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Big East Week: The Showdown

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I’ve been trying to come up with a way to differentiate between West Virginia and Louisville, one of which, I’m convinced, will finish undefeated (finally) and very likely be playing for the mythical championship in January. Aside from one another – and the schedule/conference prestige trump cards held by any two undefeated teams from other BCS conferences, save maybe the ACC – here’s what realistically stands in their way:

West Virginia Louisville
Sept. 13: at Maryland Sept. 15: at Kentucky
Sept. 28: at So. Florida Nov. 17: at So. Florida
Oct. 27: at Rutgers Nov. 29: vs. Rutgers

Mere inclusion is excessively generous to Maryland and Kentucky, honestly, former Civil War border states with little hope of matching the success of the Union Army or last season in either case. Rutgers and South Florida have been reliable thorns to the finality of the WVU-UL eliminator (together, they’re an overtime two-point conversion from being square against the alpha dogs the last two years), but the big two continue to blow out the rest of the conference on a scale their would-be usurpers can’t begin to touch – collectively, WVU and UL have stomped out conference games the last two years by about 15 points and 120 yards apiece, upsets and all, and the winner has carried the league’s BCS bid to a top five finish. Both teams have established their national cred over multiple dominant seasons, return smiling, clean cut, defense-wrecking all-Americans and neither will be expected to lose anywhere else.







Absurd Offense, 2005-06
L'ville WVU*
Avg. Pts. 40.5 36.5
vs. Top 40 Ds 26.8 33.7
>40 pts. 14 10
< 20 pts. 1 2
>500 Yds. 9 6
< 300 yds. 1 1
Big Plays** 4.7 4.4
Yds./Play 6.9 6.8
vs. Top 40 Ds 5.9 6.3

* Does not include first four games of ‘05, before White went full-time vs. Va. Tech
** Run plays of 20 yds., pass plays of 25 yds. per game (courtesy revamped CFB Stats
Star Power, 2006
Brohm White/Slaton
Yds./Play 8.6 8.04
TD 16 49
Touches/TD 22.5 12.6
Therefore, much as I like Rutgers, it’s impossible to forecast the Big East without making a head-to-head decision between West Virginia and Louisville, a game that this year will match LSU-Florida, Oklahoma-Texas and Michigan-Wisconsin for intrigue and probably surpass all of them for direct impact on the mythical championship. It may be as close as we come to a 1-2 matchup in the regular season, and if you asked me today to sacrifice my firstborn to the gods for any game this fall, West Virginia-Louisville is probably my pick.

This is not only because there’s zero chance of a tedious defensive bog, though that’s a plus, but because the inevitable barrage of points (see right) is so likely to burn every conceivable trump card into ashes from the second quarter forward. The offenses are an intriguing contrast – you say ‘option,’ I say ‘Bunch Right Liz 66 Z Choice’ – but indsitinguishable in the macro for all the smoke coming from their heels. The Mountaineers and Cardinals played one of the great games of the past two seasons in Morgantown in ‘05, decided by minor controversy and a two-point conversion in overtime, and a more hyped melee of the same frenzied order last year, decided by an ill-timed fumble and a punt return at the start of the third quarter. The losing team significantly outgained the winner in both games. Statistically and intuitively, based on personnel, West Virginia is the best rushing offense in the nation. Louisville is the best passing offense on the mainland, at least. Pat White and/or Steve Slaton is capable of fileting a defense at any point, no matter how disciplined, and far more often than not end up gutting a coordinator’s pride and hanging it by a hook for a snapshot without hesitation or remorse. Brian Brohm is a heady, accurate veteran prototype, a scout’s dream, and returns with three all-conference caliber receivers. White throws well enough to burn overly enthusiastic run-stuffers; Anthony Allen and George Stripling are a thunder-lightning duo that can keep a pass rush off Brohm and put teeth in the play-action threat. Etc. etc.

It’s not only that the offenses are good, but the way the defenses were respectively torched in Louisville last year perfectly sums up their specific inferiority: the Mountaineers improved last year against the run, but ghastly trying to cover anyone even mildly threatening – they finished 109th in pass defense; led by Brohm’s 354, the last six quarterbacks WVU faced averaged 314 yards passing, four of them in games that were still very close late – while Louisville’s front got after the quarterback but wasn’t much against good running offenses (West Virginia had 318 on 6.4 per carry). The Mountaineers return more of their defensive production, especially in the secondary (if that’s a good thing), but Louisville has a short list of promotions and transfers – Willie Williams, Peanut Whitehead, Woodny Turenne – exected to immediately improve the Cardinals’ athleticism.

So the persistent analyst is left wading in the murky, dangerous waters of intangibility, and it’s only here we come across some possible markers in West Virginia’s favor. I’ve never put much stock in home field advantage, but West Virginia does, especially when everybody’s liquored up for a night game, and the Mountaineers are 16-3 in Morgantown in the last three years; on the other hand, all but one of Louisville’s losses under Bobby Petrino, and every loss of Brian Brohm’s tenure, has come away from home. And then there’s Petrino himself. Or, to be more precise, there’s the absence of Petrino, guru of the lethal vertical passing game, whose replacement is well-regarded but inexperienced at this level, and used to operating from a substantial talent gap that discourages a killer instinct. No one has ever suggested Steve Kragthorpe won’t be anything but a short-term and probably enduring success at Louisville, but across the state line, Rich Rodriguez is already there – he’s consolidated power, installed and gained support for his system, and geared the entire operation to maximizing its returns. West Virginia is built to win now. Louisville is, too, personnel-wise, but if the loosely defined psychological concepts that make up the even vaguer notion of momentum actually count for anything (for college kids, they still might), they’re all we have to nudge the Mountaineers to the top of the, uh, mountain, as it were. Not much of an endorsement, I know, but it’s August – take what you can get.