It’s been a tumultuous year for the Big East, to say the least. Since news broke last September that Syracuse and Pittsburgh would be leaving for the ACC, Big East officials have been pressing, trying to figure out a way to stay relevant on the gridiron. The instability created by the departure of these two schools led to the exit of two more, TCU and West Virginia, this time to the Big-12. The Big East was forced to again raid Conference USA, taking Memphis, Houston, UCF and SMU. It also added football-only members Boise State, San Diego State and Navy and recently convinced ($6 Million later) Temple to return to the conference that once voted them out.
So the Big East has “reloaded”, however, all these changes don’t occur at the same time. While Syracuse and Pittsburgh played nice and complied with the Big East’s exit terms (27 months), West Virginia wanted out immediately. After numerous lawsuits and a hefty exit fee, West Virginia will indeed leave before the 2012 season, meaning the Big East is immediately losing a team that has won at least a share of the title five of the past eight years. To make matters worse, TCU, the supposed football savior, won’t even have to play a game in the Big East before it joins the Big-12. Excluding Temple, the rest of the new Big East members don’t join until 2013 or later. So we’re left with eight Big East football schools for 2012; Syracuse, Pittsburgh, UConn, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, Cincinnati, and Temple. Between them, there is one BCS bowl win (Louisville, 2007). Yikes.
So what should we expect this season? West Virginia’s departure and Cincinnati’s roster turnover certainly should change the landscape. Louisville and Rutgers are probably the favorites after strong finishes in 2011, but nobody on either campus is buying Orange Bowl tickets just yet. The scary thing here is that Temple, who has been playing in the MAC since 2004, actually has a decent chance to win the Big East this year. Can you imagine Temple in a BCS bowl? If we weren’t already restructuring the college football postseason, that would probably be the proverbial nail in the coffin for the current system.
One could make a case for any of the eight teams to represent the conference in Miami. No Big East team finished 2011 with fewer than five wins, and even bottom-feeder Syracuse was able to knock off eventual Orange Bowl champion West Virginia 49-23 last season. SU, UConn and South Florida were all a play or two away from being bowl eligible in 2011, despite sub- .500 conference records. In a sport where in-conference parody isn’t always welcomed, the Big East will probably be forced to embrace it. This could be the kind of season where a 4-3 conference record gets you a share of the title. So while we probably won’t see any national title contenders emerge from the conference, we should at least have a good race to pay attention to down the stretch.
The 2012 season probably won’t have much to say about the future of football in the Big East and instead will be viewed as a necessary bridge from the past to the future. Looking forward, the additions of Boise State, Houston, UCF and SMU will hopefully help to rebuild the league, though the years of being considered a top tier football conference are certainly behind them.
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