What happened to the Big East? Wait, let me clarify...What happened to Big East football?
The conference remains the undisputed king of college basketball, but while it seems that some Big East hoops squads could give the NBA bottom dwellers a legitimate run, the league's football teams are looking more and more Conference USA-ish by the year.
First, there are only eight teams, so it is hard to compare the league with the likes of the Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12, SEC and ACC. But the coaching turnover has been staggering, and the lack of top-25 caliber teams is both surprising and sad.
Speaking of coaches, Greg Shiano of Rutgers is the only program leader with significant tenure. West Virginia's Dana Holgerson and Pittsburgh's Todd Graham are new. Paul Pasqualoni, who led Syracuse when the Big East was still a power, was recently hired by Connecticut to replace Randy Edsall, who used a Big East program as a stepping stone to get to the ACC.
Many preseason polls show no Big East teams ranked among the top-25. Sure, West Virginia and Cincinnati are in consideration, but neither of those squad's are considered BCS bowl worthy at this juncture, let alone national title contenders.
Last season was a microcosm of what the once-mighty conference has become, as UConn earned the league's automatic BCS bid with a 5-2 league record and favorable tie-breakers. Yes, this is the same group of Huskies that lost by scores of 30-10 at Michigan, 27-24 at Rutgers and 26-0 to a mediocre Louisville squad during the regular season. Many believed that UConn would be overmatched by Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and that was indeed the case in a 48-20 beat down.
It wasn't long ago that West Virginia was on pace to earn a bid to the national title game before a letdown in the final week of the regular season. The Mountaineers were ranked in the top-10 nationally for three straight years from 2005 through 2007. South Florida climbed as high as second in the poll, while Louisville (third) and Rutgers (seventh) have had tremendous success in the not so distant past.
This year, however, there is very little to get excited about. Many of the league's teams have scheduled non-conference games against at least one quality opponent during the first three weeks of the season. Can USF knock off Notre Dame on September 3rd in South Bend? Sure, especially considering how inconsistent the Fighting Irish have been over the last decade. But would I bet on the Bulls? No way.
The same can be said for Cincinnati's September 10th tussle with Tennessee, or Rutgers' clash with North Carolina that same day. I'm going with the squads from the SEC and ACC, respectively, even though the Vols are painfully young and the Heels are a bit depleted.
And where is the star power? Who are you excited to see among Big East players this season? There are some solid quarterbacks in the fold, including Geno Smith of West Virginia, B.J. Daniels of USF (currently injured) and Zach Collaros of Cincinnati to name a few. But are any of those players household names? No, and that won't change by winter.
There has to be a big-time tailback in place, right? Wrong. Sure, there are some quality runners, but is there a blue-chipper among the bunch? Is there a guy that NFL scouts are salivating over? Not really.
When the Heisman Trophy is presented late in 2011, there won't be a finalist from the Big East. League officials and coaches constantly speak of the parity that exists, and there's no doubt that the majority of games between conference members are extremely competitive. But on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the level of play seen weekly in the SEC, the Big East is operating at roughly a six. That's not taking a shot at the league, its players or its coaches. That's just fact.
I would love to be proven wrong by the Big East's eight seemingly average teams this season. After all, college football is better when the conference is relevant. It is just difficult to be optimistic when taking into consideration recent performance and current rosters. Stay tuned.