LOUISVILLE — Cincinnati running back Isaiah Pead can understand why the two-time defending Big East champions weren't picked for a three-peat.
Quarterback Tony Pike and wide receiver Mardy Gilyard, the backbone of an offense that lit up scoreboards across the league the last two seasons, are gone. Coach Brian Kelly bolted for Notre Dame. New coach Butch Jones is still getting settled in his new job.
All good reasons to doubt the Bearcats can be the first conference team to win three straight titles since Miami (Fla.) won four in a row from 2000-03. That doesn't mean Pead agrees with it.
The Bearcats (2-3) have reeled off a dozen straight conference wins heading into Friday night's Big East opener against improved Louisville (3-2). That should count for something. "I don't feel we're getting the respect that maybe we should have, that we've earned," Pead said. "So it's kind of edgy."
The Bearcats aren't the only one looking for a little respect. The Cardinals, picked to finish last in the Big East, come in having won two straight for the first time in nearly two years.
Louisville pounded Memphis 56-0 last week for its first shutout since 2006, leading offensive lineman Greg Tomczyk to proclaim first-year head coach Charlie Strong's rebuilding job is already complete and it's time for the Cardinals to be taken seriously in the jumbled Big East.
"Nobody's really jumped up and taken the lead like 'this is the best team,'" said quarterback Adam Froman. "There's a couple of teams that are playing pretty good, but at the same time if we feel like we go out there and put our best effort, go out there and execute like we did last week, we feel like we can go out there and play and beat anybody."
The Cardinals certainly looked like world beaters against the Tigers, piling up 573 yards of total offense.
Yet they're also well aware that Cincinnati is a marked step up over the Tigers, arguably one of the worst teams in the country.
Though the Bearcats stumbled a bit out of the gate, losing to Fresno State and North Carolina State, they seem to have found something during a tough two-point loss to No. 6 Oklahoma three weeks ago. They followed it up with a 45-3 whipping of Miami of Ohio last weekend that gives them some serious momentum going into the 50th Keg of Nails.
Cincinnati has captured the trophy in each of the last two seasons, including a 41-10 blowout a year ago. It's a loss that has stuck with the Cardinals. "We quit last year," Froman said.
That hasn't been the case this season. Louisville quickly fell behind Kentucky and Oregon State but managed to keep it interesting until the final minutes.
That resiliency helped breed confidence. Even the stoic Strong was smiling after beating Memphis, and Jones said the difference between Louisville now and where the program was at a year ago is noticeable.
"I think their football team is hungry," Jones said. "They have a lot of talented players who maybe haven't experienced the success they would have liked to have experienced in the past, but they have lot of seniors. They're playing at a high level right now."