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Stadium and Main: The Big East: Overrated or Excluded?

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Big East: Overrated or Excluded?

Looking at what the Big East did last year, and what they might do this year, I’m a bit torn as to how I feel about the conference’s place in the college football world. As this research shows, the Big East has never been that good. But where do they stand now? Let’s begin…

Argument #1: The Big East is Overrated

The Big East as we know it today is only 2 years old. After the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College to the ACC, many college football fans (including myself, to an extent) predicted doom for the 8-team Big East. West Virginia’s 11-1 season in 2005 helped allay that scenario, capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Georgia. In 2006, the Big East’s “big three” had a handful of memorable games, many of which received nation-wide Thursday night exposure on ESPN. Rutgers was the feel-good story of the year, and the Big East received more positive publicity than it had in years. Many people claimed that the Big East was “back.” But more analysis is warranted.

Fact: The Big East went 5-0 in bowl games last year.

In case you didn’t know that, now you do. And you’re going to hear it all year when the ESPN crew talks up West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers, and tries to convince us that South Florida is the next Florida State. How about… no? Mark May will likely be the worst offender. [We get it, Mark – you went to Pitt. I’d rather have him say “I love the Big East” every five minutes than try to argue that Pitt-WVU is the best rivalry, or that WVU-Louisville is the game of the year. He’s doing a great job replacing Trev Alberts.]

Opinion: The Big East beat approximately nobody in bowl games last year. Here’s the breakdown:

Louisville (Orange Bowl) – Beat Wake Forest, 24-13

A BCS bowl win, but… Wake?!

West Virginia (Gator Bowl) – Beat Georgia Tech, 38-35

WVU struggled with a Georgia Tech team that had a joker for a QB (Reggie Ball), but admittedly a great WR (Calvin Johnson). The Mountaineers gave up 35 points and were down by 18 before GT choked. If WVU loses this game, which they probably should have, are we even talking about them as the 6th-best team in the country? Maybe we are, just due to lack of viable options. But that’s kinda beside the point. The point is that the Big East played a weak bowl schedule. Continuing…

Rutgers (Texas Bowl) - Beat Kansas State, 37-10

This was a Kansas State team that lost to Baylor and Kansas, and finished the season 7-6. KSU had a winning record thanks to a 24-23 home victory over Illinois State. Whoa. So, yeah, KSU stunk last year. No Ell Roberson or Darren Sproles to be found on that team.

South Florida (PapaJohns.com Bowl) – Beat East Carolina, 24-7

East Carolina?!

Cincinnati (International Bowl) – Beat Western Michigan, 27-24

I hate to be redundant, but… Western Michigan?! Cincinnati almost pulled a reverse-WVU, after leading 24-0 in the 2nd Quarter and allowing 24 straight points.

Now, I don’t have the time or energy to go into a full bowl breakdown from last year, but let me list the Big Ten’s and SEC’s bowl opponents, and see how they compare to the Big East’s:

Big Ten bowl opponents

Florida
USC
Arkansas
Tennessee
Texas
Maryland
Texas Tech

SEC bowl opponents

Ohio State
Notre Dame
Wisconsin
Penn State
Nebraska
Virginia Tech
Oklahoma State
Clemson
Houston

The top two-thirds of the Big Ten and SEC bowl schedules look like a who’s who of college football’s elite. Florida, Ohio State, USC, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia Tech were all ranked in the Top 10 last year, some of them for the entire year. Meanwhile, three-fifths of the Big East’s bowl opponents were never ranked in the Top 25 at any point in the 2006 season. None of the five were ranked in the Top 10 at any point.

On a related note, I think that if you look at the bowl match-ups and results from any year, you will find that (1) the Big Ten and SEC play the hardest slates, year-in and year-out, and (2) the Big East, to put it nicely, doesn’t. The other BCS conferences fall somewhere in the middle. I find it unbelievable how so many people are quick to credit the Big East for a 5-0 bowl record while bashing the Big Ten for a losing bowl record. It’s the opponents, idiots!

So can we just stop with the Big East bowl record love? It’s meaningless. The Big East had what some called a "breakout" year last year, but a lot of it was accomplished with smoke and mirrors (and the exact same thing might happen this year, it appears (see below)). A Louisville win over the worst Miami team in decades, some exciting Thursday night games, Rutgers’ first ever bowl win, intriguing late-season games thanks to smart scheduling (having the best teams play each other later), and a 5-0 bowl record thanks to possibly the worst bowl schedule for any BCS conference, ever… That’s just not enough for me. As it stands right now, the Big East is like the kid who "earned" high school valedictorian honors by acing remedial math, shop, gym, and that class where everybody gets an "A" (each school has one). Until more real progress is shown on the football field, I’m not buying the hype.

