MANHATTAN — When the dust finally settled, West Virginia emerged from the great conference realignment rush looking like a winner. Maybe even a big winner.
The same can’t be said today.
A late-season collapse in 2012 followed by a shaky start to the current season has left the Mountaineers in search of an identity and, at 3-4 with a 1-3 Big 12 record, nowhere near the success they grew accustomed to in their previous conference.
Before they joined the Big 12, they won 70 games, four Big East championships and made three BCS bowls in a seven-year span. They were viewed as the strongest team in the weakest BCS league, and were deemed ready for an upgrade in competition. They entered the Big 12 with an offense filled with future NFL players, a charismatic coach, a strong fan base and legitimate hopes of winning a conference championship in their first year.
But little has gone right for West Virginia over the past 12 months. After a 5-0 start last season, it crashed to a 2-6 finish, marking the first time it had won fewer than nine games since 2004 and the first time it had lost more than two conference games since 2001. A home victory against then undefeated Oklahoma State appeared to give it some much-needed momentum this year, but four discouraging losses leave it under .500 and in need of a big finish to secure bowl eligibility.
Midway through their second season in the Big 12, the Mountaineers have a perfectly mediocre 10-10 record. That drop-off might not last long term. West Virginia’s athletic department brings in significantly more money as a member of the Big 12 than it did as a member of the Big East. And the Mountaineers have a tradition-rich football history. But it’s obvious transitioning into a new conference has been difficult.
“It doesn’t matter who you are playing, it’s every week and it is going to be a a challenge,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “There are challenges with not knowing our opponent and not having previous games and wars with them. The history is not there. That will continue to change over the years as we develop rivals, and things that have happened previously will make it easier. We are still a little bit foreign to it.”
Or as K-State coach Bill Snyder puts it: “They are still learning how to be in the conference.”
They are also still getting used to the spread offenses and Texas-based talent that dominate the Big 12.
“Depth is an issue, just because of the style of play,” Holgorsen said. “You are going to play a lot of snaps, and our second and third team guys are not as good as they need to be to compete against the likes of Baylor and Texas Tech. Depth, not knowing our opponent as well as we need to and just the fact that you’ve got to line up and play at the highest level possible every week” are all factors.
The transition has also, no doubt, been interesting for West Virginia fans. Not only are they trying to form new rivalries, they are trying to form them with opposing fans they rarely encounter. Ames, Iowa, located 870 miles to the west, is the closest Big 12 outpost to Morgantown. For them, traveling to Big 12 road games isn’t cheap.
Every Big 12 team faces a long trip to West Virginia, which gives the Mountaineers a unique home-field advantage. But they face the same travel problems for away games. Holgorsen considers that a wash.
“I have never used that as an excuse and never will,” Holgorsen said. “You have got to deal with travel. Home field advantages are tough. I will say that. That is one reason we are extremely disappointed in the loss that happened last Saturday (a home loss to Texas Tech). We had a chance to win a game at home and didn’t get it done in the fourth quarter, but the actual travel is not something I view as a problem.”
West Virginia will have a chance to win its first road game of the year on Saturday against Kansas State. The Wildcats have never played the Mountaineers in Manhattan, so it will be a new experience for everyone involved.
In time, the series will feel begin to feel normal. West Virginia hopes the same can be said about winning seasons in its new conference.