Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
You can usually tell which teams the Big East thinks will contend for the conference title by looking at the schedule.
The league often backloads its schedule so top contenders will meet late in the season and hopes to create a de facto championship game weekend in the last week of December. South Florida and West Virginia were scheduled for the final regular-season game of 2008 because they were viewed as the top two preseason contenders. Of course, it didn't work out that way, as Cincinnati clinched the title a week earlier.
This season, it's anybody's guess who the favorites are, and the schedule -- which was released this afternoon -- reflects that. Six teams are playing on the season's final weekend, and the only two that won't be in action are Syracuse and Louisville, who finished in a last-place tie in 2008. The entire schedule can be found here.
The Big East schedule also features a new wrinkle -- at least since 2005. Rutgers will play host to Cincinnati on Sept. 5, the opening weekend of the season. Big East teams normally don't begin conference play until October. Cincinnati will be breaking in 10 new starters while Rutgers will have a new quarterback when the teams meet.
The Big East will have 13 games on either ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, including all three league matchups on Dec. 5: South Florida at UConn, Cincinnati at Pitt and West Virginia at Rutgers. Big East teams will appear on three Thursday night ESPN games and six Friday night games.
The Backyard Brawl between West Virginia and Pittsburgh will be on the Friday after Thanksgiving for the second straight season.
Some other notes and thoughts about the schedule:
• Rutgers still has a hole in its schedule that needs to be filled with a nonconference opponent. The Scarlet Knights are listed as playing TBA on Oct 10. They will play Pittsburgh at home on a Friday night (Oct. 16) and host South Florida on a Thursday night (Nov. 12).
• There were several light weekends last year in the Big East schedule as several teams had three bye weeks thanks to a quirk in the calendar. That won't be the case this year, as every team except Louisville and Syracuse has two weeks off.
• The defending league champs will be tested early. Including the Rutgers game in the opener, Cincinnati has four of its first six games on the road, including at Oregon State and at South Florida.
• West Virginia has a chance to get off to a good start in conference play. The Mountaineers' league opener is at Syracuse, while their second conference game is at home against UConn, to whom they've never lost. West Virginia will play at South Florida on Friday night before Halloween in what could be a crucial game. Cincinnati will play host to WVU on Friday, Nov. 13.
• Pitt's final three games look challenging. The Panthers play Notre Dame at Heinz Field, then get a week off before finishing at West Virginia and against Cincinnati.
• South Florida might have to deal with the cold late in its conference schedule. The Bulls travel to Rutgers on Nov. 14 and finish at UConn on Dec. 5.
• New Syracuse coach Doug Marrone will have to hit the ground running. His Orange play each of the first six weeks, with the first three games coming against Minnesota, at Penn State and versus Northwestern. Syracuse enters Big East play with South Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Pitt as its first four opponents.
• Things have changed for Louisville. The Cardinals used to be fixtures on midweek TV games, but their lackluster play of late has made them a less attractive option. Louisville is scheduled to appear only once ESPN this season, in a Friday night game against Pitt. The Cardinals also officially filled their last nonconference game with Arkansas State, and they will play their final 11 games without a break.
• The penultimate week of the season shapes up as an intriguing one for the Big East. South Florida will welcome Miami to Tampa, while Cincinnati gets Illinois at Nippert Stadium and West Virginia plays Pitt on national TV.