NEWPORT, R.I. – A basketball school and a program with just four years at the Division I-A level will heavily shape the Big East's football future.
Cincinnati and South Florida suddenly make up one quarter of the newly revamped, eight-team league. Both were solid in Conference-USA and averaged seven wins a season over the last four years.
Duplicating that kind of success, however, will be difficult for the Bearcats and Bulls, especially this fall. USF and Cincinnati were picked to finish in seventh and eighth place in the Big East's preseason media poll, which was released Tuesday.
The Bearcats did win five of their last six games, including a 32-14 drubbing of Marshall in the Fort Worth Bowl last season. But they return just seven starters – by far the fewest in the league.
Few teams in the nation must replace more than the Cincinnati. Gone are the top eight defensive starters, including defensive ends Trent Cole and Andre Frazier, who combined for 13.5 sacks last season. Gino Guidugil, arguably the greatest quarterback in school history also departed along with the leading rusher and receiver.
Still, second-year coach Mark Dantonio remains upbeat.
"I have never had a team this young before," said the 25-year college coaching veteran, who became just the only other Cincinnati coach besides the legendary Sid Glickman to lead the Bearcats to a bowl game in his first year at the helm. "But we do have 36 lettermen coming back, so we have some experience, and I really like our attitude."
Dantonio also believes the schedule will allow the Bearcats to sustain some rookie mistakes. They face Eastern Michigan, Penn State, Division I-AA Western Carolina and Miami (Ohio) before playing their first Big East game, at Pittsburgh on Oct. 8.
South Florida , located in Tampa, took a step back last season with a 4-7 record. The Bulls finished exactly how a team entering the Big East shouldn't with three straight losses, including lopsided defeats at Cincinnati (45-23) and to visiting Pittsburgh (43-13).
The chances of producing another winning season will fall largely on the shoulders of senior running back Andre Hall, who rushed for 1,357 yards last season.
"Andre is certainly the best back I have been around," said USF coach Jim Leavitt, who attended the same high school as Hall. "That includes my time at Kansas and Iowa."
Still, Leavitt believes defense will be the key to bouncing back, and the Bulls return eight of 11 defensive starters.
"Defenses win championships," he said. "Defense will always be the most important for us."
Regardless of how the coming season starts for the two new Big East teams, they both have reason to believe their long-term futures are solid.
"USF is going to be very, very strong," Leavitt said. "It's only a matter of time. We are in a state with three of the most talented programs in the nation and I believe we can be on par with Florida, Miami and Florida State.
"We are projected to have an enrollment of 60,000 in 10 years and have 100,000 alumni living within an hour of the campus. We have a great location. Tampa is not a bad place to live and we play in Raymond James stadium.
"We also have great facilities. I remember when Miami's facilities stunk and they were good so our facilities should certainly help us in recruiting."
Leavitt and his staff focus heavily on recruiting Florida and have landed some highly touted prospects. Their last class included four-star athlete Carlton Hill from Monticello, Fla., who had a scholarship offer from Miami.
"Miami pounded since the beginning (of the recruiting process)," Leavitt said. "To compete with a team of that caliber and land that type of player shows what we can do."
Dantonio also has a talent-laden backyard from which to grab prospects.
"Ohio is a great state for high school football and Cincinnati has produced the last three state champs," he said. "Now that we are the only other BCS school in the state, we can compete on a scale with the Big Ten programs. We can tell kids that they can possibly go to the Gator Bowl and Orange Bowl now. We can make their dreams a reality."