I was on the golf course a couple of weeks ago with one of my good buddies, and most of what we talked about concerned this year's football season.
How can you not talk about West Virginia football right now?
Has West Virginia ever been this hot [and I’m not talking about the thermometer that is sitting out on the back porch, either]?
In 1988, Beano Cook brought an ESPN TV crew down to Morgantown to unveil West Virginia as his preseason pick to win the national championship. The Mountaineers had most of their players returning, including Heisman Trophy candidate Major Harris, but many others weren’t exactly drinking the Kool-Aid that year. If you recall, West Virginia was only ranked 16th in the preseason AP poll and it took the Mountaineers about a month to reach the Top 10.
Ten years later, in 1998, West Virginia had a stacked team coming back with a bunch of future NFL players on its roster and started the year ranked 11th in the AP poll. Right away, however, enthusiasm was tempered when No. 1-ranked Ohio State came into Morgantown and knocked off the Mountaineers, 34-17, on CBS [which, you may remember, was the first HD telecast of a college football game ever].
There was also buzz heading into the 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008 campaigns.
West Virginia was 10th to begin the season in ’04 and reached No. 6 in the polls before falling to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. By the end of November, following losses to Boston College and Pitt, WVU was completely out of the polls.
The Mountaineers started 2006 ranked No. 5 and climbed to as high as third before losing at fifth-ranked Louisville. West Virginia went on to defeat Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl that season to preserve its Top 10 ranking.
In 2007, WVU began the year third before slipping to 13th after a week five loss at South Florida, but was later able to recover from its season-ending upset against Pitt to defeat Oklahoma in the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
In 2008, with Heisman Trophy candidate Pat White returning, West Virginia started the season ranked eighth, but three weeks later, the Mountaineers were completely out of the rankings following back-to-back road losses to East Carolina and Colorado.
So today, with West Virginia coming off an unprecedented 70-33 victory over Clemson in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl, and with most of its offensive pieces returning - including key weapons Geno Smith
, Tavon Austin
and Stedman Bailey
- the Mountaineers once again have plenty of gunpowder in their muskets.
Will West Virginia begin the year in the Top 10? Perhaps even the Top 5?
That we will soon find out.
But let’s not forget that last season wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. West Virginia was predicted to win the Big East under first-year coach Dana Holgorsen, and the Mountaineers eventually delivered, although a Big East title didn’t seem all that likely after the 26-point loss at Syracuse or the disappointing three-point setback at home against Louisville.
Don’t forget, too, that West Virginia needed 21 second-half points to knock off Rutgers up in Piscataway, or a third-quarter red zone turnover to turn around the UConn game, or a game-saving interception to hold off Maryland, or a blocked field goal to outlast Cincinnati, or a late defensive stand to hold off Pitt, or, a key fourth-down catch to put Tyler Bitancurt
into position to kick a game-winning field goal at South Florida.
Slip up in any one of those games and West Virginia is switching places with Louisville in the Belk Bowl instead of playing Clemson in the Orange Bowl, and all those points the Mountaineers scored against the Tigers would have been for naught.
In fact, what we fans almost always seem to remember is the end result – not necessarily the difficult journey it usually takes to get there.
How many of you can recall what a struggle it was in ’88 beating Pitt up in Pittsburgh. You see the final score 31-10 in the record book and forget that West Virginia needed a pair of late touchdown runs by A.B. Brown and Undra Johnson to pull that game out.
You might have forgotten, too, that Virginia Tech and Rutgers were also tooth extractions that season, or that Penn State was using a freshman quarterback and was without running back Blair Thomas when the Lions were routed by the Mountaineers in Morgantown. Mess up any one of those games and it is either Miami or Florida State facing Notre Dame in the 1989 national championship game out in Tempe, Ariz., instead of West Virginia.
In 1993, when West Virginia went undefeated a second time, there were too many close calls to count. It seemed like all of the bad bounces the Mountaineers got in 1992 were canceled out in 1993, that is, until West Virginia faced Florida in the 1994 Sugar Bowl.
I have no doubt West Virginia is going to field one of the most explosive teams in school history. I have no doubt the Mountaineers have outstanding football coaches – collectively, a group that must be considered among the most innovative and creative in college football today. And I have no doubt the Big 12 can deliver West Virginia to the big game if the Mountaineers can get through a schedule that will likely feature five or six teams ranked in the Top 25 this year.
The last time West Virginia went through a regular season football schedule this difficult, you might ask?
Try 1994 when West Virginia faced No. 4 Nebraska [eventual national champion], No. 14 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Miami, No. 17 Boston College and No. 22 Syracuse. Four of those teams ended up going to bowl games; Syracuse did not, despite a 7-4 record.
Over the last four seasons – 2008 to 2011 – the Mountaineers have played just five regular season games against ranked teams – or the same amount they are likely to face this year.
Dana Holgorsen’s system has a track record of producing fantastic offenses in Year Two, and it appears that he has some terrific weapons to work with this fall, but of equal importance is the fact that the path to another outstanding season likely won’t be easy.
Then again, it never is.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History available in bookstores this fall. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.