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West Virginia carries weight of defending Big East

ATLANTA -- Downgraded. Diluted. Downtrodden. West Virginia has heard all the criticisms of the so-called Big Least.

As if the Mountaineers don't have enough to worry about with battle-tested Georgia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl on Monday, there's the added pressure of propping up the reputation of their beleaguered conference.

"I still don't think nobody wants to give us a chance," said West Virginia quarterback Pat White. "They don't think there's competition in the Big East. They don't think we can compete."

There's no doubt the conference lost its luster after Miami,
Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted to the Atlantic Coast
Conference.

Naysayers said the Big East, which debuted in football more than
a decade ago, lacked a dominant program and didn't deserve an
automatic Bowl Championship Series berth.

The criticism didn't cease despite the addition this year of Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati.

No. 11 West Virginia (10-1), picked to finish third in the Big
East this season, shared or won the outright conference title for
the third straight season to earn its first BCS bowl bid.

Nevermind that the Mountaineers played only five teams with
winning records in the regular season.

Nevermind that they're ranked lower than six two-loss teams,
including No. 8 Georgia (10-2).

"I can't worry about what everybody else thinks. We're here," West Virginia safety Jahmile Addae said Thursday. "Whoever else is not here and wants to gripe about it, that's obviously their
problem.

"I've been here for five years. We've been the underdog and
always come out on top. We've been winning the Big East since Miami
and Virginia and all those teams were in our conference."

With those heavyweights now gone, Big East teams went 19-13
against non-conference competition this season, including 0-6
against ranked opponents.

How the revamped conference fares in bowls may also help shape opinion of its renewed vitality.

The Big East went 2-3 in 2003, which was the final season for Miami and
Virginia Tech, and 2-2 a year ago, when Boston College was in its
last season. Their void allowed others to earn rare postseason
berths in 2005.

Rutgers got its first bowl bid since 1978, losing to Arizona
State in the Insight Bowl. South Florida, which started playing
football in 1997, will make its first bowl appearance on Saturday against N.C. State in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

The conference's other bid went to No. 15 Louisville, which
meets No. 12 Virginia Tech in the Toyota Gator Bowl. The league would have
had a fifth bowl-eligible team had Connecticut not lost five of its
final six games.

"Certainly there has been some criticism in recent years, but I
haven't heard any in recent months," said Nick Carparelli, an
associate Big East commissioner.

"We're real excited about where we are. We have two legitimate
top 20 teams. West Virginia and Louisville, their impact players
are young players who are going to be around for a couple of
years."

West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez doesn't sense any added
pressure of carrying the Big East's banner and doesn't want his
players to feel it, either.

"The league has gotten bashed a little bit. And we're the
smallest league, too. I think that has something to do with it,"
he said. "We don't have 12 teams in our league. It's an easier
target to say, 'hey they're not worthy.'

"We've got a lot of proving to do, but so do a lot of other
people. There's teams in the BCS bowls that don't have as good a
record as we do. You could say they had a tougher conference
schedule. I don't know. I just worry about us."