By Cam Huffman
When West Virginia traveled to Baltimore two weeks ago for the 50th all-time meeting with the rival Maryland Terrapins, many labeled the contest as a “season definer” for the Mountaineers.
WVU hopes that’s not the case. The 37-0 thumping was one of the worst Mountaineer fans have seen in quite some time.
But how can a nonconference game really define a season? Aside from a national championship, every reward a college football team receives results from play against conference opponents.
With that in mind, tonight’s 8 p.m. contest on the road in Waco, Texas, against the No. 17 Baylor Bears (3-0, 0-0 Big 12) may, in fact be the game that determines WVU’s ultimate fate.
Win or lose tonight’s game — which will air live on Fox Sports 1 — the Mountaineers (3-2, 1-1 Big 12) will be only halfway through the 2013 campaign. Anything could happen the rest of the way. But the mindset of the team, and fans, heading into an off week will be much different depending on what happens under the lights at Floyd Casey Stadium tonight.
A WVU upset would put the Mountaineers in a perfect position. With three Big 12 games down — against the league’s top three teams, most would agree — head coach Dana Holgorsen’s club would be 2-1 in league play. With wins over two of the top, both nationally ranked, and nobody in the league showing true dominance, WVU could actually find itself in the heart of a race for a Big 12 title. All of its goals would still be in play, and the Mountaineers would be as confident as a lion preparing for a fight with a three-legged chicken.
The memories of the soggy afternoon in Baltimore against the Terps would be erased faster than a dirty word on an elementary school blackboard, and the scare in the opener against Football Championship Subdivision foe William & Mary would be filed into the “just one of those days” categories.
But if WVU loses by three or four touchdowns as many of the experts have predicted — the Mountaineers will enter the game as a 27 1/2 point underdog — the season could quickly turn sour.
In that scenario, WVU would enter the off week at 3-3 and would need to win half of its remaining games — with no William & Marys or Georgia States on the slate anywhere — just to become bowl eligible.
The upset over No. 11 Oklahoma State last weekend would be the game that’s forgotten, while the pain from the Maryland and Baylor losses would have the fan base looking for a place to release their frustrations.
For two weeks, WVU players would have to hear about how bad they were, and eventually they’d probably start to believe the talk.
The worst side effect, though, would be more uncertainty at quarterback. With a bad performance from Clint Trickett tonight, the game of musical chairs under center would likely continue. The formula of going with a new starter seemingly every week is usually about as successful as mixing Pepsi and Budweiser to create the perfect drink.
WVU doesn’t have to win. Baylor has an explosive offense, and the defense, like that of the Mountaineers — has tightened things up and decided to actually attempt to provide a little resistance to the opposition. It’s possible that the Mountaineers could play a good game tonight and still lose.
That likely wouldn’t guarantee a tailspin. If the Mountaineers at least play well against the Bears, they’ll enter the break knowing that they’ve beaten one of the conference’s top teams, Oklahoma State, and played two others, Baylor and Oklahoma, tight.
That wouldn’t build the same confidence of a road upset, but it wouldn’t cause the fans to go searching for torches and pitchforks, either.
As Holgorsen — or any coach — will tell you, every game matters. But it’s hard to deny that this one might mean a little extra.
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.