Big East looking to regain national respect

NEWPORT, R.I. – Grab one of the nation's hottest programs in Louisville and two of the other top schools, Cincinnati and South Florida, from Conference USA. Say goodbye to Boston College and drop Temple.
Will that formula allow the revamped Big East to earn some of the respect it lost after Miami and Virginia Tech joined the ACC last year? Many doubt that will be the case, but conference officials, coaches and players are convinced the league can be a power once again.
"Two years ago people were talking about us losing our BCS bid and that we were going out of business," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said at the Big East media days Tuesday. "Now, we've got eight programs all on the upswing through improvements in facilities or play on the field. This is one of the most special days in the league's history and, personally, one of the most exciting for me."
Many members of the national media don't share Tranghese's views, but there are certainly some reasons to believe the Big East has a solid future ahead and will show marked improvement this fall.
Louisville appears poised to join the elite programs now that it has the opportunity to land an automatic BCS bowl bid every year. The Cardinals won C-USA three of the last five years, including a dominating 8-0 run in league play in 2004.
They have also proven they can compete with big-time powers, beating Florida State three years ago and coming within a big play of upsetting Miami at the Orange Bowl in one of last season's most thrilling games.
The Cardinals did lose some key players but return 15 starters and are the heavy favorite to win the Big East. They grabbed 23 of the 24 first-place votes in the preseason media poll.
"I'm a little surprised (by the poll's results)," said Louisville coach Bobby Petrino, whose name seems to pop up with several coaching searches each offseason. "Pittsburgh won the conference last year and is returning 16 starters."
The Panthers, who received the other lone first-place vote, are coming of an 8-4 season that included a trip to the BCS. After Walt Harris left for Stanford, they landed former NFL coach and alum Dave Wannstedt, and the former Miami Dolphins coach doesn't plan to change much when it comes to dealing with his personnel.
"You don't have nearly as much time to practice and you don't have the athletes who are in the NFL," said Wannstedt. "There is also more emphasis on the running game in college. But, I won't change my emotion or personality. I treat my players no differently than I treated them in the NFL."
Wannstedt and his staff, which includes offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, who led Pitt to a national title as a quarterback in 1976, have already been making noise in the recruiting world, landing 12 verbal commitments from the class of 2006. Eleven of the prospects from that group are in-state products, including four-star recruits Dorin Dickerson and Jason Pinkston.
West Virginia landed third in the preseason poll with 145 points – a possible sign that the Big East's depth has improved. A year ago, the Mountaineers were a heavy favorite to win the league title and a dark horse to land in the national title game.
"I think the league was a little underrated last year and now you are basically bringing in five new teams," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. "We have three new programs and two new coaches."
Syracuse hired longtime NFL assistant Greg Robinson, who spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Texas, to take over the Orange program. Robinson is installing a West Coast offense that has created some excitement in a fan base that has had little to cheer about over the last two years after consecutive 6-6 records.
"Greg is an excellent X's and O's coach and a great communicator," Wannstedt said. "He also has a reputation for having a defensive philosophy of applying a lot of pressure and I think he will do a great job."
Another league team, Connecticut, is clearly on the rise. Few programs have been built as quickly as UConn or had so much early success. Despite playing at the Division I-A level for just five years, the Huskies have won 23 games during the last three seasons. In 2004, they went 8-4 and reached their first bowl game, a 39-10 win over Toledo in the Motor City Bowl.
Cincinnati has quietly put together a string of consistent success, winning seven games in four of the last five years. The Bearcats won a share of C-USA crown once and finished as a runner-up three times.
South Florida could end up being a valuable addition. Located in the backyard of one of the most talent rich areas in the state of Florida, the Tampa school with an enrollment of roughly 40,000 students has a roster that includes just five players from outside of the Sunshine State.
Rutgers believes they will be a contender in the league with the return of many of its top skill players, including quarterback Ryan Hart and receiver Tres Moses. With that experienced duo, look for the Scarlet Knights have a chance to be one of the most productive offenses in the league.
Big East Media Day photo gallery