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