SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.
Coming off a breakthrough season as conference -- Miami reached the national title game, Virginia Tech won 10 games and West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Boston College nine -- the Big East's celebration has been abruptly replaced by mourning for the end of the league as we know it.
But before Miami and Virginia Tech bid adieu, they'll each grace the conference with another potential national title squad.
The Hurricanes certainly marked the end of an era with the graduation of 38-2 quarterback Ken Dorsey and a host of other NFL players, but they're still well stocked. The return of standout tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and stud tailback Frank Gore, who sat out last season, as well as the debut of ex-Florida QB Brock Berlin should make for another explosive offense, while familiar faces like Jonathan Vilma and Sean Taylor are back to anchor the defense.
If the 'Canes do prove vulnerable, though, there are two prime contenders ready to take their spot.
Virginia Tech should have its best team since its 1999 national runner-up squad. Bryan Randall and Marcus Vick give the Hokies two exciting young quarterbacks, while speedy Kevin Jones is more than ready to take over full-time tailback duties. And Pittsburgh, which beat Tech and took Miami to the final gun a year ago, seems poised to take the next step with the return of athletic QB Rod Rutherford and last year's freshman sensation, receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
Coming off its worst season since 1982, Syracuse returns talented tailback tandem Walter Reyes and Damien Rhodes and should at least become competitive again, while West Virginia and Boston College face likely rebuilding seasons.
At the bottom, as always, are Temple and Rutgers. Owls coach Bobby Wallace is attempting ac last-ditch fix by adding 23 juco players, while Greg Schiano's Scarlet Knights are taking baby steps upward.
Diamond Ferri, Syracuse safety: A projected starting tailback last year before getting kicked off the team, this gifted athlete is back ... as a starting safety.
Frank Gore, Miami running back: 'Canes coaches swear he's even better than Willis McGahee. Looking back at Gore's 9.1-yards-per carry average in 2001, who's to argue?
DeAngelo Hall, Virginia Tech cornerback: Frank Beamer plans to make use of Hall's lightning-quick speed -- timed as fast as 4.14 in the 40 -- by using him at receiver.
Claude Harriott, Pittsburgh defensive end: The Belle Glade, Fla., native took the Northeast by storm last fall with 21 tackles-for-loss and seven forced fumbles.
Kay Jay Harris, West Virginia running back: The 6-foot-2, 240-pound juco standout will make for a powerful complement to 5-9 speedster Quincy Wilson.
Whither the Miami swagger? For nearly three years, the men of Coral Gables gave off an aura of invincibility, winning 34 straight, usually by a considerable margin. With one January night, Ohio State managed to shatter all that, not just by beating the 'Canes but physically manhandling them, particularly on defense. It'd be in Miami's best interest to make a statement early if they hope to continue striking fear in their foes.
Everything OK with the Hokie D? Frank Beamer's Virginia Tech teams have long made their reputation off dominating defenses. So what were they doing last year giving up 604 yards to Syracuse, 56 points to Miami? One explanation is that injuries took their toll, with Beamer having to start two freshman defensive tackles down the stretch, and that everything will return to normal this fall, but the questions still linger.
What will become of the Big East? The coaches are carrying on like it's business as usual, and indeed plans are already well under way behind the scenes for a new league come 2005. But the perilous situation of the Big East, in particular its BCS status, can't help but hover over the remaining teams, adding extra pressure for a Pittsburgh or West Virginia to help their cause with an extra-strong season this fall.
Sept. 6: It's not quite Rex Grossman vs. Ken Dorsey, but Florida-Miami still packs some punch, especially when it's Brock Berlin vs. his old team.
Sept. 20: It's going to be ugly wherever Miami and Virginia Tech go on the road this season, none more so than the 'Canes trip to jilted-at-the-altar B.C.
Nov. 1: The last time the 'Canes traveled to Blacksburg they needed a dropped 2-point conversion pass to survive.
Nov. 29: The league knew what it was doing when it scheduled Miami-Pittsburgh for the last week of the conference title race.