Big East looks like a three-team race now

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

As we enter the midway point in the college football year, the Big East season is still really just getting started.

Other than Pittsburgh, no team has played more than two conference games. West Virginia still has six league contests left.

Yet, there is already some clarity developing in the 2009 Big East race. What looked like a possible four-, five- or even six-team free-for-all hasn't turned out to be the case. Instead, with acknowledgement that things can change quickly, the Big East now sure seems to be a three-team battle.

Let's play eliminator and see how we got to this point.

Out of the race:

Louisville: The Cardinals are 0-2 in the Big East already and may struggle to find a single conference win.

Syracuse: The Orange are better, certainly, but they were blown out at home in their first two league contests and are a long way still from contending.

Rutgers: Though some, ahem, pundits thought the Scarlet Knights would be major contenders this year, home losses to Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have ended such considerations.

Not out, but need help:

Connecticut: The Huskies have the running game and defense to play with anybody in the league, but their lack of explosiveness means they can lose to anyone. The loss to Pittsburgh after leading 21-6 late in the third quarter was a real setback to their hopes. And it remains to be seen how they respond to the Jasper Howard tragedy.

South Florida: The Bulls can get back into the race, but losing at home to Cincinnati last week puts them behind the eight ball. The next two weeks won't be easy, with a trip to Pitt this week followed by a Friday night visit from West Virginia. They need to win both to have a chance, and this program has had a history of midseason funks.

So that leaves us with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, who are a combined 17-2 on the season. It's no coincidence that they are also the Big East's three ranked teams this week.

The No. 5 Bearcats, of course, are the frontrunners, having already won two league road games. They get West Virginia on Nov. 13 in Nippert Stadium, and their only other serious challenge appears to be the season finale at Pitt on Dec. 5.

No. 20 Pittsburgh is the first team to reach 3-0, but the Panthers still have South Florida, Cincinnati and West Virginia (Nov. 27) on the schedule. Pitt could lose a game and still win the BCS bid by beating the Bearcats at home to end the year.

No. 23 West Virginia has the most work left to do, as the Mountaineers' only Big East game came against Syracuse. Starting quarterback Jarrett Brown may miss some time with a concussion, which would make life more difficult for Bill Stewart's team. Daunting trips to Cincinnati and South Florida remain, and West Virginia has lost to Pitt each of the last two years.

Again, things could change in a hurry, but Cincinnati, Pitt and West Virginia appear to have the most well-rounded teams in this league. It should be a fun race between the three, who have the most potent offenses in the Big East (South Florida technically ranks second in the league in scoring, but most of the Bulls' numbers were put up against inferior competition).

And the schedule is set up perfectly at the end of the season, with the Backyard Brawl on Nov. 27 coming eight days before Cincinnati's trip to Pitt.

The race is not as wide open as we may have thought, but the second half of the Big East season should be exciting to watch.