Mountaineers carry Big East load

The Big East got better at the top.

Last season, the conference's highest-ranked team in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll was Boston College at No. 21.

This year, the Big East has two teams in the top 15 going into the bowl season: West Virginia at No. 11 and Louisville at No. 15. It's a good bet that Nokia Sugar Bowl-bound West Virginia will represent the conference better than Pitt did in last year's Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, but that still wouldn't appease the conference's critics, who maintain the Big East shouldn't have the automatic BCS tie-in.

Rest assured, the situation isn't going to change anytime soon.

West Virginia was the biggest story of the season, using a punishing defense and the quick feet of true freshman tailback Steve Slaton and redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White to reel off a season-ending six-game winning streak. The Mountaineers won the conference's game of the year on Oct. 15 at Milan Puskar Stadium, when they erased a 24-7 deficit with about nine minutes remaining to stun Louisville 46-44 in triple overtime.

After sharing the Big East title each of the past two years, the Mountaineers (10-1) have it all to themselves this year. Next up is SEC champion Georgia (9-2) in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2 in Atlanta. West Virginia has lost 11 of its past 12 bowl games, winning only the 2000 Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl.

"We got the BCS game; now it's time to go out and win it," said White, who averaged a Big East-record 8.2 yards per carry this season (minimum: 100 carries) and broke Michael Vick's single-game conference rushing mark for a quarterback (210 yards) by rambling for 220 yards against Pitt. "We just don't want it to end up like the last couple of bowl games we played in."

The other Big East bowl teams are Louisville (9-2), which plays Virginia Tech (10-2) in the Toyota Gator Bowl; Rutgers (7-4), which plays Arizona State (6-5) in the Insight Bowl; and South Florida (6-5), which plays North Carolina State (6-5) in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Rutgers has played in only one other bowl game -- the 1978 Garden State Bowl, where it also met Arizona State (and lost 34-18). South Florida, in its fifth year in Division I-A, will make its first bowl appearance.

An early peek at next season reveals that West Virginia and Louisville should be the front-runners, particularly if junior running back Michael Bush returns to Louisville for his senior season.

Pitt has what looks to be an impressive recruiting class on the way. Rutgers is building a legitimate talent base, and South Florida has as much speed as any team in the conference. UConn should have been better this season but was ravaged by injuries.

Syracuse -- which posted the first 10-loss season in the program's 116-year history -- and Cincinnati have a long way to go. But one of the nice things about the Big East is that a program can go a long way in a short time.

Most Valuable Player
West Virginia's Pat White and Steve Slaton
Neither was starting when the regular season began. Both were starring by the time it ended. Together, they led WVU's rampage toward the Sugar Bowl.

In only eight starts, the speedy Slaton finished fourth in the conference in rushing (924 yards) and scored 16 touchdowns, including a school-record six in the biggest victory of the year, the Mountaineers' triumph over Louisville.

White took over as the starting quarterback in the fourth quarter of that Louisville game, with WVU trailing 24-7, and led a miracle comeback. Despite splitting time with Adam Bednarik for the first half of the season, White managed 875 yards rushing -- sixth in the conference and the second-most by a quarterback in Big East history, trailing only the 889 posted by Temple's Walter Washington last season.

Coach of the Year
West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez
The Mountaineers lost 10 All-Big East selections from last year's team -- including Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry, Kay-Jay Harris and quarterback Rasheed Marshall -- but were barely challenged in the conference, going 7-0 with only one game decided by fewer than seven points.

Rodriguez molded a largely youthful group into an extremely mature one that quickly developed a killer instinct. He also had his team focused enough that it traveled to South Florida last weekend, with a BCS bowl bid wrapped up, and hammered the Bulls, 28-13.

Newcomer of the Year
Slaton/White. See above.

Biggest surprise
South Florida's 45-14 thrashing of Louisville

This game, played Sept. 24 at USF, in both teams' Big East debuts, sent the conference into a tizzy. USF had been picked to finish seventh, while Louisville was picked to win the conference and was a 21-point favorite coming off a 63-27 blowout of Oregon State.

Biggest disappointment

The Panthers, under new coach Dave Wannstedt, came in ranked No. 23 in the AP poll but started 0-3, including a dreadful loss at Ohio. They had one semi-impressive victory (South Florida) all season and finished 5-6, missing a bowl for the first time since 1999.

All-Big East Team
QB -- Pat White, WVU
RB -- Andre Hall, USF
RB -- Brian Leonard, Rutgers
WR -- Greg Lee, Pitt
WR -- Joshua Tinch, Louisville
OL -- Dan Mozes, WVU
OL -- Travis Leffew, Louisville
OL -- Garin Justice, WVU
OL -- John Glass, Rutgers
OL -- Jason Spitz, Louisville
TE -- Clark Harris, Rutgers

DL -- Elvis Dumervil, Louisville
DL -- Terrence Royal, USF
DL -- Ryan LaCasse, Syracuse
DL -- Ryan Neill, Rutgers
LB -- H.B. Blades, Pitt
LB -- Kevin McLee, WVU
LB -- Stephen Nicholas, USF
DB -- Anthony Smith, Syracuse
DB -- Mike Lorello, WVU
DB -- Darrelle Revis, Pitt
DB -- Jahmile Addae, WVU

Special teams
K -- Art Carmody, Louisville
P -- Brendan Carney, Syracuse
KR -- Willie Foster, Rutgers

Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.