The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 10, 2012

Mountaineers must pass entrance exam to join the elite

By Cam Huffman
Sports Editor

— West Virginia University’s football team will be taking its official entrance exam for admittance into the “Official Big Boy Football Club” over the next few weeks.

For decades — through the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s — the Mountaineers were happy standing a step below the top rung of the college football ladder. Every few years, WVU would step up and make some national noise — as it did with undefeated regular seasons in 1988 and 1993 — but for the most part, the program was satisfied trying to keep itself a few games over .500 and somewhere around the top 25. A bowl — any bowl — was usually the mark of a successful season.

That all began to change in 2006 when WVU won the Big East championship, earned the bid to the Sugar Bowl and on Jan. 2, 2006, knocked off SEC champion Georgia in what most called the biggest win in school history.

But it wasn’t just a one-time magical night that faded away as quickly as it had come. Two seasons later, the Mountaineers were in the mix for the BCS Championship game, and only an unexplainable loss to Pitt in the regular season finale kept them from playing for college football’s biggest prize.

Still, that WVU squad, even after losing head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan, found a way to bounce back, and it made another huge statement by not just beating, but actually trouncing, Big 12 champion Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

In another sign of the changing landscape on which the Mountaineers were competing, Bill Stewart, who earned the head coaching position after leading WVU to that Fiesta Bowl victory, was let go after three seasons, largely because his team couldn’t get back to a BCS bowl game. Stewart finished 8-4 all three years, but that just wasn’t enough. The Mountaineers had tasted the food at the big table, and they had no plans of going back to the kiddy table with the paper plates and folding chairs.

Dana Holgorsen, who was brought in to replace Stewart, lived up to the expectations in his first season, taking the Mountaineers to the Orange Bowl this past January, where they beat up on ACC champion Clemson, and that commitment to playing at the top level helped earn the Mountaineers a spot in the Big 12, one of college football’s top conferences.

The change in competition did nothing to put a damper on expectations. College football fans — and not just the ones in the Mountain State — labeled this year’s WVU club as a national title contender, and after a 5-0 start that included a win over Texas, which certainly has a permanent place at college football’s adult table, it rose to No. 5 in The Associated Press Poll, with quarterback Geno Smith leading the race for the Heisman Trophy.

The Mountaineers were dining on gourmet cuisine, and nobody was double checking their invitation to the party.

But over the last three weeks, things have changed.

It started with a disappointing performance on the road at Texas Tech, a 49-14 loss that ended WVU’s national title hopes. But most wrote that off as a trap game that came away from Morgantown and in between showdowns with Texas and Kansas State, and WVU was given a pass.

The questions grew more audible the next week, when the Mountaineers looked even more overmatched against Kansas State in a 55-14 home loss in front of a large Mountaineer Field crowd.

But with Kansas State in position to play for a BCS title, most still didn’t panic, claiming that WVU just ran into the wrong competition at the wrong time.

But the 39-38 overtime loss to TCU — one that the Mountaineers had a chance to put away at least three different times — the third loss in a row and the second straight in Morgantown greatly changed that perception. Now there is some question as to whether the Mountaineers bit off more than they could chew.

Just how successful WVU’s move to the Big 12 will be will take years, and maybe decades, to determine. But the next four games, beginning today with the 3:30 p.m. ABC battle at Oklahoma State — and continuing with a home game against Oklahoma, a road trip to Iowa State and a home game against conference bottom feeder Kansas — will be WVU’s SAT, LSAT or MCAT when it comes to deciding whether it is at a place now where it can dine with college football’s elusive club, which includes the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Notre Dame, Michigan and Southern Cal.

WVU’s done what it takes over the last six or seven years to be mentioned with those powers, but that could all be erased with an epic collapse. No, the Mountaineers aren’t going to recover enough to get back to a BCS game this season, but if they’ve truly made a jump to college football’s top level, they’ll bounce back down the stretch and at least end up in a decent bowl game. That’s what the “big boys” do.

Take a look at Texas.

A few weeks ago, most had declared the Longhorns as steak for the rest of the Big 12. They were 4-2 overall, but those wins hadn’t exactly come against the cream of the crop and they were just 1-2 in league play. In their last two games, they had lost at home to the Mountaineers in WVU’s first Big 12 road trip, and the Longhorns were blown out in the Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma, losing 63-21. Fans were questioning head coach Mack Brown’s job status and talking about Texas missing the postseason.

Since then, the Longhorns have won three straight. They’re back to 4-2 in the league, 7-2 overall and in position to finish second or third and end the season with a respectable bowl trip, building momentum toward 2013.

That’s what it takes to be elite. Every team stumbles now and then, but those at the top find a way to put their hand on the ground, push themselves back up and avoid the collapse.

Can WVU, under the guidance of a still-unproven second-year head coach, put on the breaks, slow down the runaway bandwagon and get itself back in position for a successful season? There’s still time, and there are still both statement games (Oklahomas) and contests that any decent team would win (Iowa State and Kansas) left on the schedule.

But can this team band together, find the offense that was posting 60s and 70s early in the season, continue to show the improvement on defense that it displayed last week and finish strong?

The entrance panel will be watching closely.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH