Big East enters a whole new world

The new-look Big East gets its first go-round without one of its marquee programs in a matter of weeks, entering a decidedly unfamiliar and uncertain era.

With West Virginia gone, the Big East is left with just seven FBS schools entering spring practice -- and some would say a wide-open, if lackluster, field to take the crown. Cincinnati has won at least a share of the Big East title in three of the last four years, but your expected preseason favorites for 2012 are now Louisville and Rutgers.

The last time either team was featured in the final AP Top 25 was in 2006, when the Cardinals finished seventh after making it to the Orange Bowl, and Rutgers finished No. 12. If you want to consider Big East preseason polls, Louisville has been picked to win the league just once, in 2005.

Rutgers? The Scarlet Knights have never been picked as the preseason favorites. Their highest preseason Big East ranking: third in 2007. Of the schools staying in the Big East for the foreseeable future, only Louisville has been tabbed as a preseason favorite. Projections aside, the Cardinals, Cincinnati and UConn have won at least a share of the league title and made it to a BCS game.

With a chance now to remake the image of the league, this spring is a huge opportunity for the five remaining Big East schools to assert themselves. After Miami left in 2005, West Virginia stepped to the forefront. When Miami was in the league from 1991-2004, West Virginia finished the season in the AP Top 25 just twice. From 2005-2011, West Virginia failed to make the final AP Top 25 just once (2010).

So who is "next" with West Virginia out of the picture? Cincinnati has proven it can win league championships on a consistent basis, though the Bearcats have to answer some major question marks this spring. Losing quarterback Zach Collaros, running back Isaiah Pead, leading tackler JK Schaffer and Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Derek Wolfe could mean a rebuilding season.

So the spotlight has turned to the Cardinals and Scarlet Knights. There is reason to understand the optimism.

Louisville won a share of the Big East title in 2011 with a true freshman quarterback and more than 20 true or redshirt freshmen contributing, making the Cardinals one of the youngest teams in college football. There were some moments of immaturity and some head-scratching losses, but there is no question about the potential of this team. Add in some excellent recruiting classes and a solid head coach in Charlie Strong, and you understand how the foundation has been built.

But Strong understands there is more that goes into winning championships than talent, and he perfectly summed that up after a loss to NC State in the Belk Bowl.

"There's going to be a lot written about this team," he said. "Is this a team that's going to be full of themselves? Is this a team that's going to let complacency set in because there's so much coming back? This is a team that has to work hard. So much is going to be said, but what is going to be the true character of this football team?"

Rutgers, meanwhile, returns nearly everybody on a defense that ranked No. 1 in the Big East, including Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Khaseem Greene. It took 11 years, but former coach Greg Schiano got this program in position to compete for its first league championship. More eyes may be on Rutgers this spring, though, because there is a new coach, Kyle Flood and perhaps a little more uncertainty about the future than there was in December.

There also is the matter of an unsettled quarterback competition between Chas Dodd and Gary Nova. Plus, Rutgers has to replace the productivity of leading receiver Mohamed Sanu. But Flood has not shied away from the heightened expectations, saying in his opening news conference, "I think the time is right for Rutgers to win championships."

With West Virginia gone, the time is right for everybody.