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A wild season (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday December 18, 2007 8:47AM; Updated: Tuesday December 18, 2007 12:30PM
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The 2007 regular season ended on a fitting note: with Pitt's shocking upset at West Virginia.
The 2007 regular season ended on a fitting note: with Pitt's shocking upset at West Virginia.
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
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"There's combines and camps, and everyone has a video camera these days," said Wallace. "And they have access to physical fitness gurus and personal trainers. A lot of [college] programs are desperate to elevate their stature and would be beating the bush to find these kids -- but they're easier to find."

While the recruiting rankings tend to show the same, traditional powers -- USC Ohio State, Texas -- dominating year-in and year-out, those numbers don't necessarily tell the full story. There is no shortage of elite athletes capable of playing for those caliber programs but, for any number of reasons, wind up at, say, Florida Atlantic instead of Florida.

"The talent pool is open to everybody now," said Troy's Blakeney. "If you're in Division I, you've got a chance to get in a lot of places. Depending on what your needs are, you might be able to get a player or two simply because they fit into your system, or they want to play right away, or they want to play closer to home."

"There will always be an advantage for tradition-rich [programs], but there's a large segment of players that aren't as impressed by that as players a generation earlier," said Wallace. "They're more intent on making their own path rather than being part of a lineage somewhere.

"In the past, you didn't hear kids talking as much about playing right away. They just accepted the fact they'd go and sit behind some great players, maybe start for a year or two. That mentality is just completely different."

The benefits of that mentality have trickled all the way down to I-AA. "We've got a full squad of guys like that," said Appalachian State's Moore, whose star quarterback, Edwards, passed on offers to play defensive back or receiver at BCS-level programs in favor of starting at quarterback as a true freshman and has led Appalachian State to back-to-back I-AA national titles.

While no right-minded person would suggest the Mountaineers are even in the same ballpark as Michigan in terms of overall talent (for one thing, they're allowed 22 fewer scholarship players), a couple of elite athletes such as Edwards and receiver Dexter Jackson placed in a spread offense against a complacent foe that either failed to adequately prepare for, or take seriously, its opening-day "cupcake," and you've got all the ingredients for a historic upset.

As Moore said, "Different things can happen."

A Stunning Conclusion

Injuries. Fatigue. Spread offenses. Greater talent dispersal. All go a long way toward explaining most of the more stunning upsets mentioned. None, however, would seem to apply to what was arguably the season's most baffling -- and, considering the timing, significant -- upset: Pittsburgh beating West Virginia 13-9 on the final night of the season.

The Mountaineers, not the Panthers, boast the spread offense with the elite athletes. Any signs of exhaustion from an extended season were not evident a week earlier when West Virginia routed a ranked Connecticut team 66-21. The Mountaineers did suffer one particularly significant injury when star QB Pat White dislocated his thumb midway through the second quarter, but their offense had been held in check even before he went down.

And while Pittsburgh's defense played at a high level all season, ranking seventh nationally in yards allowed, they had been no match for West Virginia's high-octane attack the previous two seasons. Yet with a national-title berth theirs for the taking and a boisterous home crowd on their side, the Mountaineers -- which came in averaging 41.6 points per game -- scored just one offensive touchdown.

After the game, coach Pitt Dave Wannstedt said a West Virginia fan pelted the Panthers' team bus with "a rock or a whiskey bottle or something" as it made its way to the stadium that night. According to accounts, freshman tailback LeSean McCoy (who wound up running for 148 yards) jumped up and yelled, "Coach, this is like in the movies!"

Maybe it's true. When it comes to some upsets, maybe there's simply no more complex explanation than those Remember the Titans-type motivational messages, after all.

"When push comes to shove, in spite of coaches' salaries and recruiting rankings and all those other factors, it still comes down to the old college try," said Wallace. "Sometimes, the will to win puts everything else in the background."

For whatever reasons, that will to win fell on the side of the underdogs more than ever before in 2007.

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