 in the final minutes. Jordan Todman converted with a 4-yard run. Saturday, on the first possession of overtime, Louisville elected to run a quarterback sneak on fourth down from USF's 4 rather than kick a field goal. Cardinals quarterback Justin Burke failed to convert, and USF kicked the winning field goal on its ensuing possession.
The calls gave Connecticut and USF new life in the race for the first BCS bids in school history.
"It's all going to come down to who's healthy and who's playing the best football of the year," Holtz said. "There's great balance in this league."
Best matchup: USF's offensive line vs. Pitt's defensive ends. The Bulls' offensive resurgence can be traced to their ability to protect QB B.J. Daniels. They gave up nine combined sacks in the first two Big East games, and USF didn't score an offensive touchdown in either. But Daniels has been sacked only three times total in the past three games, all wins. Pitt has the two best pass rushers in the conference in Jabaal Sheard and Brandon Lindsey, who are tied for the conference lead with nine sacks apiece.
Player on the spot: The Rutgers quarterback. Coach Greg Schiano is taking his time on whether to pick Chas Dodd or Tom Savage. Dodd had won the job, but Schiano pulled him in the second half of last week's 13-10 loss to Syracuse and inserted Savage. Actually, the most effective player under center has been Rutgers' "Wildcat" back. Freshman WR Jeremy Deering took over for injured WR Mohamed Sanu (leg) last week and rushed for 166 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries; Dodd and Savage were a combined 9-of-23 through the air. Rutgers plays Cincinnati this week, and the Scarlet Knights are hoping to have Sanu and RB Joe Martinek (ankle) in the lineup. Whoever starts at quarterback also will have the luxury of facing Cincinnati's porous defense.
Numbers game: West Virginia is the only team in the country that has not allowed at least 21 points in a game this season.
What they're saying
"Here's the second-leading rusher in the United States of America, and he doesn't make the final 10? That, to me, is unheard of. ? If you can't take the time to look at the statistics, then you shouldn't be a voter." - UConn coach Randy Edsall, on RB Jordan Todman being left off the list of Doak Walker Award semifinalists
"It's more people looking for a story line for the game. There really isn't. All of us as Big East coaches spend time together. Some of us have more of a past together than others. But it's what we do. When we go out on the field, both sides are very competitive. When the game is over, it stays on the field." -- Syracuse coach Doug Marrone, on a possible grudge with UConn's Randy Edsall. The Huskies scored two touchdowns in the final minute last season to win 56-31. Both coaches are Syracuse alums
"The only thing I can think of is lack of attention. I think at the beginning of the year, we lacked a lot of passion. Now we come out and we want to play, but I don't think the guys really focus on just making sure that you don't make a mistake. It's getting very old, very fast." -- Cincinnati C Jason Kelce,to the Cincinnati Enquirer on this season's struggles
"Our plan wasn't for Jeremy to have 29 carries Saturday, but as it was working better and he was able to handle the load, we kept going to him." - Rutgers' Greg Schiano, on Jeremy Deering running the "Wildcat"
Etc.: Louisville coach Charlie Strong has not announced a change in his quarterback situation. Justin Burke started the past two games while starter Adam Froman has been sidelined with a deep thigh bruise. West Virginia faced Cardinals third-string QB Will Stein last season. ? Pittsburgh DE Greg Romeus, in his first game since back surgery, tore an anterior cruciate ligament and will miss the rest of the season. ? Cincinnati has lost three consecutive games for the first time since 2005. ? Cincinnati coach Butch Jones is 3-6 this season. Predecessor Brian Kelly went 34-6 in three seasons. ? Connecticut is 5-0 at home and 0-4 on the road. ? UConn's Jordan Todman has topped 30 carries in each of the past two games. Backup Robbie Frey is as healthy as he's been this season, coach Randy Edsall said, and could take some of the burden off Todman. ? Louisville has held opponents to fewer than 260 total yards in each of the past four games. ? Syracuse freshman K Ross Krautman has converted 13 consecutive field-goal attempts, including two against Rutgers last week.