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Big East steps up in biggest bowl games

The chorus of naysayers has taken aim at the Big East for what feels like an eternity. Like it or not, they had a point in recent years. Leagues and teams are judged by their performances in big games.

And be honest here -- the Big East had fallen flat in its biggest games.

You will remember Brian Bennett writing all about that last season, after the Big East lost its third straight BCS contest. Big East fans can talk all they want about posting overall winning records during bowl season, but nothing leaves a conference looking finer than a huge victory on the national stage.

Even if that team is exiting the conference.

Love 'em or hate 'em, the West Virginia Mountaineers turned the spotlight squarely on themselves and the Big East this bowl season, after they scored a bowl-record 70 points in a thorough domination of Clemson in the Discover Orange Bowl. It was such a complete and utter beatdown, not one national pundit has uttered a peep about the "Big Least." Instead, they have pointed their finger at the continued failure of the ACC in the BCS games.

There is no doubt the Big East needed a victory like this one. Clemson came in as ACC champs, ranked higher than West Virginia and with more victories than West Virginia. The Tigers were a top-10 team at one point in the season, and they were rendered powerless against the full offensive and defensive assault the Mountaineers unleashed.

Cincinnati also delivered a nice win over Vanderbilt in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, giving the Big East two teams ranked in the final Top 25 (two more than last season I might add). Rutgers beat Iowa State, the team that took down Oklahoma State, in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl to give the league a 3-2 record in its bowl games.

Those three victories served to develop an interesting story line: there was a clear top, and a clear bottom.

The Big East had just five bowl eligible teams this year, the first time since 2007 that has happened. It ended with four teams posting losing records, just the third time that has happened since 1999, and the first since 2005. This is a league that coaches praise for its parity, and there was plenty during the regular season -- with three teams sharing the conference crown.

But most every coach agreed that the Big East needed to have a clear group of teams rise to the top in order to help its national perception. That happened during bowl season. From my vantage point, it seems the barrage of criticism has at least slowed down a bit, and much of that is because West Virginia and Cincinnati won.

Now, this is all a good first step. The biggest lesson that should be learned from this bowl season is this: the Big East has to continue to perform at a high level on the biggest stage.

Teams must build on this bowl season.