MORGANTOWN - Let's be honest about this West Virginia football team that finished its regular season Saturday afternoon at 9-3.
How much better is it than the one that began the season with a 31-0 shutout of Coastal Carolina and endured a monumental struggle in beating Marshall?
Is it better than the team that sandwiched routs of Maryland and UNLV around an unfortunate, turnover-fueled loss at LSU?
Is it a team that, if it had a do-over against Syracuse and Connecticut, would know what to do with it?
And is it finally as good as the team that, over the last four weeks of the season, scored 37, 35 and 35 points in three games?
Good questions, all.
Of course, in answering them we first probably need to simply settle one thing by acclimation: The defense is better. Period. No further argument needed. It's better than it was at the beginning of the season, better than in the middle and at its best at the end. It is a stifling, overwhelming unit that will finish statistically among the best in the country and, toward the end, corrected its only real weakness, which was a lack of forced turnovers.
"You know, until right before the Pitt game I didn't even know what the numbers were. I'd never looked at them,'' linebacker J.T. Thomas said. "I didn't know that we were second in this or third in that or whatever. But it's pretty good, isn't it?''
Yes. So enough about the defense.
Special teams? Well, that's nothing to brag about. Yes, West Virginia solved its two-season problem with hideous kickoff coverage. But the Mountaineers couldn't return punts or kicks all year, Gregg Pugnetti's punting was hot and cold, and Tyler Bitancurt had his fourth field goal blocked in Saturday's 35-14 win over Rutgers.
Let's just say special teams was a wash.
The real question, though, is about West Virginia's offense. That's been the Achilles' heel of this team all season. At the worst possible moments, it either sputtered or turned the ball over. The Mountaineers finished the regular season at 9-3, and all three losses can be directly pinned on the offense, which fumbled at the 7-yard line to set up LSU's only offensive touchdown, was intercepted three times by Syracuse, and fumbled the ball away four times at Connecticut.
But did that offense improve by the end of the road?