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WVU Football, History and Expectations Don’t Mix

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Major Harris led the West Virginia Football Program to their first undefeated season in 1988

The hype surrounding the West Virginia Mountaineer Football Team this off-season is continuing to build. The preseason rankings have not been released, but some sites have West Virginia in their preseason top 25.

Starting quarterback Will Grier is a frontrunner for the Heisman this season, according to many early publications around the country. He did, after all, throw for 3,440 yards in 10 games before breaking his middle finger in the first quarter of the Texas game last season.

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen is taking a different approach to the pre-season expectations.

“I mean, you want people to be talking about you,” Holgorsen told Sporting News. “That means you’ve got something to talk about. There’s been a couple of years here since we’ve been in the Big 12, which is going on our seventh year, there wasn’t a whole lot to talk about because we weren’t ready for that caliber of football. And so we welcome that.”

Dana went on to say, “I just think this is the best team we’ve had, and I expect our guys to be able to understand the expectations and to be able to do what it takes to once again position ourselves to potentially win the Big 12, but a little bit better.”

This is a new approach for Dana. There was a lot of expectations in his second year at the helm and the programs first year in the Big XII, but Holgorsen wasn’t totally bought in.

“It’s important to be in the top 20. The top 20 teams get more recognition, so it’s good to be there. Are we going to talk about it? Probably not. It’s an honor to be there, and it’s good for the program and good publicity, but it’s not going to change anything we do. We’re not going to throw a party or anything.”

For Mountaineer fans, it makes for a fun off-season to read the possibilities of a successful 2018 campaign, but WVU Football’s history with expectations, to say the least, is not good.

The last time West Virginia lived up to their preseason hype was 30 years ago.

The 1988 undefeated season is still to this day, the best season in Mountaineer history. It is one of the those, “what could have been moments,” in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Mountaineers ran through their regular season schedule on their way to a College Football National Championship game at the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.

WVU starting quarterback, and Heisman finalist, Major Harris went down early with a shoulder injury. So did the hopes of the Mountaineers hoisting the programs first National Title Banner.

Ten years after the programs first appearance and another five years removed for the programs second undefeated season, West Virginia was returning an arsenal of talent on both offense and defense.

Starting quarterback Marc Bulger, running back Amos Zeroue and the previous two seasons reception leaders David Saunders and Shaun Foreman highlighted a great offense protected by a big physical line. Not only did Saunders and Foreman lead the team in receptions in a two-year span but also broke the single season program record for receptions.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers returned a lot of pieces from a No. 1 total defense two year’s prior. Gary Stills, John Thornton and Charles Fisher and an underrated Barrett Green highlighted the group.

The electricity around the upcoming 1998 season intensified when the preseason rankings came out. West Virginia was sitting at No. 11 and their season home opener was going to be against the No. 1 ranked team in the country, the Ohio State Buckeyes.

West Virginia ended up losing the first game to the Buckeyes 34-17 but not all was lost. The Mountaineers went on to win four straight and climbed back up to number 13 in the rankings, before welcoming in the 3-2 Miami Hurricanes.

Miami running back Edgarin James rushed for 162 yards and three touchdowns on their way to a 34-31 victory. West Virginia had a chance to tie the game late with a 53-yard field goal attempt by Jay Taylor but missed just left of the goal post as time expired.

What is a Miami game without controversy though?

On the previous play before the attempted field goal, Marc Bulger threw a pass to David Saunders at the sideline. The official standing on the sideline ruled it an incomplete pass. After reviewing the replay (officials couldn’t review plays at the time), he did have one foot in bounds. That would have made it around a 46-yard field goal.

That loss carried over to the following week in a loss at No. 20 Virginia Tech 27-13. They did salvage the regular season by beating Syracuse at home 35-28 the next week and blew out Pitt in Three Rivers Stadium 52-14.

The Mountaineers went on to lose the Insight.com Bowl in Tuscon Arizona 34-31 to the Missouri Tigers. They finished the season 8-4.

Coming into the 2004 season, the Mountaineers were ranked No. 11 heading into the season and it looked to be another promising year in Morgantown after back-to-back years of slow starts.

Bringing back third year starting quarterback Rasheed Marshall and his big-time receiver Chris Henry, the offense looked prime to have another successful season along with Adam “Pacman” Jones leading the defense.

The early season game, and traditionally the third game of the year, against the Maryland Terrapins was circled on everyone’s calendar.  The Terrapins had dominated the Mountaineers in the last four meetings in three years. “If West Virginia can get by Maryland, they might just go undefeated”.

