West Virginia football fans are starting to strut a little.
Who can blame them? The Mountaineers are supposed to be making an adjustment to a bigger, badder conference, but nobody, it seems, is expecting much of a learning curve.
WVU will be making a jump similar to a move from Class A to Class AAA in high school football, but most believe it will stay at the top.
Dana Holgorsen’s film study will now include the likes of Texas and Oklahoma, instead of Rutgers and UConn, but most still are convinced that his offensive system will run right through the opposition.
The Mountaineers were picked to finish second in their inaugural season in the new league — behind only Oklahoma and ahead of Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU. Geno Smith and Tavon Austin have received seemingly every preseason honor, and many national analysts have mentioned WVU as a national championship darkhorse.
That attention is fun for fans, and it makes the coaches’ jobs on the recruiting trail a little easier, as well. The more your program is mentioned on television and in print — at least in a positive light; Penn State’s form of publicity doesn’t work quite the same — the easier it is to convince 17- and 18-year-old athletes that spending their next four years in Morgantown is a wise decision.
There’s nothing wrong with big expectations. In fact, if there are no expectations, there’s something wrong with the program. But a little history lesson should at least convince the Mountaineer faithful to proceed with caution — and perhaps stay off the Texas message boards with their trash talking.
Going back to 1980 — because that’s the year I was born, and, frankly, the program is a different animal than it was before Don Nehlen found his way to Morgantown — WVU has been ranked in the top 15 in the Associated Press Preseason Poll five times.
The first came in 1998, when the Mountaineers — which featured the likes of Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue, Jerry Porter, Gary Stills and Anthony Becht — came in at No. 11. Nehlen called that team his most talented ever — above the 1988 and 1993 squads that finished the regular season undefeated — but those Mountaineers couldn’t live up to the expectations. They finished 8-3 in the regular season, falling out of the top 25, and lost to Missouri in the Insight.com Bowl to end the season.
That was Nehlen’s last shot at glory, but in 2004 Rich Rodriguez had the Mountaineers back in the national spotlight, and they began the season ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll.
Rasheed Marshall, Kay-Jay Harris, Pacman Jones and crew lived up to the hype early in the year, starting 4-0 and rising to No. 6, but they lost to Virginia Tech to end any thoughts of a perfect season and then, after a Chris Henry suspension, lost their last two regular season games to Boston College and Pitt.
WVU was no longer ranked when it played Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl to end the year, and it lost 30-18 to the Seminoles to finish the season on a three-game skid.
The Mountaineers weren’t ranked in the preseason in 2005, when they went 11-1, won the Sugar Bowl against Georgia and finished No. 5 in the final poll of the year, but they were No. 5 in the 2006 preseason, when they lost twice to USF and Louisville and missed out on another trip to a BCS bowl game.
The exception to the rule came in 2007, when WVU started No. 3 and ended No. 6, but the preseason jinx may have still been in place when the Mountaineers fell to Pitt 13-9 in the regular season’s last game, missing out on a chance to play for the BCS Championship.
WVU came in No. 6 in the preseason in 2008, the first year under Bill Stewart, but again came up short, finishing the regular season a disappointing 8-4 before winning the Meineke Car Care Bowl against North Carolina.
So if history is indeed often repeated, WVU fans should avoid getting overly excited. Enjoy the moment — that’s what being a fan is all about — but don’t make those travel plans back to Miami — the site of this year’s BCS Championship — just yet.
The poll that matters is the one that comes in December, not the one in July.
West Virginia football fans are starting to strut a little.
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