It's Where You Finish That Matters Most

  • By John Antonik
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  • July 19, 2013 04:05 PM
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The Big 12 preseason media poll came out Thursday afternoon and not surprisingly, West Virginia was picked to finish near the bottom of the conference standings in eighth place ahead of just Iowa State and Kansas.

Compare that to last year when West Virginia was pegged to finish second behind Oklahoma – with some even predicting a first-place finish for the Mountaineers in their inaugural season in the Big 12.

“Going into it last year we were picked high, the expectations were high, and it was kind of a setup job based on winning the Orange Bowl the way that we did,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen told a Houston radio station earlier this week.

Well, there are no setup jobs for West Virginia this year.

For the first time in 11 years, the Mountaineers will be starting a football season looking up instead of looking down. Way back in 2002, when most of the guys on this year’s football team were still in grade school, WVU was predicted to finish sixth in the eight-team Big East Conference during Rich Rodriguez’s second year sitting in the big chair.

However, Coach Rod’s Mountaineers surprised everyone that season with a pair of year-end road victories at Virginia Tech and Pitt to secure a 6-1 Big East record and a second-place finish behind an outstanding Miami team that fell in double overtime to Ohio State in the national championship game – some believe in the same mysterious way challengers always seem to lose political elections in Russia. But that’s a story for another time.

Rich Rod’s first WVU team in 2001 was also pegged for a sixth-place finish but actually ended up one spot worse in seventh place with a 1-6 conference mark. If not for our old friends up in Piscataway, the Mountaineers would have pulled off a Munson in the Big East, which, thinking back on it now, would have really been some kind of achievement considering that Temple was still in the league a mere three years shy of getting the boot in 2004.

In 2000, in what turned out to be Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen’s last season working the WVU sidelines, the Mountaineers were also picked sixth but finished one spot better, tied with Boston College for fifth place with a 3-4 league record. Two coulda-shoulda-woulda losses to Syracuse and Pitt were balanced out by a couple of woodshed beatings by Miami and Virginia Tech that year. If memory serves me correctly, West Virginia was never in the Miami game but the Tech contest was a winnable affair in Blacksburg until the Mountaineers collapsed in a span of about five minutes early in the second half on three long scoring plays by Andre Davis.

At any rate, there have been other instances in recent years when West Virginia performed much better than the Fourth Estate thought it would.

In 1993, West Virginia, despite returning most of its two-deep roster including a pair of highly capable quarterbacks in Jake Kelchner and Darren Studstill, was picked fourth in the Big East behind Miami, Syracuse and BC, I believe.

However, West Virginia ran the table that season, winning back-to-back games against Top 15-ranked Miami and Boston College to get into the national championship conversation before getting squeezed out of the big game by Florida State. Back then it was the Bowl Coalition Poll that zapped the good guys instead of those silly BCS rankings that we’ve become so familiar with today.

Twelve years later, in 2005, West Virginia was predicted to finish third in the Big East, which then included Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati instead of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, and WVU once again ran the table with blowout victories down the stretch against Connecticut, Cincinnati, Pitt and USF on the way to a Sugar Bowl meeting against Georgia.

In both instances, the Mountaineers achieved far more than what was expected of them.

Speaking from past experiences, preseason predictions are a lot like most opinion polls – see what the blue bloods and the alpha males are doing and then put everyone else behind them (that seems to work well for recruiting rankings as well). And if a hot, up-and-coming team has its quarterback returning then place them up amongst the blue bloods … which leads me to Don Nehlen’s annual complaint about the polls that he used to make years ago. Each time a reporter would ask him about a preseason poll or a prediction he would answer this way, and I am paraphrasing, “Take the same 15 teams, mix them around, and then add five more to that and that’s your top 20.”

Yep, that sounds about right.

So don’t get too worked up about where West Virginia is starting this season – just as the West Virginia coaches didn’t get too worked up about where the Mountaineers were starting last year. Remember, Kansas State was predicted to finish sixth and we all know how good the Wildcats were last year.

What counts most is where West Virginia ends up in December, not July.

Who knows? Perhaps Dana Holgorsen’s 2013 Mountaineers can add another surprise to West Virginia’s list of surprise seasons.