Two years ago, the West Virginia Mountaineers joined the Big 12 Conference and have found the upgrade in competition to be difficult. In 2012 a season of high expectations ended in a disappointing 7-6 record followed by a 4-8 season, the worst for WVU since 2001. The Mountaineers have gone 6-12 in conference games after being the most successful football program in the Big East for a number of years.
But West Virginia has not been alone in finding the climb to a power conference tougher than anticipated. Two other schools with pedigrees similar to the Mountaineers have had like experiences.
Utah was 21-3 in its last three years in the Mountain West but only 9-18 in the three years since joining the Pac 12. TCU won 23 straight conference games in the Mountain West before joining the Big 12 along with WVU, but has only matched the Mountaineers with a 6-12 league record.
So the evidence points to a verdict that upgrading to a power conference was a bigger climb than many of us thought. The Mountaineers haven't gotten worse so much as the competition week to week has been much stronger.
But there are signs that West Virginia can be a better football team in 2014. The 2013 campaign was played without stability at the quarterback position primarily due to injuries. Clint Trickett led WVU to an upset of Oklahoma State with 320 passing yards in his first start, but an injury that incurred in that game left him ineffective the remainder of the season. A healthy Trickett along with most of the receiving corps returning should result in more consistent performance on offense.
The defense in 2014 couldn't have been much worse, yielding nearly 300 yards passing and 38 points per game in conference play. OK, some of those stats weren't as bad as they appeared because three of those games went into overtime, but you get the drift. A team can't win with those kind of numbers. But there are seven returning starters, more depth, and coaching changes on the defensive side of the ball that hopefully can result in some improvement there as well.
Special teams, often a problem in recent years, were actually a plus in 2013, and the kicking game in particular should remain strong with a quality punter and solid placekicker returning.
As bad as the 4-8 record last season seemed, consider this: Take a snapshot with four minutes to go in the third quarter of conference games, and the Mountaineers were leading in six out of nine. Second half leads vs Texas Tech, Kansas State, Texas and Iowa State evaporated into losses, two in overtime. Even just an average defense and fewer turnovers could have resulted in a couple of more wins in 2013. That's easy to say and harder to do, but the point is that West Virginia was not as far from a credible season as may have appeared at first glance.
One reality we must acknowledge, however, is that the Mountaineers could be significantly improved in 2014 yet it not show in the win-loss record. That is because WVU faces one of the most difficult schedules in the nation this season. Back in the Big East days, a single game against Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State or Kansas State would have been the highlight of the season schedule. But now WVU doesn't just play one of them, but rather all of them all. A tall order indeed.
Fans with whom I have spoken, save one, are almost universally cautious in their expectations for the 2014 season. In recent years, projecting a .500 season for the Mountaineers would have been considered outrageous, but now it is the height of optimism. But I think WVU will find a way to win a couple more of those close games and manage a 6-6 record in 2014.
THIS SATURDAY: The usual home opener against a less than stellar opponent has changed just a bit as the Mountaineers travel to Atlanta this Saturday. The Coastal Carolinas and William & Marys have turned into... Alabama. Oh my. So let's do a quick evaluation of our opposition.
Alabama will be breaking in a new quarterback. Check. The Tide has lost 2 straight games. Check. Last season Oklahoma only scored 16 against WVU but 45 against Bama. Check. So, no problem, right?
Wrong. Big problem. ALABAMA 34,
WEST VIRGINIA 13.
Local attorney Blaine Myers begins his 26th season as our Monday Morning Quarterback for West Virginia University football.