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September 22, 2010

HERTZEL COLUMN: Big East up for challenge

MORGANTOWN — In some ways, what we have this week in the Big East is the equivalent of a 97-pound weakling ripping off his jacket, looking Mike Tyson square in the eyes at the height of his career, and shouting “Put up your dukes, big guy.”

Such is what the schedule has laid out for them.

This is “The Mouse That Roared” in real life, that being a Peter Sellers movie from the late 1950s in which the tiny Duchy of Grand Fenwick declared war on the United States, hoping to lose so it would be given war reparations from the U.S.

In at least one regard, this is the same thing, for the Big East plays games such as the ones they do this week knowing their chances of winning are small but they will help fill solve their economic problems by going to war.

The task that begins on Thursday night when Pitt is at home against Miami, followed by a Saturday of Rutgers hosting North Carolina, Cincinnati hosting Oklahoma and West Virginia playing at LSU is a challenging one.

Considering that the Big East so far this season is but 1-7 in games against BCS opponents – the only win being WVU’s 31-14 victory over Maryland last week – to think you can tackle such opponents as Oklahoma is perhaps stretching reality.

This is not to say that in recent years the Big East has not been able to venture out of conference and find success. Indeed, it is 16-6 in bowl games over the past four years and its 36-10 non-conference record against all comers is second only to the SEC’s 48-10 record, which may be because of that conference’s strength of because it never has to play itself in non-conference games.

But that was the last four years, not this year, when the world has turned flat for the Big East.

“Some years it happens; some years it won’t,” said Connecticut coach Randy Edsell on Monday’s Big East coaches conference call.

This is one of those years when it hasn’t worked for Edsell, whose Huskies have lost by 20 points at Michigan, then were flogged by Temple, a school booted from the Big East for its inability to compete.

To add to the torture, the team that replaced Temple was Connecticut.

In some ways you might want to pity Pitt, too, for their schedule had them open at Utah, where they lost a tough game in overtime, and now play Miami at home before going to Notre Dame, a rather ambitious bit of scheduling.

“To be honest, Notre Dame and Miami were already scheduled, and Utah was added later on because of a cancellation,” coach Dave Wannstedt said. “I don’t mind playing a strong schedule. My only complaint from Day 1 is that I’d like to see the entire conference either play all Top 25 or not. That’s fine with me. I want to see parity within the conference. That’s my stance on this thing.”

His point being that while he plays Utah, Notre Dame and Miami, Cincinnati has only Oklahoma as a BCS opponent and Rutgers has only North Carolina while the other schools have only two BCS foes.

WVU, of course, has LSU this week, which even in what some saw as a down year in Baton Rouge, is a daunting road challenge.

Mountaineer coach Bill Stewart says he doesn’t pay much heed to who is playing whom in non-conference games.

“We don’t sit around and talk about that. We really don’t. But let me tell you something. I root for these guys in the Big East. I’m friends with these guys. Just because one day you want to beat them and whip ’em good doesn’t mean we’re not friends,” he said. “I like to see us win against the so-called name opponents. I’m a Big East guy.”

Stewart, however, admits that playing Oklahoma, LSU, North Carolina and Miami is quite a task, considering that Oklahoma has won seven national championships since 1950. Miami has won five, and LSU has won or shared four.

“This is a big week for notoriety,” Stewart admitted. “Winning some of these games would put a bright light on all these games. That’s what we want to do.”

The question is whether or not the risk of playing such teams is worth the reward.

Wannstedt isn’t sure.

“I think at the end of the year people look at wins and losses, to be quite honest with you,” Wannstedt said. “They might look at who you played, and obviously you’d like to think you’d be good enough to line up and compete with anyone in the country, but at the end of the day the number of wins you have and bowl games is what separates the teams in December.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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