Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire
West Virginia's finally fought its way to the highest level of college football, making its Big 12 debut against Baylor in Morgantown. Elsewhere, the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 have biggish conference battles going on. Follow @SBNationCFB
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. (And could WVU in the Big 12 be one of the biggest things in West Virginia since statehood?)
"It's finally here," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said 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 me 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 much of its history, West Virginia has lived in obscurity. Nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountains, the state has made its living off hundreds of coal mines. Many of its famous sons left once 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, and the setting at Mountaineer Field will seem surreal.
The Baylor Bears will be the first ones to find out. And while RG3 might also be on the sideline for Saturday's game, he won't be able to help.
Other games with BCS implications:
Tennessee at Georgia, 3:30 p.m., CBS - The SEC East has decided that it's not willing to automatically concede conference supremacy to the West, and with three teams from the division in the simulated BCS Top 11, the race promises to be wide open. Derek Dooley's Volunteers were game against Florida for a half, but will they have enough firepower to keep up with Aaron Murray, who's also quietly making a run at the Heisman?
Texas at Oklahoma State, 7:30 p.m., FOX - Is Texas back? After winning just 13 games the last two seasons combined, this will be the first real test the Longhorns will face this season. Oklahoma State isn't the national-title contender it was a year ago, and with a suspect defense that gave up 59 points in a loss to Arizona, scoring won't be an issue in this game.
Ohio State at Michigan State, 3:30 p.m., ABC - The Buckeyes can't play in the postseason or the Big Ten championship game, so all they can do is prove that they're the best team in the Big Ten (for what it's worth). Michigan State is playing for a return trip to the B1G title game, and in a competitive Legends Division it can ill afford to lose its conference opener at home.
Oregon State at Arizona, 10 p.m., Pac-12 Network - When In-N-Out Burger opened its first store in Tucson five years ago, it created so much fanfare that cars lined up around the block on East Broadway for hours for the grand occasion. Mike Riley's crew probably won't have to wait long (now that there are four locations in town) if they can pull off the double(-double) to open Pac-12 play.
Wisconsin at Nebraska, 8 p.m., ABC - With Ohio State ineligible and Penn State nuked by the NCAA, the Big Ten's Leaders Division is the Badgers' to lose. Wisconsin probably won't have to do a whole lot to fend off Illinois, Indiana and Purdue to take the division, but it can use a statement after a lackluster non-conference season that featured uncomfortable wins over Utah State, UTEP and FCS Northern Iowa and a loss at Oregon State.
Florida State at South Florida, 6 p.m., ESPN - None of the BCS' top four teams are expected to be challenged on Saturday, but this might be a telltale game about the Seminoles, coming off a big victory over Clemson. The 'Noles appear to have a open path to the ACC Championship Game and an undefeated season, but will they suffer an inexplicable letdown?
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