By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Today, with one football practice now under the West Virginia University Mountaineers’ belt, we ask a question:
Was it an insult or a compliment that WVU was selected 11th in the coaches’ preseason poll, released on Thursday?
In normal circumstances, one would certainly accept a ranking which knocked on the door of the Top 10 as a compliment, but there is nothing normal about a team coming into a season in a new league off a 70-33 victory in the Orange Bowl with as much talent returning as the Mountaineers have.
Certainly, to many in West Virginia, it will be interpreted as little more than the normal lack of respect and belief in the Mountaineers that they usually have nationally, but in this case you must consider the source.
This the coaches’ poll.
Coaches can tell a draw play from a power sweep, a veer offense from a spread, but to ask them to judge and value teams and how strong they are, well that’s a different story.
Anyone who knows college football head coaches knows that they probably know less about the 120 or so teams not on their schedule than the worst Fantasy Football league fanatic, their time and full attention being devoted to ways to win games and draw recruits to the school.
Alabama’s defense means nothing to WVU coach Dana Holgorsen unless he’s trying to figure out ways to score touchdowns against it.
Don’t think that’s the case? Listen then to Holgorsen’s evaluation of Clemson before the Orange Bowl.
“Probably their D-line is as talented as we have seen,” he said. “Andre Branch is a guy that when he turns it on can get up field much like a guy that we have on defense.
“They have a lot of secondary guys that are athletic and do a good job of covering the space and closing on the ball quickly. We will continue to keep learning more and more about them over the next few days and practice it and try to come up with a plan that is going to get us a few yards and stop them defensively and get them off the field.”
He might have slightly overrated them.
Well he is one of the 57 head coaches who make up the USA Today poll who put WVU 11th and he understands it doesn’t carry a lot of meaning as to how the season will go, but he’s glad they are ranked that high.
“It’s important to be in the Top 20 because you get more recognition,” he said. “So I’m happy about it. Will we party about it? Probably not. Will we talk about it? Probably not. It’s not going to change anything we do, but it’s nice.”
So, again you have to wonder if WVU is the No. 11 team or the No. 8 team just as you wonder if Oklahoma is really the No. 4 team as it is ranked.
Then there’s LSU at No. 1, ahead of No. 2 Alabama, which defeated the Tigers decisively for the national championship last year?
The problem is too often preseason national polls are much ado about nothing. In 1996 WVU was ranked No. 8 nationally in the preseason and finished unranked.
The West Virginias of the world are so very difficult to place, especially this year as the Mountaineers move to a new, tougher league in the Big 12 where it wouldn’t be a surprise if they lost three or four conference games any more than it would surprise if they won them all.
Toss in a new defensive coaching staff and scheme and you can’t say with any certainty that WVU is or isn’t a Top 10 team or a Top 20 team.
What we do know is that they are a solid fit in the Big 12 and, coming into the league with TCU, have helped keep that conference’s credibility in the national picture when there was a time when it looked like it might not have a future at all.
The fact of the matter is that WVU and TCU replace Missouri and Texas A&M, schools that jumped to the SEC. Their availability certainly helped save the conference and actually may have improved it. Both WVU at No. 11 ranking and TCU at No. 17 looks a lot better than Missouri and A&M, who are listed only among others receiving votes.
Of course, if you think things have gotten tougher for WVU by moving from the Big East to the Big 12, consider Mizzou and A&M moving into the SEC, which has five of the top 10 teams in the nation to deal with – LSU (1), Alabama (2), Georgia (6), South Carolina (9) and Arkansas (10).
Make no mistake about one thing. The coaches got it right when they had no Big East schools ranked in the Top 25.
Oh, Boise State is at No. 22, and it says somewhere that they are in the Big East for next year.
It’s going to take a while to really believe that’s the way it is.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.