When Coach Rod's teams have had success, they have also had unquestioned leaders on both sides of the ball. Last year, Rasheed Marshall and Adam Lehnortt were two players that their respective units could look to for leadership, or to make a big play. Having both departed, new leaders must arise.
The defense is full of potential leaders – Jahmile Addae, Mike Lorello, even Ernest Hunter. On offense, the leadership is up for grabs. Might Dan Mozes, or one of the other linemen take charge? The answer is simple: they'll have to. With a lack of game experience at receiver and quarterback, Mozes or one of the other linemen will have to be the leader of the offense, at least early on. Jason Colson is also a candidate, but his quiet persona doesn't quite fit the mold of the fiery Mozes.
The schedule may look easy on paper, with names like Wofford, East Carolina, and Cincinnati, but with the new Big East, everyone in the league thinks they have a shot. On top of that, the Mountaineers have two of their tougher games in the first three weeks of the season (road contests at Syracuse and Maryland.)
If the Mountaineers come out of that stretch 1-2, or even worse 0-3, it will be important to stay together. That's where the aforementioned "team chemistry" angle comes into play. Also, one needn't look any further than the 2003 season when the Blue and Gold started off 1-4, but ended the year as one of the hottest teams in America and won a share of the Big East crown, to see how chemistry can play an important role in keeping a team on track.
On top of that, I think that this will be a very competitive conference. It may not be like the SEC, where top 15 teams beat each other up every week, but with established programs like WVU, Pitt, and Syracuse, a rapidly rising national star in Louisville, and up-and-comers like UConn and Rutgers (allegedly), there will be plenty of competition. I would even go so far as to say that no team will go undefeated in conference play, and that we could have a messy tie on our hands like last season, when more then half the conference won a share of the championship. It'll be fun to watch, but it'll also be important for the players not to wallow in pity if they start off slowly.
This is a big one. Everyone – coaches, players, fans – will have to be patient. There's so much new stuff going on. There's basically a new conference, and closer to home there will be plenty of new faces in the Blue and Gold. It's going to be unique, something that we haven't seen in these parts in some time. Think about it: when's the last time there was a battle this wide open for the quarterback position? The last time I can think of is the '94 team with Chad Johnston and Eric Boykin. The 2001 season started off as a quarterback battle, but when redshirt freshman Rasheed Marshall went down with a broken wrist at Boston College, the battle was essentially over.
With such a young team, and with so much unknown, the last thing we need is to hear grumbling, and dissension in the ranks if things don't go according to plan right away. Mountaineer fans are among the most passionate in all of sports, but that can be a double-edged sword. Stay positive, be patient, and enjoy Mountaineer football for what it is…a GAME. These are young college kids out there on the field, giving their all for the Blue and Gold. We're all marching toward a common goal here. There's no need to shower them in boos if they go three and out on the first series against Wofford.
THE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE
Surprise is always happening somewhere in the sports world. My favorite kind of sports surprise is when a team comes from nowhere to be a mighty factor at the end of the season. Think about the Mountaineer basketball team last season. They ran that route more times in one season than any other team in the history of sports. They started off 10-0, and had talking heads saying "This team came from nowhere." Then after a 40-point loss to Villanova, they were done, finished, and NIT bound…at least that's what it seemed like as they fell off the national map. When it was all said and done, and the regional final game against Louisville was about to tip off, I remember turning to my girlfriend and saying "Seriously…a win, and they're in the Final Four. Where in the world did this come from? I mean like three weeks ago they were NIT-bound, and now they're one step away from college basketball's Holy Grail?"
This could happen with the 2005 Mountaineer football team. Few of the so-called "experts" expect the Mountaineers to win the re-configured Big East this season. Some have gone so far as to put perennial doormat Rutgers ahead of the Mountaineers. Look, I'm sure Rutgers has improved, but I'm tired of hearing that this is "their year." We hear it every year, don't we? Not just in football, but in basketball. "You watch…Rutgers will surprise some people this year." You bet they will, because they do it every year when they completely fall short of expectations. Last year they almost had us all fooled by beating Michigan State. "Maybe this is their year," said college football fans. Then a week later, they brought everyone back down to earth with a sobering loss to the New Hampshire Wildcats. But I digress…
History has shown that reverse psychology works well on the Mountaineers. Tell them they don't have a shot, and they'll go out and win eight or nine games. Tell them they're going to go undefeated and win the national title, and they'll win eight or nine games.
Look, maybe this team is young. Maybe there is a lack of experience in some areas. This program rises to the occasion when least expected, just look at 2002, and 2003. It's a unique opportunity that lies ahead. Some would say the program is at a crossroads, and some would say that it's even a little down this year. Having followed the Mountaineers my whole life though, I'm not about to count them out. And if they're in the conference championship race at the end of the season, we should know better than to be surprised.