Handicapping the Big East's big three

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Way back in training camp, Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly told his players what path they needed to take to win a Big East title.

"The championship goes through Morgantown, West Virginia," Kelly said.

That's true, as it usually is in this league. But the championship will also go through Cincinnati, Ohio, and Pittsburgh, Penn.

West Virginia, Pitt and Cincinnati are the only three Big East teams that don't need help from other schools to finish first. All three will play each other this month, starting with Saturday's game between the Bearcats and Mountaineers in Morgantown.

In that spirit, let's handicap the top three contenders' chances:

WEST VIRGINIA (6-2, 3-0)

Saturday: Cincinnati
Nov. 22: at Louisville
Nov. 28: at Pittsburgh
Dec. 6: South Florida

Combined record of remaining opponents: 23-10

Strengths: West Virginia has the league's stingiest defense, allowing just 14.8 points per game. The Mountaineers also have the Big East's best turnover margin, and their offense has started to click the last two games. Pat White has more championship experience than any other player in the conference, and West Virginia already has a one-game lead in the standings.

Weaknesses: The Mountaineers have been a slow-starting bunch that has had to rely on big second halves. One injury to White could change the entire season. West Virginia lost to Pitt last year and has suffered two straight defeats to South Florida, so the finishing kick could prove tricky.

Outlook: Clearly the favorite, but far from a sure thing.

PITTSBURGH (6-2, 2-1)

Saturday: Louisville
Nov. 22: at Cincinnati
Nov. 28: West Virginia
Dec. 6: at UConn

Combined record of remaining opponents: 23-10

Strengths: Somewhat surprisingly, the Panthers have the second-best offense in the Big East at 29.6 points per game. They are one of the least-penalized teams in the country and one of the most efficient in the red zone. LeSean McCoy is a true superstar who can carry them. West Virginia has to come to Heinz Field.

Weaknesses: Inconsistency has plagued Pitt, especially at home. The defense has playmakers but is nonetheless allowing 27 points a game. The Panthers have the Big East's worst turnover margin and never blow anybody out. No one on the team has experienced a winning season.

Outlook: Pitt will have to be much more consistent, but it knows how to beat West Virginia.

CINCINNATI (6-2, 2-1)

Saturday: at West Virginia
Nov. 14: at Louisville
Nov. 22: Pittsburgh
Nov. 29: Syracuse
Dec. 6: at Hawaii

Combined record of remaining opponents: 23-18

Strengths: Despite shuffling through quarterbacks all season, the Bearcats have the league's best passing attacks and one of the best offenses, averaging 26.8 points per game. A veteran defense has begun to jell of late, and Mike Mickens and DeAngelo Smith form the Big East's best cornerback tandem. All-American punter Kevin Huber gives them another weapon.

Weaknesses: Other than a solid win over South Florida, the Bearcats haven't been all that impressive in their victories. One fall or hit on Tony Pike's broken arm could throw the quarterback situation back into flux. Cincinnati has an awful recent history in both in Morgantown and in Louisville.

Outlook: Don't bet against the Bearcats, but they appear to be third among three contenders.