Making the case for Number One.
- - -
Voters aren’t wild about West Virginia, necessarily, but you won’t find any other Big East teams anywhere near the Mountaineers in the earliest preseason polls . The instinct to write WVU off post-Rodriguez is obvious, but give me a unanimous conference favorite with three straight top ten finishes and a serious candidate for the Trophy Which Shall Not Be Named, and I’ll give you a legitimate mythical championship aspirant. Darkhorse, at worst.
Bow Down. There’s really only one reason to consider the Mountaineers a mythical championship contender, and it’s the same reason they’ve carried that status into the last two seasons:
Only moreso since the Fiesta Bowl, where Pat White officially emerged from the shadow of Rich Rodriguez, puppetmaster, and Steve Slaton, partner in crime. By dominating an elite defense without the spread option mastermind or co-focal point in the backfield, White probably surpassed Tim Tebow as the most valuable player to his team every time he steps on the field – as long he’s actually on the field: the losses to South Florida (where backup Jarrett Brown committed four turnovers in the second half) and Pitt are largely attributable to White spending crucial possessions on the bench. Fully healthy against OU, White was a well-rounded terror, as he’s been most of the time in leading the offense to a fairly outrageous 38 points per game each of the last two years. When he’s in the lineup, with Noel Devine assuming the Slaton role, there is no reason to think defenses will suddenly figure out how to defend him.
The Mountaineers also have an asset they’ve lacked the last two years: nonconference juice. They open at home against Auburn, a prove-it game that can instantly vault WVU into the championship picture, and play at Colorado two weeks later.
Bust Out. The last three years were by far the most successful in school history – only once before, in 1953-54, had WVU even finished anywhere in the final AP poll two years in a row; from 2005-07, it finished in the top ten all three years and won three January bowl games, two of them significant BCS upsets. That run is so far outside of the historical pattern, the loss of two legs from the tripod that supported it – Rodriguez and Steve Slaton – seems like a death sentence for national ambitions.
What’s left, outside of White and Devine, doesn’t fit any pattern of elite success. West Virginia had four outgoing players who were voted all-Big East but weren’t even drafted – they were, in other words, overachievers, whose success can’t be taken outside the context of Rodriguez’s guidance. National championships over the last decade – and probably longer, if anyone kept up as closely with recruiting before the age of obsession facilitated by the Internet – are exclusively the province of powerhouses that annually draw top five and top ten talent out of high school. Only once under Rodriguez did WVU even slip into the top 25 according to the gurus. Bash the gurus if you’d like (you’re wrong , but go ahead); the talent level here is nowhere near mythical championship quality across the board, especially on the offensive line and on defense. There’s no recent precedent for overcoming such a gap to win a crystal ball, nor any of its less translucent forerunners.
Where a win over Auburn hypothetically boosts confidence and stock among voters, a loss just as likely does the exact opposite: an early disappointment could undermine Stewart, a much-criticized hire already, and led to the sort of meltdown Louisville endured last year in its own messy transition from a program-defining boss. Barring the hysterics of the most recent championship race, even one loss (especially if it’s to Auburn) is still like a plague to a team from the Big East.
Just enjoy the ride, man.
- - -
Bobbling the Handoff. I’ve personally compared Bill Stewart to Larry Coker as a grandfatherly caretaker withiffy credentials who seems to lack the ruthless edge of a big chief, but that’s only pessimistic in the long term – it also has to acknowledge that Coker, too, inherited a bounty from his predecessor in terms of talent and trajectory, and Coker’s first Miami team in 2001 was one of the unquestioned juggernauts of the decade. This team has unique talents in White and Devine and, riding the momentum of the stunning Fiesta Bowl romp, might still have a sense of unfinished business; when Rich Rodriguez turned down Alabama in 2006, it seemed to me the reason was more about the once-in-a-career opportunity for a championship with the perfect pieces for his system, White and Slaton, in place for two more years than it was about the money or power within the program. The squad in January looked like one that still harbored those ambitions, and the addition of quality non-conference games will cut off Big East skeptics (I assume this breed still exists) if it comes down to strength of schedule debates.
Personnel-wise, though, this team is certainly not on the level of those Hurricanes, who were essentially an NFL farm club that only the most incompetent transition team could have screwed up. West Virginia is a one-and-half-man show that can rarely rely on a talent advantage to overcome sloppiness, adversity or good gameplanning by the opposition. It has to make the right decision and execute precisely every time, which, as the losses to South Florida and Pittsburgh the last two years show, is unrealistic. As is, apparently, Pat White holding up to a beating over a full season.
The sense of inevitable explosiveness will be replaced, at least initially, with the anxiety that always accompanies dramatic change. There are much dumber gambles at No. 1, but emotions aside, with the loss of its brain trust and the stiffening of the schedule outside of the Big East, the Mountaineers’ window to national greatness seems to have closed.