If you got the idea
a couple of years ago that the Big East was a burgeoning powerhouse, regularly
able to produce top 10 teams and national-title contenders, you may want
to reconsider. Following surprising losses by the league's two ranked teams
last Saturday--No. 14 South Florida fell at Louisville 24-20, and
No. 17 Pittsburgh was thumped by Rutgers at home 54-34--the conference was
left without a school in the top 20. While such futility doesn't jeopardize the
Big East's automatic BCS berth (status granted before Miami, Virginia Tech and
Boston College jumped to the ACC), it does confirm the league's reputation as a
glorified mid-major conference.
This was supposed
to be the week that Pitt (5-2, 2-1) certified itself as the Big East's bell
cow. After opening the season with an upset loss to Bowling Green, the Panthers
had won five straight games to take control of the conference race. But in
60 minutes of exhilarating football, Rutgers (3-5, 2-2) exposed Pitt as
anything but elite. Scarlet Knights QB Mike Teel, who had thrown only three
scoring passes all season, carved up the country's 10th-ranked pass defense for
311 yards and five touchdowns in the first half alone. The Pitt defensive
backs, overplaying the run until it was too late, bit repeatedly on play-action
fakes. "Their receivers just ran right by us," said Pitt coach Dave
Virginia (6-2, 2-0), which stunned Auburn 34-17 last Thursday behind Noel
Devine's 207 rushing yards, has the inside track to the conference title, never
mind its losses to East Carolina and Colorado. But road games await at UConn,
Louisville and Pittsburgh, so it's a good bet that whichever team claims the
BCS prize is likely to have at least three losses and may not even be ranked.
That's quite a fall for a league that two years ago finished with three
teams--Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers--in the nation's top 12.
Certainly the conference has lost talented players. Heisman Trophy candidates
such as Louisville's Brian Brohm and West Virginia's Steve Slaton left for the
NFL, and stars of similar caliber have yet to take their place.
though, has been the departure of several top coaches. Former Louisville coach
Bobby Petrino, after a brief fling with the NFL, is at Arkansas. Rich Rodriguez
was lured away from West Virginia last year by Michigan. Mark Dantonio left
Cincinnati two years ago for Michigan State.
That's tough in a
conference short on history, with two teams (Connecticut and South Florida)
that have made the jump from Division I-AA within the last nine years.
"This league is only going to get better as its traditions grow and we play
and win games," says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "That's how you build
something. But that takes time."