With Miami and Virginia Tech gone to the ACC, Big East football is weaker this year than it has ever been -- and conference coaches are thrilled about that.

For the first time since 1998, a Big East team other than Virginia Tech or Miami will earn the automatic BCS bowl bid that comes with winning the regular season conference championship, boosting optimism across the Big East. West Virginia, often mediocre, is a conference favorite for just the second time. Temple and Rutgers, usually miserable, are confident they can earn bowl bids.

"There are a lot of schools in our league right now that are under the radar," West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez said. "There's something kind of exciting about that."

Typically, the buzz rings loudest in football-crazed West Virginia, where rioting and couch burning are common postgame practices. Local fans are so eager to sneak at peak at the Mountaineers, ranked No. 11 in the preseason coaches' poll, that a few of them have been caught climbing a fence to watch players casually stretch and run.

West Virginia finished 8-5 and tied Miami for the conference championship last season, and 17 starters return from that team. Senior Rasheed Marshall may be the league's best quarterback. A third-year starter who threw for 1,729 yards last season, Marshall is also the Mountaineers' most accomplished runner. In 2002, he ran for 666 yards, breaking Michael Vick's quarterback rushing record.

"Obviously, with all the people we have coming back, we're going to be the favorites," Rodriguez said. "Our guys have never been in that situation, and I don't know if West Virginia has ever been in that situation to this point. We need to keep working and being hungry."

Question is, who will push the Mountaineers? No other Big East team ranks in the preseason top 25, while every other major conference has at least three ranked teams.

Temple and Boston College will leave the Big East after this year, while Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida will come aboard. The league is guaranteed a BCS bid through 2007, but it lacks a powerhouse. Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse -- usually bowl teams -- are in the process of rebuilding. Temple and Rutgers are mainstays in the conference cellar. Connecticut will play in the Big East for the first time.

"It's wide open," Temple Coach Bobby Wallace said, "so there's a possibility we could string several wins in a row."

"To me, the way this league is," Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano said, "that gives everyone a chance."

U-Conn. may be most justified in its optimism. The Huskies went 9-3 last season, their first in Division I. Quarterback Dan Orlovsky likely will go in the first round of the NFL draft in April and, in a conference sometimes notorious for sloppy cornerback play, he could have a field day.

"We have some great players in this league," Syracuse Coach Paul Pasqualoni said, "and they're getting a little overlooked."

"Sure, things are different now," Rodriguez said. "When we used to do Big East media stuff, [Miami Coach] Larry Coker would have 40 guys at his table, and I'd have one or two. Now there are a lot more at mine, so things are a little different from a public standpoint."

West Virginia's Rasheed Marshall, likely the conference's best quarterback, passed for 1,729 yards last season.