WVU football: Big 12 newcomers seek answers
MORGANTOWN - The West Virginia University football team will practice for the fourth time today, and in the process satisfy the final requirement of the NCAA-mandated five-day acclimatization period.
That means after two days of helmets-only practice and two days of helmets and shoulder pads, full contact tackle football will be on the docket for Tuesday's session at Mountaineer Field.
Until then, there are unknowns for the Big 12 newcomer.
That's why second-year Coach Dana Holgorsen, in his black short-sleeve pullover jacket and khaki shorts, stood behind a podium last Thursday, balled up his right fist and punched his open left palm four times consecutively.
Pop, pop, pop, pop.
"It's the hittin'," Holgorsen said in response to a media member's question.
Holgorsen, who turned 41 over the summer, has plenty discern as he stares down the musket of one of the most difficult regular-season schedules in the program's history.
The USA Today Top 25 coaches poll was released last week and WVU is ranked No. 11. Big 12 media members voted the Mountaineers the No. 2 team - behind Oklahoma - in the league's preseason Big 12 poll, which was released late last month.
Those are lofty expectations for a program that has never faced five ranked opponents inside of league play in one regular season. In 1994, WVU went toe-to-toe with five ranked teams, but one of those was the season opener against non-league opponent Nebraska, then a member of the Big 12.
But in the coaches poll, Oklahoma (No. 4), Texas (No. 15), TCU (No. 17), Oklahoma State (No. 19) and Kansas State (No. 21) joined WVU in the preseason national rankings. Two others - Baylor and Texas Tech - earned votes, which means eight of 10 Big 12 teams appeared on at least one of the 59 coaches' ballots.
Expectations are high leaguewide, but certainly in Morgantown on the heels of WVU's 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson that made Holgorsen the program's first-ever rookie coach to win 10 games.
"We addressed expectations," the WVU coach said after the team's first practice. "We basically told them that we are going to ignore expectations like we did last year going into the Clemson game.
"We didn't really care what you guys wrote or what the media was saying on TV or what the expectations were that game. We weren't going to pay attention to that and it's the same thing now.
"The expectations are high, which we like, but we're not going to pay any attention to it."
What Holgorsen is paying attention to is development. He saw it in December after his team lost by 26 points at Syracuse, lost at home to Louisville and trailed in the fourth quarter of its final four regular-season wins.
In WVU's final six Big East games, the point differential was minus-12. If you're like my wife and struggle with simple math, the Orange Bowl point differential was plus-37.
Holgorsen wants to see that growth replicated this August with a band of newcomers added the mix.
"You have about 15 practices in December, you have 15 practices in the spring and you have 15 practices (this month) prior to getting ready for a game," Holgorsen said. "We made as much progress in the spring as we did in December, so the goal of camp is to make as much progress heading into a game week as we did last spring and last December."
If WVU meets those goals, perhaps it can avoid falling short of expectations.
Holgorsen addressed the coaches poll by saying, "It's important to be in the top 20; the top 20 teams get more recognition."
According to the Associated Press Top 25 polls, the Mountaineers have started a season in the top 20 a total of 10 times. Only twice have they finished higher than expected: in 1953, they jumped from a preseason ranking of 16 to finish No. 10; and in 1988's undefeated regular-season run, which also started at No. 16 but ended with a top 5 finish.
In the past decade, WVU was voted a preseason top 10 team four times by the AP: 2004, '06, '07 and '08. The Mountaineers won 39 combined games in those four seasons, but finished lower than expected - per the presason poll - in each of those campaigns.
Adding to the degree of difficult is the league change. The element of the unknown can work for and against a program.
Last year it was Nebraska who sauntered into the Big Ten and was saddled with high expectations. The media picked the Cornhuskers to win the league, yet they lost three conference games and finished third in the Legends Division.
In 2005, Louisville joined the Big East and was tapped as the league favorite. The Cardinals were preseason No. 12 in the AP Poll.
But it was WVU, who received exactly one vote in the same preseason poll, that rolled through the league en route to an 11-win season and Sugar Bowl triumph over Georgia.
Holgorsen's answer about putting on pads was in response to a media member's question about running back Dustin Garrison and other players rehabilitating injuries.
And although the season opener against Marshall isn't until Sept. 1 and the Big 12 debut against Baylor isn't until Sept. 29, Holgorsen's comments about getting into full pads can be applied to expectations in general.
Like he said: "You don't know ... until you start poppin'."
Contact Sports Editor Chuck McGill at email@example.com or 304-348-7949.