Well, here we are. Halfway through the 2012 college football season. Seems like it's flown by, huh? I'll be over on the South Side later today for Pitt practice and interviews, but until then I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what the Big East picture looks like at the midway point, as well as a way-too-early peek at what might be in store for bowl season.
The conference has sort of separated out into two tiers, with Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati undefeated and holding the banner for the conference in the Top 25. The Cardinals and Scarlet Knights have even already secured bowl eligibility. Below that, it seems reasonable that any team could beat any other on any given Saturday. Let's go team-by-team according to the current standings...
1. Rutgers (3-0, 6-0 overall):
Big East games remaining: @Temple, @Cincinnati, @Pitt, Louisville
As expected, the Scarlet Knights have been getting it done with a stout defense and just enough offense. They rank in the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency defense (No. 23) and rush defense (No. 2). At the time, it looked like they scored a major non-conference win for the Big East when they won at Arkansas, but that win has lost a ton of luster as it has become apparent that the 2012 Razorbacks are a little bit of a dumpster fire. Jawan Jamison leads the conference with 110.8 rushing yards per game, and Gary Nova has been good, but not geat. None of Rutgers' three conference victories looked truly convincing, and with three of its final four conference games are on the road, I have a hard time seeing this team run the table. It would take a big step up in offensive consistency and performance.
2. Temple (2-0, 3-2 overall):
Big East games remaining: Rutgers, @Pitt, @Louisville, Cincinnati, Syracuse
That's right. For right now, the Owls are second in the conference by virtue of their wins over South Florida and Connecticut. Both of Temple's losses (Penn State and Maryland) don't look quite as bad in hindsight, with the Nittany Lions and Terrapins showing to be half-decent teams. The Owls don't really have a passing game to speak of, but Boston College transfer Montel Harris leads a diverse rushing attack that ranks second in the conference behind only Cincinnati. The Owls will welcome Rutgers to Lincoln Financial Field this week, and coach Steve Addazio has said he wants to "see the Linc on fire" (not literally, West Virginia fans). An upset win Saturday — in possibly Temple's biggest Big East game ever? — would certainly shake up the conference and maybe signal that the Owls deserve to be in the upper half of the conference.
3. Louisville (1-0, 6-0 overall):
Big East games remaining: South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple, @Syracuse, Connecticut, @Rutgers
While the Cardinals have only played one conference game, their 45-35 win at Pitt Saturday, they look the part of conference favorites so far. Louisville is the conference's highest-ranked team in the AP Top 25, coming in at No. 16. The Cardinals haven't really put together a totally impressive win yet this season, with the closest representative being a 39-34 victory against North Carolina in which the Cardinals almost blew a 36-7 halftime lead. Led by Teddy Bridgewater on offense, the Cardinals certainly have firepower, but even Pitt showed that they can be exploited in the passing game. I don't see a problem for them getting past South Florida at home, but that Friday night game against Cincinnati the following week will be a huge swing game for which direction this conference race swings.
4. Cincinnati (1-0, 5-0 overall):
Big East games remaining: @Louisville, Syracuse, @Temple, Rutgers, South Florida, Connecticut
The Bearcats have the conference's most statistically potent offense so far, but their level of competition hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Their two major wins have been the Big East opener against Pitt and a dramatic late victory against Virginia Tech. The Panthers are at the bottom of the Big East right now and the Hokies might haved saved their season with a come-from-behind win over Duke last week. At the very least, both Pitt and Virginia Tech qualify as being very schizophrenic through the first half of the season. Pitt fans saw firsthand how dangerous Munchie Legaux can be, so I think he'll always give the Bearcats a chance. Like I said before, the Friday night game at Louisville in two weeks will go a long way in defining what kind of season this can be in the Queen City.
5. Syracuse (1-1, 2-4 overall):
Big East games remaining: Connecticut, @South Florida, @Cincinnati, Louisville, @Temple
The Orange are another team that's really tough to get a read on so far. They played Northwestern close, even kept up with USC for a while, but also struggled to beat I-AA Stony Brook. Both Big East games the Orange have played so far (a win over Pitt and loss at Rutgers) could have swung the other way. It doesn't help that Syracuse ranks 115th in the country in turnover margin. In the end, Ryan Nassib will put up yards and stats, but inconsistency and problems in the little things will cost Syracuse a game or two and, barring an upset or two, likely keep the Orange home come bowl season.
6. Connecticut (0-2, 3-4 overall):
Big East games remaining: @Syracuse, @South Florida, Pitt, @Louisville, Cincinnati
Rough road the rest of the way for a team that's already in an 0-2 conference hole. Three games on the road and closing with two of the league's top three. It has been rough on offense for the Huskies, but they boast the Big East's top total defense. Those games against Syracuse, South Florida and Pitt could pivotal swing games in determining which teams end up being bowl eligible. Unfortunately for UConn, it looks like they'd have to win all three to go bowling.
7. South Florida (0-2, 2-4 overall):
Big East games remaining: @Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, @Cincinnati, Pitt
The Bulls have lost four in a row, and it doesn't get any easier heading to Louisville this week. There's no shame in losing by 13 to Florida State, but dropping games to Ball State and Temple may have Skip Holtz coaching for his job the rest of the way. South Florida is another team that has been killed by turnovers this season, highlighted by B.J. Daniels' eight interceptions. He was supposed to be one of the league's top quarterbacks this season, and has been anything but. They have three winnable games at home, but would need to pull off one more upset (they have a non-conference game @Miami, too) to get bowl eligible.
8. Pitt (0-3, 2-4 overall):
Big East games remaining: Temple, @Connecticut, Rutgers, @South Florida
And here we are. No sugar-coating it; at the midway point of their season, the Panthers are last in the Big East. The offense, especially the passing game, seems to have taken a step forward this season, but the defense is a little bit Jekyll and Hyde, showing up in spurts but also going MIA for stretches. Looking at the schedule the rest of the way, Pitt should still be able to get bowl eligible by beating Buffalo this week, then Temple, Connecticut and South Florida. Notre Dame and Rutgers are going to be tough, so that would put the Panthers at 6-6 and going to a bowl game. That also means, though, that there's no more room for error if Pitt wants to have a postseason destination. A loss in any of those four games would mean they'd have to upset the Irish or Scarlet Knights.
So, let's take a look at the likely bowl scenarios. I'm not going to try and sort out the top three of Louisville, Rutgers and Cincinnati, but let's just say they finish 1, 2 and 3 in some order. That means they would take up the BCS, Russell Athletic and Belk Bowl spots. Beyond that, it looks like maybe only one or two other conference teams will get to bowl eligibility. If Pitt can, in fact, take those four winnable games and get to 3-4 in conference and 6-6 on the season, that would peg them for the Pinstripe Bowl in New York City against a Big 12 opponent. After two straight years in Birmingham, a trip to the Big Apple wouldn't be so bad. Of course, if any of the big three fall victim to an upset or two, this whole picture could start shaking up.