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FOOTBALL | AROUND THE NATION / BIG EAST CONFERENCE

Five Points

September 01, 2006|ROBYN NORWOOD

* Keep an eye on West Virginia and Louisville, and don't worry about the rest. The Big East remains the weakest of the six Bowl Championship Series conferences, and impressive West Virginia, with a soft nonconference schedule, has a chance to get through the season unscathed and make a bid for the title game after other teams slug it out in tougher leagues. Louisville doesn't have as smooth a road, with a nonconference game against Miami on Sept. 16. But if either manages to go unbeaten, expect controversy -- and more questions about whether the league really belongs in the BCS if it doesn't improve on a season when only three of eight teams had winning records.

* West Virginia running back Steve Slaton is a game-breaker, especially combined with quarterback Pat White's running ability in Coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense. Their performances made people take notice of West Virginia when it upset Georgia, 38-35, in last season's Sugar Bowl and finished 11-1. Slaton, then a freshman, had two 52-yard touchdown runs in that game, and his 204 rushing yards established a Sugar Bowl record.

* The Mountaineers are a hot national story this year. But here's a cautionary tale: Last year, so was Louisville, and the Cardinals imploded against South Florida in their third game, a 45-14 loss. Then, quarterback Brian Brohm tore his right anterior cruciate ligament in November. The strong-armed Brohm is back, and so is running back Michael Bush, who scored 24 touchdowns last season. Louisville is promoting both as Heisman Trophy candidates.

* Coach Dave Wannstedt is trying to show he's serious about getting Pittsburgh back to prominence after a 5-6 first season with the remnants of a team that had played in the Fiesta Bowl. Last month, the former NFL coach donated $250,000 to endow a scholarship at left tackle, the position he played at Pitt in the early 1970s. Given recent problems on the offensive line, what he probably really wanted to do was sign a free agent.

* The Big East game of the year should be Nov. 2 when West Virginia plays at Louisville. West Virginia won, 46-44, in triple overtime last season, after Slaton scored six touchdowns and the Mountaineers rallied from 17 points behind. But in a game of offensive stars, the defense could decide it. Louisville gave up an average of almost 24 points a game last season and has lost defensive end Elvis Dumervil, who had 20 sacks and forced 11 fumbles. West Virginia led the Big East by holding teams under 18 points a game, but lost six defensive starters. -- ROBYN NORWOOD

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Quick Facts

* AP preseason top 25: West Virginia No. 5; Louisville No. 13.

* AP final 2005 ranking: West Virginia (11-1) No. 11; Louisville (9-3) No. 19.

* 2005 bowl record: 1-3.

* 2006 favorite: West Virginia.

* Top newcomers: Patrick Carter, Jr., WR, Louisville -- Georgia Tech transfer will handle punt returns and bolster receiving corps; Jeff Otah, Jr., OT, Pittsburgh -- junior college transfer from Valley Forge Military will step in at left tackle; Deantwan Whitehead, Fr., DE, Louisville -- The player they call "Peanut" has the potential to be the next Elvis ... Dumervil.

* Top returning players: H.B. Blades, Sr., LB, Pittsburgh -- Three-year starter will have leadership ability tested with a young defense; Brian Brohm, Jr., QB, Louisville -- Conference offensive player of the year threw for 2,883 yards in 10 games; Michael Bush, Sr., RB, Louisville -- Rushed for 1,143 yards and 23 touchdowns, led nation in scoring; Dan Mozes, Sr., C, West Virginia -- Was a guard until Game 3 last year, now a preseason All-American at center; Steve Slaton, So., RB, West Virginia -- Had 1,124 yards rushing as a freshman, including a Sugar Bowl-record 204 against Georgia.

-- Eric Maddy

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