- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

The Big East staged its unofficial championship football game Saturday when West Virginia rallied for a 46-44 triple-overtime win over Louisville. But this showdown with major Bowl Championship Series implications hardly made a ripple on the national TV scene, which focused on Southern Cal-Notre Dame. Even the Washington area did not get the game as the ABC affiliate (WJLA, Ch. 7) showed Penn State-Michigan instead.

In effect, the Big East has become a big afterthought. The conference might still have BCS status, but that has not saved it from a free fall.

West Virginia’s victory was entertaining, but to suggest the Mountaineers are now in line for a top bowl is absurd. West Virginia was ranked 17th in the first BCS poll released yesterday. Each of the other five BCS leagues has at least two teams higher.

The poll provides the latest evidence of how ugly the revamped Big East has become following the losses of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC. The conference appears likely to have about as much impact on the race for the national title as a squirt gun on a forest fire.

“We are literally in a state of flux,” Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said recently. “[Although] some people will just say I am trying to make excuses, that is just a fact. We lost three programs that are now ranked in the top 20.”

The Big East responded to the ACC’s raid by enticing Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida from Conference USA, giving it eight members this season. Indeed, the emasculated league is up and running — just not very well.

West Virginia, at No. 20, is the only ranked team. The Big East is in jeopardy of falling behind the non-BCS Mountain West Conference as the sixth-highest rated league. The Big East owns a 4-8 record against BCS teams, with the biggest win being West Virginia over Maryland.

Not that the Big East was expected to match the glory days when Miami and Virginia Tech slugged it out and competed for national titles. Instead, Louisville was supposed to become king of the lesser league while giving faltering programs like those at Syracuse and Pitt time to rebuild and young programs like Connecticut and South Florida a few seasons to emerge.

The Cardinals were to give the league at least some legitimacy in the face of mounting criticism that it had been allowed to keep its BCS bid despite its diminished status. The Big East is one of six BCS conferences — along with the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 10 — that earns an automatic bid to one of the top four bowls (Orange, Sugar, Rose and Fiesta). The berth means an excessive payout, millions more than those gained by champions of non-BCS leagues that are forced to settle for lesser bowls.

And the Big East’s BCS status appears solid until reassessments are made following the 2009 season.

“They can talk all they want,” Tranghese said with a nervous chuckle. “We are going [to a BCS bowl]. It’s that simple. We got it. We think we have earned it.”

But even with lower expectations, the Big East is not reaching them.

The league has suffered humiliating defeats like Ohio shocking Pitt and Miami of Ohio drubbing Cincinnati 44-16. It has merely an 18-12 record in nonconference games, including six victories over Division I-AA opponents like Wofford, Liberty and Youngstown State, and three over I-A laggard Buffalo.

And Louisville won’t save the league either.

The Cardinals narrowly missed an at-large BCS bid last season when they went 12-1 with the only loss to Miami 41-38. This season the would-be new Big East bullies began the season in the top 10 amid some forecasts of an undefeated year. That was before Big East newcomer South Florida, a 20-point underdog, dropkicked the then-No. 9 Cardinals 45-14.

Asked how that defeat might affect the Big East’s prestige, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino replied, “I couldn’t tell you right now whether it is good or bad.” He might have been the only one feeling that way.

“Short term, it may have been a negative for the league,” Tranghese conceded. “Long term, I think and most of our members think that South Florida has a huge upside.”

The Bulls, now 3-3 after losing to Pitt, provide some reason for optimism. Another rising program is Connecticut, which has a 4-2 record (2-1 in the Big East) in only its third Division I-A season. The Huskies already have conquered the league’s soft middle with blowouts of Syracuse and Rutgers.

West Virginia (6-1, 3-0 Big East) showed it was not ready to join the elite with a 34-17 loss to former Big East member and third-ranked Virginia Tech at Mountaineer Field. Even South Florida (1-1 in the league) might compete for the watered-down crown, although the 8-year-old program is far from being the state’s best team.

“Sometimes you wonder if [that challenge is] insurmountable,” Bulls coach Jim Leavitt said, and that was before his team lost to No. 6 Miami 27-7.

The Big East was desperate to have a strong presence in the state after Miami’s departure and is banking on the Bulls eventually challenging the Big Three of Florida, Florida State and Miami. But Leavitt knows he first must win a few off-field battles before crashing the party.

“We haven’t been able to beat Miami in recruiting much,” Leavitt said. “If Miami comes in and offers [scholarships], they are usually going to get [players] no matter how hard we try.”

The league also hopes founding members with new coaches will rise to prominence. Syracuse (1-5, 0-3) is in its first season under former Texas co-defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Pitt (3-4, 2-1) is hoping for a resurgence under ex-Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt.

However, the Panthers reflect how out of whack the Big East has become. Last season Pitt won the league’s BCS bid, despite being ranked 21st in the BCS standings, and fired coach Walt Harris. The Panthers played Utah, which became the first non-BCS member by finishing sixth in the BCS standings, in the Fiesta Bowl. The Mountain West’s Utes, under current Florida coach Urban Meyer, routed Pitt 35-7.

“Last year was bad for everybody,” Tranghese said. “We had a league, but it was a year of limbo. Temple [which was kicked out because of poor play, facilities and attendance] was leaving. Boston College was leaving. We were bringing in new members. Connecticut was rushed in a year early so we would have competition. It was a very, very bizarre football season.”

This season the conference can’t use the same excuse although results have been similar. The Big East’s roster is now set for the foreseeable future, but the embarrassing losses keep coming as it continues to be stuck in a credibility crisis.

“We are going to have to win some quality nonconference games this year and next year,” Tranghese said. “That is how we are going to get the message across. We are going to have to win what I call some ‘statement’ games.”

And there’s no time to waste.

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