It may not be met with the same anticipation as, say, the night before Christmas, but, with due respect to Clement Clarke Moore, the eve of the 2012 college football season is still a pretty big deal for fans across the country.
In the BIG EAST, coaches and fans have countless questions before things get started this week.
Will Louisville live up to its billing as the league favorite? Can USF keep itself in the title hunt with a late-season push? Is a fourth championship season in five years in store for Cincinnati? Can Temple keep rolling with the best stretch in program history? Will Pittsburgh be healthy enough to be a factor? Will Rutgers respond favorably to its first new coach in more than a decade? Can the Connecticut defense carry the Huskies to the top?
As of today, Aug. 29, we’re all just guessing, whether it’s fans or the coaches and media who cast votes in the national polls. Did anybody foresee Cincinnati’s flirtation with the BCS Championship Game in 2009? Certainly the pollsters didn’t – the Bearcats were unranked in the 2009 preseason poll despite going 11-3 the year before.
This year, Louisville stands as the only BIG EAST team ranked in the preseason polls, with the Cardinals at No. 25 in the Associated Press ranking.
So are BIG EAST teams getting a fair shake? The coaches seem to think that it’s irrelevant.
“There are enough good teams that, if we just go out and play well, the recognition will come,” said Louisville coach Charlie Strong, who noted that he was surprised to see his own team ranked in the preseason poll.
History shows that preseason polls – as they apply to the BIG EAST, at least – aren’t always an accurate reflection of how things shape up at the end of the year.
“The things that come out in the preseason are unearned,” said Rutgers coach Kyle Flood, who begins his quest for answers Saturday at Tulane. “The rankings that are earned throughout the year ultimately are what we should be evaluating.”
The most extreme example of the variance between the preseason and postseason polls was in 2009, when the BIG EAST had nary a team among the preseason top 25 – which looked downright foolish once Cincinnati ran the table in the regular season, capped by a winner-take-all showdown against Pittsburgh for the BIG EAST title. The Bearcats, who were ranked No. 3 in the Bowl Championship Series at the end of the regular season, finished the year No. 8 in the AP poll, while Pittsburgh was No. 15 and West Virginia No. 25.
In 2006, the BIG EAST had two teams in the preseason top 13 (West Virginia at No. 5 and Louisville at No. 13). Little did anyone know that Rutgers would join that group by the end of the year, leaving the BIG EAST with three teams in the top 12 of the final AP poll.
It doesn’t always work out favorably. For every year in which the conference has had more teams ranked at the end of the year than the beginning, there’s a year in which fewer teams live up to their preseason expectations – a trend that is hardly systemic to the BIG EAST.
“I’ve been part of teams that have had high expectations and maybe didn’t come in as well and been part of teams that were lower (in the preseason) and have come up really high,” said Temple coach Steve Addazio in advance of Friday’s opener against Villanova. “I just know this – you’re going to have the answers to those questions pretty quickly. On Monday morning, 60 teams will have a loss and 60 teams will have a win, and as the season progresses, it won’t take many weeks to figure out which teams are what.”
The first answers to the questions will come Thursday, when we get our first look at Connecticut as the Huskies host Massachusetts. By the end of the week, seven BIG EAST teams will have played their first games, making the overall picture a bit clearer for many.
“I do think the BIG EAST is an undervalued commodity,” said Cincinnati coach Butch Jones – the lone coach who does not play this week. “The thing that separates the BIG EAST Conference from the rest is that every coach can walk into his preseason meeting and say, ‘We’re going to have an opportunity to win our conference championship.’”
And with a championship trophy, there’s no guessing involved.