The official Big East Football Preview arrived in the mail recently, and not only is it chock full of informational items concerning each team and the league, it's also much more up to date and on target than the preview efforts of other mags and rags that will pop up on shelves later this summer.
I say this not in an effort to curry favor with the league, although I'm sure the more cynical among you are already thinking just that. And I certainly recognize that the league spins the facts mightily (for example, the note that eight Big East teams have played for a claim to the national championship in the past 16 years fails to observe that the vast majority of those appearances are owned by two schools that are no longer in the league). But that's to be expected, isn't it? There needs to be some counter to all the Big East bashing that's occurred over the past two years, even though it has lessened some over the past nine months as the mainstream media, displaying the attention span of a three-year old, moves on to the next hot topic.
But we're not here to discuss that. Rather, I'm here to share some of the more interesting items and bits of information in the guide. Some of them you have probably heard already, being the dedicated fans that you are. Some might have slipped past your radar. And some are observations of my own. So, let's start leafing through the pages!
The 2006 West Virginia – Louisville game was the most-viewed Thursday night game ever on ESPN, and was the second most-viewed game ever on ESPN for any date. Given some of the titanic SEC clashes that dominate Saturday night on the mothership that is ESPN, that's pretty impressive.
But that's not all. The WVU-UConn game was the most viewed regular season Friday night game ever, and the Louisville-Rutgers game was the fourth most-viewed game ever. Granted, the fact that these were the only games with national distribution on those nights helped the numbers, but it's also telling that the Big East is beginning to dominate the charts. And yes, I know that the weeknight games don't feature the SEC, or the Big Ten, but maybe once those schools see the numbers and the exposure the Big East is getting, they just might change their tunes about playing on days other than Saturday.
The back cover of the guide features a star player from each school. In West Virginia's case, it's a duo as you might expect – Patrick White and Steve Slaton. That's no surprise, but it did give me cause to think – how good would West Virginia be if it only had one of these players? This era will be defined by Slaton and White, or White and Slaton if you prefer. They will be forever joined in Mountaineer football history – perhaps more so than any other duo.
The league is contracted with ESPN to televise its games through 2013. ESPN Regional Television holds the rights for all games not assigned to ABC or ESPN. So long as the Mountaineers keep winning, they will likely have nine or ten games per year on the tube.
With deals for six bowl games in place for the next couple of seasons (BCS, Gator/Sun, Meineke, Texas, International and PapaJohns.com), it's not likely any qualifying team will be shorted from a bowl bid. The howls of protest over the Meineke Car Care Bowl's one-year deviation to invite Navy have also pretty much died out. The Big East likely built up some goodwill with the bowl by not raising any sort of fuss over that call. The game in Charlotte is a nice location to have, given that its near the heart of ACC country and puts the Big East, which doesn't have a school nearby, into the spotlight for a bit. Which leads us to…
…the Big East's 5-0 record in bowls last year. Certainly the league is proud of that achievement, as it trumpets it in multiple locations in the guide. The front cover features shots of all five teams or coaches with their bowl trophies, as well as an inset of the ESPN Challenge Cup, awarded to the team with the best bowl record.
Before we go any further, yes, I am aware of the arguments that the Big East's bowl opposition wasn't as tough as that of some other leagues. But that, in the short term, isn't the fault of those teams. They can only play who they are matched up against. This isn't PlayStation.
In the long term, of course, the Big East can work toward getting better bowl matchups by scheduling and winning games against tougher foes. The winning part is already being achieved. League teams went 14-7 against teams from other BCS leagues, and were 37-8 overall in out of conference games. However, the quality of those foes can be questioned, and that criticism will be valid again this year. The chances for what I'd consider to be quality wins are limited to a handful of contests. Cincinnati hosts Oregon State, Connecticut and Pitt play at Virginia (and that's marginal at best), Louisville faces Kentucky and North Carolina State (again, both shaky), Pitt plays Michigan State, Rutgers and WVU take on Maryland, and South Florida faces Auburn and North Carolina (yet another of questionable quality). Syracuse is the only team to have a fully representative out of conference schedule, as it faces Washington, Iowa and Illinois. And even those schools have underachieved over the past few years. Throw in West Virginia's games against Mississippi State (the worst program in the SEC), and that's it.
In order to ditch some of the criticism, the Big East needs to win at least ten of those 14 games, if not more. For now, I'll cut this discussion short, but there are more thoughts to come this summer about scheduling, overscheduling and the like. It's not a simple matter to beef up the schedule, nor is it a desirable one for all parties concerned.
On a page dedicated to the instant replay rule, two statements stand out. The first:
"The replay system will not guarantee that all officiating mistakes are corrected."
Wow – that's a cover your heiney statement if I've ever seen one!
The second, under the types of plays that can be reviewed:
"Forward progress with respect to first down"
Wouldn't all plays with forward progress be "in respect to a first down"? I'm taking this to mean that any play can be reviewed to determine where the ball should be spotted. After all, the spot of a ball on third down could determine whether a team goes for a conversion on fourth down or not. Or perhaps I'm overanalyzing.
Strangely enough, replay cannot be used to determine the participants in a fight, which could be used to make ejections. So even if it had been around in 1993, Marvin Graves and half of the Syracuse bench, including an assistant coach, would have remained in the game.
What do all these rules add up to? Last year, there were 52 games using the Big East replay system. In those games, 94 stoppages occurred for review, but only 14 of those were the result of a coach's challenge. And of the 94, only 19 calls were overturned. That's either a mark of good officiating, or a reluctance on the part of reviewers to overturn the guys on the field. You make the call.
Slaton and Rutgers' Ray Rice are tied with 15 career 100-yard rushing games. That should be an interesting battle to watch this year. Rice will be playing without rampaging Brian Leonard in front of him as a blocker, but Slaton's numbers can be affected by the loss of carries to Patrick White. The argument can be made, of course, that they are helped as well.
Rice also tied Avon Cobourne's Big East record of 335 carries in a season. The bet is that record gets demolished this year. So too, could the Big East rushing record of 1,794 yards, set by Rice a year ago. Slaton trailed him by just 50 in 2006, and certainly has designs on taking that record for his own.