Life in the Difficult Big 12

  • By Jed Drenning
  • |
  • November 16, 2012 10:14 AM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. You can read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s website http://thesignalcaller.com. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

When the first Big 12 schedule in history that included West Virginia was released in February most of Mountaineer Nation immediately turned to the Internet to uncover the dates of two games in particular - Texas and Oklahoma, the two most prestigious brands in the league.

Not since Penn State last populated WVU’s schedule in 1992 had the Mountaineers regularly crossed swords with so storied a program as the Longhorns or the Sooners. Sure, West Virginia played Miami, Fla. on an annual basis for a decade when both were members of the Big East, but the Hurricanes – as dominant as they were during that stretch – were more of a contemporary force of nature than a historical phenomenon like OU and Texas.

The Universities of Texas and Oklahoma both stand among the top 10 college football programs in all-time wins, with the Longhorns ranking No. 2 and the Sooners coming in at No. 8. The schools have combined to win 11 national championships and produce seven Heisman Trophy winners.

And so it was that when the schedule was publicly released on Valentine’s Day, 2012 – two weeks after it had been shared with the Big 12’s television partners – many fans across the Mountain State spent their date night peeking under the table at their smart phones for a quick review.

The matchup with the Longhorns would take place in Austin and it would come early in the conference slate, representing WVU’s second league contest and its first ever Big 12 road game.

The showdown with Oklahoma, on the other hand, was scheduled in late autumn on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. A time of year when - to borrow a phrase from Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ - “the skies of November turn gloomy.”

A perfect weekend, most fans thought, for West Virginia’s first-ever conference tilt against the highest scoring program in the history of college football (OU has scored 32,309 points all time in 1,191 games). Folks figured by that point in the season the days will have grown shorter, the climate will have dipped and the Big 12 race will be assuming a definitive shape.

But something happened on the way to that winner-take-all clash of the titans that West Virginia fans had hoped for. Unbeaten Kansas State knocked off both WVU and OU to emerge as the Big 12 frontrunner, and the Mountaineers spiraled into a four-game losing skid. Instead of welcoming Oklahoma to Morgantown with January bowl aspirations keeping them warm, the Mountaineers are battling for their postseason lives - backed into a corner with a musket in one hand and a broad axe in the other as a cold forest converges on them.

A team that crested at No. 4 in the USA Today Coaches Poll after an impressive 5-0 start that had media pundits penciling Geno Smith in as a sure-fire Heisman winner has imploded. Since that unbeaten start, West Virginia has been bombed by Texas Tech and Kansas State to the combined tune of 104-28. WVU followed those setbacks by losing to a depleted TCU team led by a backup quarterback (Trevone Boykin) then getting upended by Oklahoma State and third string signal caller Clint Chelf last Saturday.

The problems have been across the board, from a defense yielding more than 41 points per game to an offense that’s averaging just 4.4 yards per play during the losing streak (as opposed to 7.5 per play during the 5-0 start), and a special teams unit that’s provided enough gaffes in recent weeks to fill an Adam Sandler movie.

The question is: should we have seen this coming? Was there some kind of harbinger of doom somewhere along the way that we didn’t acknowledge?

Six games into West Virginia’s maiden voyage through the Big 12, the Mountaineers’ biggest difficulty is pretty easy to decode: stiff competition. For those who haven’t noticed, this is a pretty good football conference. More to the point, it’s a league of incredible depth. As a whole the Mountaineers' new home presents far more daunting hurdles on a weekly basis than the Big East did. Those hurdles have a way of tripping up a team like West Virginia that still seeks the roster depth needed to flourish in this league.

Unlike the Big 12, Big East schedules always seemed to offer up a sacrificial lamb just when you needed one the most. For instance, two years ago WVU had just suffered consecutive upsets at the hands of Syracuse and Connecticut. The Mountaineers were 5-3 and suddenly dazed and confused. Along came an even more dazed Cincinnati team. The 3-5 Bearcats were easily dispatched 37-10 and just like that the West Virginia bleeding had been stopped.

No program, however, helped slam the brakes on more West Virginia losing streaks in the last few decades than Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights were always there when the Mountaineers needed to plug a leak in the bow. No fewer than seven times between 1990 and 2003, WVU beat Rutgers to snap a losing streak of two or more games. Such opponents are part of the reason West Virginia hasn’t lost five in a row since 1986.

