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Big East: Stuck in the middle with you

The fast-talking Skip Holtz came up with perhaps the best description of this year's Big East race on Monday's coaches teleconference.

"Most leagues you get into, there's a top and a bottom, but in this league everybody is in the middle," the South Florida coach said. "It's kind of like NASCAR. Everybody has the same engine -- it's who does the best job of driving it that weekend."

This race is like an eight-car pileup. Technically, none of the eight teams has been eliminated with three weeks left, and five teams have to be considered major contenders at this point. Pitt owns the lead car but is hardly in the driver's seat with a one-game advantage and a tough schedule remaining. Every team in the league can still qualify for a bowl this season.

Just how evenly matched is this league? Consider that of the 18 conference games played so far, 11 of them have been decided by eight points or fewer. Seven of those contests were decided by four points or fewer.

The Big East's favorite show is ABC's "The Middle." Jimmy Eat World's "The Middle" is on constant loop over its stereo system.

It's a torso league -- all midsection and no head or feet. Rutgers and Cincinnati will play this week with last place on the line, but neither is truly awful. The Scarlet Knights have lost four games by a total of 11 points, and while the Bearcats are struggling lately, they did very nearly beat Oklahoma earlier this year.

Every other major league has a clear doormat, whether it's the ACC (2-8 Wake Forest), the Big Ten (2-9 Minnesota), the Big 12 (Kansas 3-7), the SEC (2-8 Vanderbilt) or the Pac-10 (2-9 Washington State). The improvements of Syracuse and Louisville have helped raise the floor for the Big East.

But the other AQ leagues all have at least one team in the Top 25. The top Big East team, according to the BCS standings, is Syracuse at No. 37. The Sagarin ratings have West Virginia as the league's best, also at No. 37.

That's part of the danger of having an eight-team league. Other BCS conferences can afford for one of their marquee programs to experience a down year. The Big 12 is fine even though Texas is 4-6. The SEC is surviving Florida's 6-4 dip. USC has three losses, but the Pac-10 still has two top-10 teams and a national championship contender in Oregon.

The Big East doesn't have enough established year-in, year-out winning programs to absorb off years by West Virginia or Pitt or a two-time defending champion like Cincinnati. That's why you get the NASCAR-style traffic jam we have now, and it's why Holtz says he chuckles when he sees people (blush) try to make bowl projections for this league.

"There's great parity," he said. "It's all going to come down to who's healthy and who's playing the best football toward the end of the year."