Big East bowl picture comes into focus on Saturday

Back in mid-September, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino wondered aloud why so many people insisted that his team's Nov. 2 game against West Virginia would be the de facto Big East championship.

"Everybody's saying, 'West Virginia-Louisville,'" Petrino said. "I think there will be more players in it than that."

There's one more, anyway -- and No. 13 Rutgers (10-1, 5-1 Big East) happens to be the only one that controls its fate going into the final weekend of the regular season.

If the Scarlet Knights win Saturday at No. 15 West Virginia (ESPN, 7:45 p.m. ET), they will clinch the Big East's automatic BCS bowl berth and a spot in the Orange, Rose or Sugar bowl.

Wait a minute, Rutgers in the Rose Bowl?

It's not only a distinct possibility but also the best scenario for the Big East, because it's the only one that would allow even an outside chance of two league teams getting into a BCS bowl game. The second team in that scenario would be No. 6 Louisville (10-1, 5-1), which would lose a tiebreaker with Rutgers for the automatic bid but would have a slim chance of sneaking in as an at-large team if it beats visiting UConn on Saturday (ESPN, noon ET).

"We certainly feel like we would deserve to be in there, now that we're ranked sixth in the BCS," Petrino said.

The easier path to a BCS bowl would be a victory over UConn and a Rutgers loss, which means Louisville fans could find themselves in a position more uncomfortable than any they might have encountered in a game of Twister.
They could be rooting for West Virginia.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Cardinals running back Kolby Smith received a supportive message this week from West Virginia safety Kent Richardson, a former high school teammate in Tallahassee, Fla.

"I told him we need them to pull it out for us," Smith told the newspaper. "He said they were going to do it, so hopefully that statement comes true."

One-time league torch-bearer West Virginia (9-2, 4-2) isn't thrilled with the prospective role of spoiler, but here's the catch: Its BCS bowl hopes would be very much alive if UConn pulls an upset. A Louisville loss and a West Virginia win would create a three-way tie atop the league standings, with Rutgers, West Virginia and Louisville each having a 1-1 record against the other two.

The highest-ranked team in the BCS standings would then be awarded the automatic BCS bowl bid. Louisville is sixth in the current standings, Rutgers 13th and West Virginia 15th. It's not out of the question that West Virginia could vault past Louisville.

All of which will have Mountaineers fans glued to their television sets at noon on Saturday, cheering for the Huskies. It won't be the first time. UConn made West Virginia's road to the Sugar Bowl that much easier late last season with a victory over South Florida.

"I think we were West Virginia's best friend last year, too," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "I know there will be people pulling for us, but I tell you, we have a difficult challenge in Louisville, as the people from West Virginia know [the Mountaineers lost that Nov. 2 game, 44-34]."

Has Edsall received any encouragement from West Virginia fans?
"I haven't gotten any e-mails; I haven't gotten any percentage of ownership in any coal mines," he said. "I don't know what the favorite food down there is. I haven't gotten any of that, either."

Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez figures his team will have sufficient motivation no matter what. For one thing, West Virginia's class of 2006 could break the school's all-time record for victories with win No. 37.
The Mountaineers are coming off a crushing 24-19 home loss to South Florida, but it's not like they would turn down an invitation to, say, the Gator Bowl.

"I would think you work all year for 12 ball games in hopes of playing a 13th," Rodriguez said. "We have a lot at stake, from the standpoint of the game's at home, and it's a national TV game with bowl implications. And the fact that our seniors could finish with the most wins ever from a senior class at West Virginia, to me, is a big, big motivation."

Rutgers, meanwhile, is aiming to complete its amazing turnaround under coach Greg Schiano. It was only five years ago that Schiano, in his first year, left Morgantown on the wrong end of an 80-7 score.

"By the end of that day, it had been bad for so long, I was pretty much numb," Schiano said.

He probably had a similar feeling Nov. 18, when the Scarlet Knights were ambushed in Cincinnati and lost their perfect season. But the way Schiano views it, that's the nature of the Big East these days. Nobody goes unscathed.

"Our league reminds me of the old Big Ten," he said. "They eat each other up all year, and by the end, everyone has one or two losses because it's so darn competitive."

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese obviously wasn't thrilled with the possibility that West Virginia's loss last weekend cost his league an at-large bid for a BCS bowl game and the $4.5 million prize that goes with it, but he insists he wasn't bent on a certain outcome.

"I never root in games," Tranghese said. "I learned that a long time ago. That's a lot of money, but it's not the issue. There are two sides to every game. I know West Virginia is very, very disappointed, but I tend to focus on the fact that South Florida went into West Virginia and played very well. When we reconfigured this conference, I told everybody that South Florida had a huge, huge upside, and I think we're beginning to see it.

"I said the same thing when Cincinnati beat Rutgers. Everybody was saying, 'Well, gee, Rutgers lost, it's the end of the world.' Well, it isn't the end of the world. I'm disappointed for West Virginia, but very pleased that the folks at USF are going to go back to a bowl game two consecutive years. The money part of it, you just can't focus on that. If it's there, it's there, if it isn't, it isn't, and you move on.

"Overall, as a league we have to be pleased. We have three teams in the top 15. We're going to have our champion competing [in the BCS], and we still have a chance to get a second team in there. I'm not convinced that has been settled yet. I think the depth of our league is one of our strengths, and, if anything, we're going to get better."

Added to the intrigue of the final weekend is the fact that Big East coaches are popping up on wish lists everywhere. Cincinnati just lost its coach, Mark Dantonio, to Michigan State. Petrino, Schiano, Rodriguez and USF's Jim Leavitt are being mentioned as candidates for openings at either Miami, Alabama or both.

Tranghese was asked if he is concerned the Big East might become a stepping-stone league for coaches.
"I'm more worried if people don't want our coaches," he said.

He added that most Big East schools have hefty buyouts in their coaches' contracts, so if other schools want them, "They're going to have to pay a hefty, hefty price."

The Big East likely will have five bowl teams. USF appears to be headed for the Papajohns.com Bowl Dec. 23 in Birmingham, Ala., and Cincinnati likely is on the way to the inaugural International Bowl on Jan. 6 in Toronto.

The ideal scenario, of course, would have been for a Big East team to go unbeaten and play for the national championship. Many observers expected the winner of the Louisville-West Virginia game to do exactly that, but it wasn't to be.

The Scarlet Knights spoiled the party. Now it's time to see if West Virginia can spoil theirs.

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