The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

October 20, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Nothing certain in Big East race

MORGANTOWN — There seems to be a feeling on the street, one that has grown, perhaps, out of the dilemma that has been created out of the conference realignment craze, that West Virginia University is — at least on the football level — superior to those that surround it in the Big East.

The people who buy their groceries at Kroger, shop at Walmart or Target, grab a bite at Mickey D’s in hopes of winning Monopoly, reacting to being left out of the realignment up to the moment are reacting as you would expect, arching their backs and saying, “Syracuse and Pitt aren’t any better than we are here at West Virginia.”

They point to their football team and its 5-1 record and No. 11 national ranking, the only nationally ranked team in the Big East. They point to the record-setting offense in a league that outside of Cincinnati considers a field goal worthy of a celebration.

WVU people do not expect to win the Big East football championship this season ... they are already making plans for their BCS bowl trip.

From what anyone has seen so far, it is highly possible that they are right, but the other coaches in the Big East aren’t about to concede anything yet ... not even that arch-rival team from the north that has suddenly defected to the hoity-toity Atlantic Coast Conference.

See, it is October and, as Pitt coach Todd Graham points out, “The conference is won in November.”

Right now the race is in its infancy. Yes, Graham’s team is playing poorly, but it has only one conference loss. Only one team is 2-0, Rutgers, while WVU and Cincinnati are 1-0. The other five teams already have lost a game ... but not hope.

The conference, you see, always seems to have had parity, at least since Miami jumped to the ACC.

Since 2003, only Cincinnati in 2009 and WVU in 2005 have been undefeated Big East champions. Three years since then two losses tied for the conference title.

It is a league where the unexpected is expected and where the only upset is when there are no upsets.

“There are no bad teams in the Big East,” Paul Pasqualoni, the veteran Connecticut coach who spent many years battling for titles at Syracuse, said. “Some teams will have better records than others, but they all have good players and are well coached. It’s going to be a dogfight.”

Does WVU look the best?

Certainly, for it seems to have the most balance between offense and defense and has the most big-play players on offense, game-breaking types like Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey and the most proficient quarterback in Geno Smith.

But that does not mean that quarterback Zach Collaros at Cincinnati can’t have a big day head-to-head with the Mountaineers and put 40 points on the board or that his running back, Isaiah Pead, can’t have a 200-yard rushing game in a head-to-head showdown.

The fact is that everyone believes they have a shot at winning the title, maybe not as the frontrunner, but just because the league is so balanced. It was a lesson driven home last year when UConn, which some rumored was about to fire coach Randy Edsall in mid-season, wound up winning the title and going to the BCS bowl.

Even Pitt, which has been dismal, is talking about that one goal still remaining and giving the Panthers something to shoot for.

“We are starting a new season,” coach Todd Graham told those on the Big East media call Monday. “We have obviously underachieved, but we have the goal of being Big East champion out there.

“There’s nothing easy about it. Every week we have to bring it. We have to put ourselves in position. When we get to the latter part of November, that’s what it’s all about. We have to win out. We have to go 5-0.”

Because this conference comes with no guarantees, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen has his team concentrating only on the next game, not yet thinking championship or making any boasts that would make them a target and put pressure on them.

He understands that if his team wins out, it will be Big East champion and that even one conference loss may not derail it, but to think that way is like celebrating a touchdown before the play is run, and that normally is not a very sound approach to the game.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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