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Big East earns respect in nonconference play

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett

William & Mary. Richmond. Northern Illinois. Middle Tennessee. Jacksonville State. Northern Iowa. James Madison.

What do all those schools have in common, besides the fact that you probably can't name a single player on their rosters? They all have either beaten or taken to the absolute wire an ACC or Big Ten team this season.

Now here's another list: Penn State. Auburn. Minnesota. North Carolina. Kentucky. You probably know what they have in common. They're the only schools to beat Big East teams this year.

Avoiding bad losses isn't the only thing that makes a conference respectable, not by a long shot. But we present this comparison simply to illustrate that the Big East isn't nearly as down as it was perceived to be coming into 2009.

The league entered the year with no ranked teams and with some people painting major gloom-and-doom portraits of its health. That clearly was off the mark. The Big East is 16-5 against nonconference competition this season, and last weekend it went 6-2 with wins at Oregon State, at Baylor and over Northwestern.

"I think we carried the banner for the Big East quite well nationally," said Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, whose team snapped Oregon State's 26-game nonconference home winning streak with a 28-18 victory in Corvallis, Ore. "Wins in a Big 12 stadium, in a Pac-10 stadium, those are huge.

"We're a conference that continues to develop, and we're a work in progress. We're not touting ourselves to say we're the best BCS conference. But we're a conference that's emerging and getting better each and every week."

The Big East's record could even be a lot better. Connecticut had North Carolina on the ropes two weeks ago, leading 10-0 in the fourth quarter before losing on a late safety. West Virginia and Louisville led at Auburn and at Kentucky, respectively, in the fourth quarters on Saturday, but both made costly turnovers. Syracuse took Minnesota to overtime in Week 1.

Cincinnati is ranked 14th nationally and Pitt is on the verge of the Top 25. The Panthers are 3-0 and beat Navy 27-14 last week. That's the same Navy that had a chance to tie Ohio State on a late two-point conversion in Week 1.

"I would hope people recognize what we're doing, but we don't have much say in that fact other than just to go out and perform," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "And I thought as a conference we did that pretty well this past weekend."

The Big East has a chance for more nonconference BCS wins this week. Pitt is at NC State. South Florida, which will be missing star quarterback Matt Grothe, goes to Florida State. Rutgers is at Maryland. And though it's not a BCS opponent, Louisville will play at defending Sugar Bowl champion Utah. Whether the record is as good as Week 3 remains to be seen, but even a few losses shouldn't knock down the league's perception.

"I think the Big East is beyond on a week-to-week basis having to prove itself," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "That's a little bit ridiculous. That's all behind us. Like any other league, there will be some weeks where the results are positive and other weeks where they are not so positive. But good football is being played in the Big East."

What's missing, obviously, are any marquee wins that the conference can tout. The Big East claims no victories over teams in the current Top 25, though Oregon State was ranked 24th in the coaches' poll last week.

But, unlike in past years, the Big East doesn't appear to have any patsies. Syracuse looks much stronger this year, as its win over Northwestern and performance against Penn State showed. Louisville played much better than most expected at Kentucky. Top to bottom, this may be the most balanced league in the country.

"We'll let other people figure out what that means," Kelly said. "But it is clearly a good step in the right direction for our conference."