Setting the Table

The table is set for an all important run in 2004 – and it starts with a New Year's Day date in the Gator Bowl. The only question that remains is...will the Mountaineers step up to the plate?

2004 is a very important year for the Big East football conference. It's vital that one of its remaining member institutions step up into the top-10. That will end all trepidation concerning the conference's credibility and status as a member of the Bowl Championship Series. And looking ahead, no program is in a better position to make that happen than West Virginia University.

The Mountaineers will return their offense largely intact. As great as Quincy Wilson is, there should be little drop off with Kay Jay Harris and Jason Colson. The offensive line will return almost intact and with a season's more experience. Chris Henry is a burgeoning star at receiver and he won't be the only weapon in the passing game. And of course, Rasheed Marshall and Charles Hales – two very serviceable quarterbacks – return to provide WVU with a multiple threat (run and pass) at that position. The only issue on offense will be finding a blocking fullback to replace Moe Fofana.

The real concern will be on defense, where WVU will have to replace Grant Wiley and Brian King, perhaps the very best at their positions in the history of Mountaineer football. (So much for the theory that Coach Nehlen left the cupboard bare, huh?) Further, Miami will not be on the schedule. And with Pitt losing significant experience from a senior-dominated squad (not to mention the possibility of "manimal" Larry Fitzgerald joining former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett in challenging the NFL's rule for early entry), the Panthers don't figure to be quite the contender they were this past season.

The Gator Bowl is an important first step. A victory over traditional rival Maryland will assure WVU of a fairly high ranking in the opinion-dominated pre-season polls, much as it did this past season for Virginia and Pitt after both came out of the 2002 season with convincing bowl wins. I acknowledge that things did not go as planned for either of those schools in 2003, nevertheless, a pre-season ranking is important. It will serve as the launching pad into the Top 10, should WVU have the kind of season that the Big East needs and that we fans believe is in store. (It is much more difficult for a program unranked in the pre-season to attain a ranking in the top-10 as the season progresses.)

But a victory in the Gator Bowl will not come easily. Rich Rodriguez is 0-5 all time against Ralph Friedgen, including 0-3 at WVU and 0-2 when he was offensive coordinator at Clemson and Friedgen held that same title at Georgia Tech. Former Mountaineer and now Maryland starting quarterback Scott McBrien is 2-0 against his former school, and has done so in dominating fashion. Further, WVU is 0-3, while Maryland is 2-0-1 all time in the Gator Bowl. Still, I fully expect WVU – coaches and players – to approach this Bowl with the proper motivation and focus, something perhaps neither did going into last season's Continental Tire Bowl. The Gator Bowl should be much closer than the most recent two meetings between these border rivals, with WVU having a very real shot at upsetting the Terrapins.

WVU has a very impressive 12-2 conference mark over the last two seasons, and next season is setting up for much the same. Indeed, the Mountaineers could very well go undefeated in conference. But to achieve that all important top 10 ranking, the program will have to achieve something it has not yet accomplished under Coach Rod – win the preponderance of their non-conference games. Over the last two seasons, WVU is only 5-6 against non-conference opponents and just 7-8 over the last three seasons. That must change for the program to take the next step.

In addition, given that strength of schedule is an important component of the computer-dominated BCS poll, WVU's non-conference strength of schedule must offset the weakening of the conference resulting from the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, this will not be the case in 2004. While the continuation of series with traditional border rivals Maryland and Virginia Tech will help in this regard, games against Central Florida, East Carolina and James Madison certainly will not. WVU knows it will have to address schedule strength for upcoming seasons.

A 9-2 or better outcome in 2004 is certainly a very real possibility. The thinking here is that they will have to go 10-1 to achieve a top-10 ranking going into the Bowl season. And if they do so, they will almost certainly be going as the Big East's BCS representative (obviously they don't have to finish 10-1 to be the conference champion.) It would be icing on the conference's cake if they could go into the 2005 season after having defeated a national opponent in that bowl.

The "new" Big East is just around the corner. WVU is positioned to be its stalwart bell-cow. The table is set and the plate is full. Will the Mountaineers approach what's coming with an insatiable appetite or will they go hungry and thus leave the opportunity to others who have the same goals? It should be exciting indeed.

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