(AP photo)

Usually I do a breakdown of Rutgers games after they occur, but there was a trend in the overall Big East conference this weekend that was too striking to ignore. For the last couple years fans of Big East football teams have been defending the conference from what were seen as unjust attacks from elitist fans, attacks spurred on by the long gone 2004 season. The results from 2006 seemed to prove this point, with three conference teams finishing ranked 12th in the nation or better, and Louisville winning the Orange Bowl. Hopes were understandably high heading into the 2007 season, with three teams (Louisville, West Virginia, and Rutgers) on the national radar, and another (South Florida) not far behind. Then a funny thing happened…several of these teams started to suck.

Louisville started earlier than most. In just their second game of the season, they struggled to beat what should have been a far inferior Middle Tennessee team, winding up with a 58-42 win. Things started to unravel the next week, with a 40-34 loss to Kentucky. Kentucky has proven to be a very good team this year, but Louisville was favored to win. The wheels totally came off the following week with a 38-35 home loss to a Syracuse team that had to that point looked like one of the nation’s worst. While their most recent game, a 29-10 win over North Carolina State, appears to have righted the ship somewhat, the damage has more than been done, with the team nowhere close to being ranked in the top 25 nationally, after beginning the year in the top 10.

Then, there was the big showdown on Friday night when then-#18 South Florida took on then-#5 West Virginia in Tampa. This was the conference’s chance to showcase what it had, that Louisville’s collapse didn’t spell doom and that contrary to popular belief, there was plenty of good football to go around. Then the game started. It was an ugly affair, with 10 total turnovers: 6 by West Virginia, 4 by South Florida. It should come as no surprise that West Virginia, with the -2 turnover margin, came out with the loss. However, neither team really played too well. West Virginia backup QB Jarrett Brown, filling in for the injured Pat White, made some brilliant plays and huge mistakes. West Virginia dominated in yards gained – 437 to USF’s 274. However, their costly errors prevented them from getting the ball into the end zone, which they managed to do just once all game. Someone had to win this game, and in the end, it was USF, but the Big East came out looking no better for it – especially since WVU had been the conference’s top-ranked team.

With the subpar showing of both teams Saturday, it looked like Rutgers had the chance to be one of the only saving graces for the conference, with a game against Maryland. Then, that game started. Rutgers lost 34-24 and if anything, deserved to lose by more. They were thoroughly outplayed for the vast majority of the game. They were outgained 458-392, and 146 of those came in a two-minute span at the end of the second quarter that built a short-lived 17-14 halftime lead. RU turned the ball over three times; Maryland didn’t give it away once. RU’s penalty situation actually improved from the first three games – they were flagged five times for 44 yards. However, when you go 3-13 on third down and your opponent is able to both run (Maryland rushed 59 times for 239 yards) and pass (their two quarterbacks combined to go 18-28 for 219 yards) effectively while holding a 36:57-23:03 time of possession advantage, you’re in for a long day. Rutgers certainly was, and the Big East is none the better for it.

USF’s win over Auburn was nice, and was the reason they were able to climb into the top 25 in the first place. Now, they’re sitting at #6. Had Rutgers beaten Maryland, they’d likely be right around that spot, with all the upsets that happened over the weekend; alas, they didn’t and now they’re sitting at #21. Next up for RU is one of the Big East teams to truly exceed expectations so far, Cincinnati. They’re currently ranked #20, and their best win to date (a 34-3 pummeling of Oregon State) is a better win than anything Rutgers has to offer so far. With a win over RU, they would truly announce themselves as a force in the conference this year. If RU wins, the conference race will be incredibly wide open. Actually, it’s so early in conference play that it’ll be wide open no matter what happens. The bottom line is that the Big East needs strong performances all around. The conference really does have a lot of talent, but it has not lived up to the billing thus far. With many more weekends like this last one, not only will it be called irrelevant by the college football establishment, but this time the establishment would actually be right.