August 23, 2011
Kicking off Big East Week.
In Internet years, the spring and summer of 2010 is another era, a whole different epoch, far too long ago to remember in any detail. (Can you imagine a world where Bin Laden was still alive and America had yet to be introduced to the concept of "planking"?) But somewhere in the footnotes of college football history, let it be written: The Big East was dead, man.
Where football is concerned, anyway, the entire conference looked like an insignificant domino teetering on the edge of the realignment abyss, just waiting to be put out of its misery by the expanding empire of the Big Ten. That wasn't just the apocalyptic vision of a few chattery blogs in the dead of a long offseason, either. Credible insiders like longtime Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese and former Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel saw the writing on the wall if the Big Ten reached eastward for Rutgers and/or Pittsburgh, or the restructured landscape forced another raid from the ACC like the one that nearly did in the Big East earlier in the decade. The situation was considered desperate enough that the league was apparently mulling the possibility of kicking out Notre Dame in non-football sports, forcing the Irish into the Big Ten's arms as a kind of sacrifice to ward off the expansion goblins.
A little more than a year later, not only is the Big East still standing — it turned out to be the Big 12 staring into the abyss instead — but it's growing itself: TCU comes aboard next year as a potential powerhouse, almost certainly followed by a tenth team (Villanova? Central Florida?) to even things out in the very near future. As the "Big Six" BCS conferences go, the Big East still isn't a very competitive league — it barely snuck one team into the preseason Associated Press poll and was shut out of the preseason Coaches' poll altogether, after failing to put a team in the final editions of either poll last January — but all indications are that it's going to survive and, with TCU's pending defection from the Mountain West, that it's going to keep its coveted automatic status in the Bowl Championship Series. There's no reason to split hairs about the absence of a heavyweight frontrunner.
The entire conference conspired last year to redefine "low octane." The highest-scoring attack in the conference, Cincinnati, ranked 57th nationally at 27.1 points per game, behind 34 teams from the other "Big Six" leagues. No other Big East teamed finished in the top 60 — that is, in the top half of the country — in terms of yards or points. UConn represented the conference in the Fiesta Bowl after averaging fewer yards per conference game than all but eight other offenses in the entire country. Seven of those eight finished at least six games below .500. (The only one that didn't: UConn's conference mate, Syracuse, which went to a bowl game after averaging all of 16.6 points in Big East play.)
UConn came out of the Fiesta Bowl ranked 96th nationally in total offense and 112th in pass efficiency, the only BCS team that failed to rank in the top 25 by both measures. Cincinnati, the No. 1 Fully 25 percent of all Big East games for the season — 7 out of 28 — were won by a team with less than 21 points on the board. Et cetera.
Nowhere was the frustration more acute than in once-explosive West Virginia, where all four of the Mountaineers' losses came against opponents that failed to reach 24 points against one of the stingiest defenses in any conference. Not surprisingly, the Mountaineers took the most direct approach to the problem, undermining and eventually replacing head coach Bill Stewart in favor of spread passing guru Dana Holgorsen, architect of attacks that have finished first, second or third nationally in total offense in four consecutive seasons, at three different schools: Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. Even before his promotion, Holgo got to install his system in the spring with an experienced quarterback and seven other returning starters who figure to come out at full throttle.
Not to be outdone, Pittsburgh used its Mike Haywood mulligan to snap up Tulsa's Todd Graham, who oversaw three top-10 offenses in the course of the best four-year run in school history. Graham was accompanied by his passing game coordinator at Tulsa, Mike Norvell, and quickly added longtime Rich Rodriguez hand Calvin McGee — coordinator of the prolific West Virginia attacks that wreaked havoc on the conference in the middle of the last decade, and of the No. 1 total offense in the Big Ten last year at Michigan — to oversee the running game.
By March, the conservative, nondescript offenses favored by Dave Wannstedt and Bill Stewart were left spinning in the wake of relentlessly up-tempo spread philosophies that refuse to slow down for anyone. If their arrival doesn't actually make the Big East any better in the big picture, at least it's a selling point.