By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University will enter the 2012 football season not as a Top 10 team ... but as the next best thing to it.
The Associated Press released its preseason rankings on Saturday, and for the Mountaineers it turned out to be the same old story, landing in the identical No. 11 spot they held in the USA Today coaches’ poll released a couple of weeks ago.
The University of Southern California held the No. 1 spot in the AP poll as it comes back from NCAA sanctions.
The Trojans received 25 of a possible 60 first-place votes from a media panel in a close vote. USC received 1,445 points. Defending national champion Alabama had 17 first-place votes and 1,411 points, while LSU, the Crimson Tide’s SEC rival, got 16 first-place votes and 1,402 points.
Oklahoma was fourth with a single first-place vote and Oregon was fifth. Michigan, at No. 8, received the only other first-place vote.
The Tigers were poised to start the season No. 1 before Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu got kicked off the team a week ago.
In light of that development, the AP extended the voting deadline. Before Mathieu was dismissed, reportedly for failed drug tests, LSU had received 28 of a possible 60 first-place votes. USC was a close second with 22 first-place votes and Alabama was third with nine.
The USA Today coaches’ poll, which was released Aug. 2, had LSU at No. 1, followed by Alabama and USC.
Rounding out the AP Top 10 were Georgia at No. 6, followed by Florida State and Michigan. No. 9 South Carolina and No. 10 Arkansas give the Southeastern Conference half of the first 10 teams.
The Mountaineers took being overlooked as a Top 10 team without any rancor.
“Preseason polls are just like regular rankings during the season. It’s a ranking from other people. I feel like as a team we rank ourselves. We know if we are playing good or playing bad,” said veteran defensive end Will Clarke.
“Even if they rank you No. 1, you have to treat it like you are No. 100.”
Senior running back Shawne Alston saw it this way.
“The rankings matter more toward the end of the season when you are trying to get a national championship. Personally, the way I feel about it is nobody has snapped a football yet. Whether we’re the No. 1 team or No. 11 team in the nation, no one really knows.”
Or, as Alston also put it, “That’s their opinion. Some of those people don’t know anything about football personally.”
Being ranked in the preseason is something WVU is familiar with.
Sixteen times in school history have the Mountaineers started the year ranked by the AP, and it is the seventh time in the eight years since 2005 they have cracked the preseason Top 25.
Last year, when the Mountaineers finished the season at No. 17 following their overwhelming 70-33 Orange Bowl victory over Clemson, the Mountaineers opened at No. 24.
That victory has hopes soaring in Morgantown as WVU returns nine offensive starters, including All-American candidates quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
The defense returns seven starters but suffered some key losses of NFL-quality players and is installing a new system.
WVU will be playing its first season in the Big 12 this year, a conference that landed six teams in the Top 25. Oklahoma, the preseason choice to win the conference title, is ranked No. 4 with Texas No. 15, Oklahoma State No. 19, TCU No. 20 and Kansas State No. 22, giving the Big 12 the most teams in the preseason Top 25, matching the total ranked from the SEC. Five of the SEC teams are in the Top 10.
WVU opens its season Sept. 1 at home against instate rival Marshall but will most likely define its season in October and November when it plays at No. 15 Texas on Oct. 6, against No. 22 Kansas State on Oct. 20, against No. 20 TCU on Nov. 3 and at No. 19 Oklahoma State on Nov. 10 — all that leading up to a showdown at Milan Puskar Stadium against Oklahoma on Nov. 17.
That’s five preseason ranked teams in just 43 days.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.