Gone is the Big East. Say hello to the American Athletic Conference. The American isn’t beginning a new era in 2013, so much as it is transitioning for its future.
The overwhelming preseason favorite Louisville Cardinals are spending their final year in the former Big East before leaving for the ACC. Louisville is the sixth program to move to the ACC in the 21st century, joining Virginia Tech, Miami, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
Longtime Big East mainstay and 2012 co-conference champion Rutgers is on its way out for the unusual fit of the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights join another recent departure, West Virginia, as a former Big Easterner setting up shop in the Midwest.
Obviously, the conference now known as the America has been in a constant state of flux over the last dozen-or-so years. That’s eight departures, and three false starts with TCU, Boise State and San Diego State all balking at originally accepted invitations.
Even as former Conference USA members replenish the ranks, as they have in years past, there’s no guarantee that the tides are calming. Connecticut and Cincinnati are both frequently mentioned in the unrelenting hum of conference realignment rumors.
The American nee Big East is a decided outsider in the Mean Girls world of college football.
The BCS is on its way out, and the American was left out of the College Football Playoff’s “Group of Five” — those conferences with priority for tournament entry and premier bowl games. Other conferences chose up sides to ensure they had dates to the proverbial postseason prom: Notre Dame flirted with the ACC. The Big 12 and SEC paired up. The Big Ten and Pac-12 carved their initials and a heart onto a tree of roses.
Left out is the American.
ESPN, as the alpha of the college football clique, helped lead the movement against the Big East/American. Broadcasts of Big East games last year almost invariably turned into criticisms of the conference’s quality of play, its instability, and so on. The Worldwide Leader even pulled the plug on the conference’s .com blog. Ouch.
Still, the American has an opportunity to begin with a bang. In its last year with automatic access to the postseason’s top tier, the American has a very real opportunity to crash the party.
Louisville ended 2012 on the high note of not just beating, but dominating the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. The Cardinals’ more-lopsided-than-indicated 33-23 win completed a season in which the Big East went 4-1 against college football’s most celebrated conference.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater put his name on the national radar in that Sugar Bowl, and enters 2013 as a legitimate Heisman contender. With Bridgewater captaining a potentially explosive offense, and outstanding, defensive-minded head coach Charlie Strong on the sidelines, the Cardinals have the right leadership for a special season.
UL plays a favorable schedule. An undefeated regular season is a very real possibility, and the last two national championship games have featured teams with a loss. Could the BCS justify bypassing an automatic entrant with a perfect record in favor of a team with a blemish?
Of course, that’s a question that can only be answered if the American produces an undefeated team. There’s hardly a guarantee that happens. Last year, UL, Rutgers and Cincinnati were all co-conference champions. All were defeated twice in league play.
All three should again be atop the conference, and all are capable of beating one another. Their three-game round robin was decided by a combined 13 points last season.
Connecticut is always good for an in-conference upset or two every year. The Husky defense is always tenacious, and features at least one NFL talent on an almost annual basis. Linebacker Yawin Smallwood is the guy this year.
The American also welcomes a 10-win team in UCF. The Golden Knights bring a team perhaps more talent than last year’s C-USA East-winning bunch. Dual-threat quarterback Blake Bortels is a dynamic play maker, and the UCF defense is regularly among the nation’s stingiest.
New blood in the conference’s coaching ranks will impact the landscape. UC replaces Butch Jones with tenured Tommy Tuberville, the leader of an unbeaten SEC champion at Auburn. Taking over at USF is Willie Taggart, one of the game’s best young leaders. Taggart turned once-winless Western Kentucky into a bowl team. Imagine what he can accomplish in talent-rich Tampa.