The Times’ college football countdown: No. 21 Louisville

Louisville fans need to start mentally packing. Not for another league — although there’s a lot of that going around in the Big East Conference — but for a major bowl.

We understand that no Big East team cracked the top 25 of the USA Today coaches’ preseason poll, and that the conference, operating with an interim commissioner, is crumbling faster than grandma’s oatmeal cookies.

But what’s the problem? For two more seasons, remember, the Bowl Championship Series is what matters. That means no matter how tattered, shattered and broken the Big East might be, its champion is guaranteed a major bowl berth.

Louisville couldn’t have picked a better time to be returning 17 starters.

West Virginia left for the Big 12 and was replaced by Temple. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are playing as lame ducks in advance of their 2013 defections to the Atlantic Coast Conference. And Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That leaves the Big East to Louisville, which won five of its last six Big East games last year and returns sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

Third-year Coach Charlie Strong, former defensive coordinator on Florida’s BCS title teams, was a great hire and may soon get poached by an upper-echelon program.

The nonconference schedule is Kentucky, Missouri State and North Carolina at home before trips to Florida International and Southern Mississippi — not exactly walking over hot coals.

Then, it’s on to conference play.

“We cannot be complacent,” Strong warned at Big East media day. “We cannot start to feel good about ourselves because we were picked to go win this conference.”

The Big East really doesn’t get enough credit for helping to force a playoff in college football. One of the major flaws in the BCS was that major bowl bids went to the champions of six anointed conferences.

They were known in anti-trust talk circles as the “AQs” — automatic qualifiers.

That flaw became a joke after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for the ACC after the turn of the century and the Big East still kept its “auto-bid” status.

In 2004, the year after Miami and Virginia Tech left, three-loss Pittsburgh earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl only to get whacked by non-AQ Utah.

Scramble-mode additions of Louisville and Cincinnati provided some credible Big East champions, including Cincinnati’s 12-0 regular season in 2009. However, two years ago four-loss Connecticut earned a Fiesta Bowl bid and finished 8-5 after losing to Oklahoma.

The thought of Connecticut receiving a major bid at the expense of more worthy schools heightened BCS hatred and helped stoke the push toward a playoff.

In June, university presidents ratified a four-team playoff, to begin after the 2014 season.

The new plan won’t designate “AQ” status for any conference champion. That leaves the Big East two more chances to earnsteal a BCS bid.

The countdown so far: The countdown so far: 25. Notre Dame; 24. Texas Christian; 23. Utah; 22. Kansas State; 21. Louisville.