USF bowl bid not out of reach, but there's still a long way to go

Beating Louisville helped, but the Bulls may need to get into the league's top three.

Published October 2, 2005

MIAMI - After Saturday's late game at No.9 Miami, USF has a bye week before its Oct.15 game at Pittsburgh, a few extra days to step back and look at the seemingly upside-down Big East standings and try to figure out just how the Bulls fit in.

The Bulls, who played their first Big East game as heavy underdogs last week, needed just that to turn the league on its collective head, routing preseason conference favorite Louisville 45-14. Since then Pittsburgh, predicted to finish second in the same preseason poll, has fallen to 1-4 with a stunning 35-27 loss to Rutgers.

Rutgers and USF were predicted to finish sixth and seventh, respectively, in the eight-team league, and their early upsets have served as a reminder not to take any conference game lightly.

As the Bulls look ahead, the optimism from their Louisville win would seem to put USF in position for its first bowl appearance. Two of their toughest games, based on preseason expectations, await in the next three weeks, first with Pittsburgh and Oct. 22 for homecoming with West Virginia, another top contender for the league crown.

The Bulls finish the season with three of four games on the road, with likely cold November dates at Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut. The Knights, in taking a 21-0 lead against Pittsburgh on Friday, showed themselves to be a capable team, and while the Bulls have won two previous meetings with the Huskies, that season finale is a game that could have a bowl berth hanging in the balance.

Six wins might not be enough to land a bowl in the Big East. The conference, with its previous lineup before three teams left for the ACC, had five bowl teams five years in a row. This year the league has contracts with the BCS and three other bowls, but Notre Dame can take one of those slots.

Only twice in the past four years has a Big East team earned a bowl appearance with six regular-season wins - Syracuse (6-6) last season and Pittsburgh (7-5) in 2001.

So a Big East team seeking a bowl must realistically aim for the top three in the league standings, knowing Notre Dame's national fan base makes it a compelling choice for any bowl. The league is unlikely to claim an at-large BCS berth that would open a slot for a fifth team with its bowl partners.

One advantage the Bulls will have is geography: In a league in which the other members are in the northern half of the country, the Big East has ties with bowls in Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville. Should the Bulls be in close contention with another league team, the relative excitement over USF's first bowl trip and the program's proximity might be seen as reasons to choose the Bulls.

So much of this is conjecture, with so much of the conference season still ahead. Fans need only to look to last year to see that a slow start doesn't doom a season: Pittsburgh opened 2-2 before winning six of its final seven regular-season games for a share of the league crown. Syracuse opened 3-4 but rallied to beat two of the league's co-champs, Boston College and Pittsburgh, in November to claim a share of the league title.