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Once left for dead, Big East thriving in BCS

When the ACC raided the Big East for three of its stronger member schools in 2003, Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese wasn't sure his league would survive.

After Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech left for the ACC, many college football pundits wondered whether the new Big East was worthy of keeping an automatic spot in the BCS.

Oddly enough, the very postseason system that threatened the Big East's existence has helped it flourish.

One year after the league's darkest BCS moment -- when Big East champion Pittsburgh was routed by Mountain West champion Utah 35-7 in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl -- the Big East enjoyed its brightest moment. No. 11 West Virginia upset No. 7 Georgia 38-35 in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, which was played in the Bulldogs' backyard after damage from Hurricane Katrina forced the game to be moved from New Orleans to Atlanta's Georgia Dome.

West Virginia's upset might have been the defining moment for the new Big East. It gave the seven-team league instant credibility --arguably its biggest victory of all.

"I think the whole thing turned around on the night of the Georgia-West Virginia game in Atlanta," Tranghese said. "It's almost as if everybody up until that point said, 'These guys can't play, they can't play, they can't play.' All of the sudden, we beat the SEC champs in Atlanta and they say, 'Boy, they're pretty good. We better take a look at them.'"

It's hard not to notice the Big East now. Its teams have won BCS bowl games in each of the past three seasons. Louisville beat ACC champion Wake Forest 24-13 in the 2007 Orange Bowl, and West Virginia routed Big 12 champion Oklahoma 48-28 in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

"I think the public has acknowledged that we can stand up and play," Tranghese said. "We're not going to win every game, but our goal is just to be one of those six BCS conferences. We've beaten the champions of the SEC, ACC and Big 12 the last three years. It's a pretty remarkable accomplishment for a conference that people were counting out as being dead."

When the BCS was formed, its rules stipulated that "each BCS conference is subject to review and possible loss of automatic selection by the BCS should the conference champion not have an average ranking of 12 or higher over a four-year period."

Media dubbed it the "Big East rule" because Tranghese's conference seemed to be the only league vulnerable to losing its automatic selection.

Then the ACC raided the Big East of three of its best programs. From 1994-2003, Miami and Virginia Tech combined to win eight Big East championships. The Hurricanes won the 2001 national championship, beating Nebraska 37-14 in the Rose Bowl, and then lost to Ohio State 31-24 in overtime in the title game the next season. The Hokies played in the 1999 national championship game, losing to Florida State 46-29 in the Sugar Bowl.

After the Hurricanes and Hokies left the Big East, the BCS announced each league would be measured by three factors during a four-year period: bowl performance, number of ranked teams and average BCS rating for all conference teams.

Not even Tranghese was convinced his league would meet the BCS litmus test.

"I don't know that you could properly express in words the magnitude of my worry," Tranghese said. "It was off the charts. I went to our people and told them how serious it was and told them the BCS would do it. But I also thought and believed with all my heart that they wanted us to make it. It was in the best interest of college football that a conference with a Northeast presence make it. I felt if we got there or got close we'd get support for that reason. But we had to get there and I had to get our people to stop worrying about it and stop talking about it and just go play."

Who knew the Big East would play this well? West Virginia came within one victory of playing in the BCS Championship Game last season, but lost to rival Pittsburgh 13-9 on the final Saturday of the regular season. South Florida, which didn't start fielding a football program until 1997, won its first six games last season and climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings. Rutgers, which went to one bowl game in the first 131 years of its program, has played in the postseason three consecutive seasons. Even Connecticut was ranked for the first time last season.

"I didn't have a magic wand to say Rutgers is going to be this good or South Florida is going to be this good or Louisville is going to be this good," Tranghese said. "I just knew we had the potential. I just didn't know if we had enough time. I think fortunately a lot of things fell into place very quickly."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.