…which, for football purposes, includes South Florida.
In 2005, the Big East – long a basketball-heavy conference – lost three of its five traditionally strong football programs to the ACC, while one of the remaining two, Syracuse, had fallen on desperate times. To remain a viable football conference (and retain its BCS status) the league was forced to raid Conference USA and managed to land three basketball-heavy schools with football programs. In the case of Louisville, the football program was even pretty strong, coming off an 11-1 season in 2004. Still, the conventional wisdom at the time was that South Florida, Louisville, and Cincinnati were far-from-adequate replacements for Virginia Tech, BC, and Miami and that the Big East’s days as a BCS conference were numbered. Meanwhile, the ACC was expected to be entering a period of dominance with its new additions that would make it every bit as strong a football conference as the SEC.
This is now the fifth season since that realignment occured. The first season, 2005, went pretty much as everyone expected, with 2 ACC teams in the final top 10 of the BCS rankings, and West Virginia the highest ranked Big East team at 11, and only Louisville joining it in the final top 25. But in all but one of the four years since then, the Big East has not only consistently demonstrated that it is a strong football conference, it has even arguably been better than ACC, especially considering its substantially smaller number of teams.
In 2006, three of the final top 12 teams hailed from the Big East, including not only expected powerhouses Louisville and West Virginia but also one-time also-ran Rutgers. The highest-ranked ACC school was Wake Forest at 18. In 2007, West Virginia just barely missed out on the BCS title game, finishing at number 6, while upstart Cincinnati managed to finish at 17, and three other Big East schools just barely missed being in the final top 25. Virginia Tech and BC were the only two ACC schools to finish in the top 20, at 9 and 11, respectively (Clemson was at 21, and two other schools were in the “just barely missed” category).
2008, of course, was a big down year for the Big East, but it was hardly a good year for the ACC, either, with Virginia Tech as the top-ranked ACC school, finishing at 15. Cincinnati was the top-ranked Big East school at 17. Florida State and Georgia Tech squeaked into the final top 25 for the ACC, as did West Virginia for the Big East. Pitt and Rutgers received votes in the final AP poll for the Big East, while BC received votes for the ACC. So even in 2008, as between the Big East and the ACC, there was no clearly better conference. Yet these results led to much speculation that the Big East’s time as a BCS conference was on its last legs; no such speculation existed for the ACC, of course.
Indeed, so low was regard for the Big East and so unimpaired was regard for the ACC after these results that in the 2009 preseason poll, the ACC managed to land FOUR teams in the Top 25 poll, including Virginia Tech at number 7. By contrast, the Big East had zero – as in not a single team. Yes, after a bad year for both the ACC and the Big East, and despite the Big East being arguably the better conference in the years prior to that, conventional wisdom somehow deemed the ACC as in effect the second best conference in the nation, behind only the SEC.
So what happened when we actually played the games this year? The Big East has been the better conference. In the most recent BCS rankings, the Big East has the numbers 5 (Cincinnati), 12 (Pitt), 24 (South Florida), and 25 (West Virginia) ranked teams, with Rutgers closing in on the top 25. That’s 5 out of the conference’s 8 teams (admittedly, Greg Schiano could win every game in Rutgers’ non-conference schedule with nothing but walk-ons). The ACC still has three teams in the BCS top 25, including Georgia Tech at 7, with Clemson just barely on the outside, but this is a much smaller fraction of their conference.
Moreover, the non-conference records are revealing. The Big East’s non-conference record is 29-7. Every single team, including doormats Louisville and Syracuse, managed to post a winning record in non-conference play, and only Rutgers loaded that schedule top-to-bottom with patsies (although South Florida’s schedule thus far outside of its upset of Florida State is really weak sauce). Even UConn, despite all that it has gone through with the murder of one of its players and a 1-4 conference record, has a decent chance of bowl-eligibility.
The same cannot be said of the ACC. Its 30-15 non-conference record is hardly impressive in the world of cheesecake pollster-friendly scheduling.
The point of this little ditty is this: it would be nice if at some point the people who make college football opinion – and thus determine who gets to play in the BCS Bowl games – would at some point recognize that we can play some football up here in the Northeast (which, for football purposes, includes South Florida) and that just because a major conference is associated with the American Southeast doesn’t mean it’s a terribly good conference. Moreover, the history of the last five years ought to demonstrate that it’s either high time college football’s opinion makers took the Big East off its perennial Death Watch or that they put the ACC (and probably the Big Ten, while we’re here) on it.