Column by BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
There is a new culture of football at West Virginia. It begins on Saturday when the Mountaineers make their debut as a Big 12 school against Baylor.
“I’m pretty excited heading into conference play. Everybody has been waiting on this very moment,” West Virginia wide receiver Stedman Bailey said. “Baylor is our first Big 12 opponent, and we just have to take it week by week. We’re excited to play Baylor and kickoff the Big 12.”
So is West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, but he’s trying to keep his team focused on the Bears, and only the Bears.
“We are not playing the Big 12, we are playing Baylor. We need to do a good job because they are a quality football team,” Holgorsen said. “They have won nine games in a row....
“Our team needs to get to know Baylor, what their schemes are, what their players are and what we have to do to win the game on Saturday. Over the course of time, we will get more familiar with the Big 12.”
After spending the last 21 years in the Big East, the Mountaineers paid big money (a $20 million exit fee) to leave a league nearly void of national respect and join the Big 12 for the 2012 campaign.
West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen recalled that as soon as the Mountaineers hammered Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl last January, the discussion turned to the Big 12.
It actually started on Oct. 28 of last season on the eve of a game with Rutgers when the official announcement was made.
“It is going to be very festive from a West Virginia football standpoint, and also from a national standpoint. It has been a long time coming,” Holgorsen said. “Eleven months ago, we made the announcement that we were going to go to the Big 12, and a lot of people wanted to get excited about it.
“I specifically remember that Friday, we were about to do our walk-through to play Rutgers, and it came across the TV that we were going to the Big 12 and everyone was excited about it but me. I was like, ‘Geez, we’ve got to go play a football game here’.”
“So we gathered the team out there on our Friday walk-through and we said at one point we are going to start talking about the Big 12. This is not the time that we are going to be talking about the Big 12, and we focused those guys and we went up and won a game at Rutgers.”
Now comes the hard part. West Virginia is in the Big 12, and must compete in a league that is a combined 27-5 this season, with seven undefeated teams, six ranked in the top 25 and another three receiving votes for consideration in the AP poll.
“(Last) season ended, and then everyone wanted to start talking about the Big 12,” said Holgorsen, who has been an assistant in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. “From a university standpoint and from an athletic department standpoint, that took place, which was incredibly important.
“We tried to just focus on our football team and what we needed to do to get better. We needed to recruit in the offseason, which I think we did a fantastic job.”
West Virginia will celebrate homecoming on Saturday by playing an opponent they have never played in a league they have never played in. Holgorsen said the goal is the same as it was in the Big East, with the ultimate dream more of a possibility in the new league.
“Our goal in the beginning of the season, and I think this is the same goal for everyone that competes in college football, is to win the conference,” Holgorsen said. “If you win your conference, especially the Big 12 conference, then you go to a BCS game and there is potential of playing for a national championship. This is step one in achieving that goal.
“It is conference time — each and every game is important. This is the one where we need to do what we have to do to win the game.”
It doesn’t get easier. Up next are 1,400 mile trips to Texas and Texas Tech, as the Mountaineers prepare to face nine schools that West Virginia has played a combined 13 times, compiling a 9-4 mark in those games, many of which are located in the football hotbed of Texas.
Holgorsen admits there is a difference between the players the Texas schools recruit and those that West Virginia gets to Morgantown. That will have to change as the years move on.
“The skill is good. Baylor has great skill. I have made reference to this from a recruiting standpoint — those guys have played football since they were in third grade,” Holgorsen said. “They are playing a lot of football when they are in junior high. When you get them, they are probably more game ready from a skill standpoint, not from a talent standpoint...
“From a skill standpoint, I think there is a difference. Everybody is going to have skill and everybody is going to have guys that can run. Tavon Austin plays fast and is a great receiver, and there are guys out there that are just as fast as him. Baylor has got one.”
Recruiting is more important than ever for the Mountaineers since more depth is needed to play the type of wide-open style preferred by many of its teams.
“The biggest difference is the amount of kids that play in those (Big 12) games compared to the Big East games,” Holgorsen said. “You can go into a Big East game and plan on playing about 40 kids which happened last year and has happened here for a long time. That is hard to do when you are taking that many snaps.
“Baylor is averaging 90 snaps a game. Defensively, they are defending an average of 87-88 snaps a game. Last week, against Maryland, because of what their game plan was, we each got 67-68 snaps...
“I have been saying this for some time — this is the biggest difference in the Big 12 and the Big East...”
The Big 12 is the third football league West Virginia has been in since 1950, including the Southern Conference (1950-67) and the Big East (1991-2011), with the Mountaineers playing as an independent from 1968-1990.
Players like center Joe Madsen are eager to get started in the Big 12.
“I can’t wait. It’s a new experience, new game, new people,” Madsen said. “I think we are going to go out there and play our best, and hopefully we have a good time and play our hearts out. It’s a special thing. I hope we bring this conference a lot of great things.”
Holgorsen understands the excitement for the Big 12, but is trying to get his team to focus on one game at a time. They will just have to do it against unfamiliar foes.
“I think over the course of time, West Virginia, our football team, and everyone else will get more familiar with the Big 12 and the Big 12 will get familiar with West Virginia,” Holgorsen said. “But I think it is going to take games for that to happen. This Saturday marks the first game that this is going to happen, and we are excited about it and we are excited about the future of West Virginia football.
“From a coaches’ and players’ standpoint, we need to know our opponent. We need to make it a regular week, we need to ignore a bunch of outside distractions and we need to get our kids ready to play Baylor.”
—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at email@example.com