Let's take a brief hiatus from all of the expansion madness for a fun debate topic this afternoon courtesy of reader Luke from Morgantown, W.Va.
He writes: "Hey, Brian, who do you think will have more yards next season, Noel or Dion?"
That should be a fun battle to watch all season. Dion Lewis finished with 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns last season, while Noel Devine had 1,465 yards and 13 scores. Lewis was third in the FBS in rushing, while Devine was 17th.
Devine had a higher yards-per-carry average (6.08 to 5.54) but had 84 fewer rushing attempts. He was also slowed down in the middle of the season by an ankle injury. When the two players met, Lewis had 154 yards rushing to Devine's 134, but Devine had a game-changing run and led West Virginia to victory over Pittsburgh.
So that's the history. What about the future?
Lewis had the edge last year by more than 330 yards and proved to be a workhorse by averaging 25 carries per game, including a staggering 47 rushing attempts in the Cincinnati game. West Virginia has never given Devine the ball that much; his season high last year was 25 carries in the Mountaineers' game against Cincinnati.
Will Pitt use Lewis that much again this year? The Panthers also have Ray Graham, who showed this spring that he's a capable big-play runner in his own right. Graham had 61 carries a year ago, and I could easily see him getting at least 100 this year as he spells Lewis more.
That should help ease the workload on Lewis, though Dave Wannstedt likes to feed his star tailbacks the ball. LeSean McCoy got 308 carries in '08 even with LaRod Stephens-Howling as a senior backup, and remember Wannstedt had Ricky Williams run the ball 775 times in two years when he coached the Miami Dolphins. So it's safe to assume that Lewis will get plenty of carries, if not quite as many as he had a year ago.
I think Devine, who returned to college for his senior year instead of going to the NFL, is primed for a huge year. Despite the ankle injury last year, he has proved the past two seasons that he can be an every-down back despite his size. With a young, first-time starting quarterback, the Mountaineers might look to run the ball even more this season, though they also have Ryan Clarke and Tavon Austin as options in the backfield. Devine, as we know, has the potential to turn just about any handoff into an 80-yard touchdown.
Now let's look at the offensive lines. Unlike last year, West Virginia may have the upper hand here. Pitt must find answers for the interior of its line, notably center and right guard. The Mountaineers, on the other hand, return four of five starters from last season and should expect improvement up front in 2010.
So, it's decision time.
I think it's natural to think Lewis' numbers will drop a bit, given the presence of Graham and the offensive line issues. And I think Devine's stats could go up, though West Virginia's offense isn't quite as focused on pounding the ball on the ground as Pitt's is. Let's assume both players stay healthy for the entire season despite all of the hits they will absorb. Here are my projections for each this year:
Lewis: 290 carries, 1,575 yards, 16 touchdowns
Devine: 255 carries, 1,500 yards, 14 touchdowns
In other words, I think it's going to be very close and an exciting race to monitor all season. Now let's hear your projections for these two star backs.