LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – West Virginia and Louisville were expected to play the Big East’s game of the year, two similarly prolific though vastly different teams vying for a Bowl Championship Series bid in a rematch of last year’s triple-overtime classic.

Instead, it’s a possible spot in the national championship game the third-ranked Mountaineers and the fifth-ranked Cardinals will be shooting for tonight.

Those are heady aspirations for two programs that have never won a national title, from a league that was falling apart just three years ago.

But they seem reasonable now that West Virginia running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White have developed into one of the nation’s most explosive backfields and the Cardinals have emerged as one of the country’s most resilient teams.

Hype for the game has created a frenzy in Louisville usually reserved for the Kentucky Derby. Tickets were going for $1,000 on the Internet and more than 700 media credentials have been issued, double the usual allotment for a Cardinals’ home game.

“You have two top-10 teams that are undefeated so it’s a big, big game,” West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez said. “But if we don’t win the game, I’m not going to kiss the wife and kids goodbye and jump off the Westover Bridge (in Morgantown). There might be some fans who want to throw me off of it, but I’m not jumping.”

Keeping it all in perspective could be the key for the Cardinals (7-0, 2-0) and Mountaineers (7-0, 2-0). The winner should get a big boost in the BCS standings – West Virginia is in third-place this week and Louisville’s in fifth – and be left with a very plausible scenario to reach BCS title game in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8.

“You don’t want to put too much emphasis on it, but you don’t want to underplay it either,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. “Guys who have been there for the last two, three, four years now, they know how to prepare for a big game.”

The Cardinals learned all about the dangers of getting ahead of yourself last year in Morgantown. Louisville lead by 17 points in the fourth quarter before West Virginia came storming back to win 46-44.

“It’s not over until it’s over,” Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm said. “It has been our motto. I think we learned.”

For Slaton and White, last year’s Louisville game stamped their arrival. White had been sharing the job until that day when Adam Bednarik’s injury made it a solo act. Slaton came off the bench to score six second-half touchdowns against the Cardinals.

West Virginia hasn’t lost since, winning a school-record 14 straight games behind a spread-option offense that forces defenses to make a difficult choice between two of the country’s most dynamic players.

“We know what they’re capable of, that’s for sure,” Louisville defensive tackle Earl Heyman said. “Last year we were like, ‘They’re new, they’re just freshmen.’ Now everybody knows what they’re capable of, not just us. We’ll do everything we can to prepare for them.”

Preparation hasn’t been enough to stop the Mountaineers this year, momentum that Rodriguez said should stay with the program no matter the outcome.

“One game will not define our program,” Rodriguez said. “Now, if you’re playing for a national championship, obviously that’s a defining moment. If you’re playing in the Sugar Bowl against the SEC champs, that’s a defining moment. I just hope we play well.”

Few teams have played as well as the Cardinals and Mountaineers. Both rank in the top five in the country in scoring offense and in the top 10 in scoring defense, though they do it in dramatically different ways.

The Mountaineers dominate behind Slaton, White and fullback Owen Schmitt and an unorthodox 3-3-5 defense that gives up lots of small plays but few big ones. The Cardinals are a balanced blend of Brohm’s passing, a running game that keeps churning along even without star Michael Bush – who broke his right leg in the season opener and is lost for the year – and a defense that has come into its own.

A year ago, losing Bush for the season would have been catastrophic. The fact the Cardinals have kept their national title hopes alive without arguably their best player is a testament to how far the program has come under Petrino.

“We know what’s at stake,” Petrino said. “It’s fun. We enjoy it. This is what we work for. This is what we want. … Hopefully it won’t go to triple overtime, it could be hard on the heart.”

AP-ES-11-01-06 1725EST

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