West Virginia Football Thrives on Being the Underdog

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IAugust 26, 2008

Prior to last year’s Fiesta Bowl between the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Oklahoma Sooners, ESPN ran a national, state-by-state poll asking who users thought would win the game.

Watching the upset loss to Pitt in the season finale and the unexpected, abrupt, and wrenching exit of coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan—and the media frenzy that followed Rodriguez, specifically Lee Corso, pronouncing the abandoned Mountaineers demoralized—college football fans voted against WVU.

Every state outside of West Virginia voted for Oklahoma.  Nationally, 84 percent of respondents picked Oklahoma to win.

After WVU’s 48-28 blowout win over Oklahoma, ebullient WVU wideout Dorrell Jalloh wrote “84” on a white board and ran around the field, showing it to celebrating Mountaineer fans.

The message: Only you believed in us.  It was the team’s motivation in the unexpected win.

Flash-forward to preseason 2008.

The Mountaineers are ranked a respectable and reasonable No. 8 in both polls.  Yet, in the preseason picks for Big East champion, the national consensus is with South Florida, despite the fact that WVU received 22 of 24 votes from Big East sports writers to win the conference.

South Florida, a gritty and talented team, is picked by many to win the Big East because they have beaten the Mountaineers in the past two seasons.

Pittsburgh, thanks to its upset win over WVU last year and the return of freshman running back LeSean McCoy, is the trendy pick to win the Big East.

Indeed, if you look at the ESPN experts’ compilation of picks to win the Big East title, only six of 12 chose WVU (Bob Davie, Jim Donnan, Pat Forde, Rod Gilmore, Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach).

ESPN Radio midday host Colin Cowherd picks South Florida, as do College GameDay host Rece Davis and analyst Andre Ware.

Scouts Inc.’s Todd McShay, reporter Joe Schad, and the usually sensible Bruce Feldman pick Pitt, a team with a 5-7 record last year.

So during August two-a-days, the Mountaineers were able to take their most comfortable and successful position—the underdog.

It looks like this Mountaineer team—supposedly still reeling over Rodriguez’s departure, ravaged by the loss of Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, Darius Reynaud, and most of the defense—is using the same Fiesta Bowl motivation for an entire season.

The Mountaineers have thrived as underdogs, from the 2006 Sugar Bowl to the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.

In fact, in the years following the train wreck that was the 2004 team (Pac-Man Jones, Chris Henry and Kay-Jay Harris), the only time I can remember a Pat White team showing front-runner cockiness came before last season’s loss to South Florida, when some members of the team—following a remark earlier in the week from Rodriguez—got off the plane in Tampa wearing Yankees caps.

That was a bad move, and a mistake not likely to be repeated.

Can a team maintain an underdog mentality all season, especially if it hits the midway mark at 6-0—which would include a high-profile win over Auburn—and a lofty rise in the polls?  Hard to say.

But on a Bill Stewart-team led by Pat White, I’ll take those odds.