Last month, Youngstown State’s athletic department released its list of top 10 stories from 2013-14.
The top story was the terrific stretch from April 24-May 24 when the Penguins won four conference championships (women’s tennis, baseball and men’s and women’s track and field) and a bunch of individual and coaching awards.
The 10th story was the Penguins’ academic performance, with student-athletes averaging a 3.07 grade point average — best since joining the Horizon League in 2001-02.
In between, the list highlighted track All-Americans, Penguin Club support and a strong performance by YSU’s women’s programs. But outside of quarterback Kurt Hess getting lumped in with a group of seven record-breaking seniors (that story was No. 3 on the list), the school’s biggest sport was missing from the top 10.
This, obviously, is a problem. And I’m not sure it’s going away this fall.
The Missouri Valley Football Conference preseason football poll was due on Wednesday. I voted YSU fifth in the 10-team league, behind three-time national champion North Dakota State (whose longtime coach, Craig Bohl, was hired away by Wyoming because a bunch of brain-dead athletic directors from bigger FBS schools decided not to pursue him), Northern Iowa (which managed to beat the Penguins last year without its starting quarterback or its starting running back because this is what UNI does to YSU), South Dakota State (last seen crushing the Penguins in a season-ending snowstorm) and Southern Illinois (which did YSU two favors in the last year by collapsing in the second half of last year’s football game, then hiring away Randy “Don’t call me ‘One-and-Dunn’ because I was only there for seven months” Dunn to clear the path for Jim Tressel’s return).
I have no idea if YSU is actually the fifth-best team — it’s July 18, after all — but after watching the Penguins’ defense get shredded in the spring game, it’s hard to go any higher, especially since my preseason all-league picks included just two Penguins and they were both on special teams: kick returner Andre Stubbs and long snapper Nathan Gibbs, who has no chance of winning this since Illinois State Chris Highland just made The Sports Network’s preseason All-America list.
This is Eric Wolford’s fifth season. While he’s boosted his win totals every year, he’s also missed the playoffs every year. He’s expected to sign a two-year extension through the 2017 season — YSU had to wait for Tressel to come on board first, I’m told — but having someone like Tressel watching from the president’s loge isn’t going to ease the pressure.
Nor is finishing fifth.
Preseason polls are more a measure of what you’ve done than what you can do. YSU’s defense could get it together under new coordinator Jamie Bryant. Redshirt freshman QB Ricky Davis could become a more athletic version of Kurt Hess, who was the MVFC freshman of the year in 2010. YSU’s offense could (and probably should) put up big numbers.
YSU has made the playoffs once since Tressel left. While it’s nice to win Horizon League titles, having a good women’s tennis team (or even a surprising baseball team) doesn’t excite fans like a good football team. If YSU misses the playoffs for the eighth straight year, it won’t be one of the best stories of the year.
But it will be one of the biggest.