By this time next year the last of the original Big East football powers, Pitt and Syracuse will have departed and the conference will move forward with its great western experiment in an attempt to rebuild from the ashes. But what better week than this, when the Big East owned the ACC, to question if it actually worked out better for the teams who left and college football in general. What if the Big East had won and kept their original members from leaving?
By now we all know the story. First it was Miami and Virginia Tech leaving to be closer to geographic rivals. BC followed then West Virginia filled a hole in the Big 12 and now the Orange and Panthers are set to depart. UConn always flirted with the ACC and some newspaper articles linked the Huskies to the Big Ten -- but nothing came of it but speculation.
In the last five seasons, plus the first weeks of this year, the Big East is 25-23 against the ACC. It should be noted that goes back to the second year in the conference for Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida -- also the second year UConn "should" have been a member of the league (of course they joined early due to the departures of Virginia Tech and Miami -- something that definitely benefitted the Huskies even though they took their lumps that first season). To be fair in the first full season of the new Big East (2005) the ACC beat the Big East in 7 out of 9 meetings. The all time the record in bowl games is ACC 17 to the Big East's 16. They split the bowl meetings over the last three years, the most meaningful game coming in last year's BCS matchup where West Virginia put up a basketball-score-like 70 points on Clemson. This bears emphasizing: before 2005, the ACC was 43-63-1 vs. the Big East (most of that time with Miami and Virginia Tech in the Big East). Since then, the Big East is (slightly) over .500. A lot of this is because the bottom of the Big East has routinely been better than the bottom of the ACC. Check out how many times Rutgers or UConn beats a Maryland or Duke.
Neither league has won a national championship or played for one since Miami was a member of the Big East in 2002 and had their starting QB and RB go down in the second half and the rest of their frightfully-stacked-with-future-all-pro-NFL-player roster couldn't beat the Fighting Clarett's of Ohio State (to be fair, also stacked with numerous pros). The year before, Miami won as a member of the Big East -- its only national title. From the ACC, Florida State went three times, losing twice, and beating then-Big East Virginia Tech to claim the ACC's only title. Arguably the best two teams in the past 5 years from the two conferences combined were 2007 West Virginia, which came 1 game away from likely playing in the BCS title game and 2009 Cincinnati, who would have gone undefeated if their coach didn't quit before their bowl game and they got Tebow'd.
West Virginia, 2007, you might ask? They lost two games. Ah, West Virginia, we can hang a lot of the respect the Big East got the past few seasons on the Mountaineers. It was a good run, no hard feelings. We see why you left. But if we still have the defectors in our league you'd have had no reason to leave and you probably wouldn't have. In 2007, West Virginia was ranked No. 1 going into the 14th week of the season (second to last regular season poll) only to be shocked by unranked Pitt, you know, one of our "mediocre teams" (like the ACC's Maryland, which West Virginia beat by a couple of touchdowns that season). They also lost a road game to then-18th ranked South Florida earlier in the year. They won the Big East by... (well, I'll omit this sentence because then-20th ranked UConn was not 20th ranked after that game). Rutgers was also a top-25 team that season. But other than the Big East and Maryland and Mississippi State, who did West Virginia beat that year? How about third-ranked Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl by 20 points, a team many people thought should be in the title game rather than eventual champ LSU. Sure looks like that Big East schedule didn't get them ready to play (I'll repeat, they lost 2 games in conference that year).
Fishy, right? Not only would the combination of Syracuse, Rutgers, UConn and Boston College (and Temple?) all but guaranteed fan-base dominance of the Big East from Pennsylvania (OK, that's a Penn State, Big 10 state, but it's more a Big East (Pitt) state than an ACC state) all the way to edge of New England. Philly-New York-Boston - seems to be a fairly big TV market, right? Not to mention the basketball revenue and the Big East Tournament at MSG which trumps anything the ACC ever puts out for basketball other than maybe a Duke-UNC regular season game where they are ranked #1 and #2. Syracuse's G-Mac-lead run through the Big East and Cardiac Kemba's run - nothing has come remotely close to these two stretches of play in the ACC tournament.
In short, the teams that were "left behind" or later joiners all improved. Louisville's 2006 season was also one of the best in league history - their only loss that year, the greatest game in the history of Rutgers (I don't need to explain how much they've improved as member of the Big East. Did they even win 20 games the entire decade of the 1990s? In 2006 they were ranked in the top 10.) Adding insult to the ACC, Louisville's big non-conference win that year was a two-touchdown drubbing of the 15th ranked Miami Hurricanes. Had Louisville hung on against the Scarlett Knights, they would have played the Tebows or the Buckeyes in a national title game as well.
South Florida and Rutgers, as mentioned, both became ranked teams for the first time as Big East members. South Florida built a program from nothing and Rutgers from barely anything. How about the Huskies? Give Randy Edsall some credit. Give the entire program some credit. Wins over Notre Dame and South Carolina in the same year, a conference title. Maybe UConn doesn't do this if Virginia Tech and Miami are in the league (don't forget they won their title with West Virginia in the league). Funny too, the teams that have kind of "stayed where they were" or gotten worse in the Big East the past decade, Pitt and Syracuse, are the ones leaving. They both recruit well, but there's been some major coaching issues. Major. How many coaches has Pitt had in the past 5 years? And it seems like every coach that's coached at Syracuse after Pasqualoni has been worse.
Would a stronger Big East have attracted Notre Dame to play football in the conference? Probably not, at least not yet. It sure would have been nice to keep the other Notre Dame sports though and Geno Auriemma just loves beating Muffet McGraw. All the newer adds to the league in football have had some rough patches, but it's tough to lose Brian Kelly, Humanitarian-of-the-year non-candidate Bobby Petrino and then Greg Schiano and Randy Edsall. Maybe you don't lose them if the impression isn't that the league is falling apart. Maybe Schiano and Edsall had done as much as they could.
Those that left? Miami's program has fallen apart - but that has more to do with the fact that half their starters on defense were stealing radios out of cars and finding checks from boosters under their pillows. Boston College, they appear horrible now, but they did play in two ACC conference championship games - both times losing to Virginia Tech - one was in 2007. Imagine those two teams, West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers all in one league. West Virginia likely would have been playing one of them in the Big East title game (and likely winning). Since 2007, Boston College has won fewer games every season. Last year they won four games (funny combination, Maryland and UMass who UConn has beaten this year, NC State who UConn lost to this year, and former Big East member Miami). Virginia Tech is still a power, winning three ACC titles, but then again they lost to Pitt last week. In the past decade, aside from teams led by Phillip Rivers or Matt Ryan, the main competition in the ACC for the Hokies have been Clemson and Florida State. Florida State has been a top 10 recruiting school nearly ever year in the past decade - with little to show for it. Clemson plays a ridiculous out-of-conference schedule every year with Auburn and South Carolina the past few seasons -- but when they had their chance to break through last year they sank in the second half of the season. Pitt and Syracuse -- we'll see. I know they'll love playing basketball championships in Greensboro and Atlanta instead of MSG.
But the important question is - if they stayed, what would it mean for UConn?
On the bad side, I don't think they are playing in BCS game two years ago. We have to admit that was a bit flukey. Edsall's UConn teams were handled pretty easily by teams with superior athletes. They would have had trouble with VIrginia Tech that year -- massive trouble. UConn probably plays in a lot fewer bowl games. Six wins some years may mean scheduling the MAC + FCS teams heavily, going for three or four wins there, hoping to top Pitt, BC, Syracuse and or Rutgers, and then hoping South Florida is scheduled very late in the season in East Hartford so UConn could earn a spot in a bowl game.
On the good side -- recruiting. Want to play against Virginia Tech and West Virginia back-to-back weeks? That's sexier than saying your in the same league as Temple and SMU. Also, the one thing UConn has failed to do is bring in an elite, "name" school into Rentschler Field (this will end next year with Michigan, for one game at least). West Virginia was a dominant program the last decade, but it never drove ticket sales for an entire season. Virginia Tech is probably a bigger draw. Hopefully Boise State can do this as well. But imagine a schedule with a Virginia Tech, Miami (sexy in name only), West Virginia and a non-league opponent like a Michigan. Boston College, also, would have been a bigger "local rival" than Syracuse. That first time BC came in would be a hotter ticket than any game ever played in East Hartford before, am I right?
We can also imagine that if the Big East hadn't been ransacked that maybe it could have selectively added Boise State and Houston or Memphis, or taken a Clemson or Florida State from the ACC. Then the Big East is as good as anyone outside the SEC. Props to the SEC. No one is that good. But I'd love to have season tickets to that home schedule, especially with the talent to compete against it.
At any rate, I'll enjoy a 3-0 week against the ACC and hope the swoons for BC, Pitt and Syracuse continue. Heck, maybe Randy Edsall will be around next year at Maryland (somehow!) to play all three. Who would I root for then?