Big East Deserves Major Respect
by Trevor Whenham - 10/18/2006
It has become popular recently in the media to kick on the Big East conference. There is a strong and seemingly growing opinion that a one-loss SEC team would be more deserving of a spot in the National Championship Game than an undefeated Big East squad. That may be true (though teams like Florida and Auburn need to find some consistency to make that argument relevant), but the Big East deserves more credit than it's getting.
There are only six undefeated teams in the major conferences, and three of them - West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers - play in the Big East. You can argue that they have played soft schedules -- though Louisville did trounce Miami -- but the fact remains that none of them have lost yet, and that is a very hard thing to do. A fourth team, Pitt, is 6-1 and can move into the forefront of conference competition with a win this weekend against Rutgers. The conference has three teams in the AP poll (Pitt sits in the crying spot of No. 26), which is as many as power conferences Big Ten and Pac-10. Two of their teams are in the top six, something that only the Big Ten can claim. The SEC, supposedly the best conference in football, doesn't even have a team in the top six. The Big East has accomplished all of that with just eight teams, fewer by two than any other major conference.
The Big East was gutted when Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the ACC. The Big East was supposed to be a lousy conference without elite teams. The highest appearance by an ACC team on the rankings, however, is Clemson at No. 12. Miami and Virginia Tech aren't even on the top 25.
An underestimated conference can turn into big money for bettors if spreads and public action don't reflect the true ability of the teams. Take the Rutgers game last weekend. Rutgers was undefeated, but they were set as three-point dogs against a one-dimensional Navy team that led the country in rushing but barely knew what a pass was. Rutgers, with a potent run defense, held that vaunted run attack to just 113 yards on 50 carries and spanked the Midshipmen, 34-0. Rutgers is a young and developing team, and they are likely to come down to earth before the season is over, but there was certainly value to be found in this line.
At the beginning of the season the Rutgers-Pitt game this weekend would have been one that only the player's mothers could have got excited about, but now it has turned into one of the biggest games of the year for the conference and one of the biggest games of the weekend. You certainly couldn't have seen that coming. Here's a look at those two teams and the other two that are turning heads in the Big East conference:
West Virginia - The No. 4 Mountaineers are likely the best team in the conference and the favorite to survive, though their schedule, with Rutgers and Pittsburgh coming up after Louisville, is much harder than it looked in September. Their sophomore duo of QB Pat White and running back Steve Slaton is as good as any one-two punch in the country. Slaton is a ridiculously electric rusher, but he isn't even the No. 1 threat to carry the ball all the time. White broke a slew of Big East records last game out against Syracuse by rushing 15 times for 247 yards and four touchdowns. The team is 3-2 ATS, but that is due largely to the high spreads they are regularly hung with - they haven't been favored by less than 17 all season. Their two losses ATS have both come in convincing victories. The benefit of the tougher remaining schedule will be smaller spreads to bet on. They are a more reliable 4-1 going over and have averaged more than 42 points each time they have gone over.
Louisville - It's impressive to be undefeated, but it is even more impressive when you consider that they are doing it without their Heisman hopeful running back Michael Bush and their Heisman hopeful quarterback Brian Brohm. There aren't too many teams that could overcome those losses like Louisville has. They are 4-2 ATS, though those ATS losses have come in their last two outings. The first was when the only beat 29 point underdogs Middle Tennessee State by 27, but the second, a six-point win against 25 point dogs Cincinnati, could cause some concern. In that contest the team managed just 105 yards rushing, which is less than half of the season average. That's a concern going into the meat of the schedule for the usually explosive Cardinals. On the plus side, Brian Brohm returned to action in the game. He looked rusty, but he'll have time to get back in form before the monster showdown with West Virginia on Nov. 2.
Rutgers - The Scarlet Knights are being painted as a true Cinderella story - the George Mason of the football season - but that isn't entirely accurate. Coach Greg Schiano turned some heads two years ago by taking over defensive coordinator duties, but he has turned the unit into a ferocious one. They are ranked tenth in Division I-A with 80.3 rushing yards allowed, and they top all teams with just 8.3 points per game allowed. With their chief foes all relying strongly on running the ball, Rutgers could be dangerous. Rutgers can run, too. Ray Rice and Brian Leonard have put up more than 1,000 yards, and Rice has broken 100 yards in all but one game. Sophomore QB Mike Teel has struggled at times, but his last game against Navy was by far the best of his career and showed signs of real progress. The Knights are 3-1 ATS, and they could continue to present value as they will almost certainly be underdogs in all three of their big remaining games. They are 6-1 in their last seven on the road, which will help when they travel to Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Pittsburgh - For a while it looked like the Dave Wannstedt experiment at Pitt was going to be a disaster, but he has certainly righted the ship. The only blemish on the record was an early loss to Michigan State, but that was the Spartans before their Notre Dame humiliation and their annual meltdown. They are an impressive 5-1 ATS, including easy covers in their last three. They have also gone over in five of their six games against I-A opponents. Quarterback Tyler Palko doesn't get the press of some of the higher profile quarterbacks, but he is as good as any this year. He has 17 touchdowns against just three picks, and he leads the nation in passing efficiency. The Panthers absolutely have to win this weekend to remain relevant, but they are 6.5-point favorites, and they could parlay a victory here into a major national role.