Conversations From The Car

As Mountaineer fans everywhere filled their summer by talking about National Championships and Heisman Trophies, I preferred to sit back and take a more subdued look at the 2006 WVU football season.

I tried to keep in mind the fact that less than a decade ago a seven-win season was considered a major success and made every West Virginia fan proud. I didn't want to fall into the trap of thinking that anything short of a perfect season was a disappointment.

Likewise, I tried to be realistic about Steve Slaton's chances of winning college football's biggest award. Yes, he had a great rookie season, but was there a possibility of a sophomore slump? I also was well aware that WVU is still not Notre Dame or Southern California in the eyes of the national media. Slaton, I felt, would have to have a season that just blew every other candidate away if he hoped to be handed the Heisman.

Just three weeks into the season, my opinion has started to change. I am not ready to declare the Mountaineers the kings of college football, and I am not predicting that we will be watching WVU on Jan. 8. I also am not ready to contact the West Virginia athletic department to remind it that it will need to find a place to display Slaton's postseason awards.

What I am willing to go on record as saying, however, is that I know believe that both are entirely possible.

Let's start with the national championship picture. Heading into the season, I would have picked Louisville as the favorite to become Big East champions. The Cardinals had an NFL-caliber running back, and NFL-caliber quarterback, an NFL-caliber coach and an NFL-style offense. On top of that, they had the motivation of a game that they felt they let slip away last year in Morgantown, and they would be playing the Mountaineers on their home turf in front of a sellout crowd. Everything seemed to point Louisville's way.

But after three games, a great deal has changed. Running back Michael Bush is out for the season, and quarterback Brian Brohm has a bad hand. The Louisville offensive leader will be back from the injury in time to face the Mountaineers, but there are questions as to just how sharp he will be after at least a four-week layoff.

These two factors may have shifted the advantage toward West Virginia, if only slightly. I am still expecting a great game, and it could easily go either way. But the chances of the Mountaineers leaving with a win now seem to be much more realistic.

The injury problems at Louisville are just one of the many signs that have led my to believe this may be the year of the Mountaineer. Every week, something major seems to go West Virginia's way. Perhaps the most important development in the season's opening weeks is the play of the Big East conference. The league's teams have performed astonishingly well in out-of-conference play. The Big East, which has been bashed harder than a hanging curveball over the plate to Barry Bonds in recent years, can now boast wins over the mighty ACC, the Big 10 and the SEC. Big East teams are 16-5 in non-conference games through three weeks, and they are 7-5 against schools from other BCS conferences. Two schools are ranked in the top 10 in the latest AP Poll (WVU #4, Louisville #8), and both Rutgers and South Florida are 3-0 and receiving votes. This improvement has not gone unnoticed, and the national media is finally starting to give the rebuilt conference some respect. This can only help West Virginia's position in both the polls and the computer rankings.

It also can't hurt the Mountaineers that so many of the country's best teams already have a loss. In just three games, Texas, LSU, Florida State, Notre Dame and California — which were all given a chance to run the table by many experts — have been knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten. If this trend continues, West Virginia could be one of the only perfect teams left, and thus have the inside track to the BCS championship.

I have not even touched on the play of the Mountaineers themselves just yet. The offense has looked unstoppable through three games, and I have not seen any team yet — including Ohio State and USC — that could slow down West Virginia's running attack. The defense has been shaky at times, but it has not really needed to show its abilities, as all three games have been decided in the opening minutes. I would be very surprised if this unit does not turn out to be stronger than most expect before the season's end. Take all of this into account, and there may very well be reason to dream.

Now, let's move to Slaton. Most experts have the WVU superback ranked among the top three Heisman candidates, and that fact alone has made me believe in the impossible. Slaton may not be playing for Notre Dame or Miami, but he is getting the respect and attention he deserves — however surprising that may be. He will have plenty more chances to become a household name, as West Virginia will be featured on national television at least five more times before the end of the season — two of those coming on weeknights, when the Mountaineers will be the only show in town.

Looking strictly at the numbers, Slaton has 503 yards and six touchdowns in three games, and he hasn't really played a full game yet. If the Pennsylvania native can keep up his current pace, he will finish the regular season with 2,012 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also is likely to become more involved in the WVU passing game, and he could put up some yardage and a couple of scores there as well. Numbers like these would be difficult to argue with, especially if Slaton can lead his team to a perfect season.

As much as the first three weeks of the season have changed my thinking, all of this could easily be erased in the next three weeks. But for now, I cannot get the sound of Journey singing, "Don't Stop Believing," out of my head.

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