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Dr. Saturday

Reorientation: Syracuse welcomes us back to the Big East knot

Matt Hinton
Dr. Saturday

Adjusting to the weekend's new realities.

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Where everyone's a champion. Literally. After the depressing three-way tangle that sent unranked, unqualified UConn into the slaughter last year, the best-case scenario for the Big East — at least from a BCS perspective — was the emergence of a clear frontrunner that took early command of the conference race and rode it into the postseason with a conquering flair. Good luck with that.

With Syracuse's 49-23 thrashing of the league's consensus frontrunner, West Virginia, seven of the Big East's eight teams already carry at least one conference loss, including all three of the preseason favorites — West Virginia, Pittsburgh and South Florida, the only winless team at 0-3. Five of the eight are currently sitting at 1-1, in a web that already includes an unfathomable number of Team A > Team B > Team C > Team A scenarios.

The only team rising above the mire? Cincinnati, which rallied for the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left Saturday in a 37-34 win over South Florida to move to 2-0. If the Bearcats keep it up, the Big East may have a solid, undisputed champ that just happened to be blown out by one of the lesser members of the SEC in September. (See below.) If not, brace yourself for another knot and another prestige bid wasted on a middleweight clinging to the bottom of the polls, at best.

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We need a new carrot. Here's Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly last week, speaking with the confidence of a coach in the midst of a four-game winning streak on the importance of the USC game as part of the Irish's larger goal of landing in a BCS bowl:

"We want to get into a BCS game, and we know what we have to do. And that is, we've gotta win each and every game we play. So every game for us since going 0-2 has been that way. It's been the same focus for us. It's a huge game for us against USC. There's no question about the tradition and the rivalry. But if we beat USC and don't beat Navy, it doesn't mean much. So I think that's the perspective we take."

And here's Kelly on Sunday, after a 31-17 loss effectively snuffed out the Irish's BCS hopes — no team has ever earned an at-large bid with more than two losses — insisting to a roomful of reporters already beginning to look toward 2012 that his team still has "plenty to play for":{YSP:MORE}

"I'll be honest, the dangling of the [BCS] carrot is more about a sound bite," Kelly said in his usual teleconference. "It's not what we do on a day-to-day basis. We don't come to practice dangling that carrot. We're just so focused more on the detail."
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"I think you guys have more of a global view of everything," Kelly said. "We just don't operate that way. We're dealing with a day-to-day process. We're looking how we can improve, how we can stop Navy. The radio shows, the pundits can talk about that stuff. We just don't get into those conversations. We focus on the day-to-day."

Tangibly, the only goal Notre Dame has left to play for is the Champs Sports Bowl, its likely destination barring a complete collapse down the stretch that knocks the Irish out of bowl eligibility altogether. Less tangibly, Kelly said the larger goal remains "program building," which sounds a lot like the same goal the Irish had around this time last year, after falling to 4-5 with back-to-back losses to Navy and Tulsa. From there, Notre Dame won three straight with a true freshman quarterback, including upsets over ranked Utah and USC, and crushed Miami in the bowl game to put "BCS Bowl" back at the center of the dartboard going into 2011.

The current team is set at quarterback (that freshman, Tommy Rees, appears entrenched as a sophomore), but now has four more imminently winnable games coming against Navy and the bottom half of the ACC Atlantic — Wake Forest, Maryland and Boston College — to get younger guys into the rotation, especially on the senior-laden defense. (Including linebacker Manti Te'o, the Irish are likely to be replacing their top six tacklers after the season.) If all goes according to plan, there's one more big, measuring-stick game — at Stanford to close the season — to go out on the same mojo they rode in on, before the process starts over again with the trip to Palo Alto as the key reference point.

Speaking of building for the future… Another week, another new tribulation for Tennessee, which plans to throw true freshman quarterback Justin Worley into the fire for his first career start Saturday against South Carolina. In fact, Worley's first snap from center will be the first he's ever taken as a college quarterback, just one measure of the impatience beginning to overtake the Vols in the midst of a four-game SEC losing streak. In two games since sophomore starter Tyler Bray went out with a broken hand against Georgia, senior Matt Simms has hit just 14 of 37 passes with three interceptions and zero touchdowns — bad enough to find the bench even when you're throwing against arguably the two best defenses in the country, LSU and Alabama.

"I just feel like for us to go out and win games, we're not throwing and catching the way we need to," said coach Derek Dooley. "We just need to make this move. It's not something that's done on a whim." No, it's done out of pure, groping desperation.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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