- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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It is a wonder the Big East is even playing football this season. Ahem. Playing good football this season.
This league is supposed to be dead, right?
After Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia walked out on the Big East, critics delivered last rites to the beaten-down league. West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck called the Big East a sinking ship.
Conference commissioners began to drop the term "big six" in favor of "power five" when discussing the leagues that should have a seat at the big boy table. Former Big 12 interim commissioner Chuck Neinas spoke for them all when he said the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC had separated themselves from the pack.
Well, how is this for separation?
The Big East has three undefeated teams through the first month of the season: No. 19 Louisville (5-0), No. 22 Rutgers (4-0) and Cincinnati (3-0 and ranked No. 23 in the coaches poll). Let us take a look around the country for a brief moment.
Do you know how many undefeated teams there are in the ACC?
How about in the Big Ten?
Two, and one is ineligible for postseason play.
Next up, the Pac-12.
That is separation, all right. Big East separation.
For a league tossed around like a rag doll, the Big East has gotten the best start to the season it could have ever imagined. Not only are three teams undefeated and ranked in one poll, all three are remaining Big East members. Two of them –- Louisville and Cincinnati -- came onboard in 2005, the last time the Big East was forced to rebuild itself.
What new commissioner Mike Aresco should do right now is phone every commissioner who has slammed his league, every elite bowl game that has turned its nose at a tie-in and present some very real facts. Because the ongoing misconception surrounding the Big East is based on an idea that does not exist.
“A lot of the stuff that has been written has been unfair,” Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. “There’s a lot of facts that we can back up with our play, from our bowl games to our BCS bowl games, to the level of competition to the amount of players we’ve had in the National Football League. I don’t think it’s been deserving, but the only way we can change that perception is by the way we perform on the field. I think we’re doing that.”
When Neinas made his remarks last spring, all the commissioners had as evidence against the Big East was realignment. Four teams bailed; therefore the Big East must be terrible. None of the naysayers pointed to on-the-field play, where the Big East still retained recent BCS representatives UConn, Cincinnati and Louisville and would be adding non-AQ power Boise State.
Nobody pointed to the bowl record. The Big East has the best postseason mark of any conference during the BCS era (43-27 for a .614 winning percentage).
Nobody pointed to the nonconference record? The Big East has won at least 60 percent of its nonleague games in each of the past six years.
Instead, they pointed to the teams leaving, and made irresponsible assertions that have tainted the perception surrounding the Big East. In the future playoff system, automatic qualifying designation has been dropped for all leagues. But that was really a clever way of stripping the Big East from its AQ status.
Why? The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC have all secured themselves tie-ins to the elite level bowl games (Orange, Rose, and the Champions Bowl between Big 12 and SEC representatives). The Big East has nothing as we sit here today.
The early part of this season reveals the flaws in that logic. A conference like the Big Ten can feel secure knowing it will still be able to reward its champion even in a down season. The ACC is currently 3-4 against the Big East in real games this year, but that league gets a guaranteed spot in the Orange Bowl every year.
The Big East? Even in the case of an exceptional season, there are no guarantees.
This right here has the makings of an exceptional season.
Louisville and Cincinnati have the potential to be undefeated when they meet later this month. The winner of that game has the potential to be undefeated when it plays Rutgers in November. As for Rutgers, this is a team many believe should begin the season 9-0.
For the first time since 2007, the league has three undefeated teams at this point in the season. That will not stand; but it is crucial for a clear top and clear bottom to remain.
Conferences that have powerful teams at the top are forgiven for their 2-10 bottom feeders. Leagues that have teams all jumbled up in the middle are perceived to be down a notch. Nobody is praising the Big Ten for having seven teams that are 2-2 or 3-2 right now. That is not competitive in the eyes of college football; that is weak.
“I said in August there needs to be a team in this conference that can stand up and become the team that can draw everyone’s attention and people will respect,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “Right now, you have three teams that are ranked, so it goes a long way if we can continue to play well. Then at the end of the year, we’ll see where we end up.”
16hMax Olson and Jake Trotter