Thursday night saved the Big East in 2006. Four years later, Friday nights and neutral-site games are doing their part to help league teams, too.
When USF travels to Cincinnati, it will be the third of four consecutive weeks in which a conference game was played on a Friday night. Seeking TV exposure and revenue, Big East games have found a home on Friday nights rather than Thursday nights on ESPN.
From 2006-08, the Big East played three conference games on Thursday nights each season. Most memorably, back-to-back Thursday games featuring undefeated teams (Louisville over West Virginia, then Rutgers over Louisville) put the rebuilt conference back into the national picture.
But Thursday night has become less of a home in recent seasons, even though the Big East is playing more non-Saturday conference games. In 2009 and '10, the Big East has six Friday night conference games compared to two Thursday night games.
"It brings money to the university and brings money to the conference, and in this day and age, that's really what it's all about," said Connecticut coach Randy Edsall, whose schedule this season includes two games on Friday and one on Thursday. "It's about generating revenue."
Two conference teams also turned to off-campus games to generate revenue. Cincinnati hosted Oklahoma at Paul Brown Stadium, the home of the Bengals, on Sept. 25. And last week, Rutgers was the home team against Army at the new Meadowlands Stadium.
Rutgers received a $2.7 million guarantee from New Meadowlands Corp. for the game, compared to $1.5 million the Scarlet Knights generally would earn from a game at Rutgers Stadium, the Home News Tribune in New Jersey reported.
"What it really boils down to is finances, to be frank with you," Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said. "You get paid a lot of money to play there. ... I'm a proponent of playing at our home stadium; that's why we built and added to it. On the same token, when there's financial opportunity to help your athletic department, you need to do what's best for the school. You're part of a bigger university that's bigger than your football program."
A missed opportunity in recruiting also concerned Schiano. NCAA rules allow recruits to receive up to three complimentary tickets to an off-campus game, but unless prospects are on an official visit that weekend, coaches are not permitted to talk to recruits. At a game on campus, coaches from the home team may speak with both official and unofficial visitors.
If there's another potential downside in recruiting to playing games on Friday, it would be the absence of prospects altogether, either at the stadium or in front of the TV. Most high schools play games on Friday nights.
Cincinnati coach Butch Jones, who also coached in the weeknight-happy MAC, said the positives outweigh the negatives.
"There is a trade-off, but any time your team or your entire conference can get the exposure ESPN presents, it's a great platform," Jones said. "In the long run, it helps your recruiting efforts. With today's technology with DVR and that sort of thing, [recruits are] able to go back and watch the game."
USF coach Skip Holtz isn't as concerned with recruiting new players as he is with the ones currently on his roster. In the midst of a rebuilding season, USF is in the middle of the toughest stretch of its season, at least from a schedule standpoint. In a three-game stretch from Oct. 14-Nov. 3, USF plays twice on the road and not at all on Saturday.
Everybody's working for the weekday
A look at non-Saturday conference games since 2006.
Day of game
The Bulls lost 20-6 at West Virginia last Thursday, and play at Cincinnati this Friday. After an off week, they face Rutgers on Wednesday, Nov. 3.
Monday typically is USF's day off, and players scheduled night-time classes under that assumption. With three weeknight games in four weeks, USF shifted its practice plans but class schedules couldn't be changed.
"All of a sudden, you're a couple of days before a game in a short week and you're setting practice times and you don't have anybody at practice," Holtz said.
And then there's the travel. For last week's game against West Virginia, the Bulls missed some classes on Wednesday, then didn't get back to Tampa until shortly before sunrise Friday.
"The exposure part of it is nice for the program, but I don't think you can measure a young man's academic success in a trade-off for the exposure you're going to receive," Holtz said. "We're going to have to make sure we find a right balance in what we do academically."
