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State Of The Big East: Blame West Virginia, Pittsburgh & Syracuse

I don't need to tell you Big East Football is a national punchline. ACC mishaps aside, it was already the laughingstock conference of college football before this season. And have you SEEN this season?

The college football world is still coming to terms with the fact that Syracuse is good again and the Orange's success will be treated as something cute and not to be taken seriously until SU wins a game that matters (to the nation).

Pitt might be the best team in the Big East but all the nation knows about them is that they got beat by Utah, clobbered by Miami and even lost to sucky Notre Dame.

West Virginia, once destined to win the conference yet again, has lost two straight to Syracuse and UConn. The former hadn't beaten the Mountaineers since '01 and the latter was considered the worst team in the conference up until that point.

Two-time defending champion Cincinnati sits all alone in LAST place as the only Big East team with five losses.

South Florida, Rutgers and UConn have all turned preseason promise into regular season misery.

Louisville, expected by most to sit in the basement for another year (writing a blog?), has actually put cobbled together a decent season...not that anyone has noticed.

There are no ranked Big East teams (for the second-straight week). There are no Big East teams in the BCS Top 25. And openly calling for the Big East to lose it's automatic BCS bowl bid is beyond the point of cliche.

It's practically a foregone conclusion that the winner of the conference will play in the Fiesta Bowl (who holds the final pick among BCS bids) and get annihilated by the winner of the Mountain West Conference or Western Athletic Conference, sending the Big East spiraling into another off-season of "the Big East doesn't deserve their automatic bid" chatter than no reasonable homer can honestly counter.

The conference slowly and mundanely continues to flirt with expansion, as noted by the NY Post today. By now we've learned this is the go-to way for the Big East to plant expansion rumors. They pop up here every couple weeks...sometimes Villanova is close to deciding, sometimes it's TCU. Now it's apparently every team East of the Rockies not nailed down.

The nation collectively shrugs at this point. Make no mistake, getting TCU would be a major step in the right direction for the conference for various reasons, but ultimately no expansion move or network deal matters if teams don't start winning more football games.

Adding more teams based on short-terms reasons is a bad idea for the conference that needs long-term growth. That said, I think we have to make exception for the possibility of adding TCU. While their market (Dallas) is what ultimately makes them appealing (for reasons outlined here), the Big East would immediately inject a National Title contender into its ranks. And, let's face it, if there's anything this conference needs, it's a legitimate contender.

If there's anything the Big East has lacked since Miami and Virginia Tech took their wares elsewhere, it's a nationally-prominent contender. Furthermore, the conference has lacked an unstoppable juggernaut that can compete with any other program in the nation. Sure, those are few and far between, but we used to have them. Miami was the anchor that kept the Big East relevant for a long time. Virginia Tech briefly took their torch in the early 00's as well.  No matter what was happening the middle of the conference, as long as people know the Big East had a legit football team that could compete on the national level, we got a pass. It's much harder to notice the mediocre when you're staring at the awesome.

I don't need to tell you the Big East has no juggernaut. It doesn't even have a national contender and it hasn't for years. And that's why I think you have to lay the blame at West Virginia, Pittsburgh and, yes, Syracuse for the state of the conference.

Unlike the pro game, college sports are steeped in traditions and legacies. College basketball is designed to let new blood and fringe programs rise up thanks to a big schedule and the NCAA Tournament. College football, however, is designed to keep the newbies out and maintain the status quo. If the powers-that-be had their way, college football would always come down to about 10-15 programs with storied histories and legendary traditions. Your Notre Dames, your Michigans, your USCs and your Ohio States would compete for the spotlight year in and year out and everyone else would just hang out in the background feeling happy just to eat some tablescraps from time to time (which basically sums up the BCS).

So when I leave Rutgers, Louisville, South Florida, UConn and Cincinnati out of the discussion, I'm not playing the "you guys suck" card. I'm looking at it from the point of view of Mr. National College Football Fan a.k.a. The Beano Cookes Of The World. As in, the guy who would rather watch Michigan vs. Ohio State even if they both had losing records over watching 10-1 Rutgers play 11-0 Cincinnati.

No matter how well those programs do and no matter how high they climb, they will always be "less than" in the eyes of Mr. National College Football Fan. When South Florida jumped up to the top of the polls during the season a few years back, it was a novelty, not to be taken seriously. Same went for Rutgers. That is, until those programs provide sustained seasons of greatness. That's how Virginia Tech made the jump from cute story to national contender. You can't be good once or twice. You have be good five times in a row.

It doesn't sound fair, but then again who ever said college football is fair?

So about those three teams I mentioned. WVU, Pitt and SU. They're the only three current Big East programs that can truly save this conference from itself. Why? Because they're the only three that meet all of the criteria necessary to be taken seriously as a national contender right away. They all have strong traditions. They all either have national titles or a history of playing for the title. They all have iconic players, coaches and moments stretching back to the beginning of the 20th century. On paper, everyone expects these programs to be good. Not only that, they're expected to be really good. All the time. Yes, even Syracuse.

Over the last six years, any one of these programs could have, and should have, grabbed the crown of Big East Juggernaut and run with it. And yet none of them did.

West Virginia came closest. They seemed on the verge of greatness in 2005 when they shocked the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl and finished 11-1. By 2007, they were one game away from competing for the national title when Pitt upset them. Rich Rodriguez took the Michigan job a few days later (a chronic issue for the conference) and although the Mountaineers went on to win the Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma, the program has been sliding backwards ever since.

By all accounts, Pitt was supposed to become a nationally-prominent program. About all they've been known for nationally is getting killed on national TV. The Panthers routinely have one of the best recruiting classes in the conference and yet they've only won 10 games once since 2005. "The Wannstedt Factor" is taken into account every time they step onto the field and the higher the expectations, the more likely this team is to lose. Quite frankly, Pitt should be much, much better than they are.

As for Syracuse, what can I say? It sounds ridiculous to so many now but there was a time not too long ago when the Orange were, at worst, the 3rd best team in the conference. Between 2005 and 2008, in a time when the Orange should have been reclaiming their spot atop the conference, Greg Robinson was doing everything he could to find just how deep the Big East cellar went. Doug Marrone is doing a great job but SU is still a ways away from the McNabb heydays. Not to mention the stink of the Greg Robinson Era that will haunt the program for years. The only way SU can shed its label? Win a notable bowl game against a top tier BCS team...and then do it again. And again. Going to a BCS Bowl this year and losing by 50 to a MWC school will not do anyone any favors.

If the conference does indeed invite TCU to join and the Horned Frogs accept, the conference will get an instant upgrade in terms of quality. They'll also get a program that's been routinely ranked in the Top 15 for the last four years...something no current Big East team can say. If the conference has any hope of remaining intact beyond the near future, it's going to have to find a way to build a contender to play alongside TCU. If one of those teams can be WVU, Pitt or Syracuse, all the better. It's their rightful place, might as well take it for once.

Then again, the conference isn't picky these days. Anyone who wants to win 11 games a year and beat Texas in the Fiesta Bowl is more than welcome to do so.