State of the Big East

Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Funny how one game and one decision can change the perception of an entire league.

Had Cincinnati been able to beat Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl, the Bearcats would have finished the season in the top 10 and would likely be ranked in the Top 25 to start the 2009 season despite their personnel losses on defense. The Big East could brag about four consecutive BCS bowl wins.

Had star running back LeSean McCoy returned to Pittsburgh, the Panthers would probably be ranked in the top 15 this preseason. The Big East would have a team at least on the fringes of the national discussion.

Instead, Cincinnati lost that game, 20-7, and Pitt lost McCoy to the NFL. The league as a whole ended up a loser in both transactions. Big Least jokes are back in style.

In the first coaches' poll, not a single conference team cracked the Top 25. Many believe that the Mountain West is the sixth-best conference, and the Big East is no better than seventh. It's the lowest point, from a perception standpoint, since the start of the 2005 season when Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida joined the league after the ACC raid.

The Big East wouldn't mind another finish like 2005, when West Virginia went on to topple SEC champion Georgia in the Sugar Bowl for a No. 5 final ranking, and Louisville ended up No. 19.

What the Big East doesn't want or need is another season like 2004, when every team had at least three losses and 8-4 Pittsburgh got trampled by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.

At the start of 2009, though, it looks more like 2004 than 2005, at least on paper. There appear to be many solid teams but no great ones.

The reason for that is because so much veteran talent -- players like McCoy, Pat White, Donald Brown, Scott McKillop, Kenny Britt, Connor Barwin, Darius Butler, etc. -- is now playing for paychecks. The Big East had more players drafted per team than any other conference this April.

"I think it's pretty clear that we lost some great players from this league to the NFL," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said.

It was just three years ago that the conference had three teams in the top 10 as late as November. But Louisville has backslid since Bobby Petrino left and isn't close to being back to its former level. West Virginia took a small step backward last year without Rich Rodriguez and now moves into an uncertain post-White era. Rutgers and South Florida have yet to fulfill their vast potential.

The hope is that this is merely a transitional period for the league. A young talent infusion is on the way, as several schools -- including Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia -- boasted what they claimed as their best recruiting classes in history on signing day in February.

As for 2009, at least five teams must be considered strong contenders for the league's BCS bid. What the Big East needs is for one or more of those teams to emerge as relevant on the national scene, whether that's Rutgers, South Florida, Pitt or somebody else. The nonconference schedule provides prove-it moments against such opponents as Florida State, Miami, Oregon State, Auburn, North Carolina, Penn State and Notre Dame.

"It won't take long if we take care of business as a conference," Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "We'll be recognized."

Until then, the Big East once again has a perception problem on its hands.