Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

September 30, 2010

Big East in downturn with no ranked teams

CHARLESTON — Bad times have returned to the Big East.

After the first month of the 2010 season, there are no ranked teams, no marquee wins.

Big East schools are just 15-13 against non-conference opponents — the worst record among the six BCS conferences — and the league fell to 1-10 against upper-echelon foes after an 0-4 week.

The smallest of the BCS conferences is in its worst early-season slump in five years.

“The games haven’t gone our way and we’re obviously not happy about that,” Big East commissioner John Marinatto told The Associated Press.

Five of those losses to BCS opponents were by double digits. That lone win? West Virginia beat Maryland 31-17 two weeks ago.

But the Mountaineers’ 20-14 loss at LSU on Saturday more than just knocked them out of the Top 25. It also marked the first time since the 2009 preseason poll that no Big East teams were ranked, and the first time it’s happened in the regular season since Oct. 15, 1995.

“I will just say first of all, it’s early,” Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. “I would just ask everyone, let’s wait and see where things are two months from now, come December. It has been a slow start. There’s no question about that. Everybody’s got their reasons. But I think it’s early in the season and there’s a lot of football left to be played.”

At this rate, they’ll need every win they can get to fill the league’s allotment of six bowl games. And they may even have a representative qualify with a losing record, as the NCAA reconsiders its bowl eligibility rules.

Only half of the Big East’s eight teams have winning records, with West Virginia and Syracuse leading the way at 3-1. The Orange are off to their best start in seven seasons, but two of the wins were against FCS teams.

Pittsburgh is in its worst start since 2005 and Cincinnati, the two-time defending league champion, is off to its worst since 2006.

Some teams point to younger rosters. Some coaches point to tougher non-conference scheduling. And some are still waiting for consistent performances out of their go-to players.

Take Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis as an example. He piled up 1,799 rushing yards last year, but has just 143 yards in three games this season. What’s more, the Panthers allowed five sacks and nine tackles for losses in a 31-3 blowout home defeat to Miami.

“We’re just not real efficient right now in some areas,” Wannstedt said. “Until we get a lot better in those particular areas, when we play teams like the Miamis, we’re going to have a tough time.”

But this goes beyond Pitt. There were massive holes, after all, created in Connecticut’s defensive line for Michigan star Denard Robinson in the Wolverines’ 30-10 win. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros, who was brilliant as a part timer last season, has taken a beating, game in and game out. And Rutgers gave North Carolina, a program decimated by suspensions, its first win of the year: a 17-13 decision in Piscataway, N.J.

In some ways, Big East teams are beating themselves. Many are near the bottom of the FBS in turnover margin, penalties and third-down conversions.

Connecticut leads the conference in total offense at 394 yards per game but is just 53rd in the FBS.

One blogger tongue-in-cheekly suggested that instead of the conference inviting FCS member Villanova into the league, the Big East should change affiliation to the FCS.

But some players could care less how the conference is viewed.

“At the end of the season, you’ve got wins and losses and nobody says, oh, that win was from this conference, and that was from that conference,” said UConn senior guard Zach Hurd. “We’re just trying to get the wins and if you get enough, everything else takes care of itself.”

Many Big East teams have been unable to consistently replace the talent lost to the NFL. Eighteen Big East players were chosen in this year’s draft, including all four early entries. And blue-chip prospects looking for a dominant league to play in have seen Cincinnati get squashed in a BCS bowl game the last two years.

First-year Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who also was an assistant coach at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez, doesn’t see a talent difference between the Big East and other BCS conferences. Rather, he and Marinatto point to the league’s aggressive scheduling.

Big East teams must play five non-conference games every year and getting home games against teams from other BCS conferences is a coup. Seven of the 11 games against such foes so far this season were on the road.

“We’ve obviously encouraged our schools to schedule up,” Marinatto said. “We’ve been competitive for the most part in those games and if for a bounce of the ball one way or the other, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

Even games against lower-tier opponents were no guaranteed wins.

Ask Cincinnati about Fresno State, a 28-14 Bulldogs win. Ask Connecticut about Temple, a 30-16 Owls win.

“We lost a lot of seniors last year,” Connecticut coach Randy Edsall said. “We just don’t have maybe as much experience as we had. So far this year it’s just been a situation where (Big East teams) haven’t fared as well. And that’s the first time this has happened in probably some time.”

He’s referring to 2005, the first season after Miami and Virginia Tech left for the ACC. The Big East went 19-13 in non-conference play during that regular season. But West Virginia squashed that criticism by beating Georgia 38-35 in the Sugar Bowl and earning a Top 10 finish.

The Big East was great in non-conference play the next four years, and the Mountaineers beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl following the 2007 season.

But few remember the past. It’s what they’ve done lately. And lately, it’s been a disaster.

Cincinnati, which gave up just 15 sacks in the 2009 regular season, got shoved around by Florida in the Sugar Bowl and has already allowed 18 sacks this season. The Bearcats now have just 12 players on offense and defense who played in the Sugar Bowl.

“We’re going through a phase,” Jones said. “We’re very youthful right now.”

The league gets another chance to improve its dismal showing with five non-conference matchups this week. The only one against a BCS foe is Vanderbilt at Connecticut.

“I think we need a win for ourselves,” Edsall said. “I think we need a win for the Big East. All of us always feel that way.”

Maybe the fortunes will turn around when it comes time to hand out bowl invitations.

“I think two months from now,” Wannstedt said, “we’ll be not surprised, but we’ll be well represented.”

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