Big 12 reality sets in for Mountaineers

What a difference a year can make.

Turn the clock back to the first week in October 2012. In their inaugural season in the Big 12, the West Virginia Mountaineers had scored 70 points in their first Big 12 game and upset one of the conference’s flagship universities, Texas, in front of more than 100,000 fans. WVU was undefeated and ranked No. 5 with an offense that was the talk of the nation.

Suddenly, reality arrived. Since that high point, West Virginia has lost nine of 14 games, with its only notable win in that stretch over Oklahoma State two weeks ago. But what has hurt more than the losses themselves is the lack of competitiveness in so many games. Over the last 12 months, the Mountaineers have suffered humiliating losses to Texas Tech (49-14), Kansas State (55-14), Syracuse (38-14), Maryland (37-0) and Baylor (73-42). One has to go back 35 years to the 1978 season to find such a run of one-sided losses.

What does all this mean for the West Virginia football program? Mountaineer fans fondly look back to the middle of the last decade when WVU won 11 games and finished ranked three straight seasons from 2005-2007. But let us not forget that we were competing in the old Big East, which was certainly a couple of notches below the Big 12 in quality of opposition. And a closer look reflects that West Virginia did not even totally dominate their old conference as much as our memories might suggest. For each of their last six years of Big East competition the Mountaineers were an identical 5-2 in conference play. Good, but hardly overwhelming.

It is difficult for West Virginia to recruit the level of talent on a yearly basis to be a 9 or10 win team in a conference as good as the Big 12. The population of our state is small, and the Mountaineers must look elsewhere for enough quality athletes. There are indeed scores of great high school football players in neighboring states, but how many blue chip recruits in these states will choose WVU over Ohio State, Penn State or Virginia Tech, for example?

And that indeed is our dilemma, much as it is for many other schools out there who long to elevate their football programs to a higher level.

So while Mountaineer fans aspire to have a successful program in the Big 12 at the level of Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, a truly objective look tells us that we are farther down the ladder. In all honesty, where WVU is today would be perhaps just a notch above the football program at Iowa State, where an enthusiastic fan base sells out nearly every game and is a tough place for visiting teams to play. But even with that support and a good football coach, the Cyclones the last four years are 7-6, 5-7, 6-7, 6-7, rising up for an upset win on occasion but winning only three conference games each year.

That is not to suggest that we should settle or be satisfied with where we are. Maybe West Virginia can’t achieve the level of success every year of the elite teams in the conference, but certainly we can aspire to rise above the level of mediocrity that has been displayed over the last 14 games. Most Mountaineer fans are reasonable folks, who understand that in some years losses will happen, but there isn’t much patience for getting run off the field by four or five touchdowns. That is distressing.

This Saturday: The sky began to fall last year when the Mountaineers were unexpectedly run out of the stadium at Texas Tech. Now it is the Red Raiders who are ranked and undefeated with six wins. Despite an injury to their starting quarterback, they haven’t missed a beat, as freshman Davis Webb in his first start last week threw for 415 yards. But Texas Tech has played only one quality opponent (TCU ) and may be ripe to have the tables turned after last year’s shocker. West Virginia 27, Texas Tech 24.