Officiating problems headline Big East's regular season

No gain.

That's the story of Big East football as bowl season begins.

After trending upward for three years following its near-death experience, the league finally flatlined -- but only after West Virginia came within a few kicks of competing in the BCS Championship Game.

This isn't exactly a crisis. As Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said before the season, "We've gotten to where we want to be a lot faster than any of us [imagined]."

Tranghese will tell you he is pleased with the league's newfound balance, reflected by the fact that four teams (No. 9 West Virginia, No. 21 South Florida, No. 22 Cincinnati and No. 25 Connecticut) currently reside in the BCS standings.

But he also knows the Big East might finish the season without a top-10 representative in the AP poll after starting out with two (West Virginia and Louisville), plus No. 16 Rutgers. And as West Virginia proved two years ago with its Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, a headline act helps a league's reputation much more than a bunch of pretty good teams.

Two of the expected contenders, Louisville and Rutgers, radically underachieved and were supplanted by Cincinnati and Connecticut. South Florida plummeted after a meteoric rise to No. 2 in the country in October. Pitt wallowed in mediocrity for much of the season, while Syracuse scraped bottom.

That left West Virginia carrying the conference torch into its regular-season finale, the 100th Backyard Brawl against archrival Pitt. It proved to be a great night for Pitt but a very bad one for the Big East -- and not only because West Virginia went down.

It's time for Tranghese to fix the league's officiating problems.

Two years ago, the Big East acknowledged its officials erred on an onside kick that likely cost Louisville a victory -- and a conference championship -- in a loss at West Virginia.

Earlier this season, Tranghese admitted his officials made a "terrible" mistake on a noncall that might have cost Louisville a victory against UConn, which wound up sharing the league crown with West Virginia.

In that game, UConn's Larry Taylor signaled for a fair catch but then took off on an illegal 74-yard touchdown return that stood.

"The bad part," Tranghese said two days later, "is that I can't change the call."

Then came the Backyard Brawl, which turned into the Backyard Praftfall for the officiating crew.

Game tape shows a number of missed calls and flat-out wrong calls. Three that stood out: a phantom personal foul on West Virginia linebacker Reed Williams toward the end of the first half, leading to a Pitt field goal; and two highly questionable holding calls on Pitt receiver Oderick Turner in the second half. One wiped out a touchdown; another wiped out a first down as the Panthers tried to run out the clock.

The holding calls garnered national attention and surely would have become a bigger story if Pitt had lost.

The Big East should expect a better performance from its referees -- and its teams -- next season.

In the meantime, the league will try to match its 5-0 bowl record of 2006.

Most Valuable Player

Pat White, West Virginia. The junior quarterback was at his sublime best in the de facto Big East title game against UConn, when he battled through a stomach problem to run for 186 yards and two touchdowns and pass for 107 yards and a touchdown in a 66-21 victory. White said he vomited about 12 times during the game. He made defenders sick all season, doing some of his best work on broken plays. His 50-yard game-winning touchdown run against Louisville was one example. His weaving, 24-yard TD run against UConn was another. As coach Rich Rodriguez put it, "He makes plays when plays aren't there; and when they are there, he makes 'em better." White is 25-4 as West Virginia's starting quarterback.

Coach of the Year

Randy Edsall, UConn. The Huskies were expected to contend for last place, not first, but they wound up sharing the conference crown with West Virginia. Edsall wrung the absolute most out of his team, which took care of business at home with victories over Louisville, South Florida and Rutgers. The blowout losses to West Virginia (66-21) and Cincinnati (27-3) hardly diminish what the Huskies accomplished, especially considering they completed their move to Division I-A football only five years ago.

Newcomer of the Year

LeSean McCoy, Pitt. McCoy began the season as the backup tailback and played on an offense that often was fighting from behind and presented almost no threat of a passing game. Yet, he became the most prolific freshman running back in Big East history with 1,328 yards. He also ran for 14 touchdowns, surpassing Tony Dorsett's school record for a freshman, set in 1973. McCoy was at his best in the victory at West Virginia, when he ran for 148 tough yards on 38 carries against a defense designed to stuff him.

Biggest Surprise

Syracuse's victory at Louisville hardly was expected, but Pitt's 13-9 victory at West Virginia trumped it. The Panthers were a 28½-point underdog and had been outscored 90-40 in their previous two games against West Virginia. Pitt was coming off a 48-37 loss to USF. West Virginia was coming off a 66-21 victory over UConn. There was nothing fluky about Pitt's victory, even if Mountaineers quarterback Pat White missed a good portion of the game with a dislocated thumb. The Panthers' defensive line handled West Virginia's front, stuffed Steve Slaton and held Rich Rodriguez's vaunted spread-option to 104 yards rushing and 2.5 yards per carry.

Biggest Disappointment

Louisville was ranked 10th in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 and was picked to finish second in the conference. Nobody felt good about that prediction after watching Middle Tennessee roll up 42 points against the Cardinals in a nationally televised game. The pundits must have felt even worse when Louisville lost at Kentucky and fell at home to Syracuse. The Cardinals, under new coach Steve Kragthorpe, finished 3-4 in the conference and 6-6 overall, their lowest victory total since going 1-10 in 1997.

All Big East First Team

QB -- Pat White, West Virginia
RB -- Ray Rice, Rutgers
RB -- LeSean McCoy, Pitt
TE -- Gary Barnidge, Louisville
WR -- Tiquan Underwood, Rutgers
WR -- Harry Douglas, Louisville
OL -- Eric Wood, Louisville
OL -- Jeremy Zuttah, Rutgers
OL -- Donald Thomas, Connecticut
OL -- Greg Isdaner, West Virginia
OL -- Jeff Otah, Pitt
K -- Art Carmody, Louisville

DL -- Terrill Byrd, Cincinnati
DL -- Keilen Dykes, West Virginia
DL -- Johnny Dingle, West Virginia
DL -- George Selvie, USF
LB -- Scott McKillop, Pitt
LB -- Ben Moffitt, USF
LB -- Danny Lansanah, UConn
CB -- Mike Jenkins, USF
CB -- Mike Mickens, Cincinnati
S -- Eric Wicks, West Virginia
S -- Haruki Nakamura, Cincinnati
P -- Kevin Huber, Cincinnati
KR -- Tyvon Branch, UConn
PR -- Vaughn Rivers, West Virginia

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