As has been acknowledged many time on this site, the 2010 college football season was the low water mark for Big East football. The conference as a whole struggled, culminating in it sending an 8-4 team as its BCS representative to the Fiesta Bowl. In 2010, the Big East struggled with teams from both automatic qualifying and non-automatic qualifying conferences. For example, Rutgers lost at home to Tulane. Louisville beat FCS Eastern Kentucky by just ten points. Cincinnati lost on the road to Fresno State. Pittsburgh lost at Utah. Even the eventual champion UConn lost to Temple. Overall, the Big East finished 24-16 in non-conference games.
Things should improve for the Big East against the non-AQ conferences in 2011. All of the league's teams match up well against their non-AQ opponents, and there are fewer of the traditionally better non-AQ teams on the schedule this season. The Big East plays 24 games against non-AQ teams in 2011, here's a look at some of the best games foes and how the Big East can expect to do. Because the FCS games are all mismatches, we'll list them but not consider them in the various breakdowns.
- Conference USA (4) - Louisville vs. Marshall, USF vs. UTEP, Syracuse at Tulane, West Virginia vs. Marshall.
- Sun Belt (1)- Louisville vs. FIU
- Independent (2) - Rutgers vs. Navy, Rutgers at Army (in the new Yankee Stadium)
- MAC (9) - Cincinnati vs. Akron, Cincinnati at MIami (OH), UConn at Buffalo, UConn vs. Western Michigan, Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo, Rutgers vs. Ohio, USF vs. Ball State, Syracuse vs. Toledo, West Virginia vs. Bowling Green.
- FCS (8) - Cincinnati vs. Austin Peay, UConn vs. Fordham, Louisville vs. Murray State, Pittsburgh vs. Maine, Rutgers vs. UNC Central, USF vs. FAMU, Syracuse vs. Rhode Island, West Virginia vs. Norfolk State.
The Best Game - FIU at Louisville - Tempted to put Marshall at West Virginia here simply for the rivalry aspect, but, there's just no way that game is going to be competitive. You can bet that West Virginia is going to want to make a statement after last year's near meltdown in Huntington. This is the best game of the year against a non-AQ team because it should be a really fun game to watch and has real upset potential. FIU returns 15 starters from last year's team that was better than its 7-6 record indicates. The Panthers lost by five at Rutgers in the opening weekend, lost by seven at Texas A&M, and outgained Maryland before being done in by turnovers and lost by 14. This is a very good football team led by a tough defense and senior quarterback Wesley Carroll. It's a Friday night game and there's the possibility that Louisville will be looking ahead to the following week's game at rival Kentucky. Louisville will still be breaking in a slew of new players on the offensive side of the ball and FIU's quick but undersized defensive line could give the new Louisville offensive line some fits.
The Worst Game - Bowling Green at West Virginia - While I expect the Marshall game to get ugly, I expect the Bowling Green game to be much, much worse. The Falcons return seven starters from last year's defense, but, the 2010 defense was downright dreadful against the more skilled, spread offenses. The very offense West Virginia will be running at them in 2011. The Falcons gave up over 500 yards to Tulsa last year and over 700 yards of total offense to Michigan in a game where Denard Robinson hardly played. West Virginia will either be as high as a kite after knocking off LSU, or will be looking for a rebound game and Bowling Green will be just want Dr. Holgorsen ordered.
Sneaky Tough Game - Rutgers at Army - This game will be interesting to watch because it's a rematch of the emotional game where Eric LeGrand was tragically injured, and it was a very competitive game in 2010. This year they'll meet in the new Yankee Stadium and it should be a real measuring stick for Rutgers. In 2010, Army outgained Rutgers by 150 yards but was doomed by turnovers. This year the team's leading receivers, rushers, and quarterback Trent Steelman are back to run the option attack again. For Rutgers, they figure to be a bit more effective offensively than last year when they were still trying to make it work with Tom Savage at quarterback. The weakest spot on the team, however, is along the defensive line and that's bad new against a triple option team like Army. The game fall between home games against USF and Cincinnati, so there's always the letdown/look ahead factor for Rutgers as well. We think Rutgers will win, but this one will be tougher than one might expect.
Best Case Scenario - The best case scenario for the Big East is that it runs the non-AQ table and goes 24-0.
Worst Case Scenario - Worst case for the Big East is that FIU takes the wind out of an up and coming Louisville team in week two, Army and/or Navy upset Rutgers due to their unique offenses, and a MAC team pulls an unforeseen upset such as last year's champion Miami (OH) beating Cincinnati. Most of these seem unlikely, but we'll still call the worst case scenario 20-4.
Realistically - We're convinced that the Big East will be better than it has been the past two seasons. That being the case, 22-2 against the non-AQ schools makes room for the possible upset or two, but still reflects our expectation of overall improvement in 2011.