NEWPORT, R.I. -- West Virginia was picked to finish first in the Big East in a preseason poll of 24 media members who cover the conference. The Mountaineers received 18 first-place votes; the other six went to Louisville.
West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said he is glad his team, the defending champion and coming off a Sugar Bowl win against Georgia, is so highly regarded, but he knows preseason polls don't mean that much. The Mountaineers also have been picked to challenge for the national title by some preseason magazines and college football Web sites.
"We have high expectations here and we shouldn't have to apologize for having them," he said. "You see schools like Texas and Florida and these other schools who are picked highly every year and nobody is ever surprised. We're trying to get to the point where the surprise is when we aren't ranked highly. We want to be in the top five every year."
Rodriguez said the Big East should be improved this year.
"I think this year it is going to be a challenge. I think Louisville is going to be a great team again, Rutgers is doing a great job, and teams like Pitt and Syracuse, who maybe were down a little last year, are going to be much improved. We are going to have to earn our ranking every week."
Pitt was picked third, followed by Rutgers, South Florida, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Syracuse.
New TV deal lucrative
Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese said West Virginia's Sugar Bowl victory has gone a long way toward changing perceptions of Big East football, but an even more tangible sign is the new television deals with ABC/ESPN and CBS that will be announced next month.
"The football deal alone will surprise a lot of people because we weren't supposed to be able to sell Big East football according to the doom and gloomers," said associate commissioner Tom Odjakjian, who deals mostly with the conference's network partners. "The football deal is very good. It will guarantee a lot of exposure for our programs. The basketball deal, however, is off the charts. Any questions about our conference, if there are still any out there, will be put to rest."
Odjakjian said the new football contract, which begins in 2008, will still have weeknight games. But the ratings for those games have been very good, he said, and they have been national broadcasts. The game of the week package will remain with ESPN Regional but will include more networks because the Big Ten is moving a lot its games to the newly formed Big Ten Network.
Bowls, bowls, bowls
Every conference team has played in a bowl game in the past two years, a claim that only the Big East can make. And with the new bowl lineup, most of the conference will have a chance to play in one this year.
The conference has deals for as many as six slots -- BCS, Gator Bowl or Sun Bowl, Meineke Car Care Bowl, Houston Bowl, Birmingham Bowl and the International Bowl -- although Notre Dame could take one and the Meineke Bowl has the option to take Navy.
While Tranghese is proud of the bowl lineup, he's more excited about what the future holds.
"Think about this, we did all these deals when we were going through being raided and shifting members and scrambling to define who we were," he said. "Four years from now, when we do the new deals, we will be in a much stronger position, so I really anticipate us improving even from where we are today."
No ninth member
Most of the coaches talked about scheduling difficulties with only seven conference games, but Tranghese said the league isn't likely to add another member. "There just isn't any school out there that makes sense and fits academically, geographically, athletically -- I just don't see any schools out there that fit what we are looking for. We are not just going to add someone to solve our football scheduling problem."
Paul Zeise can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1720.