Friday, September 28, 2012

West Virginia's Big(-12) Moment Has Arrived

West Virginia's big moment has finally arrived.

The Mountaineers' first Big 12 appearance - against Baylor on Saturday (noon ET, FX) - has much more significance than just their inaugural game in a new conference. It's a watershed event for a state that has been struggling for relevance since it separated from Virginia in the midst of Civil War in 1863.
That's right, WVU in the Big 12 is the biggest thing in West Virginia since gaining statehood.

"It's finally here," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said during a conference call this week. "There's a lot of anticipation, not only in the state of West Virginia, but across the country. So there will be a lot of eyes on us."

Don't get us wrong, the Mountaineers certainly have had their share of athletic accomplishments. Back in 1960, a skinny kid from Chelyan led WVU to the brink of an NCAA basketball title, losing to Cal by a single point. He went on to become the logo of the NBA. The Mountaineers football team also had its shot at a national title as well, but that Major Harris-led 1988 squad fell to Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl.

But for most of its history, West Virginia lived in obscurity. Nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains, the state made its living off hundreds of coal mines. It's a tough and dirty existence, and many of its famous sons fled whenever they got the chance (think Rodriguez, Rich). R-E-S-P-E-C-T was hard to come by.

Getting into the Big 12, though, is a game changer for West Virginia. While the reconstituted Big 12 isn't what it was in the late '90s, it's still a potent brand, backed by Texas and Oklahoma and firmly in the club of college football's haves. For West Virginia, getting on with the Big 12 as its former conference Big East disintegrated, was nothing short of a coup.

And West Virginia is entering the Big 12 at an ideal time. Both of the conference's traditional flag-bearers - UT and OU - are not what they once were. The conference's two upstarts, Oklahoma State and Baylor, were coming off great seasons but lost their respective quarterbacks and will be rebuilding. The Mountaineers, on the other hand, are loaded and ready to take their new league by storm.

Led by quarterback Geno Smith - a bona fide Heisman contender and maybe even the front runner - West Virginia has won its last seven games, including a 70-point outburst against Clemson in the Orange Bowl that foreshadowed its potency this season. The Mountaineers have a legitimate chance to win the Big 12 in their inaugural season and at No. 10 in the simulated BCS standings, can play their way into the BCS championship game.

With nine conference games remaining on their slate, the Mountaineers will get a steady boost in the computer rankings as long as they keep winning. While they have some treacherous road games (Texas and Oklahoma State), they'll face their most difficult opponents (Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State) at home.

To be sure, a trip to Morgantown will be a daunting challenge for WVU's Big 12 foes, who all hail from the plains of the Midwest and Southwest. Add the rabid nature of Mountaineers fans, who are finally gaining their long lust-after time in the spotlight, the setting at Mountaineer Field will seem surreal.

The Baylor Bears will be the first ones to find out. Unfortunately for them, while RG3 might be on the sideline for Saturday's game, he won't be able to help.

Other games with BCS implications:


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