Big East looks to Louisville, WVU for gridiron cred

It was only 60 minutes. Well, 15 minutes, 50 seconds, to be exact.

But West Virginia's four-touchdown barrage against SEC champion Georgia in last season's Sugar Bowl in the Georgia Dome, in which the underdog Mountaineers jumped out to a 28-0 lead in their thrilling 38-35 victory, might have meant more to the Big East than what any team accomplished in the conference's first 15 years. Bigger than Miami winning two national championships during its 13 seasons in the conference, and more important than Michael Vick leading Virginia Tech to the national title game in 1999.

On the night following New Year's Day, West Virginia saved the Big East, and the conference might still be on life support without that monumental victory, commissioner Mike Tranghese said more than seven months later. The Mountaineers' victory proved the Big East could still play with college football's big boys, even without Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, the trio of teams that were pirated away by the ACC.

"That's what winning a football game does," Tranghese said, during an interview last month at the Big East's preseason news conference. "I just think when West Virginia beat Georgia last year it quieted everybody down. I think people thought if you could go into Atlanta and beat the SEC champion, you obviously were a pretty good football team from a pretty good football league."

Indeed, the Big East is trying to get more mileage from West Virginia's victory in the Sugar Bowl than what a cross-country trucker gets on fresh tires. The Mountaineers beat a good Georgia football team that had just whipped LSU 34-14 in the SEC championship game in the same building a month earlier. The Bulldogs were playing in front of a home crowd, after the Sugar Bowl was moved to Atlanta because of the destruction in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Despite its surroundings, West Virginia bowed its neck and stunned Georgia with an early onslaught. The Bulldogs nearly rallied to beat the Mountaineers, pulling to within a field goal with 5:13 left. But Georgia never got the football back in the final five minutes, after West Virginia gained four first downs, the last one on a gutsy fake punt on fourth-and-6.

The Mountaineers, with their musket fire and cheers of "I told you so," loudly celebrated a surprising victory in their first Bowl Championship Series game. And, for one night at least, the Big East wasn't the Big Least anymore.

"We operated in a very difficult environment last year because there were so many negatives every where we went," Tranghese said. "I think all of it changed because of that one ball game."

West Virginia, along with Louisville, carried the Big East's football hopes on their backs last season, and those two teams will undoubtedly do so again this year. It will take the Big East several seasons to recover from losing perennial powerhouses Miami and Virginia Tech, in addition to a solid Boston College program that has won six consecutive bowl games. (Those three teams, it should be noted, have won 75 percent of their ACC games the past two seasons.)

The Hurricanes and Hokies were the best two teams in the Big East, and Boston was one of its most lucrative television markets. It was like the SEC losing LSU, Florida and Auburn all at once. Or the Pac-10 sans USC, California and Oregon.

"I think the ACC knew what they were doing," Hokies safety Aaron Rouse said. "They went out and recruited the best teams from the Big East."

After the bleeding stopped, the Big East added Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida to create an eight-team conference. Still, some fans questioned whether the Big East was now strong enough to deserve its automatic berth in the BCS, the controversial system that places the champions of college football's six power conferences and four at-large teams into the five richest postseason bowl games.

Then the anti-Big East sentiments reached a fever pitch after the 2004 season, when Pittsburgh won the conference with an 8-3 record and then was trounced by Utah 35-7 in the Fiesta Bowl.

But Louisville and West Virginia addressed those concerns last season. The Cardinals, who had finished 11-1 in their final season in Conference USA in 2004, were expected to navigate just as easily through the Big East for an automatic BCS spot. But West Virginia stunned Louisville 46-44 in a memorable triple-overtime game last season. Suddenly, the Big East had a two-team race and its first rivalry.

"I'd love to have a great rivalry with them," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "Certainly, that rivalry can grow."

And the Big East will continue to grow. The conference has four Heisman Trophy candidates: Brian Brohm and Michael Bush at Louisville and Pat White and Steve Slaton of the Mountaineers. Petrino and West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez are considered two of the brightest coaches in the country. West Virginia is a popular choice to play for the national championship. Yet Louisville might be the better team. The teams' Nov. 2 clash in Louisville (ESPN, 7:30 p.m.) could be one of the most anticipated games of the season.

Most important, West Virginia's meteoric rise at least gives the Big East some breathing room.

After realignment, the conference kept its BCS spot because it met the requirement of having its champion finish, on average, in the top 12 of the final BCS standings the previous four years.

Tranghese was allowed to include Miami and Virginia Tech and the conference's incoming teams in that average.

Beginning this season, however, the Big East and the other five power conferences -- the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC -- will be scrutinized strictly on the next four years. So by the end of the 2009 season, if the last four Big East champions haven't had an average BCS standings finish of No. 12 or better, the conference would be in danger of losing its automatic BCS berth.

But with Louisville and West Virginia on board, Tranghese has no such concerns.

"The perception of our league is a lot different than a year ago," Tranghese said.

West Virginia's and Louisville's lofty positions -- the Mountaineers are No. 5 and the Cardinals No. 13 in The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll -- give other Big East teams time to rebuild and continue to develop. Rutgers finished 7-5 last season and played in its first bowl game since 1978, losing to Arizona State 45-40 in the Insight Bowl. South Florida finished 6-6 and played in its first bowl game ever, losing to North Carolina State 14-0 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C.

Pittsburgh and Syracuse struggled under new coaches last season, but both programs have too much tradition and too many resources to fall off the football map completely. Connecticut seems very close to doing what Rutgers did last season, and Cincinnati played in a bowl game only two seasons ago.

"It's a very well-coached conference," Petrino said. "I think it's getting better and better. You look at Rutgers and all of the players they have coming back. Pitt keeps getting better through what they're doing in recruiting. And, of course, we don't have to say a word about South Florida. We're going in the right direction."

Only one season after enduring the full effects of the ACC's raid, it could be argued the Big East is in better position than where the ACC was before Miami and Virginia Tech joined the conference two years ago, followed by Boston College last year. Instead of one team dominating the conference -- Florida State won ACC titles 12 times in its first 14 seasons in the conference -- the Big East at least has two teams carrying its banner.

And Louisville and West Virginia could both play in BCS bowl games this season, something the ACC is still waiting for two of its teams to do.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.