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September 12, 2007

SCS.comBe honest, when Miami and Virginia Tech left for the ACC after the 2003 season, and Boston College followed suit in 2004, you were ready to right off the Big East as a football conference; and why wouldnít you? The top two returning teams were West Virginia, who had won more than 8 games only once since 1994, and Pittsburgh, who had just started to become a nationally recognized program and was fresh off a 35-7 route at the hands of Utah in the Fiesta Bowl. The arrival of Louisville, coming off an 11-1 season was a nice addition, but eight of those wins came against Conference USA opponents. Cincinnati and USF certainly werenít making any kind of headlines when they followed Louisville.

So the Big East was left with eight teams: one who had an impressive record but against a weaker conference schedule; two that had yet to prove they were consistent winners; and five others that werenít expected to make any major noise in the near future. Well, what a difference a few years can make.

After two weeks of games, the Big East as a conference has posted a 14-2 record in non-conference games, with both losses going to Syracuse. No Division 1-A conference has a better winning percentage. The Big East is also tied with the Big 12 and Pac-10 with the most teams ranked in the top 15 at three teams each (West Virginia, Louisville, and Rutgers). USF is knocking on the door of the top 25 as well after their upset win over Auburn; the Bulls are just a few votes behind Texas A&M for the final spot in the polls.

With such an impressive winning percentage after the first two weeks, the easy assumption to make would be that the Big East has been fattening up on easy non-conference teams. While this is true to a certain extent with every BCS conference, the Big East has been knocking off some quality opponents. Of the fourteen wins posted in the first two weeks, three of them have come against teams from other BCS conferences, and five have come against teams that appeared in a bowl in the 2006 season. Even Syracuse, who has been beaten badly in their two losses, suffered those defeats at the hands of Washington and Iowa, two quality programs.

Of course the mark of a great conference isnít simply based on the performance of its teams (although that is the bench mark criteria). Conferences that draw attention nationally always have marquee players, and the Big East has plenty. At this point in the season, perhaps no other conference has more legitimate Heisman candidates than the Big East. In this week's experts poll, Brian Brohm (QB, Louisville), Steve Slaton (RB, West Virginia), Pat White (QB, West Virginia) and Ray Rice (RB, Rutgers) all finished in the top seven for the voting. While there may be conferences that can say they have overall better talent top to bottom, most would be hard pressed to find that many players whose names are known so well nationally.

What has been the cause of the Big Eastís sudden rise? There are always a plethora of reasons for sudden success in college football: great coaching; offensive systems designed to put up big points; but certainly one thing that has helped the Big East has been recruiting. In the last three recruiting classes (2005-2007), Big East teams have signed 33 players that were ranked in the top 20 nationally at their position according to Even teams not normally considered to be football schools, like Connecticut, have been signing some nationally recognized talent here and there. Players that would normally be fleeing the northeast and mid-atlantic are sticking around. Greg Schiano, head coach of Rutgers, in particular has been doing a tremendous job at getting local talent to stay.

What does this early success mean for the Big East though? Well unfortunately with all of the talent at the top of the conference, teams are going to lose out. Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers all play each other, and in a best case scenario for overall conference success, each team will only suffer one loss. Of course it would probably be most beneficial for the Big East as a whole if West Virginia were to go through conference play unscathed, which would very likely result in a national championship game berth.

In all likelihood, the Big East is in great shape this season to have four teams earn bowl bids, and quite possibly a fifth team. The big three will all find themselves in bowls, and at least two of them should be taking place after the new year. South Florida has already impressed in their out of conference schedule, and has the ability to upset one of the big three potentially, and should wind up in a bowl as well.

After that things become much more interesting. A glance out the remaining out of conference schedules seems to give Connecticut a good chance to pick up some wins. The Huskies have scored 83 points and allowed just 14 in their first two wins. With out of conference games remaining against Temple, Akron and Virginia, Connecticut is in line to go 4-1 in non-Big East games. An 8-5 overall record isnít out of the question if they continue to put up big scores once conference play begins.

With the college game evolving and changing as it has in recent years, it is time to realize that the Big East is no longer simply a basketball conference; these schools can toss around the pigskin some too.

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