If, in 1999, I would have told you that the Big East Football game of the year would be the University of Cincinnati vs. the University of South Florida, you would have:
A) punched me in the face
B) kicked me in the groin
C) dumped whatever beverage you were currently holding on me
D) all of the above
The correct answer? C. You're a lover, not a fighter. And plus, you would have seen me as a lunatic worthy of ridicule, not bodily-harm.
Yet...here we are. Cincinnati will take on South Florida on Thursday night and the winner will be in the driver's set for the Big East crown as the only unbeaten team left in the conference. Chances are that no game this season will feature two Big East teams with rankings this high (No. 8 for Cincy, No. 21 for USF). No Big East game this year will have the spotlight as firmly affixed on it as this one will when the Bearcats and Bulls showdown on ESPN in primetime.
Now take a moment to realize how ludicrous all of this sounds. Five years ago neither of these teams were even in the Big East Conference. Ten years ago one of these teams was in 1-AA and the other was lucky if it qualified for the Motor City Bowl. Fifteen years ago one of these teams didn't even exist!
So what is the Big East, and more importantly, the country, supposed to make of all this? Well as far as Cincinnati is concerned, they want to make sure everyone knows last season was no fluke.
Written off this preseason as a one-hit wonder, it was hard to find anyone who expected Cincinnati to follow up last year's 11-3 campaign that culminated in a Big East title and Orange Bowl berth. The Orange Bowl defeat to Virginia Tech seemed to reinforce to many that the Bearcats were just the latest in a line of pretenders from a conference that just couldn't measure up.
Unranked at the beginning of the 2009 campaign, Brian Kelly's squad has already put the team's misconceptions to bed. Whether or not they can change the outlook of the conference as a whole, well, that remains to be done.
The Bearcats are 5-0 this season thanks in large part to QB Tony Pike who has thrown for 1,493 yards and 13 TDs with only 3 INTs. To put things in perspective, as good as he was last season, he's already only six touchdowns shy of last year's 12-game total. It doesn't hurt to have targets like WRs Marty Gilyard (38 catches, 517 yards, 7 TDs) and Armon Binns (22 catches, 279 yards). Don't sleep on the Cincinnati offensive line either, which has allowed a mere three sacks so far this year.
The Bearcats are offensive-minded and currently ranked third in the country in scoring with 43.2 points per game. They're so proficient on offense that they often score too fast for their own good. In the last two games the offensive unit has spent a grand total of 35 out of 120 minutes on the field, putting the pressure on their defense to try and shoulder most of the burden. That defense has had trouble holding up over the game thanks to injuries and poor third-down stoppages, an area both teams will be focusing on before the game.
One person in particular who will have his eye on Cincy's defensive unit will be Joe Tresey. Currently the USF defensive coordinator, Tresey held the same position at Cincinnati a year ago. Certainly there's going to be some tension on the sidelines, given that Kelly fired Tresey in the off-season. Despite the Bearcats' change to a 3-4 defense from Tresey's scheme, you can bet he has some insight in how to work Cincy's defensive unit.
"He gave us some insights on what they do. Some of their calls, stuff like that," Selvie added. "But you know in the end, it’s just going to be having to play football. They’re going to do what they do and we’re going to have to try and stop them."
Speaking of South Florida's defense, that's the unit most people are talking about when they mention the Bulls this year. Led by DL George Selvie, the Bulls once again feature a dominant defense, ranked third in the nation in forced turnovers, fifth in scoring defense and 10th in total yards allowed. In fact the Bulls didn't allow a passing touchdown until Syracuse's Greg Paulus slipped one by them two weeks ago. Mind you, Paulus also had five interceptions that day and the Bulls won 34-20.
Before the season started, this game looked to be a showdown of the conference's two best quarterbacks. Cincy's Pike and USF's Matt Grothe. Sadly for Grothe, he went down with a season and college career-ending injury earlier this season. While seemingly crushing, it opened the door for freshman quarterback B.J. Daniels, who many quietly whispered was actually going to be better than his predecessor.
Well all Daniels did in his first game was lead South Florida to the biggest win in its program's history, a 17-7 win over Florida State. The win shattered the status quo of college football in the state of Florida and marked the true arrival of the Bulls as they try to compete with the Seminoles, Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes (whom the Bulls will play November 28th).
To be fair, the Bulls have played a schedule consisting mostly of cupcakes otherwise. With two FCS teams (Wofford, Charleston Southern) and a winless Western Kentucky on the books, USF hasn't impressed many even with their 5-0 record. Some have their schedule ranked as low as 113th (out of 199 FBS teams) while the Sagarin rankings have them lower than a handful of FCS teams' schedules to date.
So far Daniels have delivered on his potential, throwing for 602 yards, 4 TDs and 2 INTs in five games, two as the starter. If he can lead the Bulls to victory, it will mark the end of a precipitous slide for the program since 2007. Since being ranked No. 2 in the nation and becoming a sensation for their rapid ascent, the Bulls have gone 6-8 in Big East play and taken on a reputation for starting strong in September and folding once October comes around.
They will have no better opportunity to reverse that trend than this Thursday. The Big East will be watching. So will the nation. Both teams would represent the conference well, the Big East just hopes everyone like what they see.