MORGANTOWN - West Virginia enters tonight's Big East Conference opener leading the league in five statistical categories and is in the top three in 18 total.
The 25th-ranked Mountaineers (4-1) are the only ranked conference team and the only one receiving votes in either poll. Pitt, the preseason pick to win the conference, is 2-3. Cincinnati, which tied with WVU for second place in the preseason poll, is also 2-3. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, have become the favorite.
What's it mean come the 7:45 p.m. kickoff on ESPN2 at Mountaineer Field? Not a whole lot.
"The biggest thing we need to do is take it one game at a time," said junior left guard Josh Jenkins said. "It'd be a big problem if we looked past anyone. If you look past anyone in this league, they'll beat you. If we want to reach our goals, we can't underestimate anyone."
It's a cliche, but WVU believes it. The Mountaineers, after all, admit they've been guilty in the past of giving tonight's opponent, South Florida (2-3), something less than its proper due. In 2007, WVU arrived at USF's stadium and got off the team buses wearing New York Yankees caps. The script "NY" was a reminder that the Mountaineers believed the Bulls had "not yet" arrived.
"In past games, we were maybe ranked higher than them and thought of them as sort of a step-over, or that we didn't have to worry about them," said senior defensive lineman Chris Neild. "That's in the past. This year, we're focused."
USF has won three of four against the Mountaineers and held them to 13, 19 and 19 points in their losses.
West Virginia scored just 13 its win. Since the conference reorganized in 2005 WVU has won its Big East opener every year but 2007, which was a 21-13 loss to the Bulls.
Stewart is 10-4 in conference games, but hasn't won even a share of the Big East title. The Mountaineers won the conference title outright or shared the conference championship from 2004-07 and played in the Big East's BCS game after the 2005 and 2007 seasons.
"This is the most important part of our schedule," Coach Bill Stewart said.
WVU feels better armed than before, thanks in large part to a defense that ranks among the country's best and an offense that has done things this season it had not in the past two. The 49-10 victory against UNLV last week witnessed the most points and largest margin of victory under Stewart.
"I feel pretty good, pretty confident about our team," said senior receiver Jock Sanders. "The offense, I'm not too much worried about. The defense, we have one of the best defenses in the NCAA, hands down. As long as we keep in the groove and keep up the movement on offense going forward, I feel good. That's our main focus."
The Mountaineers are indeed able. They rank No. 7 in total defense, No. 7 in scoring, No. 9 against the run and No. 19 against the pass. Entering the week's games, no one left on the schedule is better than No. 21 in total offense, No. 18 in rushing offense, No. 41 in passing offense (all Louisville) and No. 36 in scoring offense (UConn).