Breaking down the Big East schedules ...
No BCS conference has fewer league football games than the Big East, requiring each school to come up with five nonconference games each season. Because of that, you can tell a lot about a Big East school by the way it chooses those games -- some seem hand-picked for wins and bowl eligibility, others for greater national credibility.
Before we get to ranking the nonconference schedules, I want to address the league as a whole. All but one league team scheduled a I-AA opponent -- Pittsburgh is the exception -- and there's a wide contrast in the number of home games. Louisville and Rutgers each have four home nonconference games -- Louisville has a league-high eight home games total, with Rutgers and West Virginia just behind at seven. USF and Cincinnati have just two nonconference games, but each offset that by having four home Big East games in the league's unbalanced schedule.
Which conferences will the Big East face most? There are 14 games against BCS-conference teams, with five against the Big 12, four against the ACC, three against the Big 10 and two against the SEC. There are five games against independents, with two games at Notre Dame, two against Navy and one against Army. And of the non-BCS leagues, most of the 14 games are against the Mid-American (six) and Conference USA (five), with two games against the Sun Belt and one against the Western Athletic Conference.
In ranking the schools' nonconference slates, I took several criteria into consideration -- the combined 2007 record of their I-A opponents, the Sagarin ratings of those teams and the home/road balance. We'll start with the weakest and build up to the toughest schedules.
8. Rutgers (24-26; 1 BCS, 2 ind., 1 non-BCS): Perhaps the most underwhelming schedule in the league: Fresno, North Carolina and Army at home, with a trip to Navy. None of the opponents had a Sagarin rating higher than 60th nationally, and none received any votes in last year's final AP poll. UNC should be tougher than their 4-8 record last year, potentially reversing that mark, but besides the Heels, there's not really a quality win to be found, especially with coach Paul Johnson gone from Navy.
7. Louisville (25-25, 2 BCS, 2 non-BCS): Again, four home games, and the toughest -- the opener against Kentucky -- won't be as tough as the Wildcats work in a new quarterback. Getting Kansas State at home isn't bad, but the lone road game is at Memphis, which had a Sagarin rating of 124 last year. Again, come December, these five are good for at least four wins, but none of them will say much.
6. Connecticut (20-29; 3 BCS, 1 non-BCS): Give the Huskies credit for scheduling three games against BCS conference opponents -- Syracuse is really the only other team that can boast that. North Carolina could win up being a significant game, and Virginia went 9-4 last year but was picked to finish fifth (ahead of Duke) in its six-team division in the ACC preseason poll. Baylor went 0-8 in the Big 12 last year, so a home win there says you can beat a bad BCS team.
5. Pittsburgh (30-32; 2 BCS, 2 non-BCS): It's a safe bet that Pittsburgh will be ranked when they come to Tampa for USF's Big East opener on Thursday, Oct. 2. Having said that, the Panthers might not have shown much. None of their five nonconference opponents had a Sagarin higher than 74 last year, and that's Navy, which shouldn't be as good this fall. Notre Dame on the road in November could be an impressive win, but nothing before the USF game will say much -- Bowling Green, Buffalo, then a middling Iowa team at home. All this tells me the USF game will be huge for Pittsburgh, either validating them nationally or exposing them as not much better than last season.
4. Cincinnati (26-27, 1 BCS, 3 non-BCS): Don't get me wrong -- the Bearcats' game at Oklahoma represents the single-toughest game on a Big East schedule this year. But that's it for Cincy, which flanks those games with three sub-.500 non-BCS games: Miami (Ohio) at home and trips to Akron and Marshall. They deserve points for three road games, but the Zips and Herd aren't anything but potentially telling losses. Take away Oklahoma and none of Cincy's other four opponents has a Sagarin rating higher than 116, and remember there are only 119 I-A schools. Likely working in a new quarterback, it's not a bad strategy, but it won't help them here.
3. Syracuse (22-27; 3 BCS, 1 non-BCS): Getting Penn State and a trip to Notre Dame is an impressive 1-2, and Notre Dame might not be bad by late November when the Orange come to town. Open with losses to Northwestern and Akron -- then Penn State -- and Greg Robinson will be on thin ice. The Orange open Big East play with Pittsburgh and West Virginia and could come to Tampa a 1-5 team trying to save a coach's job with a big upset.
2. South Florida (28-23; 2 BCS, 2 non-BCS): You could make a case for the Bulls having the league's toughest schedule -- the entire conference has just three nonconference games against teams that won 10 or games in 2007, and USF has two of them ... in a span of six days. The Kansas game on Sept. 12 is huge -- the only other game besides Cincy-Oklahoma that might trump it is West Virginia-Auburn. Florida International, one game removed from a 23-game losing streak, is as weak a I-A opponent as you'll find (no disrespect to Temple), but the Bulls will open FIU's new stadium and got a scare from FIU two years ago, so that game is a little more than the record would show. USF's opponents' record is the toughest in the league, and the N.C. State game, on the road just five days before the Pitt game, has "trap game" written all over it if the Bulls aren't careful.
1. West Virginia (26-25, 2 BCS, 2 non-BCS): The Auburn game is in late October, which will pop out more because most teams are in conference play that time of year. There are September road games at East Carolina and Colorado -- comparable to UCF and N.C. State for USF -- then the rivalry game with Marshall, one week before the Big East opener against Rutgers. Even the I-AA patsy is comparably tough, as Villanova somehow finished with a Sagarin of 93, which is higher than 12 I-A opponents on Big East schedules this fall. Again, it's a photo finish with USF and West Virginia's schedules, both tough with a single national game that would really impress the pollsters.
Thoughts? Comments? The Big East preseason media gathering is now just four days off -- Tuesday in Rhode Island -- so we'll have a lot of league notes in the next week or so ...