The College Football Notebook

September 20, 2009 8:26 PM

Conference Analysis: Part I

At the start of the season, when previewing the Pac-10, I wrote that USC’s conference schedule was soft enough that clearing it unbeaten was a fair minimum requirement for reaching the national championship game, even if teams from the Big 12 & SEC got a little more forgiveness. With the Trojans' shocking loss up in Seattle, it’s time to subject that opinion to judgment. We’ve got three weeks of games on the books now, almost all of them non-conference, and I would not make that same claim today. And now is the time for the voters who will decide on the championship game participants to start finalizing their own judgments on conference strength.

The bulk of games the rest of the way are going to be conference games. Often, as a season progresses through October, you’ll read and hear media pundits talk about how one conference is rising and another is falling. I wonder how that can be possible when they’re playing amongst their own. A conference can be top-heavy and give the illusion of a few great teams, when it’s really the result of a soft middle class. Or it can give the illusion of mediocrity when it’s actually balanced. The only fair measurement whether a league is good or bad is what happens beyond its boundaries. The optimum time for measuring that is the bowl games. But the system in place requires that we pick #1 and #2, as well as rank teams for the sake of at-large major bowl berths, based on the games played prior to that.

So for this week’s recap, we’re going to look at each conference’s body of work and see how they stack up. One thing that should come quickly apparent is just how inadequate a sample size this really is to work with. There’s not a lot of games among comparable opponents. But flawed or not, it’s all we’ve got to go on. With renewed focus on USC’s possibilities as a one-loss champion, we’ll look at the Pac-10, Big East and ACC today and come back with the rest of the BCS tomorrow.

Notable Wins: USC-Ohio State; Cal-Maryland; Cal-Minnesota; Oregon-Purdue; Oregon-Utah; UCLA-Tennessee
Notable Losses: Oregon-Boise State; Oregon State-Cincinnati; Stanford-Wake Forest; Arizona-Iowa; Washington-LSU.
Comments: Small sample size or not, this is a very impressive body of work. The two juiciest wins, USC over Ohio State and UCLA over Tennessee took place on the road and between comparable opponents. You had the best of the Pac-10 face the best of the Big Ten, and teams from the Pac-10 & SEC’s middle ranks. Cal beating Maryland might not belong on the list, given the Terps’ loss to Middle Tennessee State on Saturday, but remember that Maryland had a similar poor start last year and still made a bowl game. Oregon upended everyone’s favorite midmajor power in Utah

Even the losses aren’t too bad. Stanford flew cross-country to play Wake Forest. Oregon State ranks much lower in the Pac-10 than Cincy does in the Big East. Washington’s close loss to LSU showed people that even the bad teams in the Pac-10 aren’t that bad, a lesson that was driven home to USC. And Arizona-Iowa is another case of the Pac-10 going on the road with a team that ranks lower in their league than Iowa does in the Big Ten. The few games remaining are highlighted by Notre Dame—the Irish not only play Southern Cal, but Washington and Washington State.

Bottom line? USC deserves championship consideration if they get to 11-1 and there is not more than one unbeaten team to choose from. And the Pac-10 should go to the head of the list of leagues vying for an additional bid to the BCS, something they have not had since 2002.

Big East
Notable Wins: Cincinnati-Oregon State; West Virginia-East Carolina; Pitt-Navy; UConn-Baylor; Syracuse-Northwestern
Notable Losses: UConn-North Carolina; Louisville-Kentucky; Syracuse-Minnesota; West Virginia-Auburn.
Comments: Including UConn-Baylor in the list of wins might seem a stretch, but remember that the Bears did beat Wake Forest on the road, so UConn’s win deserves to be seen in that light. Syracuse’s resurgence is something that speaks well to conference depth. The Orangemen almost beat Minnesota and did take out Northwestern, both teams that went to bowl games a year ago and were expected to do so again in ’09. If Syracuse is respectable that means a team like Cincinnati that might potentially run the table loses its one automatic win on the schedule. West Virginia’s win over East Carolina and Pitt’s win over Navy deserve respect, but are more noteworthy for what they didn’t prove. They didn’t show the upper echelon of the Big East as being worse than the midmajors, and that’s not something that was a sure thing.

This is another league that’s outperformed expectations. There’s no way a one-loss Big East team has any hope for a national title and nor should they. But this league is strong enough that an unbeaten team deserves to get the nod over a one-loss team from one of the other BCS conferences. As for an at-large to the BCS? That might be pushing it.

The Big East has only eight teams, so they’ll still play non-conference games next week. And it’s a pretty big week for the league. You’ve got Cincinnati hosting Fresno State, Pitt visiting N.C. State, Florida State hosts South Florida and Louisville goes to Utah. So this is one league where we still need to get a few more votes in before calling the election.

Notable Wins: Virginia Tech-Nebraska; Florida State-BYU; North Carolina-UConn; North Carolina-East Carolina; Wake Forest-Stanford;
Notable Losses: Virginia Tech-Alabama; South Carolina-N.C. State; Wake Forest-Baylor; Virginia-William & Mary; Virginia-TCU; Duke-Richmond
Comments: This was a league heading for complete disaster until this past Saturday saw their powers stand up and be counted. Virginia Tech got a win the league had to have when they nipped Nebraska at home. And Florida State really caught everyone’s attention with its thrashing of BYU in Provo. That can’t make up for the wipeout that was the first two weeks, particularly the losses by Virginia & Duke to I-AA opponents. North Carolina beating UConn by two points might not be all that impressive if it turns out that Carolina is the best in the ACC and the Huskies no better than fifth or sixth in the Big East.

So as of now essentially we have a league having a bad year, but that avoided having a horrible one. Going unbeaten is an absolute bare minimum to being considered for the national title game and even that should pend further investigation into the individual team and who they may have played. But there are more chances for redemption, starting with N.C. State’s game against Pitt this Saturday, and then pointing to the Oklahoma-Miami showdown on October 3.

See you tomorrow with a look at the Big Ten, Big 12 & SEC.

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