- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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When John Marinatto presided over his first media day as Big East commissioner this summer, he recalled the words of his predecessor, Mike Tranghese, at the same event in 2005.
"I remember Mike saying that, unlike other conferences, virtually any team could win our league title and get to a BCS bowl," Marinatto said. "And in some respects, that's more true now than it was then."
Welcome to the 2009 Big East, a strange jumble of questions and equality, where five of the eight teams have been picked by somebody this preseason to win the league and six of the eight must be considered legitimate contenders.
Most power conferences are vertical, with the power flowing from the top down (Florida in the SEC, Oklahoma and Texas in the Big 12, USC in the Pac-10, etc.). The Big East shapes up as almost wholly horizontal, with very little separating the best, the worst and the protruding middle.
"Is there a difference between being wide-open and being really deep?" Rutgers coach Greg Schiano asked. "I don't know. I'd agree with both [assessments]."
One man's merit, however, is another man's mediocrity.
The Big East enters the season without a single team in the Top 25 of either major poll. How rare is that? Since the Big East formed in 1991, every preseason poll has featured at least one team from the "big six" conferences. In fact, there have been only three poll weeks in the past 18 years when the Big East has failed to put a team into the rankings.
Compare that to the SEC, which has five teams in the top 13 of both preseason polls. Or better yet, don't.
"I don't think anybody in this room is brazen enough to compare ourselves to the SEC," Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly said at Big East media day. "Their depth and resources are exponentially larger than those in the Big East. So I don't think that's even a question."
To illustrate that point, Cincinnati reported football revenue of $13.6 million last year after winning the Big East and going to the Orange Bowl. Florida, by contrast, reportedly generated more than $38 million in football revenue.
Still, it was just three years ago when the Big East could claim to play with anybody. In 2006, three teams -- Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia -- all were ranked in the top 10 late into November. And in 2007, West Virginia was all set to play in the BCS title game before getting knocked off at home by Pittsburgh.
"You don't have to go back 10 to 20 years in this conference, or even five years ago," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "Realistically, we could have had two teams playing for the whole ball of wax in the last three seasons."
The reasons for the current apparent downturn are many, from the mass exodus of talent to the NFL -- the Big East had 27 players drafted in April, the most draftees per team of any league -- to the coaching transitions at Louisville and West Virginia to just the cyclical nature of college football.
On the flip side, there always is opportunity to be had in a crisis. And in the world of the BCS, the Big East is the land of opportunity.
Imagine trying to build a program in the Big 12 South, where you have to overcome Oklahoma, Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State just to reach the conference title game. Or the SEC West, where you'd have to knock heads with Nick Saban and Les Miles. The Big Ten (Ohio State, Penn State) and Pac-10 (USC) have their behemoth bullies as well.
In the Big East, though, all you need to reach the BCS is to navigate seven conference games. Heck, Rutgers doesn't have a single current Top 25 team on its schedule. Last season, despite starting 1-5, the Scarlet Knights stayed in contention for the league title until the end and were a 13-10 loss at Cincinnati away from a BCS bid.
Teams such as Utah and Boise State want Congress to help them gain easier access to the BCS? Maybe they should just try applying for Big East membership. Give us your huddled masses yearning to be paid.
"I've always said that I think we have the straightest and smoothest path to the BCS," Schiano said. "You've got to beat seven teams, and if you do that, you know you're going to the BCS. End of conversation. There's no championship game, so you don't have to worry about that."
The league has helped catapult previously outsider programs to the top of the sport. Conference USA imports Louisville and Cincinnati have both been to the Orange Bowl in the past three years. Rutgers, which played college football's first game and then went more than a century before being relevant again, nearly sewed up a BCS bid in 2006 before losing in triple overtime in December at West Virginia. South Florida has reached the top 10 each of the past two seasons and has the talent to win the league this time. Connecticut tied for the regular-season crown in 2007 and could be a sleeper this season.
It doesn't even take a perfect run through the conference to make the BCS. In the past three years, the Big East champion has had at least one league loss. In 2007, West Virginia went to the Fiesta Bowl with a 5-2 conference record.
"Since we don't have as many games and there's not a championship game, I think that makes every game that much bigger," South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said.
The 2009 Big East season could end up looking a lot like last year's ACC, when the results were unpredictable from week to week and hardly anyone was ever out of the title picture. Several teams have a chance to exceed their moderate expectations.
Pittsburgh is athletically gifted and just needs competent quarterback play. West Virginia could regain its previous status if Jarrett Brown and the offense recapture their explosiveness. Cincinnati has the league's best coach in Kelly and a topflight passing game led by Tony Pike. South Florida has assembled hordes of speedsters and boasts the league's two biggest names in quarterback Matt Grothe and defensive end George Selvie. Talented young players are emerging in training camps right now.
There is hope on the horizon from this horizontal league, which, after all, has won three of its past four BCS games.
"It's good to have depth," Marinatto said. "Now, when you talk about national presence, you've got to step outside your league and show yourself. I think each year becomes a proving ground for the Big East."
It's also possible that someone could slip into the BCS with several blemishes, like when Pitt went to the 2005 Fiesta Bowl with an 8-4 record. That might make Orrin Hatch's head explode.
But that's what can happen in the land of opportunity. Don't expect the Big East to apologize.
"The path to the BCS has always been about what we do in conference play," Kelly said. "Yeah, we want to beat Oregon State and Illinois [in the nonconference schedule]. But I don't care what our record is at the end of the day. If we win more games in the Big East than anybody else, we won't be walking with our heads down. I guarantee you that."
Brian Bennett is ESPN.com's Big East football blogger.
Welcome to the Big East. It's a land of equality where six teams are legitimate contenders for the title.