August 03, 2009
Introducing Big East Week.
Mike Tranghese -- the only commissioner the Big East has ever known, who was at one point the nascent conference's only employee -- retired last month on top, largely for cobbling together one beast of a basketball league. But he was triumphant in football, too, if for no other reason than the Big East is still here: Five years after the ACC poached its only heavy gridiron hitters, Miami and Virginia Tech, the Big East hasn't collapsed and hasn't fallen from the ranks of the "Big Six" elite.
Far from it, actually: Between 2005-07, the Big East champion won three straight BCS games to secure top-10 finishes all three seasons (ahead of the ACC champion each time), and four different schools -- half the membership -- finished in the top-20 at least once. The league's new configuration has a winning record against the SEC (7-2) and Big 12 (6-4) and is .500 against the ACC. It's entrenched in the BCS at least through 2012 with the new TV deal with ESPN. The seismic attrition of 2004 hasn't proven fatal at all.
At least, not yet. But we're still waiting on the verdict from the second round of major departures over the last three years, namely Rich Rodriguez and his spread 'n shred stars from West Virginia and Bobby Petrino from Louisville, under whom both schools hit their historical ceiling over multiple seasons. There's no question the conference appears noticeably weaker at the top in the absence of the dominance figures that guided it out of the post-attrition wilderness -- and there's also no question that the Mountain West has its eye on the Big East's seat at the BCS table. And it's got a point.
For three years, the Big East could answer critics with program's whose fate had some national implications: West Virginia. Louisville. Even, for brief moments, Rutgers and South Florida. The Mountaineers and Cardinals carried the banner for the conference in the polls with five top-20 finished between them from 2005-07, and were joined there by Rutgers when all three teams finished in the top-12 in 2006; USF rose as high as No. 2 after upsetting West Virginia in '07, and WVU rebounded to within a stunning home loss to Pitt of playing for the national championship. All of which refuted the critics who took the 2004 calamity as evidence that the new-look Big East wasn't ready for primetime.
And 2008 was far from a calamity, with Cincinnati asserting itself with its second straight 10-win, top-20 season and West Virginia and Pitt hovering in and out of the bottom of the polls all year. After going 4-2 in bowl games, six of the league's eight teams finished with at least eight wins. There remains an extraordinary level of parity.
But, as with the ACC, depth and balance tests very, very poorly next to viable national contenders, and on that front, 2009 in the Big East is looking disconcertingly like 2004 all over again: Just as four wholly uninspiring, mediocre outfits tied for the conference championship and subsequently produced a sacrificial lamb to the BCS that year, the most striking aspect of Big East football this fall is the gaping vacuum at the top. At least there was a consensus preseason favorite in '04 -- the preseason pundits to date have pegged no fewer than four different teams as potential champions this fall, none of which are projected to make the slightest dent on the national stage.
This may be a stronger conference than it was five years ago, but if its best teams devour each other as expected, the result -- a knotty tie and no single team deemed worthy of outsider respect -- will be the same. And if the grumblings about an automatic bid for the "Big Least" were simmering then, what will they sound like now that the Mountain West is knocking loudly on the door?
The encouraging thought from the Big East's perspective is that, the last time it found itself without a visible program to hang its hat on, two of them, West Virginia and Louisville, managed to emerge and make their mark on the national landscape, however briefly. Obviously, that can happen again with any of the half-dozen teams realistically vying for the top this fall. At the same time, though, the fact that their respective reigns were so brief -- and that the individuals most responsible for that success used it as a stepping stone to more money at more traditional powers -- must be equally discouraging.
So to is the persistent assumption that Brian Kelly, Greg Schiano, Randy Edsall and Jim Leavitt, having somehow assembled competent programs at historical nonentities, must be bound to follow Rodriguez and Petrino on the first fat contract out, another symptom of the league's second class status. That they've been willing to hang tight in their current locales this long is regarded more as a preference for loyalty and "fit" than a prelude to any significant breakthrough at any of them.
Even with relative success, the Big East has struggled for respect. If the season plays out as the dog-eat-dog morass the pundits unanimously expect, and the BCS banner is carried by another more or less anonymous outfit that tanks in attendance and TV ratings, a la Cincinnati in last year's Orange Bowl, the "second class" assumption will only deepen. That may not be entirely fair, but in terms of the elusive national 'Q' rating, the new-look Big East seems to be right back where it started, unsure of exactly how (or who) to sustain its national brand.