One of the most telling moments of West Virginia's 2009 football regular season was an escape from form for coach Bill Stewart.
It came when Stewart -- as even-keeled and gentle-natured as they come -- had heard enough.
He was tired of the negativity, sick of the pessimism and downright worn-out with any negative connotations that came barreling his way in the immediate aftermath of the team's ninth win of the season at Rutgers Dec. 5 and a subsequent Gator Bowl invitation.
So when pushed, he finally pushed back.
"We are 9-3," he said, taking the offensive. "Do you understand how many teams in America would like to be 9-3?"
A good point, and one that can be quantified.
Of the 120 schools that competed in Division I football this season, there were 28 -- and that is counting West Virginia -- that had at least nine victories.
There is an asterisk next to 11 of those other 27 when comparing them to the Mountaineers. That's because those 11 had more chances to earn wins, playing a 13-game schedule. West Virginia played 12.
Or, look at it another way: There were 92 schools that would have liked to have gone 9-3. That is how many teams fell short of nine victories, regardless of how many games they played.
Of the eight Big East Conference schools, two others had nine victories or more -- Cincinnati (12-0), a team West Virginia took to the wire and lost to by three points on a controversial touchdown call, and Pitt (9-3), which the Mountaineers defeated on a last-second field goal.
While Stewart looks at the present -- a 9-3 regular season and a New Year's Day date against Florida State in Jacksonville -- as an obvious positive, it could also be a momentous springboard.
A number of West Virginia's talented players, particularly at the skill positions, should return in 2010.
While the Gator Bowl will serve as senior quarterback Jarrett Brown's final game, waiting in the wings is freshman Geno Smith, one of the most-heralded quarterback recruits in West Virginia history. He played magnificently when Brown was injured early in the Marshall game.
And while there has been significant buzz that junior running back Noel Devine could leave for the NFL draft, the Mountaineers have freshmen Mark Rodgers and Shawne Alston ready. If Devine chooses to stick around for his senior season, the Mountaineers will have a player returning who, heading into the bowl game, has rushed for 1,297 yards, scored 13 touchdowns and averaged almost 5.8 yards per carry this season.
At fullback, redshirt freshman Ryan Clarke is already a starter. Tight ends Tyler Urban and Will Johnson are also back next season.
The receiving corp will lose Wes Lyons and Alric Arnett to graduation, but Jock Sanders, Brad Starks, Logan Heastie, Tavon Austin, J.D. Woods and Steadman Bailey should all be back to form one of deepest groups of receivers in the Big East.
On the offensive line, senior right tackle Selvish Capers is the only starter who won't return.
On the other side of the ball, just two starters from the regular-season finale at Rutgers -- middle linebacker Reed Williams and bandit safety Nate Sowers -- will be lost to graduation.
All of the specialists -- return men Sanders, Austin, Rodgers, Woods and Brandon Hogan; holder Jeremy Kash and long snapper Cody Nutter -- will return.
The hero of the Pitt game, field goal kicker Tyler Bitancurt, is a redshirt freshman and has plenty more time in Morgantown, but the Mountaineers need to find a stable kickoff guy and a replacement for punter Scott Kozlowski, who will graduate after averaging 44.8 yards this year.
Put it all together and Stewart hit on something in that Rutgers media room. Being 9-3 isn't all that bad, especially considering the talent West Virginia has returning next season.
Colin Dunlap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1459. First Published December 14, 2009 5:00 AM