No so Big Least after all: Maligned conference doing just fine with 3 ranked, undefeated teams

  • Article by: JOHN KEKIS , Associated Press
  • Updated: October 10, 2012 - 3:32 PM

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Excuse Big East commissioner Mike Aresco if he's feeling a bit giddy this week. When the dust settled after weekend play, he still had three undefeated teams ranked in the AP Top 25.

While nine ranked teams lost, No. 18 Louisville, No. 20 Rutgers and No. 21 Cincinnati boosted their combined record to 14-0 and remained among the 14 undefeated teams in major college football.

The best news for Aresco is that all three are staying put as he continues to rebuild the much-maligned conference.

"Louisville, Cincinnati and Rutgers are some of our core programs, and they have strong football," Aresco said. "What it shows also is that, going forward, we will have even stronger football. It's only going to get better. This is early evidence of it."

Boise State (4-1), currently No. 24, joins the conference next year. That should more than make up for the departure of Pittsburgh and Syracuse after this season as they make the jump to the Atlantic Coast Conference. If only West Virginia — 5-0 and ranked No. 5 — hadn't bolted for the Big 12.

"When we bring in the new schools, we're going to have a powerful football conference top to bottom," Aresco said. "It's going to be very competitive, very rugged."

It already is. Just ask Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer, whose Hokies used to play in the Big East.

After Pittsburgh started the season under first-year coach Paul Chryst with a stunning two-touchdown loss to Youngstown State, which plays at Division I's second level, and followed that with a loss at Cincinnati, Pitt upset then-No. 13 Virginia Tech, 35-17, forcing the Hokies into four first-half turnovers.

Tech hasn't been the same since, also losing to Cincinnati and North Carolina. So, for the record, the Hokies, another former league member, are 0-2 vs. the Big East.

"(The Big East is) having a good year, that's for sure," Beamer said. "Cincinnati was for real, and the day we played Pittsburgh ... they were good, so I have nothing but respect for them."

Since 2006, the Big East is 215-89 (70.7 winning percentage) in nonconference play, behind only the SEC (304-70, 81.3 percent) and the Big 12 (259-86, 75.1 percent). And since 1998, the Big East has the best postseason record (43-27) of any Bowl Subdivision conference during the Bowl Championship Series era.

So, why is the conference always an afterthought?

"Because we beat each other up," Louisville offensive guard Jake Smith said. "There aren't too many unbeaten teams that come out of the conference. It's tough. I won't say we'll have the national champion every year, but I think there are really good teams in the Big East."

It's just that nobody seems to notice.

Such is life in a league with no dominant teams, even if players such as Baltimore Ravens tailback Ray Rice (Rutgers) or New England Patriots rookie defensive end Chandler Jones (Syracuse) quickly become household names as pros.

"This conference is really underrated, honestly," Smith said. "There are a lot of really good players that come out of the Big East. You don't have to look far to find great talent.

"It's kind of offensive when you see somebody just bashing the conference that you're in. Last year, when West Virginia was in the conference, they came and blew out Clemson (70-33 in the Orange Bowl), and then they moved to another conference and have become a top-10 team — and that's the team we beat last year. I think it's the perception nationally. I don't think that's how it should be."

Aresco already knows he won't have three unbeaten teams at season's end, and he's OK with that.

"It's always been a conference that has been able to reinvent itself and get even stronger," Aresco said. "We're doing it now. It's not surprising to me that we've got teams that are in the Top 25. It's nice to have undefeated teams, but they've got to play each other."

Not yet. Which means Aresco still has three good bargaining chips on his side as the league continues negotiations on a new television contract.

"It's great timing," Aresco said. "It sends the signal that I've talked about. We are a strong football conference, we're a valuable football conference, we're going to be valuable to our media partners. Not only is it great timing, but it foreshadows the future."

The drawback to the start, though, has been everyone else. If you take out the three ranked teams, no other league member is over .500. But at least, there are the Cardinals, Scarlet Knights and Bearcats to brag about.

"We really didn't know what was going to happen this year," Smith said. "Cincinnati had questions, Rutgers had some questions, and with us there were some questions of youth. But to have three undefeated teams, it's good to see that competitiveness.

"And I like it."

Aresco does, too.

___

AP Sports Writers Gary Graves in Louisville, Ky., and Hank Kurz in Richmond, Va. contributed to this report.

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