Once upon a time, there was Big East football.
While you pick your mind off the floor, let me take you on a trip down memory lane, back when Mike Vick did Mike Vick things, and The U brought a championship attitude and looked cool doing it.
Big East football was indeed a real thing, not some kind of dream where Butler and Villanova join the FBS and DePaul finds a sport to win in (zing!). For 22 years, the Big East were a REAL, competitive football conference. They were never on the level of the Power 5 conferences (to say they were even close would be asinine). But Big East football left some wonderful memories that, unfortunately, have faded away.
After a decade of dominance in college basketball, Big East members decided to form a major football conference in 1990. That goal can become a bit of a problem when there are only three Division I-A football teams - Boston College, Syracuse and Pitt - currently in the conference. Villanova was a top D1-AA school, but still have not made the jump to Football Bowl Subdivision, and UConn (later a football member of the Big East) didn't have the budget to make the D1-A move.
So the Big East added where they could. They scoured the east coast, adding West Virginia, Temple, Rutgers and Virginia Tech as football-only schools (they would later join in all sports). They added some credibility to the upstart football conference, but if the Big East was going to compete with the ACC's and Big Ten's of the world, there needed to be a top team to establish instant legitimacy in order for it to succeed.
At the time, Miami was one of the best football schools in the nation, winning three national championships in the 1980s. But with the big money lying in the conferences, The U decided 48 years as an independent was enough. Luckily for the Big East, Miami chose to join the brand new conference.
In Miami's first year in the Big East, they were never ranked outside the top-3 of the AP poll en route to a share of their fourth national championship. Miami would dominate the early years of the Big East, winning nine of the first 13 Big East titles, adding on another national championship in 2001.
The only other schools to win the Big East title during that run were West Virginia, Syracuse and Virginia Tech. Despite the rotating door of Jake Kelchner and Darren Studsill at quarterback, the Mountaineers went on an amazing run in 1993, going from unranked to #2 in the nation before suffering their only loss in a Sugar Bowl blowout to Florida. Virginia Tech took back-to-back Big East titles in 1995 and 96, even upsetting Texas in the 1995 Sugar Bowl.
But Frank Beamer's best team by far came in 1999, led by the dynamic Michael Vick. Vick set a record for passing efficiency by a freshman (180.4) and finished third in Heisman voting, tying Herschel Walker for the highest finish ever by a freshman up to that point. The Hokies absolutely ran through everyone on their schedule - including a 22-20 nailbiter over West Virginia - before meeting their match against Florida State in the national championship game. Syracuse also won back-to-back conference titles under head coach Paul Pasqualoni in 1997 and 98, thanks to another star quarterback: Donovan McNabb (he also played Big East basketball, folks).
Eventually, trying to compete with the power conferences would be a death spell to the Big East. It began in 2004, when the ACC snagged Miami and Virginia Tech away from the conference, followed by Boston College a year later. Thanks to Temple's poor play and even poorer attendance numbers, they were kicked out of the conference as well. The Big East called on Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida to replace the three schools, and added Connecticut as a football member a year earlier than initially planned.
The Big East continued on, starting with West Virginia in 2005. The Mountaineers fell flat on national title hopes the previous year, leading many experts to expect a third-place finish at best for Rich Rodriguez's crew. Rich Rod would turn to redshirt-freshman Pat White, who along with running back Steve Slaton, drove West Virginia to an 11-1 record, including a triple-overtime thriller over Louisville, finishing with a classic win in the Sugar Bowl over Georgia. White and Slaton would go on another run in 2007, coming within one win of a BCS championship berth. But in the 100th Backyard Brawl against Pitt, one of the best rivalries in Big East football, LeSean McCoy and the Panthers stunned West Virginia on the road, 13-9. The Mountaineers would have to settle for a Fiesta Bowl bid, rolling over Oklahoma, considered by some to be the best team in the country, 48-28.
Who could forget the many programs that took the east coast by storm? The Mountaineers would continue on as the cream of the crop, winning a share of the Big East regular season title in 2010 and 2011, and blowing out Clemson 70-33 (not Marshall or a Sun Belt school, Clemson) behind the arm of Geno Smith. Cincinnati would go back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, including an undefeated regular season that led the way for head coach Brian Kelly to jump ship to Notre Dame. Rutgers made a return to relevancy in the 2000s, and Pitt kept adding top NFL talent like McCoy, Larry Fitzgerald, Darrelle Revis and Jeff Otah. Even South Florida and UConn got in on the fun - USF was ranked as high as #2 in 2007, and UConn made their first major-bowl appearance in the 2011 Orange Bowl.
The last Big East champion would leave one of the conference's greatest memories. Bobby Petrino and Louisville rode Brian Brohm to a conference title and an Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest in 2006. But it was in 2012 when head coach Charlie Strong and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater led the Cardinals to an 11-2 record, where they were two-touchdown underdogs against the Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. Lousiville would pick off Gator QB Jeff Driskell on the first play from scrimmage, taking it back to the house, while Bridgewater added two touchdowns on their way to a stunning 33-23 victory in the Superdome.
If that was the way the Big East would go out, at least it went out on top.
Realignment would rear its ugly head once more. Syracuse and Pitt would defect for the ACC, and West Virginia would bounce for the greener pastures of the Big 12. TCU, one of the top mid-majors in the nation, had accepted an invitation to join the Big East, but later withdrew and fled to the Big 12 as well. The conference tried to regroup, adding Houston, Southern Methodist, Central Florida, Boise State and San Diego State, but once Boise State bowed out, San Diego State decided not to join as well.
Although Navy and Memphis agreed to join a few months later, the Big East was already dead. After the news broke that Rutgers and Louisville were departing for the Big Ten and ACC, respectively, the Catholic 7 - the Big East's remaining non-football members - decided to split and form their own conference, eventually taking the Big East name with them.
Big East football was no more. The remaining members left to form the American Athletic Conference, while the Big East returned to what it originally made its mark in - basketball.
The Big East would be the biggest casualty of conference realignment - a conference without a big program, held afloat by a few top-15s and a bunch of mid-majors pretending to belong in a power conference, before it met its inevitable demise. Is it missed? You'll get a difference response depending on who you ask. But one thing is for sure: the Big East, as it does on the hardwood, left an indelible mark on the college football landscape.
Share with us your fondest memories of Big East football in the comments below, and let us know who you think is the greatest team in Big East history.