West Virginia has won the Big East title in four of the past six seasons. The two times the Mountaineers didn't finish in first place -- last season and in 2006 -- they tied for second one game behind the first-place finisher.
Only six teams in the country can boast of a better record over the past four years than the Mountaineers, who are 42-9 since 2005. That type of winning tradition should not be underestimated, especially in a conference like the Big East where parity seems to be the rule this year.
When push comes to shove in a big game, the Mountaineers' winning ways could be a huge plus because many of the new challengers haven't experienced success the way the Mountaineers have.
West Virginia is again in position to compete for a Big East championship, but the Mountaineers have plenty of question marks as training camp opens. Here are the top five preseason storylines for the Mountaineers.
2008 Record: 9-4
Season opener: Sept. 5, vs. Liberty.
Pat White might go down as the greatest quarterback in school history after four record-setting seasons with the Mountaineers. Living up to those expectations will be next to impossible for new quarterback Jarrett Brown, whose resume includes two career starts and some extended play in other games when White was injured. That can't be comforting to a WVU fan base that has come to expect excellence from the position over the past four years. But coach Bill Stewart is supremely confident in Brown and has tailored the offense to Brown's strenths, which means there will be more passing out of the spread this year than ever with White.
The five projected starters have only 24 starts among them. The only returning starter is senior right tackle Selvish Capers, who has been starting since the middle of the 2007 season. The other player with starting experience is junior center Eric Jobe, who started the final five games of last season when starter Mike Dent went down with a neck injury. The other three starters are well-regarded prospects, but they have never started a game at the college level. One thing that will help is the return of junior running back Noel Devine, who rushed for 1,289 yards last year. The speedy and shifty Devine only needs a small crease, so the line does not have to be overpowering right away,
The Mountaineers fashioned a reputation for exciting offense during their dominant run in the Big East the past several seasons, but the defense was the Mountaineers' calling card last season. WVU led the Big East in scoring defense (17 ppg) and led the conference in forced turnovers with 28. Many of the key players are back to make the Mountaineers tough again. The Mountaineers will be strong up front with the return of Scooter Berry and Chris Neild on the line. The linebackers will be a strong with J.T. Thomas back as a starter along with Reed Williams, who is back for his senior season after a shoulder injury ended his 2008 season after only two games.
Williams is a tackling machine whose presence should make the Mountaineers even better on defense this fall. Reed had shoulder surgery over the offseason and is expected to return to his 2007 form when he was sixth in the Big East with 107 tackles. He was playing his best toward the end of the season when he registered 13 tackles against Rutgers, 11 against Pitt and nine tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble in the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. He was named the Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP for his performance against the Sooners. Not many teams in the league are able to add a player of Williams' caliber to the roster.
It's an often overlooked aspect of winning football, but kickers and punters are vitally important. Place kickers that can kick with accuracy give a boost to the offense's scoring output. Punters that can punt for distance and field position can make a defense much better. Pat McAfee performed both jobs extremely well the past four seasons, so breaking in a new kicker and punter could be a nerve-wracking experience for the coaching staff. McAfee made 73 percent of his field goal attempts at West Virginia, including a career-best 85 percent last season. As a punter last season, McAfee averaged 44.7 yards per punt and had 25 downed inside the 20.
Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1230. First Published August 9, 2009 4:00 AM