AUSTIN, TX —
What a difference a year makes
WVU has officially arrived in college football's "big time"
It seems as though every year West Virginia plays another "biggest game it's ever played."
The trend goes back to the days of Jim Carlen and Bobby Bowden — and perhaps even Art "Pappy" Lewis. But in recent history, it all started with the 2005 Sugar Bowl.
That was when WVU made a statement to the nation that it wasn't a second-tier program that could pull off an upset or two every few years but was no match for the Floridas or Notre Dames of the college football world — as past bowl results had indicated — but truly a national player. The win over SEC champion Georgia in the Bulldogs' back yard took WVU to a new level — one even Don Nehlen didn't reach with two undefeated regular seasons and a road victory at Oklahoma. The Mountaineers didn't just get to the "big game," they won it. Perhaps that's why the celebration on Peachtree Street was so special.
But that win was just the beginning. Program-defining victories came in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl and the 2012 Orange Bowl, and the debate over the school's biggest win became more and more complicated.
It's hard to make the case that a regular season game can mean more than BCS bowl victories, but some are calling tonight's matchup between No. 8 WVU and No. 11 Texas the biggest game in school history.
Shockingly, they're right.
This game is huge, and the result is almost secondary. The fact that WVU is going toe-to-toe with one of the nation's elite teams in a conference game marks a significant milestone in the history of WVU athletics,
Just think back to where the Mountaineer football program was this time last year.
WVU's first October game in 2011 came on Oct. 1 at home against Bowling Green. WVU was 3-1 under second-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, but it was coming off a thumping at the hands of LSU.
It was a gloomy day in Morgantown, and it had to do with more than just the weather. Virginia Tech and Pitt had announced their intentions to leave the Big East for the ACC, and whether it was on ESPN or in Sports Illustrated, all of the experts were predicting radical changes in conference alignment, most of which left the Mountaineers out in the cold.
The ACC had made it clear that it wanted Big East squads but wanted nothing to do with the league's most dominant team. The SEC was showing a little interest, but Missouri was clearly the team it really wanted and the Big 12 was talking about the advantages of standing pat.
It seemed that despite all of WVU's on-field success, the lack of television sets — and perhaps political pull — in the Mountain State would leave the Mountaineers on the outside looking in.
The crowd that rainy fall Saturday was minimal, and many wondered if they were witnessing the beginning of the downfall of Mountaineer football.
Now take your old VCR remote and fast-forward a year later.
Tonight, WVU will take the field in front of more than 100,000 fans and a giant steer in Austin, Tex. The game will be broadcast nationally on FOX.
More importantly, it's a conference game.
We may never know all the back room deals, political favors and arm pulling it took to get WVU into the Big 12, but it's there, and already it's a major competitor.
As a writer who follows the Mountaineers, I see and hear enough of Holgorsen on a day-to-day basis, but I couldn't avoid him this week. Whether it was on ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt Show on my way to work, College Football Live on the television set or SportsCenter over a bowl of cereal, Holgorsen, Geno Smith and the "flying WV" were popping up everywhere.
And the talk, for the first time in my memory, was not about the Mountaineers being a "BCS buster" or a "hidden gem in the mountains." They were being mentioned in the same breath as Texas, and nobody blinked an eye.
A year after wondering if WVU could survive in the Big East with the leftovers like Rutgers and Connecticut and some newcomers like Houston and SMU, Mountaineer fans are tracking the Heisman Trophy race, buying up Big 12 merchandise faster than $1 beachfront hotel rooms and walking with a little swagger.
WVU will play in front of more than 100,000 fans for the first time in school history today, and it's surely the first of many.
Enjoy it Mountaineer fans. That alone is a huge victory for WVU athletic director Oliver Luck and company, and one it should take time to celebrate — with or without a flaming couch.