On The Line

If the pressure of a nationally-televised Backyard Brawl isn't enough, the Big East, admittedly or not, needs West Virginia to win out to secure a second consecutive solid BCS ranking.

Then out-of-conference Louisville carried the conference banner last year. Now, No. 12 WVU is in place to ensure Big East Bowl Championship Series security.

"You want to win every game, but after you win the Pitt game it has a little bit better feeling," West Virginia holder and state native George Shehl said. "If you lose, you have a little worse taste in your mouth."

It will be especially bitter for the Big East this season. It has been battered and beaten beyond reason and wants - nay, needs - a national winner in West Virginia (8-1, 5-0) like never before. The worse-case scenario reads like a Stephen King offering: South Florida wins out, handing the Bulls the bid and the Big East yet another helping of criticism.

"For me, playing in a BCS bowl game is a big deal," Shehl said. "Here it is, and they stand in our way once again. If they lose, it is their seniors' last game. If I could have scripted it, it would read a lot like this."

Pitt and West Virginia have seemingly been divided since the first meeting in 1895. WVU - then nicknamed the Snakes - beat Western University of Pennsylvania, later Pitt, 8-0. It hasn't eased up, and WVU's players realize the weightiness of this year's game.

"As soon as I got here, people would talk about the Pitt game before anything," freshman placekicker Pat McAfee said. "As long as we beat Pitt, that's all that matters. Just beat 'ol Pitt. The polls take care of themselves."

That should hold true again. If WVU can beat Pitt (5-5, 4-2) and USF (6-3, 4-1), it should easily be in the top 10 in all polls because of other conference teams losing in championship games and upcoming rivalry tilts. Think commissioner Mike Tranghese is secretly - or not so - pulling for the Mountaineers?

"This is," linebacker Boo McLee said. "probably the biggest game every year that I have been here. It is very important to me to go out and play a good game and come out with a win.

And with due respect to Pitt's yearning for any bowl and West Virginia's push for its first major bowl in 12 years and its third consecutive Big East title and first since 1993, there is more riding on this year's game. A culmination of a shocking season for WVU would be just the start of a return to national respect for a conference that won eight of 10 bowl games, and 11 of 15, in a key stretch from 1999-2001.

"This is it for me," said Shehl, one of 18 WVU seniors playing their last home game. "It is important for me to go out with a win This will linger."

In more ways than outsiders might imagine.

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