Canes Unscathed at Media Day

Considering the number of accusations brought upon the University of Miami by the Big East in the last several months, one might have expected the Hurricanes to be banned from the league's annual Football Media Day, Wednesday at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

But despite getting ready for their final season in the Big East after accepting an invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, starting with the 2004-05 season, the Hurricanes were received with open arms as their conference counterparts put the burden of moving on without UM and Virginia Tech on themselves. Virginia Tech also accepted an invitation to join the ACC in 2004-05.

The departure of the Hurricanes and Hokies to the ACC will leave the Big East without its two premier members and possibly a six-team football league heading into the 2004-05 season.

And even though Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, along with a host of school presidents and athletic directors, has already started lobbying in an effort to add teams as league football members, those already in the Big East agree that they need to move forward with whoever is currently on board.

"It's really up to all the teams that are left to step up," said Pittsburgh head coach Walt Harris, who guided the Panthers to a 9-4 record last season, including a victory over Oregon State in the Insight.com Bowl. It marked the first time Pittsburgh recorded more than seven victories in a season since joining the Big East in 1991. "Its not going to help in any way to sit here and lament over something we have absolutely no control over. Hopefully, we're just all up to the task of stepping up."

Harris said that he doesn't think the Panthers' season-finale against the Hurricanes Nov. 29 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh has any added significance because it will be Miami's last game football game as a Big East member. With both teams expected to contend for the conference title and a spot in the BCS, Harris doesn't need to worry about what the game will represent in the long term.

"Hopefully we're in it Nov. 29 and get a chance to do something special. That's the way I'm looking at it," Harris said. "All that other stuff really doesn't concern me at all."

Even though most of the coaches and players present Wednesday downplayed the league's future without the Hurricanes and Hokies both teams are largely responsible for putting the Big East on the map.

Miami and Virginia Tech have accounted for the Big East's representation in three of the last four national championship games, and four straight top-two finishes in the last four seasons.

"You can't overlook what those two schools have done for this conference but it's time to move on," said Harris.

But before UM goes anywhere the Hurricanes will have to deal with something they are accustomed to- high expectations. Miami received 21 of 24 possible first-place votes in a poll made up of Big East media to win the 2003 conference title. The Hurricanes set a Big East scoring record for the third consecutive season with 527 last year, while leading the league in pass defense allowing 119.69 yards a game.

The Hurricanes received 188 points in the poll outdistancing Pittsburgh (156), who was picked to finish second this season. And if everything stays in form the Hurricanes will live up to the projections, according to junior tight end Kellen Winslow.

"If we do what we're supposed to nobody can handle us," said Winslow, who led the Hurricanes last season with 57 receptions. "There is just too much talent on this team for anybody to deal with."

UM senior linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who led the team with 133 tackles last season, also garnered plenty of attention on Wednesday. The 6-2, 208-pounder tied for third in the Big East with 10.2 tackles a game last season and is being touted as a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft. But for now, Vilma is focused on his last season at UM and not a future in the pro ranks.

"There is still some business to take care of," said Vilma. "I'm still a Miami Hurricane and I'm going to work as hard as I can to put us in a position to win a national championship. And I know all my teammates feel exactly the same way."

The Panthers preseason league ranking is their highest in Big East history. The Panthers, who return 17 starters this season, finished 2002 nationally ranked for the first time since 1989. One of those returning players for the Panthers is sophomore receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who had 1,005 receiving yards and 12 touchdown receptions last season.

Virginia Tech was selected to finish in third place (156 points), while West Virginia came in fourth (102). Boston College (100), Syracuse (87), Temple (42) and Rutgers (32) rounded out the preseason poll.

Miami has had its way with the rest of the Big East since joining the league. The Hurricanes all-time league record of 66-10 in the Big East since its formation in 1991 is the best of any team in the conference. The Hurricanes have won two national championships as a football member of the Big East. Virginia Tech is 53-23 all-time in the Big East. There are a couple Big East games that many are already eyeing as potential national championship-busters: Virginia Tech at Pittsburgh (Nov. 8) and Miami at Pittsburgh (Nov. 29).

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