Big Expectations = Big Challenges

The pre-season magazines started rolling out in earlier this summer, and almost every one is picking WVU to win the Big East and garner a nice high national ranking.

Following those publications, results from the Big East's media day revealed WVU as a heavy favorite by people who actually cover the conference. Those voters tabbed the Mountaineers to win the title and garner the Big East's BCS berth. (I'd love to know the thinking of the three pundits who voted for Boston College, however.)

All of that was well and good, but to that point the real polls hadn't been released yet, and those pre-season mags have nothing to do with the national title. Then the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll was released, and lo and behold, the Mountaineers were perched at 11th in the country. Above of Maryland, who beat WVU in two games last season by the combined score of 75-14.

Once discussion about that topic died down just a bit, talk began centering on the weakened Big East, and how WVU's schedule will prevent it from playing for the national title. While you think about that, let's go back a couple of seasons.

It was not long ago that Rich Rodriguez was laughed at for talking about winning the national title when he took over the reins from the retiring Don Nehlen. Sure, some people applauded the lofty goal, but many more viewed it as an unrealistic expectation. It was flat out thrown in his face as Rodriguez's first Mountaineer squad bumbled to a 3-8 finish that included a loss to Temple at home.

Fast forward three years, and suddenly talk about national championships isn't laughed at nearly so much. As I listened to former head football coach Don Nehlen on the Statewide Sportsline on Tuesday evening, it became apparent how far the Mountaineers had come. However, even from a coach who has been through such controversies before (WVU's schedule was downplayed in both 1988 and 1993) the talk was still about WVU's schedule and the conference. Nehlen observed that WVU's schedule could hurt in a run at the national title this year. That got me thinking about title aspirations.

First, the national title should always be the goal. If that is not your goal, I really don't see the point of spending millions upon millions of dollars to play big time college football. I don't see why people would make the personal investment to support the football team the way they do just for the idea that we'll give it the ol' college try.

On the other hand, I do believe that the national title talk is beginning to get a bit out of hand. In order for a team to win it all, everything has to go right, and you have to have one whale of a football team. Winning the national title requires taking some program defining steps that WVU, in its football history, has never been able to take.

Also, winning the national title will require beating the team from College Park, Md. The one that has beaten the Mountaineers like a rented mule ever since Rodriguez took over the WVU program. The Mountaineers have already proven to themselves that they can beat Pitt and Virginia Tech. But WVU came up short last year in other big games, losing early to Wisconsin, late to Miami, and badly twice to Maryland. Heck, the Mountaineers lost to Cincinnati (5-7) at home. Cincinnati's big win of the year, other than WVU, was over Temple.

In 2002 it was the same deal. Lose badly to Maryland, lose badly to Wisconsin, lose to Miami at home, get plowed in the bowl game against Virginia.

While I fully believe that the 2004 Mountaineers could be a very special team, and I expect a Big East title this season, I don't understand how you can lose games by four touchdowns and talk about the national crown, at least not out loud.

Could the national title happen? Sure it could. WVU is currently ranked 11th by the coaches. I fully expect the AP Poll to have WVU somewhere near there. The ranking will probably be a couple of notches lower (say, around 14th), as the media has consistently rated the Mountaineers lower than the coaches. Those rankings, while nice, a still a long way from an undefeated season and a national title shot.

Bill Gleason is a staff writer and columnist for the Blue & Gold News and Tomorrow, Bill examines the path the Mountaineers will have to travel in order to climb higher in the polls.

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