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Some preseason Big East scheduling thoughts

Written by Paul Zeise on .

A lot of people ask me what the Big East has to do to gain respect and why haven't people given the conference props for winning in BCS bowl games. The answer to both questions are simple -- win regular season games against real opponents and don't lose to inferior opponents and bowl games, for whatever reason, only matter if SEC teams win them. 

So with that in mind, let's look ahead to this season and analyze the Big East's non-conference schedule. And keeping with our very popular theme of lists, let's breakdown the Big East's non-conference schedule. As you will quickly see, the Big East could go 40-0 in its non-conference schedule and while it would be a great accomplishment - and this gets back to scheduling -- I'm not sure what it would do perception-wise because there are so few quality wins to be had..... 

Five biggest games (as in, games against highly-ranked opponents and thus games if the Big East wins them it would be a big deal).

1.) Syracuse at No. 9 Penn State - This is the highest ranked team any Big East team plays. And there is no, OK, almost no, well, let's be real, no chance Syracuse is winning it. But a win here would be a huge deal because it is the bottom of the Big East against the team who I think will win the Big Ten. Again, as noted football historian Deuce Skurcenski would say, "this game has NC written all over it-- no chance...."

2.) South Florida at No. 18 Florida State - Beating the Seminoles these days doesn't mean nearly what it once did but that being said, this is still a huge game for the Big East and in particular the Bulls. For one, FSU is the second-highest ranked team the conference plays but even more importantly, the Bulls must begin to change the perception that they are a distant fourth in the state of Florida among programs.

3.) Pitt versus No. 23 Notre Dame - If Pitt is indeed one of the top teams in the Big East, they've got to win this game at home in order to avoid the "that conference's best teams can't even beat an overrated outfit like Notre Dame...." tag. I also happen to think that if you look at Notre Dame's schedule, they could easily come into this game 8-1 (which means they'll be ranked in the top ten and have the national media fawning all over Charlie Weis again) and at the very worst should be 7-2.  

4.) Louisville at No. 19 Utah - The Cardinals should be at or near the bottom of the Big East. Utah should be at or near the top of the Mountain West. You want to shut up the "Mountain West is better than the Big East" crowd Cardinals? Go win this game. In some ways this game probably should be no. 1 because there has been so much talk lately of the Mountain West that the Big East would benefit greatly from this victory, particularly since it is on the road. Unfortunately, I think, this is a NC game (to use that Deuce-ism) as well.....

5.) Connecticut vs. No. 21 North Carolina - Rentschler Field can be a tough place to play and frankly the Tar Heels, while improving, are still not quite there yet. This would be a big win for the Big East because again, UConn I think will be near the bottom of the Big East and it wouldn't shock anyone if the Tar Heels appear in the ACC title game. Connecticut also could gain some big points with a win over Notre Dame but that game is on the road and I think the Huskies will be big underdogs, so this is a no-lose situation for the Big East.

Those five games, I think are what we would call perception changers -- at least the first four would be -- and the only game which the Big East team might be favored is Pitt-Notre Dame. So again, you have to win them.

Now, this next set of games I would classify as even more important than the first five because these are games which are winnable games against teams from other power conferences. These are the kinds of games the Big East needs to start winning because it speaks volumes about the depth of the league versus the depth of other leagues.

1.) Cincinnati vs. Illinois - This a very good game for the Big East because I think Illinois should be near the top of the Big Ten. This is also big for the Big East because it is constantly being treated as if it a step-son to the Big Ten. And by the time this game is played - Nov. 27 - the Bearcats should have some things solved on defense which means they really do have a good chance to win it.

2.) South Florida vs Miami - The Hurricanes are rebuilding, there is no more denying that and frankly are probably a year away. Much like beating the Seminoles, a win here by the Bulls puts at least a little dent in the "fourth-city" status South Florida currently is stuck with.

