Crossroads: Big East still standing, eyes big 2010

Media outlets enlist reporters to write obituaries in advance of aging or sickly celebrities. It's a little macabre, but it also ensures that a fleshed-out story is ready to go whenever that celebrity dies.

If the Big East were a person, there's no doubt its obit would have been written this spring.

"Big East football, 20, died today after a long battle for attention and relevance. The league is survived by John Marinatto and several basketball-only Catholic schools. Cards and flowers should be sent to the home office in Providence, R.I."

However, when the conference realignment craze shook the college football world this summer, the Big East remained surprisingly unscathed. That could change the second that Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany decides to scratch his East Coast itch, but for now the Big East lives on, and second-year commissioner Marinatto even boldly proclaimed at least week's media day that the conference "is stronger today in every way than it has ever been."

Whether that statement rings true depends on how the league performs in 2010. And the season could go in any number of different ways.

Last season, the Big East enjoyed breakout campaigns from some of the best young talent to come through its circuit in years, and that means major talent is returning this fall. Guys like Pittsburgh's Dion Lewis and Jonathan Baldwin, West Virginia's Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, Cincinnati's Zach Collaros and Armon Binns, Rutgers' Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu and South Florida's B.J. Daniels will electrify fans on Saturdays (and Thursdays and Fridays and the occasional Wednesday) this season.

The conference has longed for the chance to take on the sport's big boys on an equal footing, and it gets that chance this season with several high-profile games, including Oklahoma at Cincinnati, South Florida at Florida and Miami, West Virginia at LSU, UConn at Michigan and Miami at Pittsburgh. Pitt, West Virginia, Cincinnati and UConn are legitimate Top 25 type teams, and South Florida and Rutgers are young, but talented enough to make noise. Syracuse is improved and Louisville should turn the corner soon under new coach Charlie Strong.

"It's very unpredictable," said Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt, whose team is nonetheless the near-unanimous preseason favorite. "Any one of five teams can win the league title."

Yet there are question marks. Three of the conference's eight teams changed head coaches this offseason, including two-time defending champion Cincinnati, which replaced Brian Kelly with Butch Jones. The young talent is still green, especially at quarterback, where true sophomore Savage has more career starts than any other Big East signal caller.

"There are so many new quarterbacks being broken into the league, and almost 50 percent of our coaches are new," first-year South Florida coach Skip Holtz said. "There are just a lot of unknowns in this league right now."

If a team like Pittsburgh or West Virginia gets on a roll, it has the schedule to possibly contend for a national title. For as much grief as the Big East gets, remember that in three of the past four seasons, a league school came within whiskers of crashing the BCS title game -- Louisville in 2006, West Virginia in 2007 and Cincinnati in 2009. Finally breaking through to that level could earn the conference the respect it so desperately desires.

Or perhaps the conference goes through a transition year as its new coaches and young quarterbacks adjust. Maybe a league that Marinatto calls "the most balanced and competitive in the country" beats up on one another.

Either way, the Big East continues to survive. And if things go well, it could even thrive. Don't write that obituary just yet.