The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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July 18, 2013

Is it time to push the panic button in Morgantown?

Eighth? Out of 10 teams? Are the Mountaineers really that bad?

Those questions have been on the lips of many college football fans around the Mountain State over the last 24 hours, after West Virginia was picked ahead of only Kansas and Iowa State in the preseason Big 12 football polls.

A year ago, fans that don’t know the Mountainlair from Mountain Dew were decked out from head to toe in gold and blue and talking about how much they love the Mountaineers. Now, many have hidden those WVU Big 12 shirts at the bottom of the laundry pile under the dirty socks and the towel that was used to clean up the spilled milk off the kitchen floor. The trash talking from the mouths of the WVU faithful has quieted quicker than an elementary classroom when the principal walks through the door.

But what does WVU’s spot in the preseason poll really mean?

It doesn’t have to mean anything. Some of the Mountaineers’ best seasons in recent years came without major expectations.

The 1993 squad was unranked in the national polls and picked by Lindy’s preseason magazine to finish sixth in the still new Big East Conference, which only included eight teams. But Don Nehlen’s group shocked national power Miami, came back to defeat Boston College and finished the regular season 11-0, getting a trip to the Sugar Bowl as its reward. It ended the year as Big East champion and ranked in the top 10, nationally.

The 2005 team wasn’t supposed to set the world on fire, either. It was picked to finish third in the watered down Big East, and in that league, at that time, anything but first was considered a disappointment. The Mountaineers were nowhere to be found in the preseason polls.

How did that turn out?

WVU’s only loss that season came at home against ACC member Virginia Tech. The Mountaineers won the Big East with an undefeated record and went on to shock Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, finishing the year ranked in the top 5, not in the conference, but the country, instead.

So preseason rankings are often about as accurate as the local weather forecast. As Alabama head coach and Marion County native Nick Saban explained Thursday at SEC Media Days, when asked about his team being selected to win the league, those predictions, in that league, have been right only four out of the last 21 years.

“If I went 4-17,” Saban said, “I’d be back in West Virginia pumping gas in my daddy’s gas station.”

It’s not where a team starts the season, but where it finishes that really matters.

On the other hand, the fact that WVU was picked to finish eighth in a league with only 10 teams is a sign of the way public perception of the program has changed. Last year at this time, fans and media pundits, alike, were discussing the Mountaineers as possible national championship contenders. Geno Smith was on the cover of seemingly every preseason magazine, and Dana Holgorsen was about as popular on sports talk shows as discussions of a new playoff system. Now, most are questioning whether Holgorsen can even get his team into a bowl game and any mention of the Mountaineers by the national talking heads is little more than an afterthought.

That’s a problem. College football revolves around recruiting, and much of a high school athlete’s view of a program is based on what he sees on ESPN or reads from online bloggers. WVU already has some major hurdles to clear in recruiting, based simply on its location, the talent pool surrounding it and negative stereotypes of the state. Getting the best players to Morgantown is already about as easy as finding a Virginia Tech fan in the WVU student section. But the task is much more manageable when the Mountaineers are being talked about in the same company as Oklahoma and Texas, instead of that of Kansas and Iowa State.

Is the preseason ranking a death sentence? No. Some of the best teams to ever take the field in Morgantown have already proved it’s not. But perception can quickly become reality, and WVU better find a way to remove the rust and restore the luster the program had after it’s win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

An eighth-place finish could make that 70-33 thrashing seem as though it happened in the days of leather helmets and defenses that were allowed to hit the quarterback.

— E-mail: chuffman and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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