Some things we thought we knew about the Big East, it turns out, we really did know - West Virginia good, Syracuse bad - but largely, events conspired in typical fashion to cast the summer scribes as a lot of fools. From the preseason consensus of 18 publications at Stassen.com, from most underrated to most overrated:
Big East Preseason Consensus vs. Eventual Reality
||Gold Sheet (5th)
||Three 8th Place Picks
||Nine 5th Place Picks
||Gold Sheet (7th)
||P.Steele, J.Feist (3rd)
||SureFire, CFN (5th)
||Seven 5th Place Votes
||Thirteen 8th Place Picks
||Five 7th Place Picks
||Sixteen 1st Place Picks
||J. Feist, SportsForm (2nd)
||P.Steele, J.Feist (4th)
||Athlon, USAT (2nd)
||Athlon, USAT (3rd)
||Six 1st Place Picks
I like that even the teams the prognosticenti pegged exactly right in the summer were party to a pair of the most shocking outcomes in a season defined mainly by shocking outcomes across the country. Anyone could predict West Virginia would dominate the league, Pittsburgh would prove mediocre and Syracuse would be alone again, naturally, in the cellar, and so they did. More challenging would have been the forecaster able to peg the Orange's upset at Louisville in September, which briefly stood (prior to Stanford's win over USC) as the greatest point-spread upset in history, or Pittsburgh's sabotaging the Mountaineers' mythical championship destiny in Morgantown to reach its expected potential.
Speaking of which, my early August assessment of the showdown of the year nationally, Louisville at West Virginia:
Therefore, much as I like Rutgers, it's impossible to forecast the Big East without making a head-to-head decision between West Virginia and Louisville, a game that this year will match LSU-Florida, Oklahoma-Texas and Michigan-Wisconsin for intrigue and probably surpass all of them for direct impact on the mythical championship. It may be as close as we come to a 1-2 matchup in the regular season, and if you asked me today to sacrifice my firstborn to the gods for any game this fall, West Virginia-Louisville is probably my pick.
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Next to the dramatic collision of mettle that was LSU-Florida in early October, that edict would have made me one sad, infanticidal viewer - Louisville limped in at 5-4 with four losses in its last six games and a defense so depleted and shaken I didn't even deem the mismatch worth watching. Despite the close finish (Pat White bolted for the winning touchdown from 50 yards out with a few seconds to play), the only impact the game had was to keep West Virginia's conference and national ambitions intact.
I will say I was gloriously right in July about my opinion that South Florida and Cincinnati looked like equals despite the Bulls' appearance in several top 25 polls and the unanimous opinion in the magazines that USF would finish higher in the conference:
I'm not trying to suggest the Bearcats are
better than South Florida, though they did wallop the Bulls 23-6 last year in Cincinnati, or that they'll necessarily finish ahead of USF or even beat them again in Tampa in November. In a league this jammed from the top down, somebody has to finish fifth, or, with Pittsburgh in the mix, sixth, and it could easily be Cincinnati. The USF love would make more sense if it had some history behind it. But both Cincy and USF are tradition-poor C-USA refugees from large metro areas with a similar track record of fringe success for most of this decade. Relative to the Big East's Big Three last year, both stunned a cruising giant - South Florida ostentatiously sunk West Virginia's BCS ship, a week after Cincinnati buried Rutgers' undefeated season beneath a four-touchdown A-bomb - and came close against another (USF against Rutgers, a two-point home loss, and UC in a six-point defeat at Louisville). Both teams finished strong in November and won never-before-seen December bowl games in far-away places like Toronto and Birmingham. If South Florida had played Ohio State and Virginia Tech in back-to-back weeks in September, as the Bearcats did, instead of Florida International and Central Florida, the overall records would be the same, too.
So why such unanimity, and such large disparities between the projected fates of two teams that look so equal? Why zero buzz about the Bearcats' returning talent?
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Who loved ya, baby, to a cautiously reasonable extent?
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Cincinnati beat USF on the road, won ten games for the first time since 1951 and finished - ahem - in a tie with the Bulls behind West Virginia and UConn, which was significantly more equal than even I was expecting. By upsetting Auburn and West Virginia early, South Florida did defy my prediction
that it would only match 2006's eight-win breakthrough, not exceed it, but only by a game. In the end, USF and Cincy were only a few spots away from one another in my final poll
or any of the mainstream versions
, all of which (except mine) had the Bearcats in front.
Re: Rutgers, and my aforementioned expectations for RU, I found the Knights to be somewhat flukey opportunists in their run to eleven wins in 2006, but guessed they'd roughly equal that success, with or without the breaks, because of some core strengths and key improvements:
In Rutgers' case, I think the Kinghts are going to be very good again because they've shown they can run consistently and rush the passer and Mike Teel demonstrated tangible improvement once a viable receiving threat (Kenny Britt) entered the lineup over the second half of the season. They're good, and shouldn't have to overcome down-to-down disadvantages by unlikely means.
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Final tally: 8-5, three full games worse than the previous near-dream season. Teal threw for far more yards but didn't improve his efficiency against good teams and the run defense took a nosedive, taking the Knights' encore shot at the elite with it.
And UConn, well, nobody was right about UConn, or reasonably could have been. Next year, despite the Huskies' skin-of-our-teeth routine, will be a different story.