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July 17, 2007
NEWPORT, R.I. ? The crowd of reporters surrounding West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez underscored the changing national perception toward the Big East.
"Three or four years ago there were two guys coming to see me," Rodriguez quipped Tuesday during the Big East Media Day at the Hotel Viking, "and one of them was related to me."
The Big East's renaissance season of 2006 has caused the rest of the nation to take a new look at the league that was staggering just a few years ago.
Dismissed as an afterthought after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big East made a compelling argument last year that it deserves its spot at the BCS table.
"The demise of the Big East football conference was greatly overexaggerated," Rodriguez said.
The Big East went 32-8 in non-conference games during the regular season ? including an 11-7 mark against BCS foes ? and won all five of its bowl games. The Big East had three representatives ranked among the top 12 teams in the final Associated Press poll: No. 6 Louisville, No. 10 West Virginia and No. 12 Rutgers.
"That was Cinderella last year," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said. "We're tired of talking about being Cinderella."
The Big East instead wants to prove it can consistently rank among the top conferences in the nation. It wants to be known as a league that annually produces national championship contenders and legitimate Heisman Trophy candidates.
And the Big East won't get that kind of respect until it can prove 2006 wasn't an aberration.
"People are still going to be thinking it was just like a miracle year," Syracuse strong safety Dowayne Davis said. "They're still going to think it's a basketball conference."
Davis' statement proves it's going to take quite some time for the Big East to remove the collective chip from its shoulder.
Big East players have grown tired of all the taunts that their teams can't compete with the best of the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten or any other larger or more established BCS leagues.
South Florida center Nick Capogna heard all those comments while playing in a state that features two Atlantic Coast Conference teams and one SEC power. Capogna said the skepticism surrounding Big East football started even prior to Miami's departure before the 2004 season.
"Three years ago, we were looked down upon," Capogna said. "We were the (league) from the BCS that was only there because of Miami. When Miami left, it was, 'I don't know why you guys are still playing.' Obviously when you go 5-0 in bowl games, when we go home, we're on equal footing now. They look at you eye to eye. I'm glad it happened, because I knew this conference could play with anybody."
Skeptics might argue that the Big East is still looking up at most of its BCS counterparts.
The Big East lost all four of its regular-season non-conference games last year against teams that ended the season in the AP Top 25 (Ohio State's 37-7 win over Cincinnati, Virginia Tech's 29-13 victory over Cincinnati, Wake Forest's 24-13 win over Connecticut and Wake Forest's 20-10 triumph over Syracuse). The Big East's only victory over a non-conference team in the final AP Top 25 came when Louisville defeated Wake Forest 24-13 in the Orange Bowl.
"I think we're getting more respect," Rutgers defensive tackle Eric Foster said, "but I think people are still questioning whether or not we're for real as a conference."
Big East representatives have plenty of reason to feel confident.
West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers appear in just about everybody's preseason Top 25 poll. The league has four preseason Heisman Trophy candidates in West Virginia teammates Steve Slaton and Pat White, Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and Rutgers running back Ray Rice.
"I think this league is a lot stronger than it was a year ago," Tranghese said.
South Florida travels to Auburn on Sept. 8. Cincinnati plays host to Oregon State two nights earlier. Louisville goes on the road to face Kentucky on Sept. 15.
If the Big East can win two of those three games, it can take a giant step forward in proving 2006 wasn't a fluke.
"I feel the Big East is one of the strongest conferences in college football," West Virginia safety Eric Wicks said. "Last year just proved that, and this year coming up will probably prove it even more."
The next five months should determine whether Wicks' bold prediction was folly or foresight.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.