Don’t stay up too late waiting on teams like Cincy or Rutgers to sweep in and help the Mountaineers right the ship this time around. They’re not coming anytime soon.

Consider the four squads West Virginia has lost to during this skid. Three of them (Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State) are in the BCS Top 25 and the other (TCU) is 6-4. In short, the college football world wouldn’t exactly be turned on its ear if any of these same teams beat West Virginia again next year or 10 years from now. Much like Bob Stoops’ Oklahoma Sooners, who will be calling on the Mountaineers Saturday night, all four are all solid programs with tremendous upside.

These are the things that can make this league so challenging. There are no lay ups, and that week-after-week grind can sometimes be the recipe for an insufferable losing streak.

Take a minute to examine the relative strength of the Big 12 from a more creative angle.

Last weekend, top-ranked Alabama lost its first game since falling to LSU 53 weeks ago. All the way up until the final gun sounded at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa almost every expert in the country – and most fans – had pegged the Crimson Tide as an invincible force that would easily slice its way to BCS perfection. But they didn’t. They lost.

Who beat them? Texas A&M.

The Aggies are an 8-2 team that moved to 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference with this signature win for first year head coach Kevin Sumlin. Why do I bring this up? Because a year ago A&M had a pretty good football team too, with a veteran defense led by seven senior starters, a top 10 NFL pick (Ryan Tannehill) at quarterback and another NFL pick (Cyrus Gray) at running back. But last year’s talented TAMU squad wasn’t in the SEC, it was a member of the Big 12. And how did the Aggies fare during their swan song season in their former conference? Texas A&M went 7-6 and finished in seventh place in the Big 12.

From an inglorious 4-5 record in Big 12 Conference play a year ago to a second place perch in the SEC West – the most vaunted division in the country. Allow me to insert here the bold suggestion that what took place with Texas A&M wasn’t an overnight transformation for the ages. Might the simpler explanation be that the Big 12 really is that deep? The Aggies are a good football team today and they were a good football team 12 months ago – but they’re enjoying greater success in the SEC.

For good but inconsistent teams who offer anything less than a solid showing in all three phases of the game each Saturday, the Big 12 is a crypt keeper waiting to drag them into the muck and mire of an intolerable losing streak. It lays bare their imperfections each weekend and sends them reeling on the short end of loss after loss.

As West Virginia fans realize, this wasn’t the case in the Big East Conference where a fourth quarter surge could compensate for a slow start - or a few key drives at just the right time could often bail you out of a calamitous performance.

Consider the things West Virginia overcame as recently as last year to escape with a 9-3 regular season record and the Big East crown:

• Despite surrendering 31 first half points and finishing the game just 2-13 on third down tries, WVU pulled out a 41-31 win at Rutgers.

• At Cincinnati, the Mountaineers overcame a blocked kick, 14 penalties and five sacks to beat the Bearcats 24-21.

• In the Backyard Brawl, West Virginia clawed back from a 14-0 deficit and – despite losing the turnover battle three-to-one and converting just 2-12 attempts on third down – beat Pittsburgh 21-20 with a late touchdown.

• In the regular season finale at South Florida, WVU again lost the turnover battle and converted just 2-14 tries on third down, but nevertheless found a way to knock off the Bulls 30-27 with a Tyler Bitancurt field goal as time expired.

These are precisely the kind of uneven efforts that spiral out of control in the Big 12 and often get you beat. We’ve now seen it four times in a row.

So what’s next?

With so much left to play for (a strong finish, a possible Holiday Bowl berth, a stretch run that could help the program recapture its lost swagger), don’t expect West Virginia to fold the tents – especially with Big Red coming to town.

The last time West Virginia entered a night game in Morgantown as a double-digit underdog was against No. 3 ranked Virginia Tech in 2003. When the smoke cleared on that one, a big showing by the ground game (264 yards), a game breaking play through the air (93-yard TD pass) and an opportunistic performance by the defense (four takeaways) set the stage for an epic upset by the 2-4 Mountaineers. After beating Tech, WVU reeled off five more wins in a row to finish the regular season with an 8-4 record to earn a bid to the Gator Bowl.

Can West Virginia follow a similar script to engineer another season-saving upset under the lights, this time against the 12th-ranked Sooners?

Stay tuned.

We’ll see you at the fifty.

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