In a short few days, the BIG EAST will release the results of its preseason poll of media members who offered their predictions for the 2011-12 football season.
And as is normally the case, there likely will be a clear-cut favorite followed a handful of teams expected to contend, a solid middle of the pack and a few teams that figure to be in rebuilding mode.
It’s the same story across just about every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision. A quick scan of the national scene shows that its either Florida State or Virginia Tech in the ACC, Wisconsin or Nebraska in the Big Ten, Oklahoma in the Big 12, Alabama or LSU in the SEC and USC or Oregon in the Pac-12. Boise State or TCU figures to be atop the Mountain West; Central Florida is the choice in Conference-USA and it’s Hawaii in the WAC.
Whatever the BIG EAST preseason poll says, the reality is that the BIG EAST race is perennially the most wide-open sprint in college football. With an eight-team league and no championship game, each team only has seven opportunities to stake its claim for the top spot, keeping more teams within an arm’s reach of the title deeper into the season than in any other league.
In 2009, the race came down to the last day of the regular season as Cincinnati knocked off Pittsburgh in a winner-take-all game for the BIG EAST title. Last season, Connecticut closed the season with a last-seconds, win against USF to forge a three-way tie for the championship. Cincinnati, by the way, was picked third in the 2009 preseason poll and Connecticut was picked No. 4 in last year’s poll.
But what really makes the BIG EAST difficult to project at the top of the standings is the league’s comparative strength at the bottom. Again, take a quick look at the national landscape and you’ll find familiar teams bringing up the rear of the respective leagues. In the BIG EAST, Syracuse and Louisville were picked seventh and eighth in the league, respectively, last season and both ended up winning bowl games. Rutgers, which finished eighth, defeated Connecticut, which went to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. In fact, Connecticut needed to reel off five straight wins to claim a share of last year’s title after the Huskies fell to Rutgers and Louisville in their first two league games.
The league’s balance hasn’t been a one-year trend, either. Instead, a league that largely was a one-horse race for much of its early existence has evolved into its current state through the last seven years. Since 2005, five schools – Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and West Virginia have won at least a share of the BIG EAST title. Syracuse last won a share of the title in 2004. Rutgers and USF, meanwhile, have both spent time ranked among the top six teams in the nation since 2006. In other words, every BIG EAST team has either finished atop the standings, or has been in contention for the title in the not-too-distant past.
Honestly, there’s not another league that comes close to that claim.
And that’s why, even if your team isn’t ranked among the contenders in this year’s preseason poll, even if your team is projected at the bottom of the standings, you still have reason for optimism in 2011.
In the BIG EAST, every team has a shot in every game, every year.