In a sport ruled by tradition, it's understandable that the pratfalls of Michigan and Notre Dame have overshadowed the rise of the college football's Johnny-come-lately power, the Big East Conference.
Michigan's plummet from preseason national-title contender to national punch line has been so rapid that it has even overshadowed one of the worst starts in Notre Dame's history. Yet while the negativity surrounding those two schools dominates headlines, the Big East quietly continues its march up college football's pecking order.
The conference's recent history reads like the rising of the phoenix. It lost three marquee programs, Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech, in 2004 and 2005. Yet today, the Big East is a better overall league than the ACC to which those three schools bolted.
Rutgers's climb to join West Virginia and Louisville in the ranks of the national elite gave the conference some much-needed credibility last season. A nation's best 5-0 mark in bowl games brought even more. The ability of West Virginia and Rutgers to keep their coaches from departing for higher-profile programs this winter sent a message about those schools' longterm commitment to football.
But even the architect of the Big East's resurgence, commissioner Mike Tranghese, knows that only depth can bring his conference the respect of the type the SEC is afforded. Tranghese had to be smiling when South Florida managed to beat Louisville and West Virginia the past two seasons. Those losses hurt the title chances of the conference's marquee teams, but they also proved that the league as a whole was getting better.
Last weekend brought even more good news for the Big East. South Florida staged its most noteworthy upset, winning at Auburn in overtime. It was the second time the Big East has stung the SEC in recent seasons, following West Virginia's upset of Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl.
In a sport where a list of top teams from 50 years ago often closely resembles those of today, South Florida's rise is even more stunning than that of the conference as a whole. The Big East's football history dates only to 1991, but the Bulls did not begin play until 1997. The program competed in the former Division I-AA for four seasons before moving up to college football's top level. Now, in just its seventh season in I-A, the Bulls are threatening to contend for the Big East title and BCS bid.
Jim Leavitt has been the head coach at USF since day one and appears to have no intention of cashing in on his success by going to a larger program. Alabama has actively courted him during two different coaching searches, and last season he was also on Miami's short list of contenders to replace Larry Coker.
For two decades, the state of Florida was ruled by its big three powers — Florida, Florida State, and Miami. Yet, in under a decade, Leavitt has built a program that today might be the state's second best. He's done it by recruiting the commodity the state produces in excess: speed. South Florida figures there is more talent in-state than the top three programs need — the same school of thought that has led Florida Atlantic and Florida International to launch Division I-A programs in recent years.
If Leavitt's team is better than Florida State and Miami right now, it's because of quarterback play. Both the Seminoles and Hurricanes have struggled recently with defense-heavy teams that couldn't move the ball. South Florida has no such problems. Sophomore Matt Grothe was named the state's high school player of the year as a senior, but was passed over by larger programs because of his size (he's listed at 6 feet).
Grothe is a pass-run threat who contributed 215 yards of total offense in the win over Auburn. He could also start for both the Hurricanes and Seminoles right now. Those who would dismiss South Florida's success as a fluke might want to think again. Though it is primarily a commuter school, USF'senrollmentofnearly45,000 students is ninth-largest in the nation. The university has upgraded its athletics facilities and plays its home games in Raymond James Stadium, home to the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
A win at Auburn is the kind of result that puts a program on the map long-term. Though South Florida will never again fly under the radar, the Big East may already have its next "sleeper" program.
It didn't receive nearly the attention of the USF win, but two days earlier, Cincinnati throttled Oregon State on national TV. The Beavers beat USC last season and came into the contest off a dominating win over Utah, but left on the wrong end of a 34–3 score.
Cincinnati is also no stranger to upsets. The Bearcats played spoiler to Rutgers last season, knocking the Scarlet Knights from the ranks of the unbeaten in November. This year's team appears even better than last season's International Bowl champions, despite a new head coach.
Brian Kelly was hired from Central Michigan to replace Mark Dantonio, who departed for Michigan State. Kelly's own rise in the coaching ranks makes him a good fit for the Big East. He led Division II Grand Valley State to 118–35–2 record in 13 seasons before leaving for Central Michigan, where he immediately turned around one of the MAC's worst teams.
If his success continues, Kelly will also draw the interest of larger programs. His name is already surfacing on the Michigan message boards as a desired replacement for Lloyd Carr.
These are heady times for the Big East. Outside of bottom-feeder Syracuse, which is ironically the league's most tradition-rich program, its teams are a combined 14–0. The conference is staring at another series of late-season, can't-miss games. And those teams that left for the ACC? Virginia Tech and Miami lost by a combined 79 points on Saturday.
Mr. Levine is a writer for FootballOutsiders.com.