Cincinnati coach Butch Jones will be returning to familiar territory when he takes his team into Morgantown this weekend. Jones was an assistant coach for West Virginia from 2005-06.
"It will be different," Jones said. "From the bus ride in, to the fans cheering against us to running out of the opposite tunnel."
That won't be the only thing that feels a bit off about the Bearcats' trip. Cincinnati has beaten West Virginia two years in a row on its way to consecutive Big East championships. But in Jones' first season as head coach, the team is just 3-5, already exceeding the number of losses it had the past two years combined. While few rational people expected Jones to match Brian Kelly's 12-0 regular season record of 2009, the Bearcats' 2010 definitely qualifies as a surprise setback.
Despite the poor record and increasing fan criticism, Jones isn't pushing any panic buttons.
"Nobody has wavered," he said. "Are we disappointed? Yes. But we still have a lot to play for. This program is very prideful. Nobody is going to blink."
After Cincinnati lost 31-7 at home to Syracuse last time out, Jones said there were things going on within the program that "Joe Public has no idea" about. He has also alluded to building a foundation. Those sentiments may seem odd to people who only see the two straight Big East trophies.
Jones hasn't delved into a lot of specifics publicly, and he's in a no-win situation in that regard. If he talks about problems in the program, most fans will simply consider it excuse-making. His only option is to win more games.
Many expected this team to compete for another league title because of the return of Zach Collaros, Isaiah Pead, Armon Binns and D.J. Woods. But the Bearcats also lost several key pieces off last year's Sugar Bowl squad, including electric playmaker Mardy Gilyard; all-Big East offensive linemen Jeff Linkenbach and Chris Jurek; and cornerstone defensive players in linemen Ricardo Matthews and Alex Daniels, linebackers Curtis Young and Andre Revels and defensive backs Brad Jones and Aaron Websters. In most cases, the Bearcats haven't been able to replace their production.
Add in some recruiting misses -- the 2009 signing class has accounted for only a handful of contributors, and many of those original signees are gone -- and you get a team starting seven sophomore on defense, with precious little experience behind them. Jones was very concerned about depth this summer, and injuries and other issues have further thinned the ranks.
"We lost Kembrell Thompkins, Vidal Hazelton and Travis Kelce, who are three bona fide potential NFL prospects," he said. "And then [cornerback] Dominique Battle, who's played a lot of football for us and has been a model of consistency and stability.
"It has been an issue, but you can never allow that to be a crutch. Usually, teams playing for championships in November stay healthy and have great competition at spots. We knew [depth] was going to be an issue going in. The only thing you can do is develop your younger players."
Despite all the challenges, Jones said he likes the way the young players have responded and how leaders have emerged. That gives him hope for the future.
"Every great program suffers adversity at some stage or another," he said. "When that happens, you really find out about the character of the people in your program and around our program. If anything, what this proves is that we have very high standards here. We expect to compete on a national stage and in the Big East conference year in and year out."
These Bearcats have to win three of their final four games just to have a shot at making a bowl. The buzz around Cincinnati may have dimmed considerably since last year's run at a BCS title berth, but Jones believes he's still got the program on the right path.
"I know the system we have in place here, I know the younger players we have in place here and I know the standards and expectations we're working toward here," he said. "We're upgrading our facilities, we have great expectations and great support around our football program. We won't lose momentum. I'll make sure we do not lose any momentum."