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Big East off to slow start, but there's hope

The Big East has never been better, what with Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College all ranked among the top 14 teams in the country.

What? Those schools don't play in the Big East anymore?

OK, well, there's still ...

And then there's ...

And what about ...

As we were saying, the Big East has never been worse (except for last season). No. 19 Louisville is the conference's only ranked team, and they were humiliated at South Florida, 45-14, on Sept. 24.

More numbers reinforce a grim reality. Big East teams are just .500 (12-12) against Division I-A competition and are 0-5 against ranked opponents. Only one of those five games was decided by less than 10 points.

But before you pile on, consider: The Big East remains the sixth-best conference in the country -- faint praise, we know -- and its automatic Bowl Championship Series bid isn't going to be stripped anytime soon. It is secure through 2007, when the BCS's current four-year evaluation period expires.

Rest assured, the BCS criterion for automatic bids post-2007 will be worded loosely enough that the Big East will keep its bid (conference commissioner Mike Tranghese is pretty well-connected, you know).

This conference will get better, too. Louisville still has a chance to be a top-10 team this year, and its No. 6 national ranking last season was credited to the Big East for BCS evaluation purposes, even though the Cardinals played in Conference USA.

People tend to forget that the Big East is only 14 years old and is recovering from major surgery. It's also often overlooked that Virginia Tech wasn't exactly a national power when it joined the newborn league in 1991.

Every big-time program has to start somewhere. Go back to the early 1970s, when Florida State and Miami were far from dominant. Their rise to power gives hope to the likes of South Florida and Connecticut, two recent additions to Division I-A and two programs with the potential make a quick run up the power polls. The new Big East is counting heavily on that, plus a return to prominence for Pitt and Syracuse, which are in transition phases with new coaches. West Virginia is holding steady as a solid program under Rich Rodriguez, and Louisville is loaded.

So, there's hope.

In the meantime, there's misery.

Biggest Surprise
Big East media picked USF to finish seventh in the conference, which seemed about right considering how badly the Bulls finished last season. It could still happen, too, but the Bulls are off to a 3-2 start (1-0 in conference) that included the rout of Louisville -- about as stunning an upset as the Big East has ever seen.

Louisville was a 21-point favorite and coming off a 63-27 dismantling of Oregon State. The loss ruined the Cardinals' national championship aspirations, although they might yet run the table. USF's next game, Saturday at Pitt, will tell us whether this team is for real.

USF would leave itself just two wins short of qualifying for a bowl if it beats Pitt. An unsettled quarterback position could spell trouble, but killer team speed and workhorse running back Andre Hall can make up for a lot.

Biggest Disappointment
Pitt came into the season ranked No. 23 and picked to finish second. Then it went a month without beating a Division I-A team.

Today, the Panthers are 2-4 overall, 1-1 in the Big East and with victories only against Division I-AA Youngstown State and freshman-laden Cincinnati. Two of those four losses were to Ohio and Rutgers, teams Pitt had traditionally beaten like piƱatas.

New coach Dave Wannstedt's biggest dilemma is lack of experience and talent on his offensive and defensive lines. Most players on both lines are in new positions, which has caused Pitt to be manhandled at times by opposing offenses and unable to protect quarterback Tyler Palko.

Wannstedt has taken to playing several true freshmen, a wise move, and this team still has some star power. In this conference, it would be no surprise to see Pitt turn things around. The first step would be a victory over a decent opponent.

Midseason MVP
It might seem less than proper to pick a Louisville player, considering the Cardinals fell flat on their faces in their only Big East game thus far, but Elvis Dumervil's numbers are impossible to ignore.

Dumervil, a senior defensive end, set an NCAA record with nine sacks in a two-game span. He leads the country with 15 sacks overall, more than twice as many as his nearest competitor. He also leads the country in forced fumbles with seven (the next-nearest players have four) and tackles for loss (16).

In last weekend's 69-14 victory over North Carolina, Dumervil had three sacks, two forced fumbles and his first career interception.

"When you look at him on the field, he's short, but he's so strong," said North Carolina quarterback Matt Baker. "He looks like Dwight Freeney."

Midseason Coach of the Year
Midseason Coach of the Year
USF's Jim Leavitt edges UConn's Randy Edsall simply because of the rousing victory over Louisville, which shook the conference to its core and put the Bulls on the map.

Nine years ago, Leavitt started the USF program from scratch, working out of an abandoned trailer that doubled as his first office. His team was terrible at the end of last season, but he has quickly restored it to respectability, as evidenced not only by the Louisville win but by South Florida's somewhat competitive showings against Penn State and Miami.

In this conference, somewhat competitive against nationally-ranked teams will put you above the competition -- and playing at Miami the week after the Louisville game was an impossible task.

Bowl Bound
Louisville, West Virginia, Connecticut, Rutgers.

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.