MORGANTOWN — In a state with few sports diversions through the summer months, where the natives can be mad about football in both the best and worst ways imaginable, any news about the spinning pigskin is gobbled up in West Virginia like a fumble in the end zone.
But maybe there is summer sanity now, just one more change among the many that has washed over the masses the past two years.
Where the preseason magazines popping up on the convenience store racks were like the dawn of a new season, it’s more like the first rays of an obnoxious sun the morning after a night of bad decisions.
Where media days served as the dinner bell for the forthcoming football feast, it feels now like a call to get ready for bed, or at least rest your weary head and pull up the covers.
And all of that is fine for Dana Holgorsen.
“Keep writing the headlines about how bad we’re going to be, keep writing the stories about how we’re not going to be any good,” the West Virginia University football coach said last month. “That’s fine. I like where we are.”
Intended or not, there’s a double meaning to “where we are” for the fourth-year coach and his Mountaineers.
Where they are, as far as the process that started three summers ago, is a place where the roster is more balanced than ever before with a proper mix of experience, talent and potential. They’ll finally award all 85 scholarships and they’ll have far more than half in the hands of players who have been in a Big 12 game. It’s taken Holgorsen and a revolving cast of assistant coaches a lot of time and grief to get there.
And, of course, where they are, as far as perceptions go, is at the bottom of the Big 12, and they’ll be reminded of that again this week. The Big 12 media’s preseason poll comes out Wednesday morning.
WVU can expect to again be slotted toward the bottom in the 10-team list. The media’s preseason all-conference team comes out a day later and the Mountaineers hope to have two names among the 26 players and three award-winners listed.
It took Holgorsen and his cohorts far too little time to descend to that depth, the sort of things WVU didn’t see in its final 10 seasons in the Big 12. This reality is the starting point for getting out of the bad part of town and rejoining the aristocracy of the conference it knew so well early in the 2012 season. Those who say preseason predictions don’t matter are mostly accurate — mind you, this comes from a member of the voting media — but they fail to consider how much appearances matter to coaches and recruits and administrators and television partners and the people who mostly have no choice but to pay attention. At WVU, the things used to matter because they were so kind. Now they matter because they’re kind of mean.
From 2002-11, WVU never placed lower than sixth in the preseason Big East poll. It was picked to win the league in 2004, 2006-08 and 2011. The Mountaineers could be counted upon to either dot or dominate the preseason all-conference team.
It should go without saying the Big 12 is a very new, very different place, WVU was granted a favorable first impression. Fresh off throttling Clemson in the Orange Bowl in their final act in the Big East, the Mountaineers were picked to finish second in their first preseason Big 12 poll in 2012 and trailed only blue-blooded Oklahoma.
Three names were on the preseason all-conference team. The quarterback, Geno Smith, was the offensive player of the year before ever playing a game against any of the league’s defenses. The star receiver, Tavon Austin, was named an all-Big 12 receiver and the punt returner even though he wasn’t WVU’s punt returner at the end of the previous season.
The Mountaineers followed that preseason peak with the slide from 5-0 to 7-6 and then seeing no players on the 2013 preseason all-conference team and falling all the way to eighth in the preseason poll. It was startling when you consider the sum of their standings in their final six preseason Big East Polls was eight.
What happens now? Safety Karl Joseph and left guard Quinton Spain, who have both made preseason watch lists for annual awards given to nation’s best defensive players and linemen, could be all-conference picks, though there’s competition at both spots.
WVU figures to be no higher than eighth again and might be ninth, depending on how much weight voters gave to Iowa State’s head-to-head win and what they think of Cyclones starting quarterback Grant Rohach as opposed to WVU’s Clint Trickett. Kansas is a lock for last place, even though the Jayhawks topped the Mountaineers last season, something else voters are also sure to remember.
Placing is important, but point totals matter, too. Last year, WVU was 25 points away from seventh place and 30 away from ninth. The coming preseason poll should have three tiers. The first should see Oklahoma above Baylor in a somewhat close ballot. The next should be an interesting order of Oklahoma State battling for its footing near the top amid competition from crafty Kansas State, transitioning Texas, rising TCU and curious Texas Tech.
That leaves WVU, Iowa State and Kansas, and there are reasons to believe WVU can be eighth with room to spare, but also with a cushion between it and seventh place because voting in the middle should be so mixed.
It’s nothing to be fired up about when it’s the middle of July and 46 days remain before the start of the season, but that’s the life the Mountaineers have made for themselves in their new world and one they seek to change as they try move the clouds and let the sun shine on a new and different season.