Argument #2: The Big East is Excluded

But progress is the problem, and that’s why I can’t hate the Big East too much. See, now comes the part where Big East fans complain that progress cannot be made since “name” programs from big conferences keep shying away from non-conference games against the “rising” programs in the Big East. This is a legitimate argument, and one that is directly related to the weak bowl slate. Because the Big East is seen as inferior in the eyes of many, they don’t get the big-time bowl games (PapaJohns.com Bowl?), and as a result they don’t play a strong bowl schedule.

You have to think that as college football becomes more popular, and the Big East continues to increase its exposure (thanks to those weeknight games on ESPN?), some intriguing non-conference games will get scheduled and the Big East bowl schedule will, eventually, improve.

Fans of major programs would actually like to see a top Big East team on their schedule, which wasn’t the case just a few years ago. In fact, WVU has already set up home-and-homes with Auburn, Colorado, Michigan State, and Florida State. Louisville will soon be playing Georgia Tech, Oregon State, and Georgia. And Rutgers will start a long-term series against Notre Dame in 2010. Even Michigan fans like myself are hearing rumors of games against Rutgers (at the Meadowlands?) and/or Louisville, both of which would be great for Big East scheduling and college football in general.

While I’m sure they don’t need or care about it, my advice to Big East fans would be to have patience. Right now, you are feeling the effects of poor scheduling practices and the ACC raid, both of which have left you with some unbelievably weak non-conference games (see below). And people like me are calling it like they see it: not pretty. But the national respect that you desire can be earned in the next few years. It just won't come from winning ESPN’s Bowl Challenge Cup by playing a bunch of scrubs.

Looking ahead to 2007

Enough about 2006. The 2007 season is just around the corner, and WVU seems to be the consensus pick to win the Big East. The Mountaineers are getting lots of national acclaim, with some even predicting a BCS Championship Game run. Let’s look at WVU’s schedule for the upcoming season:
Sat Sep 1 Western Michigan
Sat Sep 8 @ Marshall
Thu Sep 13 @ Maryland
Sat Sep 22 East Carolina
Fri Sep 28 @ South Florida
Sat Oct 6 @ Syracuse
Sat Oct 20 Mississippi State
Sat Oct 27 @ Rutgers
Thu Nov 8 Louisville
Sat Nov 17 @ Cincinnati
Sat Nov 24 Connecticut
Sat Dec 1 Pitt
So… they should win every game, right? The game against Louisville will be a challenge, but when you’re trying to decide if your toughest road game is against Maryland, South Florida, or Rutgers, you’ve probably got a pretty easy schedule. If that was Michigan’s schedule, I’d be booking a trip to New Orleans right now. Heck, if Oklahoma, Tennessee, Cal, or any other “good but probably not great” team in this pre-season’s rankings had that schedule, they’d be booking flights, too.

Listen, I’m not saying that WVU is terrible. They’re a good team with an explosive offense (especially rushing) and an extremely suspect defense. They can play with anybody, but they can also lose to an average team (like they did last year against South Florida… at home). I mean, are they really strong enough to warrant a pre-season #2 ranking? This is one of the reasons I get annoyed with pre-season rankings. Do people think WVU is that good, or are they just looking at their schedule and saying “there’s no way they’re gonna lose!” I think that it’s mostly the latter. For the record, I’d rank the Mountaineers somewhere between 10 and 12 in my pre-season poll. They're a good team, and if they went undefeated and were very impressive in doing so, I wouldn’t necessarily be against them getting a BCS Title shot (although I might be). But as I said above about the entire Big East, I’m just not buying the hype right now.

Before I get too sidetracked, I should mention that WVU isn’t the only team with a weak schedule this season. Look at what the rest of the Big East’s big three has in store for the non-conference:

Louisville:

Murray State
Middle Tennessee
@ Kentucky
@ NC State
Utah

Rutgers:

Buffalo
Navy
Norfolk State
Maryland
@ Army

Wow. Now, before Big East fans get upset, I should state that South Florida plays at Auburn, Pitt plays Michigan State and UVA, and Syracuse plays at Iowa. But still… come on! If Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State played the non-conference schedules that WVU, Louisville, and Rutgers play this season, they would get trashed. Absolutely trashed. But for some reason, this has slid under the radar this season with the big three Big East teams. Apparently we're supposed to look forward to WVU-Louisville while glossing over the fact that they took a page out of Bill Snyder's (scheduling) playbook?

Conclusion

The Big East is both overrated and excluded – for now. In the next few years, their best programs will get to prove themselves against some serious players from the power conferences. Then, and only then, will we have a reliable barometer of how good the Big East really is. Until then, we’ll have to debate how teams like WVU would fare against the schedules that schools like USC and Ohio State face.

P.S. For the frequent visitors out there, yes, I have been over this before. But if the Big East is going to be force-fed to me by the powers that be at ESPN and the like, I’m going to keep bringing this up. Thanks for reading.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would love to hear more about Michigan running the table with a big east schedule. Learn to beat a IAA at home first and come back to us.

12:51 AM  

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