Embrace the Madness

West Virginia is embracing the madness, taking a newfound approach to an old nemesis: Expectation.

Call it acumen, insight or just anxiety, but the Mountaineers, ranked in the preseason top 10 for a school-record second time in three seasons, are loving the excess media and attention. So much so, in fact, that they are seemingly trying to draw more.

Quarterback Patrick White faked a bad case of laryngitis just after entering the media room, then recovered immediately when interviewed. The offensive linemen shaved their heads prior to the first practice, then joked about who looked the worst. And head coach Rich Rodriguez said he actually liked the high preseason ranking, which positions WVU well in the national title picture.

"High expectations are not something that we should be worried about or burdened with every season," Rodriguez said. "We should want this every year. I don't care if it's first, seventh or 107th. The biggest thing about starting that high is you have to play your way out as opposed to play your way in."

West Virginia has done the former in the past. In 1998, then-No. 11 WVU was picked to win the Big East, but lost the opener to No. 1 Ohio State and finished just 8-4 after a bowl defeat by Missouri. In 2004, the preseason No. 10 Mountaineers were again league favorites, but stumbled badly down the stretch, losing to Boston College and Pitt before a second consecutive Gator Bowl failure.

Last season, chosen third, West Virginia went 11-1 and won its first-ever BCS contest with a 38-35 Sugar Bowl upset of SEC-champion Georgia that keyed a top five final rank. The year closely resembled those of 2002 and '03, when West Virginia surprised and finished better than expected, parlaying, as it often does, the underdog role into the spoiler to flourish.

"That's where we'd rather be, be an underdog where nobody expects us to do too much," center Dan Mozes said. "That's the mindset we still would like to take, but we are going to have teams team aiming for us, and we're going to aim back."

That marks a major change. Instead of downplaying their latest national notoriety, West Virginia, the team, has accepted it. Nobody flinched when seemingly the entire coaching fraternity touched down in TD City for a pre-gamer on the spread offense. There was no hesitation, just humility when tailback Steve Slaton appeared on national TV as a Heisman hopeful. And the offense, swarmed and swooned over, created even more of a fuss with the line's shearing, then found amusement in the action after the opening practice, one where many of the entire state's scribes attended.

Guard Jeremy Sheffey chided Mozes for having to call home and get permission from his mom, Joann, before shaving his lengthy locks. Mozes, a Remington Trophy nominee as one of the nation's best centers, denied the accusation, then said Sheffey was the lone linemen who had to be convinced to do it, finally relenting to Mozes' barbering only after the rest of the line cut their hair.

"The only person who was upset was Dan (Nehlen, the equipment manager)," Mozes said. "He had to refit our helmets. I like it, though. It shows unity."

Which seems to be the deciding element in West Virginia's success. The players admit there were too many individuals worried about NFL draft status instead of team success in 2004. The 1998 squad, which had the most players selected in school history, had similar problems. This year, with most of the talent underclassmen and its two marquee players – White and Slaton – being just sophomores, that doesn't appear to be an issue.

"They know individual accolades are fine, as long as the team comes first," Rodriguez said. "Pat White and Steve Slaton, those guys are conscientious of that. They'll tell you last year is over."

And that another chance to finally begin and end the same season in the top 10 is just starting.

"This was what I wanted to happen," White said. "It was one of my goals. And it makes the season fun. It's definitely better than the alternative."

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