3.) West Virginia at Auburn -- A win in an SEC stadium is a win in an SEC stadium. And this would be a big one for the Mountaineers, who I think will be favored in it. Again, perception changes once reality changes and that starts with winning these kinds of games. The Mountaineers also play at home against Colorado and while that will be a nice win on national television, the Buffalos are a long way from where they were when they had that preacher coaching them.

4.) Pitt at N.C. State - Go on the road and beat a solid ACC team and it provides more mounting evidence that the Big East is as good as if not stronger than the ACC.

5.) Cincinnati at Oregon State - I'm thinking the Bearcats will manage to score more than zero points against the Beavers. But a win up at that stadium, where teams like USC struggle, would be a huge deal, particularly since the Beavers will again be a fairly strong Pac-10 team.

Finally, these games are perception changers in the wrong way-- meaning, these are must wins and if the Big East team loses in these games it is a big deal in terms of negative publicity. And obviously this list doesn't take into account the stream of I-AA's and rent-a-win like opponents which litter every team's schedule, but a loss in any of those games is an absolute killer in so many ways.  

1.) West Virginia vs East Carolina -- The Big East is trying to erase the perception that it isn't much or at all better than Conference USA, the WAC and the Mountain West. That's why these kinds of games are so important -- WVU, who will probably be in the mix to win the Big East cannot lose to a Conference USA team especially at home.

2.) West Virginia vs. Marshall -- See above, and then add the fact that the Mountaineers certainly don't want to have to hear the "not even the best team in West Virginia" nonsense.

3.) Cincinnati vs. Fresno State -- Again, you are at home, you are playing against one of the non-BCS darlings of the national media from a conference, the WAC, which people are constantly trying to compare to the Big East. You have to win this one.

4.) Louisville vs. Southern Mississippi -- Another one of those Big East-Conference USA matchups and it takes place on Big East turf. I don't think the Cardinals will be very good, but you can't tell me they have fallen this far that they would lose at home.

5.) Rutgers at Maryland - A lot of people think the Scarlet Knights might just win the Big East. If that is the case, it would certainly be an awful loss if your conference champion couldn't even beat a mid-level, mediocre team like Maryland from a mediocre conference like the ACC. Again, no excuses, the Scarlet Knights just have to win.

Those 15 games, I believe, will tell the true story of the Big East. Yes, there are other games which will factor in, but those fifteen games we will keep an eye on because it will tell us a lot about the relative strength of the conference.

Now, here are a few more schedule-related lists.....

These teams have scheduled appropriately for what the Big East is trying to accomplish, which is gain respect by winning games against the other BCS conferences or teams who are at that level (like a Utah or Notre Dame). In other words, these teams get it -

1.) Syracuse - Yes, a rebuilding team probably shouldn't start the season with three Big Ten opponents, but the Orange have exactly the formula and model Big East teams should use when scheduling its five non-conference games -- they play three BCS-conference opponents or their equivalents (Minnesota, Northwestern and Penn State), a solid MAC-level school (Akron) and a rent-a-win team (Maine).

2.) Cincinnati - Again, three BCS conference opponents or their equivalents (Oregon State, Illinois, Fresno State), a solid MAC-level opponent (Big Ben's alma mater) and a rent-a-win team (SE Missouri State).

3.) Connecticut - All together now -- three BCS conference opponents or their equivalents (Notre Dame, Baylor, North Carolina), a solid MAC-level team (Ohio) and a rent-a-win team (Rhode Island).

These teams have some good games scheduled but still need to do a little bit better than this. In other words, these teams almost get it....

1.) Pitt - The Panthers play two BCS-level opponents (Notre Dame, North Carolina State) and though Navy is not an easy game (I suppose there is some punch line which goes "especially when you decide to throw two fade passes from the 2 instead of handing the ball to your second-round draft pick, 1500-yard running back and ask him to run behind your first-round draft pick left tackle......), it is a game which there is more to lose by losing it than is to be gained by winning it. Also, not sure the wisdom of playing at Buffalo given Pitt's recent history on the road against MAC teams. Either way, the schedule is better than most teams in the other five leagues but not good enough for a Big East team given the stated goals of this thing.

