Now that we are near the midpoint of the season, it is easy to see why West Virginia was the preseason favorite to win the conference.
The Mountaineers have been the best team in the Big East. That became even more evident after this past week. USF, a trendy pick as a dark horse to win the conference, lost in embarrassing fashion to Pitt. The Panthers finally looked as good as promised, but they have struggled with consistency. Louisville and UConn lost nonconference games to non-AQ opponents. Rutgers and Syracuse played bad football in their league opener. Cincinnati has been much better than last season, but the Bearcats are not quite at the West Virginia level right now.
So as it stands now, it would be a huge upset if West Virginia fails to win the league title. The Mountaineers are the only remaining ranked team from the Big East. Their only loss came to the No. 1 team in the country. Their offense has improved each week. The defense is getting better. Special teams needs help. But when you compare West Virginia to the other seven Big East teams, it is hard to make an argument that anybody is better today.
Now, that is not to say that other teams won't challenge. This is the Big East, where upsets during league play are the norm. In 2007 and again last season, the top finishers in the league each had two conference losses.
Did anybody think Syracuse would beat a ranked West Virginia team last year? How about UConn over West Virginia? Those Huskies stroll into Morgantown on Saturday intent on pulling a similar upset. USF has surprised West Virginia several times in the past as well. If Pitt can build on the momentum of last week, the league race will be mighty fun to watch. If Cincinnati continues to play well on defense, watch out. USF has a team good enough to rebound.
Nobody is saying it will be easy for West Virginia. It never is easy to win a conference championship. But everything is in place for the Mountaineers. One of the biggest questions about this team was how Dana Holgorsen would do in his first year as a head coach. No problems there. How about the new offense?
Geno Smith has gotten better each week. Smith ranks third in the nation in passing yards, no surprise considering the system. Stedman Bailey has been the best receiver -- better than Tavon Austin -- with three straight 100-yard games. That has never been done before at the school. The running game has to get better, but at least it showed signs of life last week. The offensive line has protected well, giving up just five sacks this season.
A quick look at the Big East stats shows West Virginia ranks in the top two in 15 different statistical categories, including scoring offense, total offense, total defense, passing offense and passing defense. Cincinnati is the only other team that can say the same.
The toughest stretch of the conference schedule comes to close the season. West Virginia should be undefeated in league play headed into its game at Cincinnati Nov. 12. After that, West Virginia gets Pitt at home on Nov. 25 and travels to USF in the regular-season finale Dec. 1. So the Mountaineers get their top three Big East challengers late.
Of course, there is plenty of football to be played between now and then. West Virginia needs to generate a better pass rush and do a better job against the run, work on running the ball better and its kickoff coverage. There are plenty of places where the Mountaineers can get better. Same with every other team in the Big East.
Now we wait and see who else is up for the challenge.