IF CINCINNATI, a 91/2-point favorite, loses to Connecticut on Saturday, Thursday's WVU game at South Florida will have meant little. (Unless, of course, a tie for the Big East title means anything to the Mountaineer fans reading this. Which, to most, it does not.)
On the flip side, however, West Virginia's game in Tampa, Fla., could be one of the school's biggest regular-season games since the 2007 home finale against Pittsburgh. I won't rehash the ugly details of that outcome for WVU fans, but it led to the last trip the Mountaineers made to a BCS bowl.
Quite simply, if WVU and Cincy win, the Mountaineers, more than likely, go to the Orange Bowl. Most WVU fans get that last part. What most don't understand, however, is this game is no gimme for West Virginia.
Check the betting lines. In Tuesday's USA Today, South Florida was listed as a one-point favorite in the Bodog.net line. Most services in Las Vegas have West Virginia as a 1- or 11/2-point favorite.
The point: This is basically a pick-'em game, and there's a reason for that.
Yes, WVU is 8-3 and South Florida is 5-6. The Bulls were mauled by Pitt, which was vanquished by West Virginia last week. USF also lost to Connecticut, Cincinnati and Rutgers, all of which the Mountaineers defeated. But USF won at Notre Dame. It defeated Syracuse, which routed West Virginia.
More importantly, though, is the personnel breakdown. South Florida might be getting back sometimes-electric (sometimes power outage) quarterback B.J. Daniels, who is practicing. Receiver Sterling Griffin, who was on pace for the best statistical season in USF program history before an injury, is returning for this game. Ditto sixth-year senior A.J. Love. Also, the beleaguered secondary will probably return starting cornerbacks Kayvon Webster and Quenton Washington.
And examine the two teams. WVU has the better quarterback (Geno Smith), but South Florida has the better backfield (Darrell Scott and Demetris Murray). WVU might or might not have the better receiving corps, depending on Griffin and Love. USF definitely has the better offensive line.
On defense, the Bulls have a better defensive front. WVU is better at linebacker and secondary. USF has better special teams.
And if you think the game might hinge on turnovers, well, USF is plus-one this season, while WVU is minus-one.