Cook: Only WVU can keep itself from BCS title game

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Gameday
MOUNTAINEERS
  • What: West Virginia vs. Western Michigan
  • When: 3:30 p.m. today
  • Where: Mountaineer Field, Morgantown, W.Va.
  • TV: WTAE.
PANTHERS
  • What: Pitt vs. Eastern Michigan
  • When: 6 p.m. today
  • Where: Heinz Field
  • Radio: WWSW-FM (94.5)
NITTANY LIONS
  • What: Penn State vs. Florida International
  • When: noon today
  • Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
  • TV, radio: Big Ten Network

College football for 600, Alex ...

A winning season, a conference championship, the national championship.

What are the respective goals of the Pitt, Penn State and West Virginia football teams?

Let's play another round of Jeopardy!, shall we?

College football for 800 ...

West Virginia.

Which team has the best chance of getting it done?

It won't be Pitt. Not with a new quarterback. Not with that offensive line. Not with the brutal road schedule. The Panthers had better enjoy that big victory against Eastern Michigan tonight. There won't be too many more to follow. A 6-6 record seems about right. Sorry, no bowl game again.

It won't be Penn State, either. The Nittany Lions can't win the Big Ten Conference without beating Michigan. They never beat Michigan. This is how long it's been: Joe Paterno was a young man when it last happened. The year was 1996. An 11-2 record isn't out of the question -- it's hard to imagine Penn State beating both Wisconsin and Ohio State at home -- but first place is. That three-touchdown rout of Notre Dame next Saturday won't seem like much consolation.

That leaves West Virginia.

Only one team can prevent the Mountaineers from winning the national ... let me rephrase that: Any number of teams -- Southern California, Michigan, Louisiana State, Florida -- can prevent the Mountaineers from winning the national championship, but only one can stop them from getting to the BCS title game.

Only West Virginia can stop West Virginia.

Louisville shouldn't be able to do it. That game is in Morgantown Nov. 8, at night no less. The Mountaineers are 11-0 in night games at home under coach Rich Rodriguez.

Rutgers shouldn't stop West Virginia, either. The Mountaineers beat 'em last season with their backup quarterback. The game is at the State University of New Jersey Oct. 27, but I'm not so sure that's a frightening thing. Rutgers was a sexy success story last season, no question. But there's a big difference between having a good team and a good program. Tony Soprano's favorite squad still has much to prove.

And South Florida? Please.

It's no wonder West Virginia is a 2-3 choice to win the Big East Conference championship, according to Bodog, an on-line sports book. Here's why West Virginia is just a 9-1 pick to win the national championship behind Southern Cal (2-1), Michigan (7-1), Florida (8-1) and Louisiana State (8-1): The program has not handled prosperity well under Rodriguez. Certainly, it has not handled high expectations. That's not encouraging for a West Virginia team that starts the season today against Western Michigan as the No. 3 team in America.

The Mountaineers tend to give more when less is expected. In '05, they weren't ranked to start the season but blew through their schedule to the tune of 10-1. They then beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the most significant victory in Big East history, according to no less an authority than commissioner Mike Tranghese.

That led to a No. 5 preseason ranking in the Associated Press poll last season. It also meant trouble. West Virginia was No. 3 and 7-0 when it lost at Louisville, thanks to Louisville returning a fumble and a punt for touchdowns. It was No. 7, 9-1 and still had a chance to win a share of the Big East when it collapsed at home against South Florida because of four turnovers. Shame on the Mountaineers for having to settle for the Gator Bowl.

Much the same thing happened in '04 when West Virginia opened the season No. 10. It was No. 6 and 4-0 when it went to Virginia Tech, committed 11 penalties for 119 yards and lost. It was No. 13 when it lost at home to Boston College, thanks to two Boston College punt returns for touchdowns. And in its most horrific defeat, it blew a chance to go to the Fiesta Bowl by losing at Pitt, in large part because of 10 penalties for 89 yards.

"The refs are always watching us because they think we play dirty," cornerback Adam "Pac-Man" Jones said after that game.

I think Pac-Man said the same sort of thing recently about law enforcement officials always watching him. Anyway, the common denominator in the West Virginia underachieving has been penalties. In the past four seasons, the Mountaineers ranked 114th, 64th, 116th and 101st among Division I-A schools in penalty yards per game. That's not a good reflection on Rodriguez, an otherwise superior coach.

An undisciplined program can't win a national championship.

That brings us to the final round of our little Jeopardy! game.

College football for 1,000, Alex ...

10-3.

What will West Virginia finish?


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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