Who will carry the flag for the Big East?

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
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Since the Big East last reconfigured itself in 2005, the one certainty in the league has been seeing West Virginia near the top.

Never did the Mountaineers finish lower than third. Never were they even predicted to finish lower than third. In fact, they were projected to finish first or second in the league every year since 2006. As much as the Big East has prided itself on its topsy-turvy nature, there was really nothing unpredictable about West Virginia.

But now the Mountaineers are gone, leaving behind a group of schools eager to pick up the flag and carry it for 2012 in the embattled Big East.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Strong
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWhile Charlie Strong's Louisville team was picked to finish first in the Big East in the preseason poll, there are several teams in strong contention for the league title.
“Somebody has to grab the national spotlight,” Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. “With West Virginia leaving, they were the team that everybody talked about so now who will it be? Which team will it become? We were picked preseason No. 1, but I always tell our guys it’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

More importantly than that, it is where you finish on a consistent basis. The only school left that has won championships consistently is Cincinnati, which has won a share of the Big East title in three of the past four seasons. But when you think of the Big East, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not the Bearcats.

It is probably the losses of West Virginia to the Big 12 first, then Pitt and Syracuse to the ACC in 2013. New commissioner Mike Aresco has talked about telling the league story, and being sure that he gets people around the country to understand that the Big East has plenty going for it despite its second reconfiguration in eight years.

“I think the perception of the Big East, it's been a bit mixed because the focus has been on what happened,” Aresco said in a recent phone interview with ESPN.com. “You can't argue there weren't some issues there, but I'm trying to turn it around quickly. We can’t keep talking about the past, and I think you can change perceptions fairly quickly in the end with facts and figures, and the success the Big East has had that people aren't talking about. I wouldn't have taken this job if I didn't think we can do that.”

Aresco can begin with the rising teams in place for 2012. Louisville won a share of the Big East title with West Virginia and Cincinnati last season and begins the season ranked No. 25 in the AP poll, its first ranking since 2007. Cincinnati, with two BCS appearances, finished in the Top 25 in 2011 and won 10 games for the fourth time in five seasons. UConn made it to a BCS game in 2010.

Despite those successes, the plain truth is nobody has dominated this league. Inconsistency has been the rule. USF has been a team on the cusp for years now, but has yet to capitalize on its great potential. Rutgers -- in the largest Big East media market -- has had more than one opportunity to win its first Big East title, but has failed to do so. Before Strong arrived in Louisville, the Cardinals were a losing team. Cincinnati went 4-8 in 2010.

“I think one of the things that probably has been a criticism of the Big East is we have not had that one team that has been able to carry the flag, so to speak, on a consistent basis as some of the other leagues have,” USF coach Skip Holtz said.

“But I think our strength is in our product, top to bottom. I think it’s going to be hard for one team just to emerge and say OK year in and year out we’re going to be an 11-win football team in this league. It’s going to be a challenge. But it’s making us all better, it’s continually making our product better.”

Coaches continually point to the competitive nature of the league as an advantage. There is not much separating the top from the bottom in 2012. Especially without West Virginia, a team that probably would have been the unanimous preseason choice to win the Big East. The Mountaineers are ranked No. 11 to start the season.

Instead, you can easily point to major questions for all of the preseason favorites.

Louisville has only nine seniors and is still extremely young. USF, picked to finish No. 2, was 5-7 a year ago. Rutgers and Pitt have new coaches; Cincinnati has new starters in place at quarterback, running back, defensive line and linebacker. Those are the top five teams in the Big East preseason media poll.

“Each year, there’s somebody different that steps up,” said Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, 2011 Big East coach of the year in 2011. “I don’t think it’s replacing West Virginia. When you look at the product that’s on the field this year, I really believe this will be the most competitive, balanced Big East in the history of our conference.”

With just about everybody fighting for a Big East title.

“I don’t think there’s a team in this conference that doesn’t see an opportunity to win the Big East championship,” Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said.

Let the competition begin.

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