The nature of the BIG EAST football schedule – in which each team plays seven conference games annually – makes for a heavy load of nonconference games.
In order to play the maximum number of regular-season games permitted by the NCAA (12), BIG EAST teams must schedule five nonconference opponents annually. And therein lies one of the seldom-seen facets of any college football season.
At the major college level, wins and home games are the priorities. Seven wins is the magic number for a school to be assured of a bowl invitation and the rewards that come along with a postseason bid. And seven home games are necessary to satisfy the school’s business office, not to mention the local hotels and restaurants.
It’s less prevalent in football for a team’s schedule to be custom-fitted to that team’s personality than it is in other sports. In basketball, for example, a coach may load a veteran team’s schedule with tougher nonleague games to better prepare it for the postseason; or, with a young team, might schedule more home games against weaker opponents to build confidence. Football schedules are often made years in advance, leaving little room for tailoring.
The current BIG EAST structure means that a team will have three conference home games one year and four the next. So a team looking to get to seven home games will have to line up either three or four opponents willing to play on the road – no easy task now, when guarantees (an agreed-upon dollar figure that the home team pays to the visitor) are into the high six-figure range and many schools simply don’t like to leave the confines of home.
But if there’s a common model of how BIG EAST teams fill their nonleague schedules, it’s this:
Two games against BCS automatic qualifying teams
BIG EAST schools tend to schedule two games against other conferences with automatic qualification to the Bowl Championship Series (or Notre Dame, which itself counts as an automatic qualifier). Ideally, for balance, the BIG EAST team will have one home date and one road date among this group.
Two games against non-automatic-qualifying conferences
In many ways, these are the games that can make or break a season. The perception is that teams from the BIG EAST – or another AQ conference – are supposed to be able to handle teams from conferences that don’t have an automatic BCS bid. BIG EAST teams are generally able to secure home games against those opponents, though in some cases, a two-for-one deal is necessary to get the game (that is, the BIG EAST team will play two games at home and one on the road against the opponent over the course of three seasons).
One game against a Championship Subdivsion (I-AA) opponent
The NCAA allows teams to count one win against an FCS school each year toward bowl-eligibility and in a sport that’s devoid of preseason games, it makes sense for a school to play an FCS game, in most cases, early in the year. The downside, obviously, would be when Appalachian State stuns Michigan, but it’s not always catastrophic. Virginia Tech lost to James Madison last year, then rolled to the ACC title.
Here’s a quick look at some of the stronger nonconference games on the 2011 BIG EAST schedule:
USF at Notre Dame – Sept. 3 (3:30 p.m., NBC)
Bulls head coach Skip Holtz – a 1986 graduate of Notre Dame and a former Irish assistant coach – returns to South Bend in one of the best opening-week matchups on the college football schedule.
Rutgers at North Carolina – Sept. 10 (12:30 p.m., ACC Network)
The Scarlet Knights dropped a heartbreaker to the Tar Heels last season, but were 21-16 winners in their only previous trip to Chapel Hill in 2006.
Cincinnati at Tennessee – Sept. 10 (3:30 p.m., ESPN2)
Cincinnati heads to Neyland Stadium and a hostile environment of more than 102,000 fans in the schools’ first meeting since 2000.
Pittsburgh at Iowa – Sept. 17 (Noon, ESPN/ESPN2)
The Panthers will make their first trip to Ames since the 1951 season to face a Hawkeye team that finished just outside the top 25 last season.
Louisville at Kentucky – Sept. 17 (7 p.m., ESPNU)
The Cardinals look to reclaim the Governor’s Cup for the first time in four years against their in-state rivals.
Syracuse at USC – Sept. 17 (8 p.m., FX)
The Orange play at USC for the first time since 1924. Syracuse heads to the West Coast for the second time in as many years.
Notre Dame at Pittsburgh – Sept. 24 (TBA, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
Since renewing their series in 2008, all three Pitt-Notre Dame games have been nailbiters. Pittsburgh was a 27-22 winner in 2009 in the last meeting at Heinz Field.
LSU at West Virginia – Sept. 24 (TBA, ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
West Virginia came up just short in last year’s matchup in Baton Rouge, falling 20-14. The rematch in Morgantown figures to be one of the more highly anticipated games of the season.
Miami (Fla.) at USF – Nov. 19 (TBA)
The Bulls rallied for an overtime win against the Hurricanes last year in Miami.