West Virginia regular season recap

Most programs would sign up for a 9-3 record, Top 25 final ranking and a Florida bowl game. But with West Virginia, so much more seemed possible.

This was the deepest, most experienced team Bill Stewart has had in his three years as head coach, especially on defense. Much was expected on that side of the ball, and the defense exceeded its own lofty aspirations by finishing No. 2 nationally in points allowed and No. 3 in yards allowed this season. Stewart's vision of a fast, heady group that could disguise looks and handle all situations became a reality.

Wide receiver Jock Sanders boldly predicted in early October that the Mountaineers offense just needed to score 21 points and they would never lose. He was right, but the offense wasn't always up to the task as it struggled to find an identity and protect the ball at key times. The team committed seven turnovers and scored just 27 total points in its back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Connecticut in October, two defeats that ultimately kept it out of the BCS.

But give the Mountaineers credit for bouncing back from those setbacks and winning their final four games in convincing fashion. They have a gem in sophomore quarterback Geno Smith, and younger players like Tavon Austin, Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke picked up the slack for Noel Devine, who hasn't been his usual stellar self since injuring his foot against LSU.

West Virgina set its goals as winning 10 games and a Big East title this year. A Champs Sports Bowl victory will check both those off the list, though it won't erase the feeling that even more was possible.

Offensive MVP: Geno Smith

With Devine limited, West Virginia had to rely more on its passing game this year. Outside of the Syracuse game, Smith was brilliant. He completed 65.8 percent of his passes with 23 touchdowns and only six interceptions. The Mountaineers have a terrific leader in place for the next two years.

Defensive MVP: Chris Neild

This really should be a team award, as every member of the defense played lights-out and contributed to the sensational year on that side of the ball. But if forced to choose one, I'll go with the senior nose tackle who gets things started by disrupting the middle of the opposing offensive line on every play. He's the very definition of a guy whose stats don't tell the full story.

Turning point: That two-game losing streak to Syracuse and Connecticut caused a near panic in Morgantown as the team fell into last place in the Big East. Those two games killed the BCS hopes, but West Virginia responded the right way to make this a very respectable season.

What's next: The Mountaineers will try to reach the 10-win plateau for the first time under Stewart against NC State in the Champs Sports Bowl. Rumors continue to swirl about the immediate future for Stewart, who is not embraced by much of the fan base despite winning 27 games over the past three years. At the very least, changes could be coming to the staff this offseason. As for next year, the team must replace six senior starters on defense, and junior safety Robert Sands might enter the NFL draft. The offense loses Devine and Sanders but has a nice nucleus with Smith, Austin, Alston and four returning starting offensive linemen.