Let's look at last year. WVU opens the season with few expectations outside of its rabid fan base (and I say that with all the affection for Mountaineer fans I can muster). WVU travels to Syracuse, plays a very uneven game, kicks the ball around, but escapes with a victory. A few weeks later, it does the same against East Carolina. And following a loss to Virginia Tech, the Mountaineers were faced with emptying stands as it trailed conference foe Louisville deep in the third quarter. Did keeping a level head or battling expectations have anything to do with WVU's wins in those games? No more so than big defensive plays or the emergence of Pat White and Steve Slaton. WVU was one play away from losing any (or all) of those three games, and the reason the Mountaineers won them was because they made enough plays at critical points in the game. Dealing with expectations had nothing to do with it. However, if West Virginia hadn't come up with those wins, we'd be seeing a far different storyline for 2006. Do you think we'd be seeing these same sorts of articles if the Mountaineers had finished 9-3 and won the Meineke Bowl? Of course not.
However, since every off-season has to have a storyline that's easy to write about, dealing with expectations has become WVU's, just as replacing Vince Young is Texas' or bouncing back from an underachieving year is Tennessee's. It's easy to write, easy to read, and becomes a catchphrase to sum up a team's off-season outlook in a couple of short sentences. Unfortunately, it's also either totally wrong, or wildly overhyped.
For West Virginia, the hysteria about a possible national title run is, in large part, a media creation anyway. Many writers are spewing out words about things they created in the first place. Sure, WVU closed each spring practice with a chant of "National Champs" (a fact reported here long before Pat Forde got hold of it), but that's symbolic of the goal they are working toward. It's not designed to be a pressure builder – something that it has been turned into. The Mountaineers did the same thing a few short years ago, but since it wasn't picked up by writers across the country, it didn't become another symbol of the "pressure" on the Mountaineer team.
Think I'm way out there? (It won't be the first time.) But if you need proof, take a look at WVU's basketball team, which was in a similar situation coming in to this past season. The hoopsters had far more preseason attention that they did prior to the 2004-05 season, but there weren't many articles written to the effect that their fortunes this year would depend on how they handled increased attention. It was there, of course, with more national publications writing articles and more TV games televised across the land, but in the end it wasn't how the super senior class "dealt" with those demands. It came down to their play on the court, which was once again tremendous.
The more I think about it, the more the whole premise seems a bit odd. While there might be a few more interviews done, and more chances to see "WVU" on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated, there probably isn't a great deal of difference in "handling" questions from The Sporting News than there is from the Blue & Gold News. And while I fully understand the difference between the two, does it really make that big of a difference to the players? They are still answering the same questions. The demands on their time might increase some, but ever-vigilant coaches and sports information staffers will ensure that it won't become a problem. (Rich Rodriguez, for instance, only makes his players available for questions every other day or so during spring and fall practices.)
I don't mean to discount the effect of added attention. Certainly, it can be a distraction at times. But heavy media attention didn't cause the 2004 team to have the problems it did – that baggage came with the players who were concentrating on a pro career more than they were on their college lives. And I don't think it will have a huge effect on this year's team either.
In reality, what it comes down to is this. WVU won't win or lose any games this year according to how it handles the media hype – just like Texas and USC a year ago. It will win a bunch of games if it executes and plays better than its opponents, and gets a few lucky bounces of the ball. But if the Mountaineers lose some games, it won't be because they had a lot of cameras, notepads and pencils recording their every word in April and August.