Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Big East Could Land Two Teams in Top Bowls

The Big East Conference has fallen out of the race for the national championship, but an enticing prize is still within reach. If Louisville and West Virginia win their remaining games, the league could put two teams in Bowl Championship Series games for the first time.

West Virginia is seventh and Louisville ninth in the current BCS standings. Winning out would leave both the Mountaineers and Cardinals 11-1 and would require WVU defeating No. 14 Rutgers on Dec. 2. Louisville would claim the conference crown (and automatic BCS berth) by virtue of its win against West Virginia.

But West Virginia could have enough strength to be picked ahead of the loser of fourth-ranked Florida vs. sixth-ranked Arkansas in the Southeastern Conference championship game, either of which will have at least two losses.

BOWL PREDICTIONS: Complete 2006 lineup

"Without studying it closely, I know there is a chance for two Big East teams," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said Monday. "A few years ago we weren't considered worthy of one spot."

The conference took a big hit when perennial powers Miami (Fla.), Virginia Tech and Boston College left for the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the addition of Louisville and the resurgence of league originals WVU and Rutgers have helped the Big East rebound.

"Putting two teams in BCS bowls would put to rest a lot of questions about the viability of the Big East as a conference, not only in terms of how competitive we are but how attractive our teams are in the marketplace both to the bowls and television," said Nick Carparelli, the league's assistant commissioner for football. "We were left dead and buried two years ago and took a huge step forward this season. There are more steps to take, but we've moved a little quicker than we expected."

Because of the way the guaranteed spots could play out, there might be only one at-large bid available among the five BCS games. Decisions will be finalized Dec. 3. A breakdown:

Ohio State and Southern California are in at least the Rose Bowl, but realistically Ohio State is in the Tostitos BCS Championship on Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz., by virtue of its No. 1 BCS standing.

Should analysts be correct in predicting USC would move to the No. 2 BCS spot by defeating Notre Dame and UCLA, that would put the Trojans in the title game. The Rose Bowl then would have lost both anchor teams the Big Ten and Pacific-10 champs. The Rose can fill its slots first from the at-large pool but after anchor teams for the other bowls are decided: SEC winner to the Sugar, Big 12 winner to the Fiesta and ACC winner to the Orange.

Based on tradition, the Rose certainly would pick Michigan of the Big Ten. At worst, the Wolverines will be among those eligible to be selected (at least nine victories and at least 14th in the BCS standings). If they are third in the BCS standings as an at-large (with conference member Ohio State the automatic), the Wolverines also would be an automatic selection. They could even be automatic as the No. 4 BCS team.

As for the other Rose spot, Notre Dame looms, and the Irish are always attractive for any bowl. They are assured of a BCS bid by being in the top eight of the final BCS. Should they lose to USC, the Irish might fall below No. 8, knocking them from automatic but keeping them eligible. The Rose would have to decide if it wants a rematch of Michigan's win at Notre Dame in September or a team from the East such as West Virginia or Florida, should they be available, or even a 10-2 LSU.

After the Rose Bowl fills both its spots, the other three BCS games can pick their teams from the at-large pool and Big East winner. By rule, the selection order is based on the dates closest to the title game: Allstate Sugar (Jan. 3) goes first, then FedEx Orange (Jan. 2) and Tostitos Fiesta (Jan. 1).

The at-large pool could have some interesting teams. BCS No. 11 Boise State is guaranteed a spot if it finishes in the top 12 thanks to a new inclusion rule designed to help teams outside the big six leagues. The Tostitos Fiesta on Jan. 1 is the most likely destination.

The Big East champ would be Louisville if it wins out and West Virginia beats Rutgers. That leaves an exciting 11-1 West Virginia offense available possibly as high as BCS No. 5.

The loser of the SEC title game will have at least two losses. LSU, No. 10 in the BCS, already has two losses.

The only other one-loss team in the top 10 under that scenario would be Wisconsin. By rule, no conference can have three teams in BCS games, so the Big Ten's Badgers (11-1) would be out.

Another possibility, though unlikely, could scramble the picture. Provisions exist for bowls and leagues to make deals that move anchor teams to create more attractive matchups or avoid rematches. Would the Sugar Bowl want local favorite LSU (if it beats Arkansas) enough to make a deal for the Orange to take possible SEC champ Florida? And if Boise loses to Nevada ...

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