Over the Hump?

How might West Virginia challenge for a national title in 2004? Bill Gleason looks ahead at the season, presents some scenarios, but cautions that a number of landmines and the ever-present "hump" game remain to be conquered.

Taking a quick look at the season, I fully expect WVU to handle East Carolina and Central Florida, although George O'Leary will have his UCF team playing with discipline they lacked last season. Expect the Golden Knights to give the Mountaineers a much tougher game than anyone outside of Orlando anticipates come September 11.

A WVU team entering the Maryland game at 2-0 probably won't be ranked any higher than 10th. None of the teams ranked ahead of the Mountaineers have a game on their schedule they should lose. Florida State opens up with Miami. One of those teams will lose. Neither team, however, would slip behind WVU with a loss. Michigan does have a tilt with Notre Dame and Texas plays Arkansas. But neither of those are expected to be tough games this season.

A win over Maryland, however, could open up some new avenues. Tenth-ranked Florida plays at Tennessee the same day WVU hosts the Terrapins. Ohio State (#9) plays at North Carolina State the same day, and OSU needed overtime to beat the Wolfpack in Columbus last season. Louisiana State (#3) plays Auburn. This could be a profitable week for WVU, if they can take that next step.

September 25th, Seventh-ranked Michigan plays #12 Iowa. WVU plays James Madison. The Mountaineers could be 4-0 headed to Virginia Tech, who'll likely be 2-2. Florida State plays #16 Clemson. A second loss drops FSU below the Mountaineers. However, Iowa could jump WVU with the win over Michigan.

October 2nd, LSU plays at #4 Georgia. WVU could be sitting at 7th at this point, and the loser, who won't drop far, still will likely drop three to four spots, which would move WVU up the ladder again.

Hump Games
In past seasons, WVU has fallen short in these games that would have put them "over the hump" and into the national limelight
1969 Penn St 0-20 L
1975 Penn St 0-39 L
1982 Pitt 13-16 L
1982 FSU 13-31 L
1983 Penn St 23-41 L
1989 Clemson 7-27 L
1994 Florida 7-41 L
1996 Miami 7-10 L
2004 Maryland 7-41 L
October 9th brings another chance for WVU to move up. Assuming the Mountaineers handle the Hokies and sit 5-0 while they enjoy the Saturday off, #8 Texas plays #2 Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout. Neither school plays anyone with a chance to beat them before this game. If WVU is marching up the poll on Texas' heels, the loser of this game falls behind WVU. Ohio State gets #22 Wisconsin on the 9th was well, and then must follow that up with a road trip to #12 Iowa on October 16th. Top-ranked USC plays #15 California on the 9th as well, but USC will be a heavy favorite.

I don't look for USC to lose a game, as they have a favorable schedule. And while we're speaking of weak schedules, USC plays one team ranked in the top 25 - California. Virginia Tech, Colorado State, BYU and Notre Dame along with the weak Pac-10 certainly don't present much of a problem for the defending partial national champions. But, it's funny how not much criticism of USC's schedule is heard! The Trojans' 64th-toughest slate draws nary a comment, while WVU's 81st-ranked SOS has doomsayers burying the Big East (again).

But, enough of that. WVU plays at Connecticut on October 13th, and assuming a win, merely gets to watch Saturday's activities to see how it plays out. However, the UConn game reeks of a trap. Being played the week after the Mountaineers torch Blacksburg and return with the Black Diamond Trophy, and the week before West Virginia hosts Syracuse, which is always a big game (WVU hasn't beaten Syracuse three times in a row since 1972-74), WVU must not overlook the Huskies in what may be their biggest game of the year.

Oklahoma plays #13 Kansas State on the 16th in Manhattan. An Oklahoma win likely gives K-State their first loss, and keeps drops them off the Mountaineers' heels. A Kansas State win likely vaults them into national title consideration, assuming Oklahoma defeated Texas the week before. K-State gets Nebraska the following week, but nobody else on their schedule presents much of a problem. Another nice OOC schedule (Western Kentucky, Fresno State, La-Lafayette) will keep Kansas State from facing anyone near the caliber of Oklahoma, but Oklahoma will be coming off a huge emotional rivalry with Texas the week before. LSU (#3) travels to Florida as well. Someone has to lose, so WVU will move up.

While the bandwagon will be steamrolling at breakneck speed in Morgantown, the excitement inside Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium will be at goosebump levels. But Miami will be undefeated and ranked #2 and USC will be undefeated and ranked #1. And there isn't a game on either schedule I can see them losing, that I haven't already mentioned.

Like I said, everything must go right. Which means a WVU squad could be 11-0 and still not play for the national title. Not because of our schedule, but because two other teams are undefeated. But there are the Syracuse and Pitt games to go after the UConn game.

The key is winning. And the key is winning the Maryland game. That's the most important game on the schedule for the Mountaineers. (Nod to the coaches: Except that there are two games to win before WVU gets there.) Overlooking Central Florida would be a huge mistake, and it will be tough not to be looking toward Maryland.

National respect will hinge on changing that. Win your ballgames, and let the national scene play itself out. And that starts with ECU and UCF. Lose either of those games, and the national media will have a field day on the Big East. This is the season WVU must get over the hump.

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