MORGANTOWN - There are a ton of things that raise curiosity as West Virginia heads into its first football season in the Big 12.In no particular order, they include:Will Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and company have the same sort of success against Texas and Oklahoma that they had against, oh, say Louisville and Connecticut (879 combined passing yards and seven touchdowns)?Is WVU's rebuilt defense - rebuilt, by the way, courtesy of a new defensive coaching staff that knows Big 12 and Southwest football - ready to handle Oklahoma State and Kansas State better than the old one dealt with a team like Syracuse, which somehow managed 49 points?
And will a markedly better group of opponents parading into Mountaineer Field mean markedly more fan support? Let's not forget that despite a fan base that believes itself to be rabid and with Dana Holgorsen on board, four of last year's seven homes games still did not sell out. Granted, that's better than 16 of 21 non-sellouts the previous three seasons, but still.
There are, of course, other intriguing questions. How will Mountaineer fans travel now with so far to go? How much beer can a thirsty Texan consume at Mountaineer Field? Will Holgorsen come back from all the road trips or, if he whips up on a few teams down there, does some booster stash him away in a secluded hotel in what amounts to his adopted homeland like some Cuban baseball defector?I'm curious to find out the answers to most of those myself. But here's what I really want to know. And it's going to take some time to discover.Has West Virginia been Boise State?
Really, for the past seven or eight years, since Miami and then Virginia Tech left the Big East and went off WVU's schedule, have the Mountaineers been a kind of BCS-level Boise State?If you are among the vast majority who have complained in recent years of the disintegration of the Big East, its free fall toward football irrelevance, the Conference USA-ization of the league and West Virginia's need to run as fast as it can in any other direction, well, how can you argue the point?Think about it for a moment. What is the single biggest criticism of the entire BCS structure every time Boise State goes 11-1 or 12-0 and finds itself in the mix for a major bowl or even a berth in the national championship game?It's that the Broncos play in a weak league, schedule maybe one traditional BCS power a year and if they win that one game they can argue, "See, we can play with the big boys.'' And the retort from the big boys club is just as predictable and emphatic: "Great. But what if you had to play those guys every week?''
There's a big difference between playing Georgia at the Georgia Dome on Labor Day weekend and then facing Toledo, Tulsa, Nevada, etc. - as Boise did last year - and playing Georgia the week after LSU and the week before Alabama.The year before, the Broncos played Virginia Tech at FedEx Field, but then had Wyoming, New Mexico State and Toledo three of the next four weeks.The year before that it was a win at home over Oregon followed by Miami (not that one), Fresno State, Bowling Green and UC Davis. When the Broncos beat Oregon in Eugene the year before, it was between Bowling Green and Louisiana Tech.
Boise, by the way, won every one of those games. And then played schedules dominated by the mundane. Thus the skepticism when the Broncos were pitted in any debate over worthiness.How different is West Virginia's situation over an even longer period of time? Yes, the Mountaineers would generally play a handful of ranked teams within the Big East - a Cincinnati or a South Florida here, a UConn or a Louisville there. But if your reason for apathy - even after a coaching change - was the putrid nature of the competition, then to at least an extent the WVU-Boise comparison is valid.Yes, a good South Florida or Louisville or Pitt team was better than Wyoming or New Mexico State or UNLV, but remember, West Virginia didn't always beat those teams, either. And now those opponents are about to be replaced by Texas and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, by Baylor and Kansas State and trips to Lubbock, Texas, and Ames, Iowa.I'm not saying that West Virginia's success over the past seven years is because it played a soft schedule, but neither am I able to discount it as a factor. You can point to wins over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, but again, if you subscribe to the theory that the Big East was on skids, are victories like that any different from Boise's one-shot deals?Remember, too, the Mountaineers generally played a few upper-crust teams in the non-conference schedule, but lost (No. 3 Virginia Tech in 2005, Auburn in 2009, LSU each of the last two years) more than they won (unranked Auburn at home in 2008, a sweep of so-so Mississippi State and a split with a sub-.500 Colorado).Now, though, all that changes. Imagine Boise joining the Big 12 or the SEC and how interesting it would be to see what that program did against heavyweights week after week. West Virginia isn't making nearly that jump because the Big East was still better than Boise's Mountain West, but the question is still legitimate: How will the Mountaineers fare not against markedly better competition (because they have occasionally played like teams), but against markedly better competition almost every single week?
The answers to those other questions will, of course, go a long way toward answering that one. But that's still the issue that intrigues me most.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.