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A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

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The Big East Unveils Its 2011 Look

Gather round for college football’s most beloved annual rite of passage: the Big East’s eight-team fight over the conference’s guaranteed B.C.S. tie-in. I’m not sure if beloved is the right word — perhaps universally maligned would be a better phrase, though that suggests that even those in Big East country are tired of seeing the conference thrown to the wolves in early January. Long story short: the Big East’s 2011 season has been released, giving us an early take on which team might make a Connecticut-like run towards next season’s Fiesta Bowl — or whichever B.C.S. bowl wants the conference champion. Or is stuck with, depending on your point of view.

Easiest non-conference schedule

Connecticut Fordham, Iowa State and Western Michigan at home; Vanderbilt and Buffalo on the road.

No, it’s not Rutgers. Though the Scarlet Knights are close: North Carolina Central, Ohio and Navy at home; North Carolina and Army on the road. The Huskies inherit the ignominious but typically fruitful task of holding the Big East’s weakest non-conference schedule, a pretty fair feat considering how some of its conference brethren approach the month of September. At the very least, this smooth start should allow Connecticut and new coach Paul Pasqualoni a getting-to-know-you period before beginning Big East action.

Toughest non-conference schedule

Pittsburgh Buffalo, Maine, Notre Dame and Utah at home; Iowa on the road.

So what if four of the five games come at home: this is an adult schedule, at least by the Big East’s standards. Some of the lumps Pittsburgh took away from Big East action last fall are rewarded by hosting the Fighting Irish and Utah, both of which defeated the Panthers on the road by a narrow margin in 2010. The trip to Iowa replaces last year’s date with Miami (Fla.) in some regards, though the Panthers hosted the Hurricanes. This is not exactly the type of schedule conducive to early success for first-year coach Todd Graham, even if the former Tulsa coach has proven himself to be a consistent winner.

Easiest road to the B.C.S., schedule-wise

Connecticut South Florida, Syracuse, Louisville and Rutgers at home; West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati on the road.

This category precludes any team with four conference road games, eliminating Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida and West Virginia. That leaves Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Rutgers. So why Connecticut? Syracuse faces Louisville, the Huskies and Pittsburgh away from home; Pittsburgh faces Rutgers, Louisville and West Virginia away from home; Rutgers heads to Syracuse, Louisville and Cincinnati; and the Huskies to West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. So what’s the difference between each team’s threesome? There really isn’t any: the main difference is that Connecticut ends the year with three of its last four at home, while Syracuse closes with three of five on the road and Pittsburgh two of three on the road. Rutgers ends its regular season at Connecticut. Confusing logic, I agree.

Toughest road to the B.C.S., schedule-wise

South Florida Cincinnati, Louisville and West Virginia at home; Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Rutgers and Syracuse on the road.

Vice versa to above: any team with three conference road games isn’t a candidate. So of Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida and West Virginia, who has the most daunting Big East slate? Despite the fact that the Bulls end the year with back-to-back home games, no other Big East team will have a more difficult road schedule. While Connecticut will struggle repeating and Pittsburgh is breaking in a new coach, Syracuse will be a trendy pick to take home the conference title. Rutgers will also be greatly improved, especially on the offensive side of the ball. Not saying that Skip Holtz won’t have U.S.F. playing great football, nor that the Bulls can’t win nine games and the conference outright; on paper, however, the schedule is the hardest in the Big East.

Best weekend of the year

Sept. 22-24 N.C. State at Cincinnati, Connecticut at Buffalo, Notre Dame at Pittsburgh, Ohio at Rutgers, UTEP at South Florida, Toledo at Syracuse and L.S.U. at West Virginia.

Not exactly the most marquee of weekends, but I see three games of interest. N.C. State at Cincinnati will pit a Wolfpack team looking to challenge for the A.C.C. crown against a Cincinnati squad due to make a sizable improvement over last season’s poor finish. Notre Dame travels to play the Panthers, looking to avenge a loss the last time it was in Pittsburgh. And, of course, West Virginia hosts L.S.U. in what may very well be one of the best games of the entire non-conference season, Big East or otherwise. It’s a stretch to say West Virginia will have national title hopes on the line, but L.S.U. sure will.

Best conference weekend of the year

Nov. 25-26 Louisville at South Florida, Pittsburgh at West Virginia, Cincinnati at Syracuse and Rutgers at Connecticut

There’s the Backyard Brawl, a key late-season road game for Louisville and, for Connecticut, perhaps a vital tilt with Rutgers to keep its repeat hopes alive. Then there’s Syracuse, which should view the Cincinnati game as a must-win if it wishes to advance to a B.C.S. game. From top to bottom, a solid weekend — perhaps not a late-November weekend in the SEC, but not too shabby.

Conference game of the year, as of today

Pittsburgh at West Virginia Friday, Nov. 25

This remains the conference’s best rivalry; until a team like Connecticut shows some staying power, this is the Big East’s game of the year. Also under consideration: West Virginia at Syracuse on Oct. 22, Connecticut at West Virginia on Oct. 8, Syracuse at Louisville on Oct. 29, Louisville at West Virginia on Nov. 5 and Syracuse at Pittsburgh on Dec. 3.

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  1. Ezra says:

    it’s sure gonna upset the apple cart to add trips to Fort Worth on half of those teams’ schedules every other year.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    This conference has some potential and many intriguing storylines. It will be interesting to see Holgorsen’s offense next year. Syracuse seems on the road back as does Louisville. A controversial new coach at UConn. Pitt trying to get its act together with a new coach under the “leadership” of Pederson. Rutgers is puzzling and even with seven home games and an eighth at Yankeee Stadium, is this the year they collapse ? Would anyone be shocked if they lost to Army or Navy ? 186 days and counting.

  3. 31southst says:

    Some of the Big East teams should be embarrassed by their schedule. UConn can win 10 games next year and I won’t be convinced they are a top 25 team. I really wish pollsters accounted for schedule to a much greater extent than they currently do.

  4. duston says:

    why can’t we wait to release rankings after week 5?
    that uconn non-conf sched is the biggest pile of manure i’ve ever seen. ever.(that falls right in there with some of texas previous non-conf, rice, florida atl, north tx) welcome back to cfb coach p. unbelievable.

  5. duston says:

    a 5 loss pitt team?i can’t see them beating nd, utah or iowa and you know they’ll blow at least 1 conf game.for me, louisville & w virginia are really at the top of this conf starting the season.

  6. Steve says:

    Louisville is replacing 4/5ths of their o-line and will probably be starting a true frosh at qb. Strong will have his work cut out there.

    Syracuse has to replace its LB core and DTs. If they get production there they have a good shot with 10 returnees on offense.

    I like where USF is headed. I expect them to be in the mix. The way they played down the stretch gives them hope.

    If WV replaces some of their D studs and Holgerson improves that offense, then WV is likely the team to beat. It won’t come easy.

    And Pitt has all those athletes. Graham may a need a year to get everyone on board.

    I don’t give Rutgers or Cincy much of a shot this year. RU has been putrid in the o-line. They got some recruits but you can’t reload overnight. Cincy needs some help on D, I expect they will be improved but will it be enough?

    Another wide-open year in the BE which means another low ranked team repping the conference in the BCS.

    Paul: Wow. Steve just broke down the Big East in about 150 words. Great stuff. And, more than likely, ideas that will be proved correct come this December.

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