MORGANTOWN - Every once in a while, it's refreshing to hear a college football coach speak honestly.Dana Holgorsen, on occasions, has those moments.They won't come when the question is in regard to, oh, say the progress of his offense or defense, or when the subject matter is personnel. In that regard, he's like pretty much everyone else of his ilk, careful not to divulge anything particularly insightful or critical, save for those instances when doing so can be beneficial to his agenda.In that vein, motivational nuggets come to mind, as when he might randomly call out Geno Smith for thinking he knows more than he does or wonder aloud about whether his receivers or his linemen or pretty much any
other group will ever really get it.Conversely, he might praise a backup who really has little legitimate chance of ever contributing much, the notion being to light a fire under the guy in front of him who will.It's coachspeak, and paranoid coaches everywhere do it.Thus, when on the same day that West Virginia began its fall camp last week, the Mountaineers were greeted by a No. 11 national ranking in the USA Today coaches poll, it was incumbent upon the media to ask Holgorsen about the ranking.Here's the standard answer, given by virtually every coach who has ever lived and been ranked:"It's nice, but who cares? Why pay any attention to it? No one has played a game. Ask me in December when it matters.''And here was Holgorsen's answer:"It's important to be in the Top 20. The Top 20 teams get more recognition, so it's good to be there. We're happy about being there.''Refreshing, huh?And honest, too.Any coach who tells you that the rankings don't matter until December is either one of two things: He's a motivator (as all coaches are) who downplays polls because he detests the idea that his players will see them and get too full of themselves, or he's blind to reality (which few coaches are).
Holgorsen certainly understands the motivational appeal in dismissing polls, which is why after admitting his team's No. 11 ranking was a plus, he also added the requisite caveat."Are we going to throw a party about it? Probably not. Are we going to talk about it? Probably not,'' he said. "It's an honor to be there and it's good for program and it's good publicity. But it's not going to change anything we do."We're not going to talk about it and we're not going to change what our routine is or how we practice.''But Holgorsen does know it's critical to be in those rankings right from the start and will refreshingly admit it. It's simple, really. The teams that are ranked before a game has been played have a huge advantage over those who are not because they have a shorter road to travel to the top if they win and a built-in buffer zone below them if they don't.Take West Virginia, for instance.The Mountaineers open the season with Marshall, James Madison and Maryland. None are ranked and wins over them would not be especially impressive on a national scale. But beginning at No. 11, if they win all three they are almost certain to be a Top 10 team because someone above them will stumble.
Now, imagine West Virginia was unranked. If a 3-0 start against that schedule got them anywhere, it might be into the lower fringes of the Top 25, but certainly no more.Conversely, a loss in there would likely drop WVU what, 10 spots? That's still in the Top 25. Lose a game as an unranked team and it might take months to make up the lost ground and respect.It's happened before, of course. Every year it happens.Just for kicks, look at West Virginia and Virginia Tech last season. The Hokies began the season ranked No. 13 in the coaches poll, climbed to No. 10 with a 4-0 start, got thumped by Clemson 23-3 and never fell from the rankings. Tech eventually climbed to No. 5, then was thumped by Clemson again 38-10 but made it into a BCS bowl and lost to Michigan in overtime. The Hokies finished with three losses and ranked No. 17.West Virginia, on the other hand, began the season unranked by the coaches. The Mountaineers did manage to climb to No. 11, even after losing to LSU, but back-to-back losses to Syracuse and Louisville dropped them out of the Top 25. They finished strong and climbed to No. 22, beat Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl and finished No. 18.So, to recap, the team that began the season solidly in the Top 25 lost three games, scored 13 points in two games against Clemson, lost its bowl game and finished No. 17. The team that was unranked at the start lost three games, as well, scored 70 against Clemson, won its bowl in unprecedented fashion and finished one spot lower.Oh, well.It's easy to say, well, what do the rankings matter? But the coaches rankings do matter, as does the Harris Poll voted on by a hodgepodge of former coaches and football people in general. Those account for two-thirds of the BCS rating formula that will be extinct in two years, but in the interim still decides what teams reach the biggest bowls and the national championship game.So those rankings do matter, even in August, because they set up everything that happens the rest of the season. Teams without a number beside their name to start face a harder climb and those with a digit attached have more of a cushion for the impending fall (and there will be a fall for 99 to even 100 percent of the teams, which won't go unbeaten).It's a lousy system and one that soon will change, hopefully for the better. But as long as it's in place, it's nice every once in a while to hear someone admit that rankings matter.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.