West Virginia Mountaineers (2000: 7-5)
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Coach and programWhile Don Nehlen did a fine job squiring the Mountaineers through the 1980s and even played for the 1988 national title against Notre Dame (WVU lost, 34-21), West Virginia had become increasingly irrelevant on the national scene during the last six years of the Nehlen regime. Its Big East status slipped dramatically, too, from that of a perennial contender to a middling pretender who hoped to gather the six needed wins to sneak into a minor bowl.
And so, Nehlen was replaced by WVU alum and heralded offensive mind Rich Rodriguez, and a New Era began.
Rodriguez graduated from West Virginia in 1986 after an interesting career. He spent three seasons (1982-84) as a defensive back and two more as a student assistant before moving on. That he played for Nehlen could have made for something of a difficult transition, because the former coach certainly wasn't leaving after winning the BCS title game and riding into the West Virginia sunset as a conquering hero. But Rodriguez has shown the proper respect for his old coach, first by deferring to Nehlen during last year's bowl and then by saying all the "right things'' when asked about the program's status.
"The transition was a smooth one, because I played here before and knew the support people and knew the university," Rodriguez said. "It's always easier to follow somebody that nobody liked. It's tougher to follow someone who has been so respected. It's tough to follow a legend. But there are things in place. We're not desperate."
The Mountaineers aren't that bad, but they have plenty of work to do if they want to break away from Boston College, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the middle of the Big East pack, let alone join Miami and Virginia Tech atop the standings.
Having coached at Clemson and played at West Virginia when the Mountaineers were capable of flexing some serious muscle, Rodriguez understands what goes into making a program more than just capable of eking out invitations to the Whothehellisthatdotcom Bowl. He wants the Mountaineers to be a major player.
That starts Sept. 1, at Boston College. Rodriguez is ready for the challenge. WVU fans were sure ready for a change.
OffenseBrad Lewis' Music City explosion was certainly a good audition for his new coach. He completed 15-of-21 passes and led the Mountaineers to scores on their first six possessions.
But in spring drills, Lewis (6-3, 220) was not a dominant quarterback. In fact, by the time the Mountaineers had completed their spring game, Rodriguez believed that redshirt freshman Rasheed Marshall (6-1, 185) was "closing fast" on Lewis. That's not the best endorsement for a senior incumbent.
The Mountaineers don't have any such worries at running back. They return their top two rushers from last year -- Avon Cobourne and Cooper Rego -- and should also benefit from the services of sophomore Quincy Wilson (5-10, 215), who missed all of last year after tearing his ACL during spring drills.
Cobourne (5-9, 195), a junior, was excellent last year, gaining 1,018 yards despite missing two full games with a left foot sprain.
Rodriguez would like to have eight or nine capable receivers at his disposal, but the Mountaineers didn't make enough progress in that direction during the spring. Expect WVU to use four or five receivers at a time this year, if only to spread things out for Cobourne.
The team's primary deep threat will be 5-10, 165-pound senior Antonio Brown, who led the team with 51 catches last year and averaged an impressive 17.2 yards per reception. Brown was particularly impressive late in the year and had a total of 21 catches for 426 yards (20.3 average) and all three of his touchdowns in the final three games of 2000.
Defense and special teamsThe tackles should be 6-5, 275-pound junior Jason Davis and senior Antwan Lake (6-5, 285). Davis was a full-time starter at end last year and made 30 tackles, nine of which came behind the line. Lake finished with just 13 stops, after making 39 the year before.
One thing that won't change will be the contribution of 6-1, 230-pound sophomore linebacker Grant Wiley, last year's Big East Rookie of the Year. Voted second-team freshman All-America by The Sporting News, Wiley finished 2000 with 94 tackles, 12th in the league, and 14 stops behind the line, seventh-best in the conference.
Were the season to start today, junior Angel Estrada (6-2, 190), a converted free safety, would handle the rover position, with last year's top tackler, senior Shawn Hackett (6-1, 195), manning the strong safety spot. Hackett had 115 stops last year, picked off two passes and recovered two fumbles.
The Mountaineers are in pretty good shape in the return game, thanks primarily to the return of Shawn Terry (6-3, 175), who was one of the nation's most dangerous kickoff men in 2000. He averaged 28.8 yards on 29 returns and brought three back for touchdowns.
Bottom lineThe Mountaineers did a great job choosing Rodriguez, who would have surely copped another major-conference job by this time next year (if not sooner), had he not come back to Morgantown. His job now is to return WVU to its not-so-distant past, when the Mounties could be counted on for one good run up the rankings every four or five years.
As for 2001, expect a win total around six. WVU will run the ball effectively, thanks to its deep stable of backs, but the relative unreliability of the offensive line will prevent the team from being a ground juggernaut. Lewis has the potential to be a productive passer, but the question with him is whether he can do it every Saturday, particularly against a schedule that that includes road trips to Notre Dame, Miami and Syracuse.