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Next year's national champion? Mountaineers high on the watch list

By John Helsley Modified: January 3, 2008 at 12:57 am •  Published: January 3, 2008
GLENDALE, Ariz. – As expected, the Fiesta Bowl sent forth a national championship contender for 2008.

West Virginia, all you mountain mommas.

The Mountaineers kick-started their campaign Wednesday with a drop-kick of Oklahoma.

And while there are several schools worthy of inclusion on the early watch list, West Virginia's walloping of the Sooners – when many called for a rout the other way – cemented their status at or near the top.

Think not?

Think again.

Remember, if not for a loss to Pitt in their regular-season finale when quarterback Pat White — Wednesday's wild man — was injured, the Mountaineers might be soon hoisting a crystal football instead of the bejeweled Fiesta version.

They're that good.

And they'll be that good, if not better, again.

West Virginia returns nine starters on offense, including White and all five big boys along the offensive line. Running back Steve Slaton might opt for an early entry for the NFL, yet that might be a blessing, after seeing Noel Divine dice the Sooners for 243 all-purpose yards.

White was wonderful at the controls of the Mountaineers' spread option attack. He ran for a game-high 150 yards and rebounded from erratic early passing to complete 10-of-19 throws for 176 yards and two touchdowns.

"Very impressed,” said Sooners coach Bob Stoops.

But Divine, Slaton's backup, was electric.

Running. Receiving. Returning kicks.

Divine averaged 8.6 yards per rush during the regular season and 8.3 against an OU defense depleted by injury, yet still figured for capable.

He's not just an alternative to Slaton, he's an upgrade.

"I mean, the credit goes to Pat White and Noel Divine,” said OU linebacker Curtis Lofton.

So an offense that rolled up 525 yards — and a staggering 359 rushing — could, hold your breath Big East brethren, return a bigger beast.

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West Virgina quarterback Pat White had a field day against Oklahoma on Wednesday night in the Fiesta Bowl. White gained 326 total yards on offense and threw two touchdown passes. BY STEVE SISNEY, THE OKLAHOMAN

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