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Big East seeks national respect with new look

USF, Louisville and Cincinnati are joining a football league with a bit of a chip on its collective shoulder pads.

By GREG AUMAN
Published July 19, 2005


NEWPORT, R.I. - For critics of the Big East's new football lineup, the location for today's preseason gathering of coaches and writers couldn't be more fitting.

Drive south from Providence and you'll find this historic coastal town, which dates to 1639, but first you'll be greeted by cemeteries on both sides of the road, along Farewell Street no less.

The league, detractors say, is soon to be buried, to be a piece of history, a thing of the past. So as the Big East's eight teams convene under a new motto - A New League, a New Look, a New Era - there is an understood fourth part of that for its members: A New Chip on Their Shoulders.

The Big East's 2005 amalgam of old and new teams will share one common trait this fall - a desire to prove themselves to the nation, and especially to critics who wonder if the league still merits an automatic berth in a Bowl Championship Series game. Commissioner Mike Tranghese said this spring that he was "sick and tired of that crap," and he's not the only one.

"I think we've got to beat that public perception with our play on the field in the next couple of years, winning the nonconference games, winning the bowl games," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "I think that will happen. I think the respect we had a few years ago when Miami was winning national championships, it might take us a while to get there, but I think we can get that type of respect back."

Detractors haven't dwelled so much on the strength of the conference as the strength of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, three of the four programs to leave the Big East in the past two years.

Faced with the possibility of disbanding as a football conference after those defections, the Big East instead fashioned a new look, adding Connecticut last season and plucking Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida from Conference USA to join this fall.

The new programs are more than just schedule-fillers. Louisville, whose only loss last season came by three points at Miami, is expected to be announced today as the conference's favorite in the preseason media poll.

"I think it's a very strong conference," Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino said. "When you look at the winning percentages a year ago, with six out of the eight teams making bowl games, we feel real good about that. It's exciting for us. We had a good run last year in Conference USA, and this has been a great motivational factor for our players all summer. We know it's going to be much tougher week in and week out in our schedule."

Much of the concern about the automatic BCS berth stems from the way the conference finished last season. After a 4-0 start in league play, West Virginia lost its final two conference games, creating a four-way tie for the Big East crown and sending a barely-ranked Pittsburgh team to the Fiesta Bowl. Once there, the Panthers were throttled 35-7 by Urban Meyer's Utah team.

In the past five years, no league has a better bowl record than the Big East's 15-10, 3-3 last season (including Louisville and Cincinnati, then in C-USA). The three victories came against non-BCS opponents, however, as Cincinnati beat Marshall in the Fort Worth Bowl, Connecticut beat Toledo in the Motor City Bowl and Louisville beat Boise State in the Liberty Bowl.

The three other co-champions from last season went 0-3, losing by a combined 77 points. In addition to Pitt, Syracuse fell to Georgia Tech 51-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl and West Virginia fell 30-18 to Florida State in the Gator.

Thanks to ambitious scheduling, the Big East won't have to wait until January to show whether it still belongs in the BCS. September will be telling, with Pittsburgh hosting Notre Dame and traveling to Nebraska; Syracuse hosting Virginia; South Florida and Cincinnati traveling to Penn State; Connecticut visiting Georgia Tech and West Virginia going to Maryland.

Oct. 1, the Big East goes against the teams that left the conference: West Virginia hosts Virginia Tech and South Florida travels to Miami. Syracuse travels to Florida State the same day.

That, more than any optimism from coaches, will show how the Big East lines up.

"If you do the formula to prove your worth right now, we're in the top six conferences," Rodriguez said. "It's calmed down a lot. For a few years, everybody was using it against us in recruiting. We took a bashing from the media, and I think some of it was a little unfair, but we saw it coming as coaches. We survive through that, and people will see that in the next few years, not from just the top teams, but from the whole league, one to eight."