In the college football world perception means far more than reality. As of this week the Big East Conference is down to 1 ranked team in the Coaches poll and 2 ranked teams in the AP poll. The perception is that the Big East is down and that there are not any really good teams in the conference. As a fan of the Big East there have been some disappointments this season. West Virginia has been the bellwether program for the conference, but they have started off slow under the new regime. Rutgers has fallen about as far as a program could fall in two seasons going from Big East contender in 2006 to a team that has yet to beat a single 1A opponent in 2008. With the sudden drop of these two programs and Louisville’s fall last season the general view is that the Big East is down ranks last when compared to the other BCS conferences. When one takes the time to examine the accomplishments and failings of the Big East, ACC and Pac Ten that perception does not hold up. There really has not been a major difference in the performances of these conferences…merely the perception. In a sport dominated by polls, perception is far too often viewed as reality.
We can gain a better understanding of the perception vs. reality argument when we compare the two major BCS programs in Ohio. This season Ohio State has beaten 1AA Youngstown State while the Bearcats beat 1AA Eastern Kentucky. The Buckeyes trailed the MAC’s Ohio University in the 4th quarter before rallying to win, while the Bearcats trailed Akron in the 4th quarter before doing the same. Cincinnati thumped the Miami Redhawks at home and Ohio State got by Minnesota. Ohio State played then number 1 ranked USC on the road and the game was over by mid second quarter. The Bearcats played the currently number 1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Norman and let the game get away from them over a 5 minute stretch in the third quarter. Up until this past weekend these two teams had nearly identical resumes. They had not beaten anyone of any real significance and had been beaten solidly by top ten teams (In UC’s case the team currently sitting number 1 in the country). If OSU had done exactly what Cincinnati did against Cincinnati’s schedule they would have more than likely been ranked about where they are right now. However, because OSU has history and went to the national title the last two years they get more credit than a UC team that finished at number 17 last season. And in Ohio State’s case I think their ranking is fairly well earned. However, the larger point is that until last weekend’s trip to Camp Randall they had not done anything particularly impressive this season and their ranking was simply a product of perception.
I think it has been pretty obvious that the best conferences this season are the SEC and Big 12 in that order. After those two the Big 10 has looked like a solid number 3. However, among the Big East, ACC, Pac Ten and even the Mountain West it has been far harder to see a distinct difference. The Big East has two absolutely horrendous teams in Syracuse and Rutgers (well Rutgers has been so far at least). That being said the Pac Ten comes to the table with Washington, Washington State, and UCLA, another pretty awful combination of teams, while the ACC boasts Virginia, Duke and North Carolina State. The bottom of all three conferences...well, no world beaters among that group.
These conferences are pretty similar among there top 70-75 percent (That’s top 7 for the Pac Ten, top 9 for the ACC and top 6 for the Big East). The top 6 teams in the Big East have gone 23-8 winning 74 percent of their games. The top 9 in the ACC have gone 34-12 winning an identical 74 percent of their games. Meanwhile the top 7 (70 percent) of the Pac Ten have gone 22-14 winning only 61 percent of their games. When we look at these league records as an aggregate it is clear they have been pretty similar.
According to the AP top 25 the ACC has 3 teams ranked (Virginia Tech, UNC, and Wake Forest), the Big East has 2 teams ranked (South Florida and Pittsburgh) and the Pac Ten has 1 team ranked (USC). Of these teams South Florida, UNC, Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh all have pretty compelling cases for their rankings. Pittsburgh has a bad loss but they have beaten Iowa and have a road win over USF. The Bulls have taken down Kansas, Central Florida, and pounded NC State. North Carolina probably should have beaten Virginia Tech but has big victories over Rutgers and UCONN to go with a win over the Miami Hurricanes. Virginia Tech has beaten Georgia Tech, UNC and Nebraska with their 1 loss coming to East Carolina. I have a harder time justifying Wake Forest’s ranking because of their loss to Navy, but they too have some meat on their schedule so far.
Each one of these conferences has some good non-conference wins over BCS opponents. The best wins for the Big East Conference to date are over Kansas, Iowa, NC State, Virginia, Kansas State and Baylor. The Best Wins for the ACC are over Mississippi, UCONN, Cal, Colorado, and Rutgers. The Best wins for the Pac ten are Ohio State and Virginia (both by USC), Tennessee (by an awful UCLA team), Purdue and Michigan State.
Ignoring the bottom teams I already mentioned in these conferences lets examine who the non-conference losses are to in each league. The Big East has lost to UNC, Oklahoma, Kentucky, East Carolina and Colorado. The one really bad loss for the top teams in the league was Pitt losing to Bowling Green. The ACC has losses to Alabama, South Florida, Florida, USC to go with bad losses to Navy and Middle Tennessee State. The Pac Ten has losses to BYU, Fresno State, UNLV, New Mexico, Maryland, TCU, Notre Dame, Penn State, Georgia and Utah. In reality the Pac Ten has more questionable losses than the ACC or Big East. Really the only team who has carried the torch for the Pac Ten is USC.
Despite 3 straight BCS bowl wins over the SEC champ, the ACC champ and the Big 12 champ; despite an 8-2 record the last two seasons in bowl games; despite regular season victories this season and last over Auburn, Oregon State, Kansas, Virginia, Kansas State, and Maryland among others the Big East is still not perceived like the other leagues. The slip-ups by Big East teams get viewed in a more negative light than those of ACC and Pac Ten teams. The recent accomplishments of Big East teams are quickly dismissed or forgotten. In reality no team in the Big East has yet to really show they are a top notch team, though there are some teams that have the potential to be there by seasons end (South Florida, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and I would never rule out WVU). Though there is not that clear top team, the league is still solid and has been every bit the conference the Pac Ten and ACC have been this season.
People keep asking the question of whether or not the Big East can win a BCS bowl (the same question was asked the last three years and answered the same way each time…yes). The Big East has plenty of good teams, whether it is recognized nationally or not. I would bet the farm that if you put BYU, Boise State, or Utah in this conference they would lose 2 or 3 games. There is plenty of talent on the field every week. In the battle to gain consistent respect and positive perception among the college football elite the Big East is not their yet. Despite that the product on the field has been, is, and will continue to be fine. The Big East will have another solid year, another solid Bowl Season, and may even win another BCS Bowl. So much of college football is perception based and not reality based…to me the perception that the Big East is down this season continues to be overblown. The Big East had done plenty to establish themselves as a solid BCS conference and by seasons end there will be plenty of accomplished teams carrying the torch for the Big East Conference.