One of the only aspects of last season that Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese said he enjoyed was the play of a Conference USA school that dazzled fans with the nation's most potent offense. In posting an 11-1 record, Louisville offered Tranghese a glimpse of what the Big East would look like once the Cardinals climbed aboard in 2005.

"The rest of the season just was not a lot of fun," Tranghese said in a telephone interview. "Everybody was painting a negative scope on everything we were doing and not doing. [Louisville] gave us credibility because of all the criticism we were taking."

Last season, the Big East was the target of rampant criticism, widely viewed as an inferior conference undeserving of an automatic Bowl Championship Series berth after losing stalwarts Virginia Tech and Miami to the ACC. However, Louisville needed the Big East as much as the league craved the Cardinals.

Last season, the Cardinals needed to finish among the top six in the BCS standings to be guaranteed a slot because they did not play in one of the six power conferences.

This season, thanks to the marriage of a beleaguered football league and a rising program, they are considered favorites to play in one of the BCS's four bowls.

"With the opportunity to play for a BCS game," Louisville Coach Bobby Petrino said, "our players have been very motivated and truly believe we are moving into a tougher league."

What Louisville gained by the move is margin for error. Pittsburgh earned last season's BCS berth out of the Big East with three losses. Louisville is the overwhelming favorite to win the league -- it received 23 of 24 first-place votes in the media poll -- but there is also talk that the Cardinals could go unbeaten through the regular season.

They nearly did last season. On Oct. 14, the Cardinals were in position to upset Miami at the Orange Bowl but dropped a crucial interception late in the game and eventually lost, 41-38.

Even in defeat, Petrino said, the game did wonders for the program because most of the nation's college football fans watched the nationally televised game on a Thursday night.

"I have no complaints at all," Petrino said in a telephone interview about the fairness of the BCS system. "We knew exactly what we had to do. We had an opportunity to do it. We just fell a little bit short. We knew what the rules were."

The program already has reaped benefits from the Big East brand name, Petrino said. Two years ago he began telling recruits during in-home visits that if the Cardinals win the Big East and take care of nonconference games, they'll have an opportunity to win a national championship.

Petrino said the move has allowed him to recruit a "different pool" of players. The third-year coach, who has a 20-5 record at Louisville, already had strong inroads in Florida -- Petrino said he had 26 players from Florida last season -- but he seeks more success in the South, hoping to recruit speed and become the fastest team in the league.

Petrino also has marched into New Jersey and Pennsylvania, looking for elite players who have grown up watching the Big East. And he has maintained power in Kentucky, having highly regarded quarterback Brian Brohm and running back Michael Bush, two Kentucky natives, on the roster.

Had Louisville played in Conference USA another season, Petrino said, he would have worried about complacency because the Cardinals dominated conference opponents last season. Only one league game, a 56-49 victory at Memphis, was decided by fewer than 27 points.

This season's opponents will initially be more of a mystery. For example, two programs, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, have new coaches, making them more difficult for Petrino to study in the offseason. It is Louisville's conference to lose, but the Cardinals won't have it as easy as last season.

"Two years ago a lot of people didn't even think our conference was going to make it," Tranghese said. "There was a lot of discussion about separation. . . . Two years, for our members, have been pretty difficult. Collectively, we think we have a significant upside."

Safety Kerry Rhodes (1), now with the New York Jets, helped Louisville rule Conference USA last year. This season, the Cardinals have their sights on one of the BCS's four bowls.