One of those years

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

It's been 11 seasons since they've last done it, but you knew it was coming one of these years. The rising up of the almost always good, occasionally great, West Virginia Mountaineers, who just love crashing the national title picture.

It is so easy for the rest of the country to forget about West Virginia, the state and the school, both tucked away in the Appalachians, just waiting to be the butt of so many Eastern jokes.

But then every few years the Mountaineers get the right bunch of guys together, ride a Major Harris in the late 80s or put a perfect regular season together in the mid 90s, and all of a sudden a roar rolls out of their snake-pit stadium in Morgantown and they crash right through the top five of the polls.

Well, this could be one of those years.

Ranked No. 7 in the nation, powered by a virtually anonymous tailback and a virtually perfect quarterback, and with a dream schedule, a league in transition and an innovative coach, the Mountaineers host the No. 21 Maryland Terrapins on Saturday in their most important game over a decade.

It's so big all of college football will have an eye turned toward Morgantown, which just doesn't happen every week.

The reason is simple. It is not just that senior Kay-Jay Harris ran for 524 yards and four touchdowns all of last year and then pumped out 337 and four TDs in the opener this season. It isn't that with Harris a bit hobbled last week, quarterback Rasheed Marshall stepped up and earned his own Big East offensive player of the week honors himself. It isn't even the quick, hard-hitting defense or a host of returning starters or the momentum that energetic coach Rich Rodriguez has going in his fourth season at his alma mater.

It is that "if" (and we'll get to how big of an if that is) the Mountaineers (2-0) can get by Maryland, the most favorable schedule of any BCS team in the nation opens up for them.

Not a single team that is currently ranked looms the rest of the season. By comparison, No. 5 Georgia has four ranked opponents (and the SEC title game) left.

You've still got to win the games, but in a week where everyone is figuring out whether there is a chance non-BCS teams such as Boise State, Utah or Fresno could show up in the Orange Bowl, the most likely unlikely entrant wears blue and gold.

"We are in an 11-round playoff system," said Rodriguez, who runs a fun, no-huddle, fast-break offense. "We have taken care of the first two rounds. Now we are in round three."

Of course, there's the rub. Not only are the Terps 2-0 themselves, but they have beaten the Mountaineers four times in the last three seasons. In two games last year (there was a bowl rematch) the Terps outscored WVU 75-14.

"They've been better than us," Rodriguez said Monday. "It's pretty simple."

But this just feels a little but different. First off, four years after taking over from the legendary Don Nehlen, Rodriguez has greatly improved the talent level. He has veterans, a big tough line and some game breakers. West Virginia hasn't been this high in the national polls since it entered the 1994 Sugar Bowl 11-0.

Keeping the Mountaineers at the top isn't easy. This is a small state with only so much local talent. Even then, it battles Marshall for local stars. The improvement of the Big East the last decade – particularly the addition of Miami and the rise of Virginia Tech – has proven to be a glass ceiling.

But with those schools (and Boston College next season) leaving for the ACC, West Virginia looks poised to reap the benefits in the new Big East. West Virginia now has as good of resources, tradition and facilities as anyone in the league. Reminding America of that with a big year wouldn't hurt recruiting.

And they know it in Morgantown. They can taste a steady climb and a long unbeaten run that would provide a most coveted thing for this unheralded state: positive publicity.

But first Maryland, high noon Saturday inside what should be a wild Mountaineer Field.

"It's all anyone asks us about," Rodriguez said. "'How you going to do against Maryland? Will you be able to beat Maryland this year?'"

If they can, look out. The Mountaineers may be off to the races.

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