MORGANTOWN - Is West Virginia the team to beat in the Big East?
Based on the non-conference results, which bordered on atrocious, you'd have to say yes.
Based on Pitt being the only team picked ahead of the Mountaineers in the preseason poll, you'd have to say yes.
Based on the league's recent history, you'd have to say yes.
''We feel that nobody in this league can play with West Virginia,'' receiver Jock Sanders said. ''That's how we've felt for the last couple of years.''
The Mountaineers have finished no worse than second in the league every season since 2002. If you add up the conference records of all league teams since 2005, West Virginia has a four-game lead on second-place Cincinnati and seven on Rutgers. No team in the league's current configuration, not even the back-to-back champion Bearcats, has as many league championship banners hanging in a donor-named building on its campus as the Mountaineers.
''I think every team probably prepares a little more and takes a little more to that game when they're playing against West Virginia,'' Mountaineers safety Sidney Glover said.
Which brings us to South Florida, a West Virginia killer that is very average against everyone else. USF is 17-18 in league play the last six seasons, a loss last week to lowly Syracuse included. The Bulls have never won a Big East championship.
In the last four meetings, West Virginia has scored 19, 17, 13, and 19 points against South Florida.
''We have been lucky to win one game,'' West Virginia coach Bill Stewart said.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, have lost just three conference games at home since '05. One of those was to Cincinnati in overtime, another was 13-9 Pitt, and one was South Florida in late November 2006 that knocked the seventh-ranked Mountaineers from a BCS bid.
Twice in that time, a ranked West Virginia team has gone to South Florida and lost.
''It's been discussed, but it really doesn't even need to be talked about,'' WVU nose tackle Chris Neild said. ''We know what's happened the past couple years when we've faced them. It hasn't been pretty. Now we get to try to do something about it.
''They always have a good game plan for us. As far us executing on all phases, we haven't done a good job of it. They've taken advantage of it.''
With defenses that have been loaded with NFL talent, South Florida has given the Mountaineers fits when the idea is trying to move the ball.
''When people say, 'Well, this team beat that team so that means this team is going to beat that team,' that's not the way things work because different teams matchup (differently),'' WVU running backs coach Chris Beatty said. ''They have different strengths. They match up pretty well with us as far as their speed and some of the things they do have given us some problems in the past.
''I think a lot of that is matchup related, and that is why all of the games are exciting and why most of them are low scoring. They do match up pretty well on defense with what we do on offense a little bit different than some other people. With that said, we've got to figure out some ways to change it.''
Perhaps it's the day of the week. College football used to be meant for Saturdays, but Thursday marks the third time in the last five years WVU and USF will face each other on a weeknight.
''That might have something to do with it,'' Beatty acknowledged, ''But more of it probably has to do with those big ends that come off the edge and some of those guys on the defense. Those things tend to cause a lot of problems, too. Especially when you have a short week. I think it's a combination of a lot of things, and it's not going to change this week. Hopefully, we can change what we're doing.''
Whatever the case, let's hope the Mountaineers solve the Bulls.
There's little doubt West Virginia thinks it is the best team in the Big East. Whichever team wins the league this season better do it with an unbeaten record, just to keep the league's critics from completely losing their heads.
If the Mountaineers are going to be that team, it must start with a rare victory against the Bulls.
Jim Elliott can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com