Before the season began, the season finale between USF and West Virginia was circled as one that would have an impact on the Big East standings.
While that certainly is the case, the scenario has played out much differently than expected. USF and West Virginia were expected to be the top contenders to win the league. West Virginia is still in the mix for a share of the Big East title and a BCS spot. But USF (5-6, 1-5) has fallen far short of expectations, and is now in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since it joined the Big East.
The two teams play Thursday night in Tampa, a place where West Virginia has won just once in three visits.
"Nobody's hanging their heads," USF cornerback Quenton Washington said in a phone interview. "Everybody is playing for each other still. We're not going to quit on each other. Our coaches aren't going to quit on us. We're still practicing hard so we can go out there and compete."
The big question headed into this one is whether quarterback B.J. Daniels will be able to play. He remains questionable with a bruised shoulder, though he told reporters in Tampa earlier this week he was feeling better.
"I'm really trying to do everything I can physically to put myself out there to get treatment and therapy and things like that, but right now I'm not sure," he said.
No. 23 West Virginia (8-3, 4-2) needs to win in order to win a share of the league title and keep its a hopes for a BCS bid alive. But Tampa has not been a wonderful place for the Mountaineers. In 2009, No. 20 West Virginia went into the game with a 6-1 record. But USF scored 20 points in the first half and won 30-19.
In 2007, No. 18 USF upset No. 5 West Virginia 21-13 early in the season, holding the powerful Mountaineers running game in check. Pat White left the game in the second quarter with an injury, and West Virginia was not able to move the ball effectively. Plus, the Mountaineers turned the ball over six times.
Both losses were also on nationally televised week night games.
Nobody on the current West Virginia roster has ever beaten USF in Tampa, so that is a major goal, especially for the seniors.
"It would be huge to win for the first time at their place, especially to send the seniors out right with the win and clinch a Big East title," offensive lineman Don Barclay said. "It was nice to get the seniors a home win against Pitt. It would be even better to win our last game of the regular season."
USF also won in Morgantown in 2006, so the series between them is tied at three. When asked why USF has had so much success against West Virginia, Barclay said, "It's just a good, heated rivalry with both teams always coming to play." Washington said his team has had success at stopping West Virginia because the Bulls ran a similar offense in the past, so they got to work against it in practice.
"It's just the scheme," Washington said. "They run a spread offense, we run the spread offense with a little more conventional aspects. We practice against it a lot, so that prepares us for the game."
West Virginia runs a different style of spread and its run game is not as strong as it was in 2007 and 2009. Geno Smith is not Pat White, and there is no Steve Slaton or Noel Devine. The Mountaineers generate their offense in the pass game, and will try to take advantage of a depleted USF secondary that has depth and injury concerns.
But the Bulls do have an active defensive front -- ranking No. 2 in the nation with 38 sacks -- so they will try to disrupt Smith to get him off his rhythm. If Daniels is unable to play, the task of winning becomes that much more difficult for USF.