Panthers take Big East by surprise

All season long, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that either West Virginia or Boston College would seize the Big East title and the lucrative BCS berth that goes along with it.

So, what happened?

West Virginia wasn't as good as advertised. Boston College choked in its biggest game in decades. And as a result, the Eagles (8-3) and Mountaineers (8-3) will grudgingly watch Pittsburgh (8-3) in the Fiesta Bowl.

Go figure.

"Everybody counted us out," said Panthers star quarterback Tyler Palko, who led Pitt to six wins in its final seven regular-season games, including victories over WVU and BC. "Everybody, but us."

In this year of transition -- the league lost Miami and Virginia Tech to the Atlantic Coast Conference and added Connecticut -- the most predictable thing about the seven-team Big East was its unpredictability.

Nobody could have envisioned BC's colossal meltdown in the regular-season finale with the Big East title and millions of greenbacks on the line. The Eagles sleepwalked their way to a 43-17 home loss against a Syracuse team that surely pleased league officials by thwarting the ACC-bound Eagles' dream of taking the BCS money.

BC coach Tom O'Brien said afterward that he didn't feel the love from the Big East all season, which is why he pledged not to schedule any games with Big East schools in the future.

The league's reaction? Thanks for coming ... and we feel really guilty about not giving you our coveted BCS berth.

Pittsburgh, meantime, swooped in when BC got swept out. The Panthers were in a four-way logjam for the league title with BC, WVU and Syracuse, but won the BCS berth by virtue of the league's tiebreaker system.

Thank you, Syracuse.

"Hey, I was their biggest fan when they played Boston College," Pitt senior left tackle Rob Petitti said. "They put us into a situation that nobody thought we had a chance to be in. Everybody was talking about all the other teams in the league, West Virginia and Boston College, but they forgot about us. But we just kept hanging around, winning -- and look where we are now."

Predictably, WVU was extremely disappointed with this turn of events. After all, this was supposed to be the Year of the Mountaineer in the Big East, considering 25-of-28 writers said so in a preseason poll. It was finally their chance to race cleanly to a BCS game with Miami out of the way.

"But," Mountaineers QB Rasheed Marshall said, shaking his head. "It didn't go our way."

Regardless of who the Big East would have sent to a BCS game this year, the league was going to get heat for having a BCS berth in the first place. Critics contend the BCS should have cut ties with the conference the day Miami and Virginia Tech moved out.
The contention is that the Big East lacks firepower, which is difficult to argue. The Big East is 5-9 against the five other BCS conferences and 2-5 vs. teams ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25.

Some argue that an 8-3 Pitt team has stolen an opportunity from the likes of Cal, Louisville and Boise State. And, while that might be the case, consider this: Since the inception of the BCS series in 1998, a three-loss team has participated each year.

The Big East contends that it will be better next season with the addition of Louisville (10-1), along with Cincinnati (6-5) and South Florida (4-7). It also believes Connecticut has the makings of a perennial Top-25 program, while the eviction of Temple will make the league somewhat better from top to bottom.

Whether any of that holds true remains to be seen, but this much is certain: The league is tied to the BCS through 2005. After that, conference commissioners will take another look.

"We're playing by the rules," said Pitt cornerback Darrelle Revis. "And, as long as the BCS wants us, we're going to take it."

Most Valuable Player

Pittsburgh's Tyler Palko
Syracuse safety Diamond Ferri came close to wrapping up this honor with his monumental two-way effort against Boston College in the regular-season finale, but Pittsburgh sophomore quarterback Tyler Palko edged him out. Palko has carried the Panthers to an 8-3 record and their first-ever BCS bowl berth with a brash and cocky style. He led comeback wins over Notre Dame and West Virginia in back-to-back games, while becoming the first QB ever to scorch the Irish for five TD passes. He's thrown for 1,570 yards with 16 TDs and two interceptions in his past five games, and put an exclamation point on the regular season with 411 yards and five TDs in a 43-14 blowout win at South Florida. Nobody expected Pittsburgh to grab the league's BCS berth, but Palko's winning personality permeated the entire program. His late-season heroics pushed him past Ferri (141 rushing yards; interception for a TD vs. BC), QB Rasheed Marshall of West Virginia and QB Walter Washington of Temple.

