If the Big East wasn’t leading the race as the most snakebit conference in the NCAA, it made big gains this week. The conference has already lost two founding programs – Pittsburgh and Syracuse – this season. Now West Virginia and Louisville are doing battle off the field to determine who will merit an invitation from the Big 12, should Missouri finally announce a move to the SEC. UConn and Rutgers publicly have sought entrance to other conferences as well.
What more could you ask for as a Big East fan than teams competing to leave?
West Virginia’s departure would leave the Big East without its marquee football program, and reduce the number of remaining football schools to five in what was already the weakest of all BCS conferences by far. Louisville has fallen short of expectations this year but it owns a conference championship in its short Big East tenure, and has a top-shelf basketball program as well.
UConn is the defending conference champion in football and NCAA champion in men’s basketball. Rutgers has been a perennial also ran, while Cincinnati has won multiple conference football championships. Because the conference is so week, all these programs proclaim self interests above conference interests. Its future is bleak.
On top of this, in present woes, the conference is suffering from a miserable degree of mediocrity and parity. There are no elite football teams this season. In some sports, equality is a desirable, making for level competition and avoiding predictable outcomes. In college football however, especially in BCS conferences such as the Big East, elite teams rise to national attention and compete in the highest profile games of the year: the games with the greatest interest and TV viewers – and its commensurate revenue and recognition.
This season, unfortunately like last, the Big East has no standout programs. UConn finished the 2010 season 8-5 overall but with a 5-2 conference record, equal to West Virginia and Pittsburgh. By virtue of tiebreaker the Huskies advanced to the Fiesta Bowl as the Big East representative only to be thrashed by the Oklahoma Sooners 48-20, with Landry Jones throwing for more than 400 yards.
West Virginia started the 2011 campaign in the AP Top 25 but got throttled by Stracuse last week. USF stunned Notre Dame in South Bend in week one, but has dropped three straight in league play. There is no program for the conference to count on reliably. Cincinnati (2-0) now is the only undefeated team, but the Big East is wide open with the possible exception of the USF Bulls who are winless (0-3) in the conference.
The team that emerges as the conference’s BCS representative predictably will earn the final BCS bid this year, in the Orange Bowl, because each of the other BCS conferences likely will be represented by stronger programs. The Big East has become a doormat.
There are plans (more talk than action to date) to invite new teams to the Big East, but existing schools’ $5 million exit fee doubles upon the first acceptance, so expect some foot dragging with invitations. There is also talk of a merger with the Mountain West and Conference U.S.A. That proposal, which would have teams throughout the northeast, south and northwest, would be contrary to the nature of regional rivalries that have given rise to conference definitions in the past. The effort is evidently a desperation move for committed football programs to remain relevant and viable in the BCS landscape, but the travel demands may ultimately be its doom.
In the meantime the Big East will limp along, hoping for and expecting a brighter tomorrow. Reality says that the remaining programs will continue jumping ship as quickly as possible to find a stable and secure future and every move by other conferences will reverberate through the Big East further weakening its foundations.