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by Chris Errington
(June 16)The West Virginia University football team's preseason accolades keep pouring in.
Monday, The Sporting News
ranked the Mountaineers ninth in its preseason college poll.
This is just the latest Top 25 ranking from a national sports magazine received by the Mountaineers.
West Virginia ranked fifth, while Bob Griese's College Football had it ranked 12th.
Despite West Virginia's lofty status, Mountaineers head coach Don Nehlen isn't overly excited.
"Preseason rankings mean nothing," Nehlen said. "You just don't know. Football is so unpredictable."
Still, Nehlen termed it "nice" to be recognized."
For cornerback Charles Fisher, the rankings provide a little respect he believes has been lacking around Morgantown the past few years.
"I try not to look at the rankings too much, but these are pretty good," Fisher said. "People are starting to realize that we have some good talent on this team and they're finally starting to respect that."
John Thornton, whom The Sporting News ranked the seventh best defensive tackle in the country, said the celebrity of Amos Zereoue, one of the nation's top running backs, is a factor.
"I think we're ranked so high because a lot of people know Amos," Thornton said. "We have a lot of quality athletes who they don't even know about."
Offensive lineman Bryan Pukenas agreed.
"We have one of the best runners in the country in Amos, and if we can't run with him, who can we run with?"
The preseason ranking is still a little confusing. Gone are the days when the Associated Press and CNN/USA Today polls dominated teams' futures. In their place is a new system designed to produce more accurate rankings and a "true" national championship game.
The two polls plus rating formulas from the Seattle Times and The New York Times will still produce a weekly top 25. But it won't begin to be released until the fourth week of the season.
Because of that, the preseason rankings don't mean anything, according to Nehlen and Thornton.
But Nehlen does see one plus from the preseason polls: Helping WVU prepare for season-opening opponent Ohio State.
The Buckeyes, who play Sept. 5 at Mountaineer Field, have been consistently ranked No. 1 by preseason polls.
"The one thing that does is make our two-a-day practices real good," Nehlen said. "Even when it's 100 degrees outside, to be playing the top team gives the kids a lot more hustle."
Nehlen has put so little emphasis into the ranking that he says the Ohio State game is "a no-lose situation."
"Nobody expects us to win," Nehlen said.
"So, if we do win, we shock the world. And if we don't, then everyone says they knew it already," Nehlen said.
Thornton said the game with the Buckeyes will help the Mountaineers' ranking regardless of preseason ranking.
"They're going to come in here No. 1, and if they think about that, we'll beat them," Thornton said.
"If we do that, we'll be in the top five no matter where they rank us now."
The magazine also ranked six Mountaineers among the best in the country at their positions.
Along with Thornton and Zereoue's ranking of eighth among running backs, rush linebacker Gary Stills was ranked the second-best outside linebacker in the country and was a member of The Sporting News' preseason All-American team. Nate Terry was ranked fourth among return men, Eric De Groh seventh at center and wide receiver David Saunders 11th.
Although pleased with the team ranking, Thornton was a bit upset by his.
"It's a big honor, but I thought I'd be higher. I guess I'll just have to prove them wrong during the season," Thornton said.
Nehlen believed the players were "worthy of the rankings," yet was confused about how the magazine came to its conclusions.
"I just don't know how they would even go about rating kids by positions," Nehlen said. "There's just no real way to do it."
The rash of high rankings comes five years after the 1993 season, the last time a WVU team went through the regular season undefeated. Five years before that, the 1988 Mountaineer team was the first to have an undefeated season and play for a national championship.