The 2009 edition of Phil Steele's annual paean to obsessive minutiae is still a little more than a week away, but at least one of the Obsessed One's patented "surprise teams" has leaked: Rutgers come in at No. 16, and as Steele's favorite to win the Big East. In the Newark Star-Ledger, "beerguy2" sums up the homer reaction from New Jersey:
Rutgers in the top 20 you have got to be kidding. Maybe in the top 20 if there was a womans college football league.
Thank you, beerguy. Gender barriers notwithstanding, the skepticism is understandable: The Knights lost their all-time passing and receiving leaders and their top pass rusher three years running; plan to start a quarterback with all of three college completions; and, if anyone cares about history, has yet to win even a share of a Big East championship in 18 years in the conference. They've finished in the final AP poll once (No. 12 in 2006) in the past 30 years. There's a good chance Steele's will be the only magazine -- or blog, or Web site, or entity of any kind -- that considers RU a potential top-25 outfit, much less a BCS team.
But if not Rutgers, who? ESPN's Brian Bennett has been searching for a Big East favorite for months, with no luck. Elsewhere, it takes about 10 seconds of research to put this "issue" to bed in the other "Big Six" conferences, where there's practically no disagreement whatsoever:
Consensus Preseason Favorites
ACC: Virginia Tech
Big Ten: Ohio State
Big 12: Oklahoma/Texas
Pac-10: Southern Cal
Big East: ???
Many of the absurdly early top-25 polls so far omit the Big East completely; those that don't include maybe one team, and can't decide if it should be Pittsburgh (the slight early favorite, incredibly), West Virginia, South Florida, defending champ Cincinnati or, now that Steele is in the mix, Rutgers. (What, no love for UConn?)
Theoretically, that kind of parity is good; modern sports' greatest monolith, the NFL, is built on the concept of maximum parity. Parity means competition, and competition means interest, and subsequently respect.
This is never the case in reality. Take the ACC last year: The week-in, week-out sniping that left 10 of 12 teams within a game of the conference championship was a basis for mockery, not admiration. The low point for the Big East was 2004, when Boston College, West Virginia, Syracuse and Pitt finished in a four-way tie that sent the Panthers to humiliating slaughter at the hands of Utah in the Fiesta Bowl and opened up a serious debate about the conference's standing as an automatic qualifier for the big-money games.
In that context, West Virginia and Louisville may have saved the league with four top-10 finishes and three BCS bowl wins from 2005-07. But that window has closed; the major architects of those runs -- Rich Rodriguez and Bobby Petrino on the sidelines, Pat White, Steve Slaton and Brian Brohm on the field -- have all moved on to bigger things, and no one was particularly enamored with Cincinnati's ascendency in their place last year. (See Orange Bowl ratings.) The Bearcats finished 17th in the final AP poll, lower than seven other conference champions and the runner-up in the Mountain West.
But even that is higher than almost anyone will be projecting their Big East favorite, whoever it is, this summer. If the early consensus is any indication, either one team will separate itself from the rest and carry the conference banner high, or pundits (maybe even yours truly) will be holding their nose at the end of the year over another weak, disputed champion, a la 2004, and wondering exactly who let this league inside the high-roller's club, again?