Coach of the Year

Pittsburgh's Walt Harris
Scrutinized and criticized much of the season, Pittsburgh's Walt Harris led his young team to a share of the Big East title and to the league's lucrative BCS berth. The Panthers (8-3) have won six of their past seven and own victories over Boston College, Notre Dame and West Virginia. The Panthers opened with a 2-2 record and Harris was criticized unmercifully on the talk-show circuit and in the press. But he found a way to insulate his team, which features nine first-year starters on offense, and guide it to a fifth consecutive bowl game. This is, by far, Harris' best coaching effort in eight seasons with the Panthers. The question is: Will he be around for a ninth season? The possibility exists that he'll leave on his own volition or be fired. Stay tuned.

Newcomer of the Year

Boston College's Brian Toal
Boston College freshman linebacker Brian Toal made a splash in his first -- and only -- season in the league. BC moves on to the ACC next year. Toal was the linchpin of a defense that yielded just 15.3 points per game and held three opponents below 300 total yards. Although he didn't start until the fifth game of the season, the Wyckoff, N.J., native placed second on the Eagles with 70 tackles. The biggest recruit in coach Tom O'Brien's tenure at BC, Toal will be a dominant force next season in the ACC.

Biggest Surprise

Connecticut's Cornell Brockington
Wideouts Greg Lee of Pitt and Tres Moses of Rutgers were strong candidates, but Connecticut tailback Cornell Brockington gets the nod. In the Huskies' first season in the Big East, the UConn sophomore led the league in rushing with 1,1146 yards and 11 TDs on 223 carries. He had a banner day against Pittsburgh in UConn's biggest win of the season, rambling for 185 yards and a score in front of a national television audience. The cousin of former NCAA and NFL great John Brockington, young Cornell has a chance to be a three-time rushing champion in the league.

Biggest Disappointment

Just when we thought it was time to believe in Rutgers, they pulled the rug out faster than Lucy pulls that ball away from Charlie Brown. Coach Greg Schiano's squad opened the season with a thrilling upset of Michigan State, but lost the following week to Division I-AA New Hampshire. The Scarlet Knights finished 4-7 overall, 1-5 in the Big East, and took a step back from last season, when their 5-7 record represented the fourth-best turnaround in college football. Their four wins this season came against teams with a combined record of 13-30, and they ended the year on a five-game losing streak after a promising 4-2 start. Schiano has a four-year league record of 3-24 and is struggling in his efforts to stop the bleeding in Piscataway, N.J.

All-Big East Team

QB -- Tyler Palko, Pittsburgh
RB -- Cornell Brockington, Connecticut
RB -- Walter Reyes, Syracuse
WR -- Greg Lee, Pittsburgh
WR -- Tres Moses, Rutgers
TE -- Clark Harris, Rutgers
OL -- Adam Terry, Syracuse
OL -- Rob Petitti, Pittsburgh
OL -- Matt Tarullo, Syracuse
OL -- Dan Mozes, West Virginia
OL -- Jeff Berk, West Virginia

DL -- Mathias Kiwanuka, Boston College
DL -- James Wyche, Syracuse
DL -- Ryan Neill, Rutgers
DL -- Tim Bulman, Boston College
LB -- Alfred Fincher, Connecticut
LB -- Brian Toal, Boston College
LB -- Rian Wallace, Temple
DB -- Diamond Ferri, Syracuse
DB -- Adam Jones, West Virginia
DB -- Justin Perkins, Connecticut
DB -- Jahmile Addae, West Virginia

Special Teams
K -- Josh Cummings, Pittsburgh
P -- Adam Graessle, Pittsburgh
KR -- Adam Jones, West Virginia

Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.