Big East hardly misses defectors
In the aftermath of the Miami-Florida International brawl that gave the Atlantic Coast Conference a black eye, the Big East has reaped positive publicity.
With three undefeated teams ranked in the top 19 nationally and another on the verge of cracking the Top 25, some have suggested the Big East is better off without defectors Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.
Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese dismissed such thoughts as "hypocritical," considering the conference offered Miami a five-year, $45 million deal to remain a member. Nonetheless, he is certainly reveling in the Big East's strong start this season.
"That shows you right there that the Big East is improving," Pitt junior cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "There are a lot of great teams in the Big East. It's a tough conference right now, and it is building."
"The three teams that left, they were big-time programs. Right now, it's Louisville, West Virginia - they might put us in there - and Rutgers. We've got the Big East back to where it was when it had Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. It's starting to be a strong conference."
The restructured eight-team conference has proven to be better prepared for their departures than initially perceived.
No. 4 West Virginia (6-0) and No. 6 Louisville (6-0) have been the torchbearers, but the rise of No. 19 Rutgers (6-0) and Pitt (6-1) has placed the Big East in a prominent position among the BCS-eligible conferences.
"When we reorganized the league a couple of years ago, I think everybody sitting in the room believed these were all programs that were on the rise," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "Belief is not reality. You've got to make it happen. So far, so good, and we'll judge it when it's all done at the end of the year."
Excuse Schiano's reservations regarding the Big East's newfound fame. Its top four teams haven't played each other yet, although two pivotal match-ups loom. The first test comes when Rutgers plays Pitt at 5:45 p.m. Saturday at Heinz Field on ESPN2, followed by West Virginia at Louisville next Thursday night on ESPN.
"It's certainly good for the league," Schiano said. "It shows that, so far, we're having a competitive league, but again it's only six, seven games into the season, and there's a lot more football to play. Nothing is finalized yet, but I'm not surprised by how things are going so far."
Where the departure of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech originally threatened the Big East's credibility, not to mention its BCS status, the timing coincided with its remaining and new members making a financial commitment to upgrade to their programs.
While Pitt and South Florida moved into NFL stadiums, Louisville was enjoying its plush digs at Papa John's Stadium and Rutgers completed a $13 million expansion to its football complex.
The infusion of coaching talent also has helped. Pitt and Syracuse hired NFL coaches in Dave Wannstedt and Greg Robinson, respectively, Cincinnati lured Mark Dantonio from Ohio State and Connecticut (Randy Edsall), Louisville (Bobby Petrino) and Rutgers (Schiano) have locked up their coaches with lucrative long-term contracts.
And a cast of talented offensive skill players has helped attract attention. Pitt's Tyler Palko leads the nation in pass efficiency, and West Virginia's Steve Slaton and Rutgers' Ray Rice rank among the nation's top five rushers. Pitt linebacker H.B. Blades is a Butkus Award semifinalist, and Revis, only a junior, projects as an NFL first-round pick.
"To win games, you've got to have players. Players win games, and the schools in the Big East have obviously gone out and recruited talented football players," Wannstedt said. "You're looking at experienced coaches, right across the board, guys who have won and are winners, so they're getting good coaching on top of it.
"That's really what it has come down to."
Better off?Despite losing three of its top football programs to the ACC, the Big East has rebounded with three undefeated teams this season. Here is a comparison of the conferences' top teams, with rank and record:
Big East Conference 4 - West Virginia 6-0 6 - Louisville 6-0 19 - Rutgers 6-0 NR - Pitt 6-1 NR - South Florida 5-2
Atlantic Coast Conference 12 - Clemson 6-1 13 - Georgia Tech 5-1 22 - Boston College 5-1 25 - Wake Forest 6-1 NR - Miami 4-2 NR - Virginia Tech 4-2