West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen
West Virginia’s backyard no longer includes rival Pittsburgh, but rather a vast expanse of the Central Time Zone.
When West Virginia plays Baylor as its first Big 12 opponent of the season Saturday, the conference change might be the third- or fourth-most exciting thing happening in Morgantown in 2012.
The Mountaineers’ transition from the Big East to Big 12 coincides with one of the most interesting seasons in school history. This year features a Heisman-contending senior quarterback, the best receiving corps East of Los Angeles, and a coach who runs one of the most dynamic offenses in the country.
“This is kind of our year,” former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen said in a phone interview last week.
Although the move to a stable Big 12 from the crumbling and less nationally competitive Big East adds energy to the program, the conference change also brings its share of questions for West Virginia this season and beyond.
For the time being, the question is Baylor, a 3-0 team that still ranks in the top five in scoring and passing without Heisman-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III.
After defeating Marshall, James Madison and Maryland, West Virginia will face its toughest opponent of the season Saturday. Combined with a top-10 ranking and all the fanfare around the Big 12, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen expects the intensity to be turned up a notch.
“I thought the energy and excitement level of last week (against Maryland) was very average, not only from a player standpoint, but from a coaches standpoint and a from an atmosphere standpoint,” Holgorsen said. “That’s something I expect to be totally different this week.”
Different is a key word in West Virginia’s first season in a new conference, both in what’s different and what is not.
All of West Virginia’s players will see new faces on the other side of the ball. No one was on the roster the last time the Mountaineers faced a Big 12 team in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma. West Virginia hasn’t even played in a stadium belonging to a current Big 12 team since 1982.
On the other hand, West Virginia at least fits in the Big 12 in terms of scheme and coaching staff. West Virginia’s no-huddle, pass-oriented spread offense was one-of-a-kind in the Big East last season, but it’s one of a handful in the Big 12.
That’s not a surprise, though. West Virginia imported its coach from Big 12 country. Holgorsen spent nine seasons in the Big 12 as an assistant at Texas Tech from 2000-07 and offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State in 2010.
Former West Virginia coach Don Nehlen
On Holgorsen’ staff, defensive coordinator Joe DeForest and running backs coach Robert Gillespie were assistants in Stillwater. Offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh was on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech with Holgorsen. And quarterback coach Jake Spavital was a graduate assistant with the Oklahoma State as well.
Altogether, the West Virginia staff has a combined 29 seasons of Big 12 coaching experience in the Big 12 since 2000. That experience shouldn’t be overlooked in a league where the top teams -- Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, for example -- have enjoyed coaching continuity.
“It certainly can’t hurt,” Holgorsen said. “We know (Baylor) very well. There’s a lot of guys on our staff that’s coached against them or coached with them. All that stuff can’t hurt. With that said, they’ll know about the schemes we do on all three sides of the ball.”
Coaching familiarity might ease the transition, but getting used to the road trips will be a different story.
Nehlen, who coached West Virginia when the program joined the Big East in 1991. Road trips to Miami, Nehlen said, were often difficult, not just because of the distance but also the heat and humidity.
In the Big 12, most of the road trips will be longer than the trip from Morgantown to Coral Gables. West Virginia’s closes conference opponent is Iowa State, 870 miles away. Six Big 12 opponent are 1,200 miles away.
Most taxing this season could be back-to-back road trips to Texas on Oct. 6 and Texas Tech on Oct. 13.
“After the game, you get on plane and go all the way back to Morgantown and turn around Friday and go back again,” said Nehlen, who won 149 games as West Virginia’s coach from 1980-2000. “That has a tendency to wear on you.”
Being this geographically isolated from the rest of the conference could have other drawbacks.
West Virginia’s traditional recruiting footprint has been in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland and more recently Florida. With Pittsburgh off the schedule at least temporarily, West Virginia’s series with Maryland and East Carolina will fill the void of road or neutral site games within the Mountaineers’ recruiting territory.
Moreover, recruiting the rich talent base in Texas may be a tough sell for similar reasons, even with the staff’s Big 12 connections. A recruit’s family from Dallas or Houston, for example, would have quick drives to most of the Big 12 schools other than West Virginia.
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*denotes bowl game
“I’d say that’s one of the disadvantages,” Nehlen said. “In the Big East, if you’re recruiting a kid from Ohio or Pennsylvania, we’d play Pitt and Syracuse and Rutgers and Cincinnati and their family could drive to those games.”
Never mind the fans. A quick road trip between former Big East rivals Virginia Tech and West Virginia has been gone for several years. And for the time being, the Backyard Brawl is on hold, too.
“That makes me sad,” Nehlen said. “Of all the things with expansion, that’s the one thing that’s hurt college football. When I grew up, there were a few football games that I couldn’t wait to see. One was Nebraska-Oklahoma, and now that’s gone. West Virginia is 70 miles from Pitt’s campus, our players know their players, vice versa. (The end of the series is) crime in my opinion.”
But as has been demonstrated through conference expansion, the traditional rivalries aren’t at the forefront of the mind’s of decision-makers.
It’s the ability to compete for national championships and big bowl games.
And the lucrative television contracts. If West Virginia fans and families of players can’t drive to a road game, at least there’s little worry the game will be on television or online.
That first Big 12 road trip is still a week away, but for now the crowd in Morgantown will get their first look at the Big 12 -- up close.
“There will be a lot of eyes on us, but we’ve had that situation before,” Holgorsen said. “We have a lot of experienced kids. We’ve got a program that’s used to winning and used to being in the national spotlight, so I don’t think it will take away from any of our preparation.”
By David Fox