2.) West Virginia - Like Pitt, the Mountaineers schedule (Liberty, East Carolina, Colorado, Auburn and Marshall) is not bad, but it is not great, either. That is especially true given how well WVU has played in the past six years -- it is time to upgrade this to the three-one-one formula and play someone like Virginia Tech instead of East Carolina.

3.) Louisville - This is dangerously close to falling into the third category, but the Cardinals stayed out of that embarrassment because they only play one Division I-AA and because they do play at Utah and against an SEC team (Kentucky). They also have only one Division I-AA team (Indiana State, without Larry Bird by the way) and Southern Mississippi is usually a solid team. The one game which needs to be better is Arkansas State, a Sun Belt team, because there is already a rent-a-win opponent on the schedule.

These teams need to be scolded by commissioner Marinatto because these schedules are embarrassingly bad and in some ways, hurt the credibility of the league. In other words, these teams DON'T get it.

1.) South Florida -  As good as the games against Miami and Florida State, the Bulls schedule is offset by the other three games (Wofford, Charleston Southern and Western Kentucky), which are embarrassingly bad. Is that two Division I-AA teams and a bad Sun Belt team who was in Division I-AA (I don't call them FCS and FBS teams, sorry) three years ago? Are you kidding me? Someone needs to tell Jim Leavitt that his team is no longer a I-AA team and thus, he should stop scheduling like one.

2.) Rutgers - Greg Schiano has done a marvelous job of pulling Rutgers out of the basement, but they are still a long way from the top of the steps and frankly the Scarlet Knights lack credibility in a lot of ways. And part of the reason is they simply don't play anybody in their nonconference schedule (and then they beat 6-6 teams in nothing bowl games and brag about it) and this year's schedule is an embarrassment, whatever the reasons are. I mean, my goodness, they play a duck (Howard), an airport (Florida International), a railroad (Texas Southern), the worst of the three service academies (Army) and their "big game" is against a mediocre ACC program (Maryland). That isn't going to cut it by any stretch of the imagination and like we said, it is a disaster if the Scarlet Knights lose to Maryland.   

And finally, for the record, let's look at the non-conference schedules of the Big East teams since the "new Big East" conference was formed in 2005 and we'll do it in two ways - won-loss records (only teams in Division I-A's records count) and by the following ranking system:

BCS-level opponents (teams from the five other BCS leagues and Notre Dame) (4 points)

Mid-Majors, for lack of a better term (Mountain West, Conference USA, MAC, WAC, Navy, Army) (2 points)

Low Majors (Sun Belt) (1 point)

Division I-AA (-2 points)

So, with that in mind - let's take a look at who is playing who in the Big East ---

First, let's take a look at non-conference opponents’ records by winning percentage (2005-08). By this measure, Pitt has played the toughest schedule in the New Big East era. 

1.) Pitt - 105-94 (.528)

2.) Cincy - 103-93 (.526)

3.) Syracuse -114-111 (.507)

4.) USF - 95-92 (.508)

5.) West Virginia - 98-100 (.495)

6.) Louisville - 90-113 (.443)

7.) Rutgers - 82-104 (.441)

8.) UConn - 80-103 (.437) 

Now let's look at non-conference opponents by ranking system based on where teams came from (2005-09, a total of 24 games per team). Note: Cincy played six non-conference games last year because they played at Hawaii so with that in mind, we are giving them a pass for playing Eastern Kentucky so that every team has the same amount of non-conference games for comparison's sake.