West Virginia did get by No. 19 Maryland in a 19-16 overtime win in Morgantown, but two weeks later, the seventh ranked Mountaineers lost to an unranked Virginia Tech team 19-13, in Blacksburg. West Virginia rattled off four straight wins before losing at home to No. 21 Boston College and then at Heinz Field to unranked Pitt.

The Mountaineers finished the season losing to Florida State in the Gator Bowl 30-18.

The 2006-2007 campaigns fall in the same category. They both had high expectations and fell just short by not winning the Big East Conference outright.

The Mountaineers were riding high going into the 2006 season starting off in the rankings at number five. West Virginia was coming off an unexpected 10-1 regular season record and a perfect conference record (7-0) claiming sole possession of the Big East Title, then winning the Sugar Bowl against the SEC Champion Georgia Bulldogs 38-35.

West Virginia came into the season ranked fifth in the country and started the season 7-0, climbing as high as No. 3 in the rankings.

They traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for the first top five matchup in nearly 13 years, against the No. 5 Louisville Cardinals, but lost inside Papa John’s Stadium 44-34.

Three weeks later the Mountaineers lost at home to unranked South Florida team and needed triple overtime to beat No. 13 Rutgers at Mountaineer Field.

West Virginia accepted an invite to the Gator Bowl, where WVU was 0-5 all-time, and beat Biletnikoff winner Calvin Johnson and his 25th ranked Georgia Yellow Jackets 38-35. Getting the programs first Gator Bowl win and more-or-less salvaging the season.

After back-to-back 11-win seasons, the Mountaineers looked to be unbeatable going into the 2007 season with the return of Pat White, Steve Slaton and Owen Schmidt. The trio had an appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s college football’s preseason issue and was ranked third by the AP to start the season.

The Mountaineers were 4-0 heading into a Big East Conference Showdown versus 18th ranked South Florida at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. West Virginia fell to the Bulls 21-13.

West Virginia bounced back wining six straight and climbing all the way back up the rankings to No. 2, with some help of upsets from around the country, the Mountaineers were one win away from making the programs second National Title appearance.

The only thing that stood in their way was a 4-7 Pitt Panther team. In a night that we all like to forget, Pitt beat the Mountaineers 13-9 in Morgantown.

West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez made his exodus soon after that loss and associate head coach and tight ends coach Bill Stewart was name interim head coach for the Fiesta Bowl.

No one thought the Mountaineers could overcome that devastating loss at home and their head coach leaving for Michigan, especially against the third ranked and Big XII Champion Oklahoma Sooners.

West Virginia showcased their talents on national television and quieted all the pundits that said, “West Virginia has no chance” throttling the Sooners 48-28.

Winning another BCS Bowl saved the season.

Pat White’s senior season was suspected to be a spectacular one. West Virginia started the 2008 season ranked number eight and Bill Stewarts first season as head coach.

Coach Stew brought in Wake Forest quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen to be the offensive coordinator. Mullens tutored Skinner Riley to a 72.4 completion percentage and an ACC Championship the previous season.

Instead, of continuing to run the spread offense that Pat White had domintaed college football with the last three seasons, Mullens put in an offense that is still unexplainable this day. Packed full of random formations and terrible play calling and as a result, lost the second game of the season at East Carolina and just under two weeks on a Thursday night in Boulder, Colorado, West Virginia lost to the Colorado Buffaloes.

West Virginia did go on to win five straight games before losing at home to Cincinnati and losing at Heinz Field 19-15 to Pitt.

It was an abysmal 8-4 season, but Pat White ended his career with his fourth straight bowl win against North Carolina in the Meineke Car Bowl 31-30.

2012 was bringing in a new era of West Virginia football. Second year head coach Dana Holgorsen was coming off a 10-3 season that, capped off with a BCS Orange Bowl win. Mountaineer fans witnessed his offense set several new bowl records in the 70-33 win over Clemson.

The Mountaineers came into the season ranked 11th in the country behind Heisman hopefuls Geno Smith and Tavon Austin, along with Biletnikoff finalist Stedman Bailey.

West Virginia won five straight games to start the season and was in position to compete for the Big XII title in their first season in the conference. That is until they traveled to Lubbock, Texas for their first Big XII road game.

The Mountaineers were beatdown by an unranked Texas Tech team 49-14, then went on to lose four straight games, before winning their final two regular season games (Baylor, Kansas), then losing in the Pinstripe Bowl to Syracuse at Yankee Stadium.

Its been six years since West Virginia Football has graced the covers of any websites or magazines in the preseason.

In the anticipation of the 2018 season, the hype and optimism around the WVU football program will continue to grow.

Will this be the year they live up to some of the expectations? We will find out starting September 1st when the Mountaineers travel to Charlotte, North Carolina to face the Tennessee Volunteers.

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