John E. Hoover: West Virginia endures tough first season in Big 12
BY JOHN E. HOOVER World Sports Columnist
Saturday, November 17, 2012
11/17/12 at 4:35 AM
Go to John E. Hoover's blog.Original Print Headline: West Virginia endures tough Big 12 season
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia in the Big 12 Conference seemed like a good idea at the time.
But with three games left in a disappointing college football season, the Mountaineers are not questioning their decision to join hands with schools from the far side of another time zone.
A trendy preseason pick to win the Big 12, West Virginia has lost four games in a row.
Geno Smith, an early Heisman Trophy favorite, now looks mostly confused and a bit scared.
Dana Holgorsen, the genius tinkerer of a head coach, spends more time on the sideline screaming at players - sometimes face-to-face, sometimes just to whoever is in earshot - than he does coaching.
Now, the Mountaineers host Oklahoma. It was supposed to be one of those college football classics, two preseason favorites meeting in November for supremacy of their league, two Heisman front-runner quarterbacks zipping balls all over Milan Puskar Stadium, two heavyweights battling for a championship.
Instead, Saturday night's showdown - thanks to West Virginia's flaws and Kansas State's flawlessness - is an undercard bout between two teams that have six losses between them.
Still, it has the makings of a memorable game.
Friday's lead headline on the WVU athletics website says, "Forget the other stuff, it's Oklahoma!"
The Sooners - Landry Jones and Bob Stoops and seven national championships and all the decades of excellence they bring with them - never have been to Morgantown. This is a fan base that delights in concocting three hours of misery for visiting opponents.
Can WVU regain the same early season pace that helped them beat Baylor 70-63 in Morgantown and Texas 48-45 in Austin? Or are they now closer to the team that lost 49-14 at Texas Tech and 55-14 at home to K-State?
Two factors enter into the equation in WVU's fall from elite to ordinary, and both were predictable: travel and talent.
A week after traveling 2,380 miles to Austin and back, they flew 2,560 miles round trip to Lubbock. A month later, they flew 1,802 miles to Tulsa and back, with nearly three hours on a bus to Stillwater in between.
After WVU's back-to-back trips deep in the heart of Texas - OK, Lubbock is actually closer to the Rocky Mountains than it is the heart of Texas - Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby acknowledged that the Mountaineers' travel challenges are a real concern that must be addressed in future scheduling efforts.
"I've actually talked to (athletic director) Oliver Luck about their experience making a long trip, and they weren't oblivious to it because they obviously considered those things before agreeing to conference membership. But there aren't any real short trips for them," Bowlsby told the Tulsa World in October.
"I think we need to keep an eye on it at the conference office, to the extent that we can. We've got one institution that is some distance away, and we probably ought to do what we can to ensure that maybe after a long trip there's a home game or maybe a shorter trip. You can't build the schedule around that, but it's a factor that we can try to take into account."
Excuses or not, traveling can be exhausting - even for young, strong athletes. The longer the trip, the more tired you are on the other end. Luck and his coaches may have "considered those things" before joining the Big 12, but nothing can be done about them.
Morgantown is staying in the Eastern Time Zone.
The talent issue is something that can be addressed over time.
West Virginia won six Big East Conference titles from 2003 to 2011. Four of those championships were won despite two conference losses.
Leaving the Big East Conference for a long-distance relationship in the Big 12 meant the Mountaineers would be playing better teams, faster teams, stronger teams, tougher teams every week - in football, anyway.
(WVU won the Big 12 regular season title in women's soccer with a 7-0-1 record that included four road victories at TCU, Kansas, Iowa State and Texas. That team may have overcome the travel factor with superior talent, though they did lose their last two contests, first-round defeats in the Big 12 Tournament and NCAA Tournament.)
In the Big East, the Mountaineers could afford an occasional slip-up because the rest of the league usually wasn't very good. And they could almost always prime themselves for a big game because there was usually a cupcake the week before or the week after.
Life in the Big 12 has proven far more dangerous. Just ask TCU, which dominated the Mountain West annually but is just 3-4 in its inaugural Big 12 season.
Of course, those schools will learn to live with their pain.
WVU was paid $10 million annually from the Big East, and TCU got $9 million from its last season in the Mountain West.
Big 12 schools got $19 million in revenue last academic year, and are expecting north of $20 million for this year.
For WVU, that extra $10 million equates to more than $1,200 per mile.
At that rate, who needs another football trophy?