IT WAS AN all-time 3-year run.

Villanova went to the FCS quarterfinals in 2008, losing in the final minute on the road. Then the Wildcats won the national title. The following season, they made it back to the semifinals and might well have repeated if not for an injury to wide receiver Matt Szczur, who's now a top outfield prospect with the Chicago Cubs.

Yet as indelible as all that was, last season was just as forgettable. In a perfect world, simply getting back to the playoffs would've constituted a successful transition. Turns out it was anything but perfect. The Wildcats were extremely young. Then they had way too many guys get hurt. It happens. Whatever, the end result was 2-9.

So what now? The Wildcats have an awful lot of players back, including big-time wide receiver Norman White, who missed last season with a broken foot. Still, they've been picked to finish eighth in the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the best conferences at their level. It's also a conference that seems to produce some surprises, such as Towson and Maine a year ago. So maybe these Wildcats can continue the trend.

"Ending the season early was not fun at all," senior defensive back Ronnie Akins said. "It makes you more hungry to go out and not have a season like that again. We talked about it. No one wants to feel like that. We know what it feels like to win."

The Wildcats' season kicks off Friday night at the Linc in the fourth and - at least for the foreseeable future - last Mayor's Cup, against a Temple team that beat them, 42-7, in last year's opener.

"We're looking for a quick turnaround, for sure," longtime Wildcats coach Andy Talley said. "That's the expectation level here. I'm not looking to just get back on the winning track. We have to re-establish ourselves. It's important to start doing the little things we used to do to win games, and to start doing that right away.

"We're probably a little bit of an under-the-radar team. Some people say, 'Well, isn't that better?' I don't know. I always like to be picked first, and know what I have. We have to earn our spurs. And nobody's feeling sorry for us, or is going to cut us any slack.

"We have to show that last year was one of those things that can happen when you lose so many difference-making players. You don't just overcome that all at once. We know what we have to do to get back to where want to be."

They're already dealing with some more injury issues, which at this level, because you're dealing with 20-some fewer scholarships, is obviously even more critical. Senior center Dan Shirey, who hurt his Achilles' the first week of spring practice, might not be able to return. The slot receiver spot is thin. First, sophomore Jamal Abdur-Rahman was lost via a university suspension for his role in an offseason off-campus incident.

Now, wide receivers Dorian Wells, who led the team in receiving, and Kenny Miles will both be out for at least the first half of the season after breaking bones in their feet. The good news is that White and Joe Price, who missed six games himself in 2011 as a soph, are prime targets. All they need is someone to get them the ball, since sophomore running backs Austin Medley and Kevin Monangai appear set, and the line, while lacking depth, has experience.

Villanova has had more than its share of prominent quarterbacks. It's up to Chris Polony, yet another second-year guy, to see if he can follow that lead. He did have some better moments near the end of last season, after taking over in the middle. Still, he's hardly a finished product.

The defense, by the way, should again be a strength, especially along the front seven. Much of the problem last season was just being on the field too long.

"We kind of knew it wasn't going to be as good a season last year," White acknowledged. "But it was kind of a hit of reality, that you're not always going to be the top dog. We know we've got to play that much harder now. Hopefully, we can be the [surprise] team this year. Hopefully, people will overlook us. We think it's realistic to make it back to the playoffs, maybe make a good run. But right now it's the first game first."

Those slaps in the face will do that to your perspective.

"We were what we were," Talley said. "When you're physically immature, all you can really look for is improvement. But we're not that any more. We still have a lot of young players. But they've all been on the field. And the tackle that weighed 265 is now 290. So we have a little more of a physical presence.

"We have to have guys come through for us. They don't have to be stars. But they have to help. They have the skills. That's why they're here. Hopefully, they'll be guys who are on the rise."

Once again.

VILLANOVA AT A GLANCE

Coach: Andy Talley (190-116-1 in 27 years at school; 218-134-2 in 32 seasons overall).

Last year: 2-9, 1-7 in Colonial Athletic Association.

On the web: www.villanova.com.

Ticket info: 610-519-4100.

Worth watching: Norman White, who sat out all of last season with a foot injury, is one of the top wideouts in FCS. In 2010 he caught 69 passes for 886 yards and 11 touchdowns. Junior nose guard Antoine Lewis is the anchor of what looks to be a strong defensive line. Linebacker Dillon Lucas was the CAA Rookie of the Year. Mark Hamilton averaged 42.8 yards a punt and converted 10 of 13 field goals.

Great unknowns: Can the Wildcats stay healthy enough, and can Chris Polony be the kind of quarterback that makes everything around him go? In 2009 they started the same 22 all the way. It makes a difference. Polony made four starts as a true freshman, and by far his best performance came in the next-to-last game. The strides have to keep coming.

It all comes down to: See above. Depth is a concern, especially in certain spots. And if the quarterback play isn't at least consistent, the odds of success go correlatively down. It's pretty much that fundamental.

Circle the dates: When you're coming off 2-9, they're all important. But if they can get to Oct. 27 in semi-decent shape (say like 3-2 in the CAA, which looking at the schedule seems doable), they'll then get Towson and James Madison at home. Those two were picked to finish first and third in the CAA. So if nothing else, it would put the Wildcats in position to be a factor.

Number crunching: After winning 24 of their previous 25 games in Villanova Stadium, with the lone blemish coming on a Hail Mary, they've now lost five in a row there.

Prognosis: Well, you'd figure things can't possibly be as ugly this time around. But that could also mean nothing more than four or five wins. If the health and QB variables fall into place, six or possibly even seven doesn't necessarily sound unreasonable. Still, there are enough lingering questions to ensure that nothing is etched in concrete.