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A path has been cleared

Eagles are hoping to go out with a bang

Since the inception of the Bowl Championship Series, Boston College has long talked about winning the Big East championship and earning a major bowl bid as the league's BCS representative. But with the eight-time champion Miami Hurricanes always lurking as the bullies of the Big East, it seemed the Eagles were just paying lip service to their faint hopes. "Every year it seemed like it was Miami and a flicker of hope," said Big East commissioner Michael Tranghese.

But now that Miami and Virginia Tech have defected to the Atlantic Coast Conference, the talk is that the Big East is up for grabs. There are whispers that it will be a wide-open race among seven teams. That even Rutgers and Temple, along with conference newcomer Connecticut, could have a shot.

"Obviously, with Miami and Virginia Tech gone, it changes the dynamic of the whole conference," said BC junior defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, a Bronko Nagurski Trophy candidate (best defensive player in the nation) who was voted a team captain along with senior tight end David Kashetta and senior defensive tackle Tim Bulman. "I just think with the young guys we have coming in here and a lot of the returning starters, regardless of who was in and who left the conference, we definitely would've been playing for a BCS [berth], either way.

"With everything the way it is now, it definitely is our best shot."

With six returning defensive starters and five on offense from an 8-5 squad that thumped Colorado State, 35-21, in the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl, BC believes it has a legitimate chance to win the conference. Before departing for the ACC next July, the Eagles would love nothing more than to spread their wings in this Big East swan song and clinch their first conference title.

"It would be the greatest thing," said Bulman. "It'd be like, `See ya later, buddy.' We'll take it and run. I think it would definitely be ideal for the coaches and the players. It would be great for the program and send us in the right direction."

BC is the only team in the nation with the distinction of having won four consecutive bowls (and it has been to five straight, the best streak in school history).

"We're up there," Bulman said, "but to get to that next level, that BCS would make it look real good. We're on the launching pad, I definitely think so. A lot of new things are happening around here."

This season, the team will play on a new FieldTurf surface that was installed over the summer at a cost of $1.8 million. A four-story, 72,000-square-foot football facility, the $26 million Yawkey Athletics Center, will become a state-of-the-art reality next spring, when it is scheduled to open. BC hopes such upgrades will attract a new crop of talented athletes -- such as blue-chip freshman linebacker Brian Toal -- to help it compete in the ACC.

Picked to finish second behind West Virginia, which shared last year's title with Miami, BC faces a heightened sense of urgency to capture its coveted BCS berth. Next year, such talk is likely to be muted when the Eagles battle the likes of Miami and Virginia Tech (again) along with traditional ACC powers such as Florida State, North Carolina State, and Virginia.

"I think everybody realizes that, with Miami and Virginia Tech gone, everybody's chances in the Big East are better," said BC athletic director Gene DeFilippo. "It certainly gives us a better chance, but you still have to go out and do it and you still have to go game by game. It's still a very, very difficult league and out-of-conference schedule with Penn State, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest. It's very, very formidable.

"But if you were to ask me what's the biggest game of the year, I'd tell you it's Ball State." That, of course, would be BC's opener next Thursday in Muncie, Ind. But some are pointing toward another game that may well determine the league title: the Nov. 13 road contest at West Virginia.

How tough a venue is Mountaineer Field? It's the only stadium in the league where the school mascot is allowed to stand on the sideline with a firearm, discharging a loud blank round from a long rifle after each home team score. A hostile environment, to be sure.

"I don't think we'll get greeted very warmly, but to me, it only makes me play better," Bulman said. "I don't know about everyone else, but I just believe that when you're cornered, you fight your best.

"We're the ones with the target on us and we know it. I like being the underdog, I've always liked it. I like having all things against you and then coming out on top. We're always talking about that.

"I'm not going to see the ACC, but our program will, and [the Big East] is probably not too happy about it. But, hey, things happen and we've got one season to worry about, and this is this one."

Under eighth-year coach Tom O'Brien, the Eagles are 23-26 in league play, having finished no better than third and no worse than fifth. "I think everyone's feeling that pressure," Bulman said. "It's a good pressure that we have on ourselves. Everyone knows what's at stake. Every game we play, every snap we play, it's like, hey, this is one step closer to doing something that BC hasn't done."

But O'Brien is a pragmatist. He knows that talk about winning a league title and a BCS berth is just that: talk. "I think when you get into camp, you just worry about getting through the next practice," O'Brien said. "That's what their goal should be. It shouldn't be to worry about anything long-term. The motto and credence of this program when I got here was, `Let's not talk about it. Let's be about it.' So [if] you spend your time talking about it, you're not going to be any good.

"The best thing we can do is practice, get on the field, worry about the little things, be the best football team we can be. And then at the end of the year we're going to find out if we're good enough to be champs or not."

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