Key matchup: Louisville RB Bilal Powell vs. Connecticut RB Jordan Todman. Powell and Todman won't truly go head-to-head, but this will be a meeting of the top two runners in the Big East in a season when the conference title likely will be determined by who has a good rushing attack. After serving as part-timers last season, both have become workhorses for their teams. Powell is third in the nation in rushing at 152.2 yards per game; he has rushed for eight touchdowns. Todman is fourth nationally at 148.9 yards per game and has scored nine touchdowns. Both could be in for big numbers Saturday. Louisville and Connecticut are the two worst teams in the Big East against the run.
Player on the spot: Connecticut QB Michael Box. After switching between QBs Zach Frazer and Cody Endres the past two seasons, the Huskies are headed for another quarterback change. Wednesday, Endres was suspended for the rest of the season for a violation of university of policy. The Huskies' starting quarterback against Louisville hasn't been announced, but it seems likely it would be Box, who has been listed as the backup, ahead of Frazer, since Sept. 25. Box, a redshirt freshman, has attempted five passes this season, all in mop-up duty against Texas Southern.
Numbers game: A season after Cincinnati placed 13th nationally and second in the Big East in turnover margin, the Bearcats rank 108th nationally in that category. Cincinnati was plus-nine in turnovers in 2009 but is minus-six this season. The Bearcats did not lose a fumble last season until a Nov. 13 win over West Virginia; Cincinnati has lost eight fumbles in five games in 2010.
What they're saying
"It's going to be a long road and a long fight, but everyone here at Rutgers, on his team, his family, believe he is going to recover and is going to walk out of there. ... This is going to be a long, long, hard road back. There's going to be a lot of speculation. ... I think it's important we stay away from daily updates. When it is appropriate, we will make an announcement when there is any change in his condition." - Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, on DT Eric LeGrand, who was paralyzed from the neck down after making a special teams tackle against Army
"First of all, Jeff doesn't have an agent, if you want me to be brutally honest. Jeff does not promote himself." - West Virginia coach Bill Stewart, on defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The Mountaineers rank in the top five nationally in rush defense, total defense and scoring defense. Casteel was named Rivals.com national defensive coordinator of the year in 2007
"We have some [offensive] identity issues of our own we've got to handle. ... What can we do consistently and well? What can we do well as an offensive football team?" - USF coach Skip Holtz
Etc.: Pittsburgh DE Greg Romeus (back) is considered "week-to-week," coach Dave Wannstedt said. He will not play against Syracuse on Saturday, but he will be evaluated at the end of this week. ... Louisville CB Johnny Patrick (shoulder) might miss the game against Connecticut. ... Cincinnati WR Vidal Hazelton, who had surgery to repair a torn ACL last month, is hoping to return in time for the Bearcats' regular-season finale against Pittsburgh on Dec. 4, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. ... Rutgers LB Manny Abreu (knee) is injured and will be replaced by Ka'Lial Glaud in the starting lineup. ... USF has not scored a touchdown in two Big East games and has had fewer than 300 yards of total offense in four consecutive games. The 15 combined points against Syracuse and West Virginia was the lowest two-game output in school history. ... How big was Rutgers' overtime win over Army? It enabled the Big East to improve its non-conference record to 23-15 (60.5 percent). The league hasn't had a non-conference winning percentage worse than 60 percent since 2005. ... Pitt S Jarred Holley and West Virginia CB Keith Tandy lead the Big East and are second nationally with four interceptions each. ... USF will consider moving freshman CB Terrence Mitchell to wide receiver. The Bulls' depth chart at receiver already includes a former quarterback (Evan Landi) and a former running back (Lindsey Lamar). ... Two West Virginia players (Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin) lead the Big East in receptions per game, but two Cincinnati receivers (D.J. Woods and Armon Binns) lead the Big East in receiving yards per game. ... USF completed its 2011 schedule by adding Florida A&M and UTEP, giving the Bulls seven home games next season. ... Connecticut G Erik Kuraczea left the team and intends to transfer Kuraczea was suspended from the team for the first four games but started the past two games at left guard.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.