How good is Big East football? Depends on whom you ask, but these two points are indisputable:
1. The conference is very much alive, contrary to the dire forecasts of three years ago, when Miami and Virginia Tech bolted for the ACC, followed a year later by Boston College.
2. It's getting better every year, particularly at the top.
In 2004, the Big East's highest-ranked team at the end of the year was No. 21 Boston College, and its BCS representative (Pitt) was trampled by Utah in the Fiesta Bowl.
Last season, the Big East finished with West Virginia at No. 5 and Louisville at No. 19 and saw conference champion West Virginia ambush SEC champ Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
This season, the Big East boasts three teams in the top 16 -- No. 5 Louisville, No. 13 West Virginia and No. 16 Rutgers -- going into bowl season, where it will pit Louisville (11-1, 6-1) against ACC champ Wake Forest on Jan 2 in the FedEx Orange Bowl.
West Virginia (10-2, 5-2), Rutgers (10-2, 5-2), Cincinnati (7-5, 4-3) and South Florida (8-4, 4-3) also qualified for bowls, giving the conference one more bowl representative than it had last season. Now it's time to see if the Big East can improve on its paltry bowl record of 1-3 last year (and 3-6 since Miami and Virginia Tech left).
A good bowl showing would complement the league's outstanding '06 nonconference record of 32-8. The .800 winning percentage was tops in conference history, though it's a bit misleading. Six victories came against Division I-AA competition, and the Big East was just 1-3 against ranked teams.
Still, other conferences obviously are impressed with the Big East. Why else would they be courting so many of its coaches?
Cincinnati's Mark Dantonio took the Michigan State job last week. Miami went hard after Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, who opted to stay put. Louisville's Bobby Petrino and South Florida's Jim Leavitt, both of whom have drawn heavy interest in recent years and likely would have again, publicly announced they were not candidates for other jobs.
Alabama thought they had West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez before he decided to return to Morgantown.
The players didn't lack for national attention, either. Rutgers tailback Ray Rice and West Virginia stars Steve Slaton and Pat White figured prominently in Heisman Trophy talk for much of the season. White became the first player in Big East history to pass for 1,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in the same season. Two others -- Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm and tailback Michael Bush -- had their Heisman hopes derailed by injuries, though Brohm bounced back to become the best player in the league in the final three weeks.
If Brohm returns for his senior year (there's a chance Bush could return, too, after missing 11 games with a broken leg), the Big East will be teeming with star power.
In the middle of the pack, Cincinnati and South Florida each scored a mammoth upset. Cincinnati beat then-No. 7 Rutgers 30-11 on Nov. 18. USF won at West Virginia 24-19 on Nov. 25.
Pitt (6-6, 2-5), UConn (4-8, 1-6) and Syracuse (4-8, 1-6) are running in place. Pitt was bowl-eligible but didn't make the cut after losing its last five games.
Most Valuable Player
Quarterback Brian Brohm, Louisville
Slaton, White and Rice might have been more dynamic, but Brohm was the best player in the biggest game and the best player down the stretch, as Louisville won its first Big East title.
Brohm led the Big East in total offense per game (278.0) and passing yards per game (273.8). He ruined West Virginia in a 44-34 victory Nov. 2 -- a game in which Slaton lost two critical fumbles -- by completing 19 of 26 passes for 354 yards and a touchdown.
After a shaky outing against Rutgers, Brohm caught fire down the stretch. In Louisville's final three games, he completed 60 of 90 passes (66.6 percent) for 952 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception.
Coach of the Year
Bobby Petrino, Louisville
West Virginia was a near-consensus choice among media members to win the conference. Louisville won it largely because Petrino was able to rally his team after what could have been a season-crushing loss at Rutgers. The Cardinals blew a 25-7 lead in that game but rebounded nine days later to hammer USF 31-8. USF promptly won at West Virginia.
Petrino also lost Heisman Trophy candidate Michael Bush to a season-ending injury in the first game and Brohm to a thumb injury for two-plus games. Louisville scored the Big East's most impressive nonconference win -- the league's only victory over a ranked team -- with a 31-7 blowout of then-No. 17 Miami. The Cardinals also did something Texas could not: win at Kansas State without their starting quarterback.
Newcomer of the Year
Quarterback Matt Grothe, USF
Grothe was 12th in the nation overall and first among freshmen in total offense (258.5 yards per game). In the Big East, he finished third in passing yards per game (207.9) and 10th overall in rushing yards per game (50.6). He made several unbelievable plays, twisting out of tackles and throwing on the run. In his final game, he led the Bulls to the rousing victory at West Virginia.
The Bearcats were picked to finish seventh in the conference but wound up tied for fourth, largely on account of their program-lifting, 30-11 victory over then-No. 7 Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights also had a better-than-expected season but lost two of their last three games. The Bearcats might have been an even bigger story if they hadn't played easily the toughest nonconference schedule in the conference, with trips to Ohio State and Virginia Tech. They also went to the final play at Louisville before losing 23-17.
The Panthers garnered some preseason votes in both polls and were picked to finish third in the conference but lost their final five games -- their first five-game Big East losing streak since 1998 -- to finish 6-6 and mired in sixth place. Some key injuries on the defensive line set the stage for the season-ending collapse. Pitt's final three opponents (UConn, West Virginia, Louisville) combined for 139 points and 1,621 yards. West Virginia's home loss to USF also could qualify in this category. It was a season-killer.
All Big East Team
QB - Brian Brohm, Louisville
RB - Steve Slaton, West Virginia
RB - Ray Rice, Rutgers
TE - Clark Harris, Rutgers
WR - Mario Urrutia, Louisville
WR - Harry Douglas, Louisville
OL - Dan Mozes, West Virginia
OL - Eric Wood, Louisville
OL - Darnell Stapleton, Rutgers
OL - Kurt Quarterman, Louisville
OL - Jeremy Sheffey, West Virginia
K - Art Carmody, Louisville
DT - Amobi Okoye, Louisville
DT - Eric Foster, Rutgers
DE - Jameel McClain, Syracuse
DE - Jamaal Westerman, Rutgers
LB - H.B. Blades, Pittsburgh
LB - Stephen Nicholas, USF
LB - Kevin McCullough, Cincinnati
CB - Darrelle Revis, Pittsburgh
CB - Trae Williams, USF
S - Eric Wicks, West Virginia
S - Dominic Ross, Cincinnati
P - Joe Radigan, Rutgers
KR/PR - Ean Randolph, USF
Joe Starkey covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.