1.) Syracuse - 70 points (15 BCS, 7 Mid-Majors, 2 Division I-AA)

2.) Louisville - 53 points (11 BCS, 5 Mid-Majors, 5 Low-Majors, 3 Division I-AA) 

3.) (tie) Pitt - 52 points (10 BCS, 10 Mid-Majors, 4 Division I-AA)

3.) (tie) West Virginia - 52 points (10 BCS, 10 Mid-Majors, 4 Division I-AA)

5.) Connecticut - 50 points (11 BCS, 8 Mid-Majors, 4 Division I-AA)

6.) Cincinnati - 42 points (7 BCS, 12 Mid-Majors, 5 Division I-AA) 

7.) South Florida - 40 points (10 BCS, 4 Mid-Majors, 4 Low-Majors, 6 Division I-AA)

8.) Rutgers - 37 points (6 BCS, 11 Mid-Majors, 1 Low-Major, 6 Division I-AA)

Looking at those numbers, it is clear that outside of Syracuse, the Big East has a lot of work to in terms of putting together better schedules. This is a spin-free, excuse-free reality that the Big East cannot run and hide from. If the conference wants more respect, it needs to upgrade the non-conference schedule across the board and then go and win those games.

Like I said, Syracuse hasn't done much else right the past four years, but the Orange have been the model program for the Big East in terms of putting together non-conference schedules. They play a lot of BCS-conference teams and very few Division I-AA teams.

It looks to me like Pitt, West Virginia and UConn are almost where they need to be but they all could stand to add one more BCS-conference team to their non-conference schedule.

Cincinnati and South Florida have to do much better than they done. I know both have shown they are afraid to play big games on the road and that is a start, but they still play too many patsies and/or mediocre teams.

And like we said at the start, Rutgers scheduling has been an absolute embarrassment and is a big reason why their "success story" is viewed nationally as lot more fiction than fact. Yes, they have won more games recently than they used to but a close look at their schedule reveals a lot of those wins came against inferior competition. I mean, when the most impressive thing on your resume is a 4-0 record against Pitt -- a team which has defined mediocrity has missed bowl games in three of the last four years and is one game below .500 against I-A competition in that time - you haven't even come close to arriving as anything more than slightly better than mediocrity.

I was of the belief that commissioner John Marinatto should become a much heavier hand about getting teams to play better non-conference schedule but after doing this exercise, I think that needs to happen sooner rather than later because it is worse than I thought.

And I think he should get involved and let certain teams know they need to do better than they have even if it means playing some tough games on the road or playing a team like Notre Dame at a neutral site with twice as many seats as yours. (As an aside, I find it comical that Rutgers wouldn't play Notre Dame at the new Meadowlands but had no problem signing up to playing Army there. Of course, as we have discovered the reality is that is par for the course because the Scarlet Knights seem to make a habit on taking the path of absolute least resistance when it comes to finding non-conference opponents.)

I think even taking a one-and-done road deal now and then if the right one presents itself is not a terrible thing to do, particularly if you can win some of those games. And before you buy into the typical football coach and athletic administration whining about “well we need to have a balanced schedule and we don’t need to take bad deals” -- take a look at Florida State’s non-conference schedules in the 1980s and early 1990s when they were trying to build their national profile and see how that worked out for them.

The Seminoles played anybody, anywhere and when teams wouldn’t give them return trips to Tallahassee they said “fine, we’ll just come to your house and beat you”, which is why they went from a no-name former female college to a team which finished in the top 5 like 13 or 14 seasons in a row. They played at LSU six times from 1979 to 1989, no return trips, they played at Nebraska in back-to-back years, they played at Ohio State in back-to-back years, they played at Michigan in 1986 and 1991 with no return trips to Tallahassee.

And guess what – FSU won the overwhelming majority of those games and that’s how they gained respect and became one of the top programs in the nation. They didn’t make excuses about “well we can’t take a bad deal because it will hurt our perception”, instead they said “we’re a nobody and want to be a somebody so we’ll play whoever we can, wherever we can and then when start winning those games people will have to give us respect.”

That’s the attitude the Big East should take and until they do start playing better schedules and beating top teams and on the road if need be, the perception of the Big East will continue to be that it is a mediocre league behind the other five power conferences.

I understand that winning games, getting to bowls and playing at home is important to building a program, but my goodness some of these programs in the Big East wonder why they don't get respect and yet, you look at their non-conference schedule and realize they didn't beat, or play, anyone with a pulse.

It is something which needs to change.

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