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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- So long, East Carolina, Western Michigan, Marshall and Maryland.

Hello, South Florida.

Hello, season.

It begins in earnest Friday for No. 5 West Virginia against surging South Florida -- the team that ruined its chance for a Big East title in 2006.

About 20 minutes after a 48-7 bludgeoning Saturday of East Carolina, WVU coach Rich Rodriguez was asked if he'd already mentioned South Florida to his players.

"I didn't have to," Rodriguez said. "I just said, 'Y'all know who's next,' and they blurted it out. Our guys are excited to try to play better than we did against them last year."

West Virginia has proved nothing thus far, despite winning all four of its games handily.

We already knew tailback Steve Slaton (114 yards rushing yesterday) and quarterback Pat White (18 for 20, 181 yards, two touchdowns) were really good. We already knew an offense that rolled up 599 more yards could score from anywhere, on anyone, and we still wonder if the defense has improved enough to win the conference.

We'll get a pretty good idea Friday.

South Florida (3-0) won at Auburn two weeks ago and looks to be better than when it upset West Virginia, 24-19, late last season in Morgantown. The Bulls were a three-touchdown underdog that day, but proved to be one of the rare teams with the athletic ability to frustrate the Mountaineers.

"They're definitely fast," White said. "They run around very well."

West Virginia had been averaging 40 points per game, but didn't score a touchdown until the third quarter against South Florida. It rushed for a measly 132 yards. White was hobbled by a bad foot but says that wasn't the reason his team struggled.

White was asked if the loss has stayed stuck in his craw.

"It definitely has," he said. "It was a big win for them, a horrible loss for us ... and we just want to get that corrected."

West Virginia has to run the table if it wants a shot at the national championship. That might seem more doable now that Louisville has been exposed as a titanic fraud, losing at home yesterday to 36-point underdog Syracuse.

On the other hand, Louisville's sudden demise might be offset by what appears to be newfound balance in the Big East.

"I've said it many times," Rodriguez said. "The Big East, from top to bottom, is as good as any conference in the country."

No, it's not, but it's getting better -- and West Virginia will face challenging road games at Cincinnati and Rutgers later this season.

First up, though, is South Florida, where the Bulls' burgeoning fan base might come close to packing an NFL stadium (Raymond James) in what will be billed as the biggest game in school history.

Never mind that South Florida's football "history" began only 11 years ago.

The Mountaineers will have their hands full.

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