MORGANTOWN - What has happened to West Virginia's football team over the course of the past month is exactly what I thought might happen during this team's first season in the Big 12.Don't take that, though, as some sort of self-congratulatory, pat-on-the-back boast. It's not. I actually missed the cause completely.Silly me. I thought the biggest adjustment to playing in the Big 12 would be the physical toll exacted on the team as a whole. It's not. It's the mental anguish.I should have known better. After all, football in the Big 12 is no more physical than it was in the Big East. In fact, it might be even less so. Stand outside the West Virginia locker room after any of these last four demoralizing defeats and you don't see guys limping out with ice packs and crutches. Physically, they're just fine, or as fine as might be expected nine games into any season.
They do emerge, however, looking a bit dazed and confused.And that's because where the Big 12 stands out above the Big East is not in size and strength, but in athleticism. West Virginia has a lot of catching up to do athletically.I was asked repeatedly over the course of the last year how I thought West Virginia would fare in the Big 12. My answer seldom changed. I said, to much derision at times, that I likened the Mountaineers to Boise State.Think about it. Boise has developed a brand over the past decade as the most successful non-BCS football program in the country. The Broncos played one or two high-level BCS opponents each year - usually one in the regular season and one in a bowl - and had tremendous success. The question people always had, though, was what kind of success would Boise State have playing those teams week in and week out.It's one thing to gear up for an early game against Virginia Tech or Georgia, one or two relatively difficult conference games and then a bowl. It's quite another to play teams of that ilk week after week.Well, how was West Virginia any different? Sure, the Mountaineers played in a BCS conference, but isn't it rather disingenuous to criticize the Big East on your way out as being irrelevant and at the same time say it was dramatically different than what Boise State faced? It wasn't.West Virginia was in essentially the same lot. The Mountaineers might play an Auburn or LSU, then go through a Big East that was subpar and finally on to a bowl game. And there you beat a Georgia, an Oklahoma, a Clemson and suddenly your team is relevant in the national discussion.But what happens when Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson come back-to-back-to-back? And then some?Well, in West Virginia's case, this extended losing streak happens. I never said I thought it would happen, but I did ask the question time and again - what will happen?Again, though, I think I always assumed the same as those who wonder what would happen if Boise State were to face that kind of competition regularly instead of sporadically. They say the Broncos might be competitive, but they wouldn't be 11-1 or 12-0. They'd get beat up week after week and finish in the middle of the pack.But that's not what's happening to West Virginia. The Mountaineers instead are getting overwhelmed by the level of the competition and it's getting to them mentally.
Don't for a moment think that West Virginia has never laid an egg like the one it put down at Texas Tech to start this losing streak. It has. Often. Shoot, it happened just last year, a pounding at the hands of a Syracuse team that was mediocre, at best.Ah, but then there was Rutgers a week later. There was always Rutgers, it seemed. And then at the end of the season, when a three-game win streak was necessary to salvage the season, there was Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida.This year? Instead of Rutgers following the stinker at Texas Tech, there was now-No. 1 Kansas State. And when needing a winning streak after that loss to the Wildcats to reclaim momentum, there was TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.Dana Holgorsen probably said it best a month ago when he offered a line that few took note of, but cuts right to the core. His team had just outshot Baylor and then went to Austin and beat Texas. The trip to Lubbock was next."They wanted it to be easy,'' he said after the Red Raiders didn't make it anything close to that.Translation: They wanted it to be Rutgers.
But it wasn't Rutgers that week or the next or the next or the next. It's just one talented team after another, almost all of them used to the weekly grind. The lone exception was TCU, which is West Virginia and Boise State in purple. It's no coincidence that was the one game in this stretch the Mountaineers should have won.And that's basically what all of this comes down to. Are there issues with coaching and decision-making and injuries and all of the routine things that decide games? Probably. But don't underestimate mere circumstances. This is a football team with enough talent to compete with anybody, but not one that can compete with anyone week after week after week. And the failure to do so just compounds matters because the players in this program now have never been in this situation before.It all takes some getting used to - the no-breaks schedule, the better athletes, the new venues. It will take time to acclimate and even more time perhaps to recruit to that level.In the meantime, continue to complain about defensive strategy or execution, about special teams comedies of error, about offensive failings. Know, though, that they are all tied to one thing. West Virginia has taken a big step up in competition and it's never going to be as easy as it once was.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.