6. Schedule Adjustments
West Virginia plays one-third of its 12-game schedule on non-Saturdays. That actually reads worse than it is, due to the slate's setup and break between games. WVU starts with the Sept. 2 kickoff against Marshall, then faces Eastern Washington the next weekend before the Thursday, Sept. 14 game against Maryland. All three are at home, and Maryland also plays the previous Saturday (Sept. 9) against Middle Tennessee State, so the issue of lack of practice prep is moot. But after three more games in four weeks, all Saturdays, the Mountaineer schedule becomes very irregular.
WVU plays at Connecticut on Friday, Oct. 20. UConn is home the previous week, giving it an extra day of practice before the game due to West Virginia travel. Combine the six-day prep week, and the Mountaineers must ready quickly. It is open the following week before the Nov. 2 game at Louisville. The slate sets up as more than fair, however, when one considers that the Cardinals must play at Syracuse on Oct. 21. The later game, combined with travel and West Virginia's trip to Louisville levels the proverbial playing field. The concern – besides WVU playing just one home game in two months (Oct. 14 versus Syracuse between the Mountaineer Field contests versus Maryland and Cincinnati) – is that after the Bearcats, West Virginia must travel to Pitt Nov. 16. That's a very short week against a solid squad. The schedule finishes with another gap before the Nov. 25 home game against South Florida and the season finale' on Dec. 2 versus Rutgers.
The Mountaineers will have to adjust to playing home and road games on short weeks, having long layoffs and long periods away from home, and playing three home games in 13 days, then four road contests in its next five. This schedule isn't put together poorly, necessarily, but it does present problems in settling in to a routine, and that makes it another problem and aspect of the 2006 season that must be overcome.
7. Finding Additional Receivers
With the loss of Brandon Barrett, Pernell Williams and Tyler Benoit, West Virginia will need to find additional wideouts to provide depth. Williams and Benoit would have taken snaps at tailback, which will now go to Jason Colson if freshmen Ed Collington and Jet Best can't win the backup job. Colson was taking snaps only at slot recover before the dismissal of Benoit and Williams, and must not split reps. Receiver Jeremy Bruce will also see time at running back. Add in Barrett's loss, and West Virginia needs help from players like Dorrell Jollah and newcomers Wes Lyons and John Maddux.
Rayshawn Bolden seems primed for a solid year after recovering from a broken foot, and Dwayne Thompson can contribute. Brandon Myles and Darius Reynaud seem like surefire starters barring injury. That still leaves West Virginia thin when it goes to four wideouts, and it lacks the depth to have two full units there without frosh help. With head coach Rich Rodriguez's promise to throw more (if needed), WVU will need to continue to develop as much ability at the position as possible.
8. Holder for the Kicking Game
This is an oft-overlooked aspect of the kicking game. West Virginia must replace arguably its best holder ever in George Shehl, who finished off his collegiate career by playing baseball at Fairmont State. The Mountaineers slid backup wideout Travis McClintic, who is a two-time scout team champion, into the position. He has performed well, and place kicker Pat McAfee has said there have been no problems. Reserve quarterback Markall Harrison has also held. The return of long snapper Tim Lindsey should help. Tim Reed, Matt Dobson, Zach Flynt and Adam Hughes are all vying for the backup long snapper position, but an injury to Lindsey would prove difficult to overcome.
WVU returns 48 lettermen and nine of 11 offensive starters off an 11-1 Sugar Bowl-winning squad. It is expected to win the Big East outright for the second straight year. It last faced similar preseason hype in 2004, and crumbled down the stretch with a bad home loss to Boston College and an upset defeat at Pitt when leading receiver Chris Henry did not play due to suspension. The same type of NFL-or-bust players don't seem to be as prevalent this season, but West Virginia will have more media attention than even two years ago, as showcased throughout spring, when national media came to Morgantown. Rodriguez says his players are mature enough to handle it, but if the Mountaineers were to drop a game, could they rebound and finish well, or would they struggle after merely one defeat?
A team's ability to bounce back shows as much of its makeup as anything. This, hopefully, is something fans need not worry about. But WVU rallied from a 1-4 start in 2003 to defeat No. 3 Virginia Tech and No. 16 Pitt and win on the road against Boston College and Syracuse. The first loss in 2004 led to tight games against Connecticut and Rutgers before losses to BC and Pitt cost WVU a BCS bid. Rodriguez doesn't put stock into one game, and that approach has worked well in past years. Look for him to try to take as much pressure off his team as possible, especially because they are very youth-oriented.
10. Polls – An Unwinnable War
This is not comparable to the great US Lesson of the 1960s, ergo ‘Don't fight a land war in southeast Asia.' But with WVU ranked seventh in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll, it has fewer teams to leap. It still, however, cannot control what the six teams in front of it do. Don't be shocked if a ‘name' school (or two) jumps West Virginia when one of the six in front of it lose, leaving WVU at the same spot – or, worse, lower – than it was at the start of the week. The Mountaineers might have performances like those against East Carolina last season. There will be off-weeks. The important thing is the win, and that's what the players are told. This is an unwinnable weekly argument, and some teams are just going to be ranked where they do not believe they should be.
As fans, it is your right to stomp and kick, yell and scream when the voters choose to wake up the echoes rather than hail West Virginia. But it still won't do any good, and it seems we get dozens of the same-old yearly with regards to it. West Virginia isn't the nation's darling, but it has likely shed the red-headed stepchild mantra and is getting respect. It reads here that there is really no national conspiracy, as we like to think, and that West Virginia will be fine at the end of the year if it wins all 12 regular season games. And if it finishes third to two other BCS teams who are unbeaten? That will probably be more than fair, looking at schedule strength, and, though it's no fun, it will likely be viewed as the correct ranking.
The best idea might be to take the college football season for what it is, the pageantry and fun, the tailgates and all that accompany it. But if a Mountain West school sneaks into the two-spot, well, all behaviors are encouraged.