If you got the ideaa couple of years ago that the Big East was a burgeoning powerhouse, regularlyable to produce top¬†10 teams and national-title contenders, you may wantto reconsider. Following surprising losses by the league's two ranked teamslast Saturday--No.¬†14 South Florida fell at Louisville 24-20, andNo.¬†17 Pittsburgh was thumped by Rutgers at home 54-34--the conference wasleft without a school in the top 20. While such futility doesn't jeopardize theBig East's automatic BCS berth (status granted before Miami, Virginia Tech andBoston College jumped to the ACC), it does confirm the league's reputation as aglorified mid-major conference.
This was supposedto be the week that Pitt (5-2, 2-1) certified itself as the Big East's bellcow. After opening the season with an upset loss to Bowling Green, the Panthershad won five straight games to take control of the conference race. But in60¬†minutes of exhilarating football, Rutgers (3-5, 2-2) exposed Pitt asanything but elite. Scarlet Knights QB Mike Teel, who had thrown only threescoring passes all season, carved up the country's 10th-ranked pass defense for311 yards and five touchdowns in the first half alone. The Pitt defensivebacks, overplaying the run until it was too late, bit repeatedly on play-actionfakes. "Their receivers just ran right by us," said Pitt coach DaveWannstedt.
Suddenly, WestVirginia (6-2, 2-0), which stunned Auburn 34-17 last Thursday behind NoelDevine's 207 rushing yards, has the inside track to the conference title, nevermind 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 theBCS 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 threeteams--Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers--in the nation's top 12.
What happened?Certainly the conference has lost talented players. Heisman Trophy candidatessuch as Louisville's Brian Brohm and West Virginia's Steve Slaton left for theNFL, and stars of similar caliber have yet to take their place.
More important,though, has been the departure of several top coaches. Former Louisville coachBobby Petrino, after a brief fling with the NFL, is at Arkansas. Rich Rodriguezwas lured away from West Virginia last year by Michigan. Mark Dantonio leftCincinnati two years ago for Michigan State.
That's tough in aconference 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 playand win games," says Rutgers coach Greg Schiano. "That's how you buildsomething. But that takes time."
ONLY AT SI.COM Expert college football analysis on TheSweep blog.
Pitt's falling to Rutgers (in white) left Devine (inset) and West Virginia ontop of the Big East--for now.
JEFF GENTNER/AP (INSET)