Despite winning 18 games in the past two seasons, West Virginia has slipped from its perch at the top of the Big East. Taking the Mountaineers' place, with the flashy offense and the BCS appearances, has been Cincinnati.
With 18 returning starters, West Virginia has good reason to be optimistic it can return to the top of the league, especially after Noel Devine elected to return to school.
Devine, a first-team All-Big East running back and Heisman contender early last season, considered the NFL draft, but he elected to stay for his senior season. Nine returning starters on defense and four returning starters on the offensive line also bode well.
Quarterback Geno Smith could be West Virginia's biggest wild card. In the past five seasons, the Mountaineers have started either Pat White or Jarrett Brown at quarterback. Starting an unproven sophomore is new territory.
Here's a closer look at the Mountaineers.
THE SCHEME: West Virginia still runs a spread option, but coach Bill Stewart routinely says he likes to spread the wealth. If anything, the offense has become more balanced under Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. In two seasons under Stewart, West Virginia has run the ball 61 percent of the time. Rich Rodriguez's last two teams in Morgantown ran the ball 71 percent of the time.
STAR POWER: Devine remains one of the most explosive players in the country, and he showed a nose for the end zone last season. After rushing for 10 touchdowns combined in his first two seasons, he accounted for 14 last season. Four of those touchdown runs covered at least 50 yards. He has become more durable, but West Virginia is cautious with Devine after he hits the 25-carry mark. If Devine rushes for 1,100 yards this season, he would move into second on the school's career rushing list, behind Avon Cobourne.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Mountaineers need to develop wide receivers if they want to continue to run a balanced offense. Four-star freshman Ivan McCartney - like QB Smith from Miramar (Fla.) High - could step in right away. If he bulks up a bit, he could become a legitimate No. 1 receiver.
STRONGEST AREA: Devine is a home-run threat and the clear focal point of he offense, but the Mountaineers are developing some depth at the position with redshirt freshman Daquan Hargrett and sophomore Shawne Alston. FB Ryan Clarke (eight touchdowns) solved West Virginia's short-yardage woes last season. Four starters return along the line.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The passing game presents the most questions for West Virginia. Smith, a sophomore, will be the Mountaineers' third starting quarterback in as many seasons. Smith saw some duty last season when starter Jarrett Brown was injured against Auburn, Marshall and Florida State. Smith has had injury problems himself, as a broken foot limited him during the spring and into the summer. West Virginia also is looking for answers at wide receiver. Jock Sanders is a dangerous slot receiver, but Bradley Starks (29 catches, 405 yards) is the only outside receiver with experience.
THE SCHEME: Under coordinator Jeff Casteel, West Virginia runs an unorthodox 3-3-5 stack defense. The alignment allows West Virginia to be unpredictable when it blitzes, but the three-down formation can be soft against the run.
STAR POWER: If the 3-3-5 defense isn't difficult enough for opposing quarterbacks, there's also a 6-foot-5 free safety. Robert Sands is the tallest projected starter on the defense. Sands isn't just tall, he's one of the most athletic defensive backs in the league. He has a nose for the ball, too, with five interceptions and eight pass breakups last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Beyond J.T. Thomas and Pat Lazear, West Virginia has questions at linebacker. The Mountaineers signed junior college transfer Bruce Irvin to help fill the void. He is one of the most highly touted defensive signees to land at West Virginia in several years. His speed will be an asset as an outside linebacker/pass rusher.
STRONGEST AREA: West Virginia's three-man front shouldn't be underestimated. The Mountaineers have an all-conference-caliber player at each position, along with quality depth. Run-stuffer Chris Neild may be the top tackle in the Big East, while E Julian Miller finished last season with nine sacks. If T Scooter Berry, a Rivals.com freshman All-America in 2008, is healthy, this could be the best line in the league. The secondary also has its share of elite playmakers, starting with Sands. Brandon Hogan was a first-team All-Big East corner. S Sidney Glover has that kind of potential as well.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The biggest hole in the defense is right in the middle. The Mountaineers will be without Reed Williams, a valuable leader and productive middle linebacker who has graduated. Lazear, who led the team with 78 tackles, moves from the strongside to inside linebacker. Backing up Lazear will be redshirt freshman Branko Busick.
Tyler Bitancurt had endeared himself to West Virginia fans by the end of his freshman year. Converting all four field-goal attempts against Pittsburgh is a good way to do that. His 43-yarder at the end of regulation sealed the 19-16 win in the Backyard Brawl. Bitancurt finished 13-of-15 on the season. The challenge on special teams will be to replace standout P Scott Koslowski. Senior Gregg Pugnetti gets his chance. Despite West Virginia's focus on speed, the Mountaineers weren't particularly impressive on punt returns (9.6-yard average, fourth in the Big East) or kickoff returns (22 yards, seventh in the Big East). The coverage teams, among the worst in the Big East, also must improve.
WVU will play four conference games at home thanks to the unbalanced schedule, but the Mountaineers didn't get any favors in their road games. Their toughest Big East road trips - to league contenders Connecticut and Pittsburgh - both come on short weeks. West Virginia faces both of those teams on a Friday after playing the previous Saturday. West Virginia also faces USF in Morgantown after only five days rest in a Thursday night affair. The Bulls are rebuilding, but West Virginia has lost three of the past four to USF. The Mountaineers have an SEC team on the regular-season schedule for the fifth consecutive season, thanks to a trip to LSU. The Tigers and Mountaineers are meeting for the first time, but the programs are linked by the 2007 season when West Virginia's loss to unranked Pittsburgh helped send LSU to the BCS title game.
WVU will have one of the best offensive players in the conference (Devine) and one of the best defensive units. Those two factors should keep the Mountaineers competitive in the Big East. The development of a passing game - especially if Stewart and Mullen continue to push for a balanced offense - will be critical for West Virginia to return to 10-win status.