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August 9, 2006

Everyone chasing the top two in Big East

West Virginia's shocking 38-35 upset of Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl made even more surprising because the game was moved to Atlanta gave everyone around the Big East a much-needed sense of pride.

Finally, the league had a win against a big conference power on a BCS stage nonetheless. For the older members of the conference, it was a long awaited moment. They'd spent the previous two years watching the ACC take their best teams away.

Big East coaches, administrators, players and the like must have been even more proud of the way West Virginia won.

The Mountaineers acted like bullies on the Georgia Dome's turf, calling running play after running play. The Mountaineers ended up rushing the ball 63 times for 382 yards.

It was an old-school performance that even an offensive guru like Louisville coach Bobby Petrino relished.

"What I respect most about the Big East is the physicalness of the conference," he said. "This is a very physical, run the ball, hit, big offensive linemen league. We kind of knew that coming in."

Unlike this time last season, Petrino and his Cardinals know they are far from the heavy favorite to capture the Big East title. In fact, they are sharing the spotlight at the top with the resurgent Mountaineers.

The league seems to be revolving around the two programs and their highly anticipated game Nov. 2 in Louisville. The Mountaineers fought off a 24-7 deficit to win a 46-44 shootout in Morgantown in 2005.

WVU and Louisville have both emerged as darkhorses in the national title race.

The new rivals each boast a quarterback and running back that are being hyped as Heisman hopefuls.

WVU quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton combined for 2,080 yards and 24 touchdowns on the ground last season. Slaton ran for 1,128 yards and 17 TDs despite missing three of the first four games. White also passed for 828 yards and eight scores.

Louisville's Brian Brohm tore an ACL with two games left last season and still threw for nearly 500 more yards (2,883) than any other quarterback in the league. Running back Michael Bush, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 247-pounds, missed two games and still led the nation with 24 touchdowns.

The Rivals Five
Here are five rebuilding projects that will shape the Big East title race:
Pitt's interior defensive line: The Panthers had several problems last season, but none were more glaring than their run defense. Pitt ranked next-to-last in the league in that category. Fixing it will depend largely on a group of freshmen and sophomores. Both starting defensive tackle jobs are open and underclassmen Corey Davis, Craig Bokor, Rashaad Duncan and Ernest Williams must start contributing.
Louisville's O-line: Cardinals offensive line coach Mike Summers has some holes to plug up. Three starters are gone up front. Plus, questions about massive tackle Renardo Foster's health remain. He's missed most of the last two seasons with injuries. Guard Kurt Quarterman and center Eric Wood are stabilizing forces, but their new linemates must develop quickly if Brian Brohm and Michael Bush are going to be in the Heisman Trophy race.
Rutgers' deep threat: Multi-dimensional fullback Brian Leonard and tight end Clark Harris are proven targets who move the chains, but with the loss of Tres Moses the Scarlet Knights' biggest need is finding somebody who can stretch the field. It could be senior Shawn Tucker, who averaged 15.1 yards a catch in 2005. Kick returning specialist Willie Foster, who has blazing speed, is another candidate.
USF's running game: No team in the league relied more on one player than the Bulls with Andre Hall in 2005. They don't need someone to match his lofty production, but with the past inconsistencies of QB Pat Julmiste, it's pivotal they find a ball carrier who can grind out four and five-yard gains. Last year's backup, Ricky Ponton will get a chance, but don't be surprised if redshirt freshman Moise Plancher takes the full-time job by midseason.
West Virginia's secondary: Talented strong safety Eric Wicks is back for his senior year, but his partner, strong safety Jahmile Addae and the starting cornerbacks. The good news for defensive backs coach Tony Gibson is that some experienced backups return. Senior safety Abraham Jones and junior corner Antonio Lewis are ready for their turn to shine. Those guys must play like their predecessors to keep WVU in the national title hunt.
Both programs also have proven receiving threats. Brandon Myles, who led WVU with 34 catches and 536 yards, is back for the Mountaineers. Louisville lost its top two receivers, but 6-6 Mario Urrutia averaged a league-high 21.5 yards per reception as a freshman.

With so much firepower it begs the question: Can anyone else in the league catch up with them?

South Florida and Rutgers might be the best candidates and both have good reason to dream big.

USF pulled off a bigger upset than WVU by crushing Louisville 45-14 in Tampa last season, a win that propelled the former Division I-AA school to its first bowl game. N.C. State beat the Bulls 14-0 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

"We are hungry because we had a taste of what it was like to be at a bowl game last year," Bulls quarterback Pat Julmiste said. "The Meineke Car Care Bowl is a good bowl, but we know there are also better bowls out there. We just have to work harder to try to earn a BCS berth."

The Bulls' main obstacle is replacing the league's leading rusher Andre Hall, who was also their leading receiver with 26 catches for 321 yards.

Rutgers, which is coming off its first winning season since 1992 and first bowl trip since 1978 (lost Insight Bowl to Arizona State 45-40), returns its top two offensive players. Versatile fullback Brian Leonard racked up 1,308 all-purpose yards last season and running back Raymell Rice posted 1,120 rushing yards as a true freshman.

Pittsburgh, which was picked to finish second last season ended up a disappointing 5-6, could be the most dangerous team. The Panthers return veteran quarterback Tyler Palko and a defense led by star linebacker H.B. Blades. The Rivals.com Preseason All-American will be helped on defense by cornerback Darrelle Revis.

"Entering the season with a humble attitude is important," Revis said. "Last year, we came in with all the hype, and we figured we would just go out there and win because we were supposed to. I think a humble attitude and better leadership this year will help make us more successful."

Connecticut enters the season with some of the biggest question marks. The Huskies return seven starters from a defense that gave up a league-low 297 yards per game. But, four quarterbacks D.J. Hernandez, Matt Bonislawski, Dennis Brown and Billy Cundiff are fighting for the starting job. After an uncanny string of injuries, Hernandez, Bonislawski and Brown all took turns starting last season; none had much consistent success.

Cincinnati is still in the early stages of a rebuilding process, but the Bearcats could benefit from starting so many underclassmen last season. A league-high 20 starters return, including 10 on defense.

Greg Robinson endured an extremely rocky season in his first year as a head coach at Syracuse as the Orange stumbled to a 1-10 record. A non-conference schedule that includes road trips to Wake Forest and Illinois and home dates with Iowa, Miami (Ohio) and Wyoming will make any kind of turnaround difficult.

The Breakdown: Big East | Preseason All-Big East Team | More Countdown to Kickoff



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