Big East shows it's back in the game

Despite losses to ACC expansion, revamped conference has two teams ranked in top 10

National notebook

September 22, 2006|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,Sun Reporter

Three years ago, the idea of the Big East being a football power was unimaginable. Now, the league that suffered an exodus three years ago could be transforming into a power.

Rich Rodriguez, coach of No. 4 West Virginia, is taking a wait-and-see approach while appreciating what he's seeing from the league.

"As I said earlier in the year, look at all the nonconference games that involved Big East teams this year and look at the bowl games at the end of the year and see the results," Rodriguez said. "We're already seeing that the Big East has performed very well."

The Southeastern Conference clearly looms as the power league, with five teams ranked in the top 15. But when it comes to records, the Big East is only behind the Pacific-10 in Jerry Palm's ratings, with a 7-5 mark against major programs (BCS conferences and Notre Dame) and a 12-5 record in nonconference play.

For Rodriguez, it means that the league's perceived weakness should disappear from the list of criticisms rival recruiters would use with high school prospects during the league's period of uncertainty.

"I didn't lie awake at night thinking about it, but you get tired of it," Rodriguez said. "Recruiters from other leagues kept talking about it. That kind of got old. Now, in recruiting circles, you can't say a whole lot about our league."

Evidence of that came last week, when West Virginia and No. 8 Louisville made statements for the conference in nationally televised games - with the Mountaineers routing Maryland, 45-24, and the Cardinals taking the swagger out of then-No. 17 Miami, 31-7.

The wins signal a bright future for Big East football, which took a huge hit when its top three programs at the time - Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College - left for the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Big East has fared far better than the ACC this season, winning four out of the six games between the conferences.

The league finished last season with a signature victory, West Virginia's 38-35 win over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. Beating a yearly title contender like Miami as a follow-up was a major priority for the league, especially with the Cardinals still smarting over a three-point loss to the Hurricanes two years ago.

"In the game against Miami, we felt like we left an opportunity out there," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "So it was very important for us to come back and play well."

Irish annoyed

Need a tip on how to insult foes on the road?

Win the game, as the Spartans did last year against Notre Dame in South Bend. Then you cap your victory, as some players did by planting the school flag into the turf at midfield.

A year later, the Irish - coming off a rout by Michigan - still have that flag image on their minds as they travel to East Lansing to play Michigan State.

Talking about the game during the post-game news conference after the Michigan loss, Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis made reference to "one incident in particular I'll use as motivation."

The Spartans are confident that the Notre Dame players remember what happened.

"If a team did that here at Spartan Stadium, I'd be pretty upset," Michigan State defensive lineman Clifton Ryan told the Associated Press. "They have every right to use that as motivation."

Three and out

Memphis coach Tommy West needed only three games before firing defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn.

In their 1-2 start, the Tigers have been allowing 185 rushing yards per game, even allowing Division I-AA Chattanooga 138 rushing yards.

West said of Dunn's firing, "This decision was based on a confidence issue about our system."

Not an "outrageous injustice," in the words of University of Oklahoma president David Boren after his team's loss to Oregon, but perhaps an understatement.

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