NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) -Big East pride is overflowing these days.
Coming off the best season of the post-Miami era - and maybe the best season the league has ever had - the Big East has even greater aspirations in 2007.
There's national title talk in West Virginia and Louisville. Rutgers expects to graduate from lovable upstart to perennial contender. And South Florida is emerging as the fourth big-time program in the Sunshine State.
The Big East has four players with Heisman Trophy buzz in Louisville's Brian Brohm, Rutgers' Ray Rice and West Virginia teammates Pat White and Steve Slaton.
It'll be next to impossible for the conference to replicate in 2007 the positive energy and excitement the league generated in 2006, when in consecutive weeks in November the biggest game in the country was a Big East matchup.
The next step is to maintain the success so it's not such a big deal when the league does well.
``We kind of want to get away from that Cinderella story,'' South Florida coach Jim Leavitt said Tuesday during Big East media day, echoing the sentiments of commissioner Mike Tranghese.
``We're a BCS conferences and the strongest point we can make, I think, is that we don't have to prove ourselves anymore. We are a solid BCS conference. Maybe one of the better ones, maybe not. But we're in the room. We're solid in the room. There's no going back.''
Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers put the Big East's best on display for nationally televised audiences to see in November.
First the Mountaineers and Cardinals faced off in a Thursday night matchup of undefeated teams in Louisville. The Cardinals won 44-34.
The next Thursday in New Jersey, the Cardinals and undefeated Scarlet Knights met, and Rutgers won a 28-25 thriller.
``I think the rest of the country took a hard look and said, 'These people are pretty good,''' Tranghese said.
It hardly mattered that Rutgers was upset the following week at Cincinnati, ending any chance for the conference to have a team play for the national title. The Big East was back, no longer easily dismissed as the worst of the BCS leagues.
The Big East punctuated its regular season by going 5-0 in bowl games, including league champion Louisville's Orange Bowl victory over Wake Forest.
When the final AP rankings came out, Louisville (No. 6), West Virginia (No. 10) and Rutgers (No. 12) were ahead of Miami and Virginia Tech, the two former Big East powers whose departure to the Atlantic Coast Conference after the 2003 season nearly killed the league.
Even in the offseason, the Big East scored major victories. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano was pursued by Miami, and Alabama made a run at West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez, but both decided to stay with their burgeoning programs.
West Virginia and Louisville have replaced Miami and Virginia Tech as the Big East's top dogs. The Mountaineers are the favorite to win the league, taking the top spot in the preseason media poll.
Slaton and White are the twin jet engines in the most dynamic running game in the country. With White at quarterback and Slaton at tailback, Rodriguez's spread offense averaged 303 yards rushing per game.
While Slaton and White are being trumpeted as Heisman candidates, it'll be tough for either of the soon-to-be roommates to outshine the other - which is OK by them. The Heisman hype is best left for other to discuss.
``It's not an everyday topic of conversation,'' Slaton said.
Brohm could have skipped his senior season and been a first-round NFL draft pick after throwing for 3,049 yards last season. New coach Steve Kragthorpe, who replaces Bobby Petrino, helped persuade the quarterback to stay at Louisville.
``I looked at what he had accomplished in the past and kind of got to know him as a person,'' Brohm said. ``I kind of just fell in love with what he was selling to me. I wanted to be back for my senior year and felt like he was the right guy to hire for the job.''
The Cardinals were second in the preseason poll.
Rutgers was picked third and USF, which returns most of the key players from last year's 8-4 squad, was fourth. Cincinnati was picked fifth, followed by Pittsburgh, Connecticut and Syracuse.
Rutgers is coming off the best season in school history. Once synonymous with ineptitude, the Scarlet Knights went 11-2 and won a bowl game for the first time.
Next up? Put last year's euphoria behind them and start chopping away again behind Rice, the nation's third-leading rusher last season.
``Winning that (bowl) game in Texas was a great win for our program,'' defensive tackle Eric Foster said, ``but it's easy to put that behind you when you have a goal bigger than that.''
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