12:00 PM ET, December 5, 2009
Heinz Field, PITTSBURGH, PA
Brian Kelly is perhaps the most talked-about coach in the nation these days, but little of that discussion has anything to do with his undefeated Cincinnati team preparing for perhaps the biggest game in the program's history.
As rumors of Kelly's future swirl, his fifth-ranked Bearcats put their unbeaten record on the line Saturday at Heinz Field against No. 14 Pittsburgh, with the winner earning the Big East's Bowl Championship Series berth -- and in Cincinnati's case, potentially much more.
In three years, Kelly has elevated the Bearcats (11-0, 6-0) from a mediocre program to a perennial Big East contender.
Cincinnati won the conference and qualified for its first BCS bowl last season, finishing 11-3 after an Orange Bowl loss to Virginia Tech, but Kelly's team has taken its success a step further in 2009. The Bearcats moved to 11-0 for the first time in school history as Tony Pike returned from an arm injury to throw for 399 yards and six touchdowns in a 49-36 win over Illinois on Friday.
"I wouldn't say it was easy to get to 11-0, but 11-0 is not going to matter if we lose to Pittsburgh, and the guys know this," said senior Mardy Gilyard, who caught two touchdown passes and ran back a kickoff for a score. "If we take care of business, the rest is up to the voters and the computers whatever else is out there, to figure out what we do with the postseason."
In any other season, beating the Panthers (9-2, 5-1) to wind up 12-0 might guarantee the Bearcats a spot in the national championship game, but with five other unbeatens, it might only be enough to send them back to the Orange Bowl. Should 21st-ranked Nebraska knock off No. 3 Texas in the Big 12 championship game Saturday night, however, either Cincinnati or TCU would likely face the winner of the SEC title game for the BCS championship Jan. 7 in Pasadena, Calif.
"It's championship week," Kelly said at his Tuesday press conference. "As a coach, it doesn't get any better than this, when you're playing for a championship. There's nothing that gets you more excited than being in this kind of environment, with a championship this week."
Little of Kelly's press conference was spent discussing Pittsburgh, which won its first three games against the Bearcats after they joined the Big East before Pike threw for 309 yards and three TDs in a 28-21 win last season.
In recent years, Kelly's name was linked with vacancies at Tennessee and Washington. However, with Notre Dame firing Charlie Weis on Monday, speculation about Kelly coaching the Irish has turned into an imminent possibility. While Kelly hasn't said anything to confirm interest, he's done nothing to dismiss himself as a candidate either.
"It's not comfortable for me," Kelly said. "It's not comfortable for those that are involved in it, but it's the reality of it. The only thing I can control is the message every day, and the message to our football players is about how we can become champions and how we can win football games."
While the Bearcats head in on a high note after Pike looked like his normal self in his first start since Oct. 15, the Panthers will are coming off a heartbreaking loss. Trailing bitter rival West Virginia for most of the second half on Nov. 27, Pitt tied the score at 16 when Bill Stull hooked up with Jonathan Baldwin for a 50-yard touchdown, but the Mountaineers kicked a 43-yard field goal as time expired to win 19-16.
"At the beginning of the season, we talked about winning the Big East championship," coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We can accomplish that next week, so we'll turn the page on this week fast."
Aside from getting beaten by its chief rival, the loss didn't mean all that much to Pittsburgh in the standings. The Bearcats' 24-21 win over West Virginia on Nov. 13 guaranteed the Pitt-Cincinnati season finale would essentially be the first de facto championship game the Big East has had in its 18-year history.
The loser, meanwhile, may be relegated to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
"We told everyone that we're coming in and we're going to get going on Cincinnati," linebacker Adam Gunn said. "All us senior captains spoke up and said that we wanted to win the Backyard Brawl, but now it's time to win the Big East."
Pitt has won one Big East title, when it finished in a four-way tie in 2004 and was routed by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. The Panthers haven't won 10 games since going 11-1 in 1981, Dan Marino's junior season.
Stull has been mostly solid in his senior year, throwing 19 touchdowns and six interceptions and posting a 153.0 passer rating that's second in the conference behind Pike's 162.2.
His worst game, however, came in the loss to the Mountaineers, when he threw two critical interceptions.
Despite allowing Illinois to pass for 307 yards, the Bearcats' biggest concern likely won't be Stull and Baldwin, who's third in the conference in receiving yards per game (87.9) behind Gilyard (93.8), who's second. Instead it'll be freshman tailback Dion Lewis, who is the nation's fourth-leading rusher (131.5 ypg) and has topped 100 yards in five straight games.
The Bearcats have allowed 190.7 yards rushing and 442.7 total yards in their past three victories.
Pittsburgh is first nationally with 43 sacks, while Cincinnati has given up nine, the nation's third-fewest.
Top 25 Overview
Pitt suffered a tough loss at the hands of rival West Virginia last week. Cincinnati has been dogged by rumors that its coach could leave. With a BCS berth up for grabs, the stakes are high in the de-facto Big East championship game. The team that is best able to block out the distractions will be rewarded.
Cincinnati's lack of offensive balance and Pittsburgh's ferocious pass rush will be the difference when the Bearcats and Panthers meet with the Big East title on the line.
|Avg Points Allowed||20.8||20.0|