Wednesday, April 19, 2006
GREGARIOUS HYPE WATCH
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The formula for an overhyped bust-in-waiting over the past decade is consistent:Mediocre program with little to no recent championship success + Low to moderate expectations in Year X + Quietly unexpected success (one-two losses) in Year X + Shocking postseason upset + Returning starting quarterback= Inflated expectations, inevitable disappointment in Year YThat's the trajectory traveled at various times by Arizona, Texas A&M, Arizona again, Oregon State, Mississippi State, Utah and Purdue, among others, on their respective paths from obscurity to upstart to shooting star and back to obscurity in the span of two seasons.
Which should make fans of quickly ascended West Virginia, hyped today by Pat Forde less than a week after Stewart Mandel officially christened the Mountaineer bandwagon, a tad uneasy. So says Forde:Go tell it on the mountain. And across the fruited plain, for that matter. I'm not alone in picking these guys No. 1.Sophomores in leadership roles, talking national championship? Sounds like a winner?
They're talking national championship at West Virginia -- and not just in the Morgantown bars. They're talking it on the practice field.
"National champs on three!" coach Rich Rodriguez says when he brings his team together at the end of each spring practice.
"One-two-three!" the coach yells.
"National champs!" the players respond.
So they're not hiding from the buzz. Not embracing it by any means -- Rodriguez's humble-and-hungry counterstrike mantra is pervasive -- but not hiding from it, either. That's why the end-of-practice chant is what it is.
"It's in our thought process," quarterback Pat White said of the national title. "We want to work like the best, prepare like the best, do everything the best."
Said White's spread-offense running mate, Steve Slaton: "We're very aware of it. It's a thing in the back of our mind. We have the ability and the talent, and if we keep getting better day by day, I don't think there's anybody who can stop us."
To win it all, the Mountaineers must run through the brick wall of history, both ancient and recent.
Consider the ancient: West Virginia has been playing football for 113 years and has won 642 games without winning a national championship. There isn't even a sketchy power-rating title from a bygone era to claim.
"We're very aware of it. It's a thing in the back of our mind. We have the ability and the talent, and if we keep getting better day by day, I don't think there's anybody who can stop us."
Steve Slaton on WVU's title quest
In the annals of the sport, no Division I-A school has more victories without a title. West Virginia qualifies as the best empty-trophy-case program in America.
But now, armed with a user-friendly schedule (seven home games, with a visit to Louisville Nov. 2 looking like the showdown game) and scads of returning players from a stunning 11-1 2005 season, the Mountaineers are the buzz team in college football.
Any time the ever-expanding professional pundit professoriate's "Insiders" scramble over one another to be the first to tap an alleged up-and-coming program with a few returning starters from the best season in school history as the burgeoning powerhouse whose imminent dominance will stun the huddled masses of non-credentialed upper deck dwellers and justify their "expert" status, said program will fall flat. The truth, as we all know deep in our cold, objective hears, is that neither Stewart Mandel nor Pat Forde, nor anyone else, expert or otherwise, has a goddamn clue if West Virginia is a legit contender or if its borderline miracle one-loss season was a fluke.
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Hey, these things happen...and then they happen again and again...
Does SMQ think the Mountaineers are going to fall on their faces? He wouldn't bet on it. But he also wouldn't consider for a slim moment tagging WVU number one. Because:
I) The defense lost six starters, mostly good ones who had been around the block, like Jahmille Addae, Mike Lorello and Ernest Hunter; the back eight was hit very hard by graduation.
Also gone is leading receiver Brandon Myles, which is not insignificant.(Myles lurks on; see comments-ed.) Recent Bust Corollary: Oregon State, 2001. The Beavers, riding high off an 11-1 season and complete Fiesta Bowl beatdown of Notre Dame in 2000, returned or plugged in six eventual all-PAC Ten players on defense, yet started 1-3 and finished 5-6 because it couldn't replace its best receivers - Chad Johnson and T.J. Housmanzadeh - or six departed starters on defense.
II) Pat White is a young, athletic quarterback with another, more "conventional" passer with experience playing behind him (Adam Bednarik). Good as White is as a rusher, though, he was only a little over 50 percent as a passer and threw five interceptions in just 114 attempts; he didn't throw more than 16 passes in any game. The spread option itself is used almost exclusively as a kind of gimmick (albeit an often effective one) to minimize athletic disparities by forcing more athletic defenses to play stay home, read and responsibility ball rather than fly around. But if WVU gets behind, White's arm isn't a very good bet to get them back in it passing. Recent Bust Corollary: Arizona, 1999. The Wildcats brought back shifty Ortege Jenkins and veteran Keith Smith from its 12-1, Holiday Bowl champ 1998 team, and were a one-dimensional suck-fest throughout a dismal 6-6 season. Both quarterbacks played, but neither was able to pass well enough to get defenses off preseason (but definitely not postseason) all-American Trung Canidate.
III) Is SMQ the only person who still thinks the Big East's real beast is Louisville? U of Hell gets back Brian Brohm, plenty of young skill players who played a lot last year and eight starters on defense. Not to mention the little matter of the officiating, um, discrepancy that cost the Cardinals the game - and the league title, in the long run - in overtime in Morgantown last October. Recent Bust Corollary: Texas A&M, 1999. The Aggies rallied to stun big favorite Kansas State in overtime of the 1998 Big XII Championship Game, entered 1999 as the frontrunner to repeat, and have not yet challenged again for even the South Division championship, which has gone every year since to either Oklahoma or Texas.
IV) A general rule of thumb SMQ will henceforth refer to as the "Purdue Rule": The more talk of a team's prospective success centers around its "user-friendly" schedule, the worse said team actually is. The WVU Bandwagon's driving force will be that the Mountaineers are likely to face just one ranked opponent, which means we really only have once chance to gauge their worth as a top-tier team...assuming, of course, that they get by everyone they're supposed to. Recent Bust Corollary: Purdue, obviously, for its colossal inability to take advantage of missing both Ohio State and Michigan last year, and also Louisville, which garnered a No. 1 vote in the AP poll last preseason because the voter just didn't see anybody on the schedule he thought would beat the Cardinals.
Again, none of which should put SMQ on the record as saying that West Virginia won't be plenty good; likely, they will (he'll get around to an adsurdly premature preview sometime in the next couple months, hopefully). But if the Mountaineers seem like a crazy pick to win a national championship, it's because they are. A crazy, unfounded prediction, even one that defies all odds to come true, is still a crazy, unfounded prediction.
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Thanks for the piece! Provided WVU can get past all the teams they should beat, the Louisville game will decide everything. Then, it's just a matter of what happens around the rest of the country. If WVU is one of three unbeaten teams at the end of the year, they won't play for the title. It could even be that a one loss team could still end up ranked higher than WVU (see 1993). The schedule gives them a shot, and that's all we can really ask for. By the way, Brandon Myles was a grey-shirt that got his last year back by graduating on time, so he is still here.