Bearcats prepare to defend title, more from Big East media day

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NEWPORT, R.I. -- When Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly received a copy of his team's 2009 schedule, he made it clear to Big East officials he wasn't pleased with opening the season against a conference opponent on the road.

"I screamed," Kelly said Tuesday. "I yelled. It did no good."

Kelly's Bearcats debut Sept. 7 at Rutgers in a nationally televised (ESPN) game that will set the early tone in a wide-open Big East race. Kelly hasn't backed down from scheduling tough opponents in his two seasons at Cincinnati, but he's also very protective of his program. The Bearcats play at South Florida and at Pittsburgh this season and host West Virginia.

"We are a [Bowl Championship Series] league and we have an automatic qualifier into the BCS for the next four years," Kelly said. "At some time we have to be able to step back a little bit and [ask] what's in the best interests of our teams, more so than what's in the best interests of our conference."

Opening with a conference road game will drastically alter preparation plans for Cincinnati, picked to finish third in the preseason media poll announced at Tuesday's annual conference media day. The Bearcats replace 10 defensive starters from the 11-3 Big East championship team that lost to Virginia Tech in last year's Orange Bowl, but will not have a lot of time to test the waters in camp.

"It's probably the biggest change that I've had to make in my time here at Cincinnati," Kelly said. "You don't have time to mess around with who's the starting defensive end. You don't have time to mess around two-platooning. You've got to get your best guys ready to play in camp."

While the Bearcats will be thinking about Rutgers when they open camp on Aug. 11, athletics officials will be thinking about how far the program has come during Kelly's brief tenure. Season ticket sales are up eight percent since the trip to the Orange Bowl. Kelly said he was prepared for success when he took the job on Dec. 4, 2006, but admits "BCS" wasn't part of the program's vocabulary then and no plans to expand Nippert Stadium existed.

Even Cincinnati's players have been surprised by the 21 victories and two bowl appearances in the past two seasons.

"It's been like going from nothing to something," said senior defensive back Aaron Webster, the only returning starter on Cincinnati's defense. "I really didn't think about it when I came in [in 2006]. I was thinking we could be a very good team. Obviously this has been a dream, but I'm not trying to wake up any time soon."

Webster may not have to wake up from that dream. Though Cincinnati finished third in the preseason poll, it received the same number of first-place votes (eight) as No. 1 choice Pittsburgh.

The Bearcats' first opponent, Rutgers, finished fifth in the poll and didn't receive a single first-place vote. However, the Scarlet Knights may have the most favorable conference schedule with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and South Florida all at home. The Mountaineers finished second in the poll with five first-place votes, while South Florida finished fourth with three.

New Big East commissioner John Marinatto was disappointed he couldn't announce the conference's new bowl lineup for 2010 at media day, but he was able to say definitively the conference will not continue its shared partnership with the Big 12 in the Gator Bowl.

"We're not going to be in a hybrid," Marinatto said. The Big East currently holds bowl contracts with the Gator, Sun, Meineke Car Care,, St. Petersburg and International bowl games.

"We are in constant discussions with a number of bowls across the country," Marinatto said. "We have three criteria that are long established regarding what it is we look for in postseason opportunities: destination, location and opponent. We feel good about where we are. It may not necessarily be where we've been."

• West Virginia's Jarrett Brown, South Florida's Matt Grothe and Cincinnati's Tony Pike were among the 33 quarterbacks on the Davey O'Brien Award watch list released Monday. The award goes to the nation's top QB. Brown takes over the starting spot after three seasons as Pat White's backup. "This is something I've dreamed of for years," Brown said. "I can't wait. Playing on Saturday and being in the limelight is what I've always wanted. It's here." Grothe needs 287 yards to tie White's Big East career record of 10,529 yards of total offense. Pike wasn't on Cincinnati's preseason depth chart in 2008, but injuries gave him a chance and he threw for 2,407 yards and 19 touchdowns. "In the first week of camp, I didn't get a rep," Pike said. "I was fifth-string. This is an unbelievable feeling. If you would have told me I'd be sitting at Big East media day a year ago, I would have said you were crazy."

Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said the Huskies are playing their toughest schedule ever. UConn plays non-conference road games against Ohio University, Baylor and Notre Dame and home games against North Carolina and Rhode Island. "We're going to play two BCS conference teams every year," Edsall said. "This year we have three and we don't ever want to do that again."

• New Syracuse coach Doug Marrone hails from the Bronx, N.Y., and he's a huge Yankees fan. He wouldn't mind one bit if the Orange become part of the college football series planned for new Yankees Stadium. Army would be the perfect opponent, he said. "I don't know if I could get enough tickets [for family and friends]," Marrone said. "That would be the only problem I would have."