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Friday, January 22, 2010
Looking at the next decade of Big East football

By Brian Bennett

Trying to peer into the future is always a dicey proposition (just look at some of my preseason predictions for proof). So making prognostications about the next decade is even more fraught with peril. One thing I can say with certainty, though, is that the Big East will go through many changes between now and 2019.

Here are a few things I see developing in the next decade:

1. The loss of at least one current member: Another big shift in conference alignment is coming. The Big Ten is currently studying expansion and there could be some new mega-conferences formed by the end of the decade. My bet is the Big East loses one, if not more, of the following three schools: Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

2. Expansion: Even if the Big East doesn't lose any members, expansion will almost undoubtedly happen in the near future. Coaches want a ninth member right now to help with scheduling. While that's not on the immediate agenda, mostly because of the lack of an obvious target, expansion is a topic that's not going away. Whether it's a program like Central Florida or Memphis or an FBS team like Villanova moving up, the Big East will add at least one and probably multiple new teams in the near future.

3. A Big East championship game: Seems inevitable, doesn't it? Once the Big Ten goes to a title game, expect the Pac-10 to add a couple of teams (Utah? Boise State?) and follow suit. That would leave the Big East as the only BCS league without a championship game. Expansion would make it possible and even probable by the end of the decade. The conference could hold the league title game at Yankee Stadium or the new Giants Stadium to capitalize on its New York presence.

4. A football-basketball split: It's kind of amazing that the Big East has managed to keep its unwieldy 16-team basketball, eight-team football arrangement around for half a decade. And I don't think it's in any immediate danger of falling apart. But it just seems too difficult to maintain this alignment together for another 10 years, since the athletic missions of schools like Seton Hall, St. John's and Providence are so different from the football-playing schools. The basketball-only schools will likely get tired of getting their skulls bashed in every week in the nation's most grueling basketball league, while the football side will grow from expansion and want to keep its BCS revenue.

5. New coaches at almost every school: Randy Edsall is entering his 12th season at UConn, while Greg Schiano is beginning his 10th at Rutgers. But as we've seen this offseason, that kind of longevity is becoming increasingly rare. I doubt either makes it another decade without going somewhere else, while I can see newly hired guys like Butch Jones, Charlie Strong and Skip Holtz moving up the ladder if they find success at their new schools. While I can't imagine Dave Wannstedt or Bill Stewart going to another school voluntarily, each turns 58 this season and may not want to coach another 10 years. The only coach I could see holding the same job in 2019 is Doug Marrone, who just completed his first year at Syracuse and is an alumnus who appears genuinely interested in being there for the long haul.

6. A BCS title-game spot: Not since Miami in 2002 has the Big East gained a spot in the BCS title game. But Louisville got close in 2006, West Virginia had it wrapped up in 2007 before losing to Pitt and Cincinnati came within a whisker this past season. Even though the SEC seems to be locking up a death grip on the national title, the Big East will get a team in the big game before too much longer.

7. New rivalries: Having been basically thrown together in its current format in 2005, the Big East lacked a lot of natural rivalries. But that should grow and develop over the next decade. I expect games between the Northeast trio of UConn, Rutgers and Syracuse to really heat up as those teams continue to battle for the same recruiting ground and media attention. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have played for the title the past two years and are turning that into a good rivalry. Same goes for West Virginia-South Florida, as the Bulls have gotten under the Mountaineers' skin in recent years. The Big East will be a better league as it continues to build tradition and animosity between teams.

8. Breakthroughs for Rutgers, South Florida: Rutgers has been building steadily under Schiano, but hasn't gotten over the hump of winning a league title. Expect that to change if the Scarlet Knights don't leap to another conference. With Tom Savage and Mohamed Sanu entering their sophomore years, Rutgers should be strong contenders in 2011 and 2012. South Florida never could get past a mid-pack finish in the Big East under Jim Leavitt. New coach Skip Holtz has the experience of winning conference championships, and with the access the Bulls have to Florida high school talent, South Florida could turn into one of the Big East's real powerhouse programs before the current decade ends.

9: A resurgence for Louisville and Syracuse: In January 2007, you would have ranked Louisville as no worse than the second-best program in the Big East. Three years later, after the disastrous Steve Kragthorpe era, the Cardinals are at the bottom. But new coach Charlie Strong has already brought an infusion of energy and has won several key recruiting battles; the school and its fan base cares too much about winning not to rebound. Syracuse was one of the league's best programs for most of the 1990s and even early into the aughts. Like Louisville, it came crashing down with a regrettable coaching hire -- Greg Robinson. Marrone won't turn the Orange back into a 10-win team overnight, but he's already begun to change the culture and get Syracuse back to its recruiting roots. Both programs will be back in contention in the near future.

10. Pitt and Penn State resume playing: The biggest obstacle to the resumption of the Pittsburgh-Penn State rivalry is Joe Paterno. While I wouldn't put it past Paterno to coach into in his 90s, odds are that he will retire at some point soon. After that, expect the Panthers and Nittany Lions to start up their in-state rivalry again. It makes too much sense not to happen.

What changes do you see happening in the Big East over the next 10 years?