No such thing as a sure thing
MORGANTOWN - The evidence is all around. Teams from the Football Championship Subdivision can play with teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision, and every once in awhile they can win.
Whether they are high-profile games like Appalachian State stunning Michigan in the Big House in 2007 or the more mundane like Pitt falling to Youngstown State earlier this month, the frequency with which it happens seems to be increasing.
Already this season there have been eight FCS wins over FBS teams. Granted, some fall into the not-entirely-unexpected category - defending FCS champion North Dakota State 22, Colorado State 7 - and receive little notice. There have been but two FCS wins over teams from BCS conferences - Youngstown's over Pitt and Sacramento State beating Colorado - and none over Top 25 teams.
Quite frankly, there have been very few that carried the weight of Appy-Michigan.
But as more FBS teams routinely schedule those from the lower division, the possibilities would seem - at least mathematically - to increase. Dana Holgorsen just wants to make sure his No. 9 West Virginia squad isn't added to the wrong side of those statistics.
"Everyone remembers when Appalachian State beat Michigan. It's happening almost every week now,'' Holgorsen said Tuesday. "So we're going to be motivated this weekend. We don't want them talking about us in that category on Saturday.''
The chances of that would seem remote. After all, of all the FCS wins over FBS teams in recent years, few have come at the expense of ranked FBS teams. Yes, Michigan was ranked No. 5 when it lost to Appalachian State, but that's one of the rare exceptions.
Of course, then again, the other exception has to be noted, too, because that was James Madison beating No. 13 Virginia Tech two years ago - the same JMU that meets West Virginia Saturday at FedEx Field in Landover, Md.
"I'm sure we'll have something in the highlight tape [noting JMU's win in Blacksburg],'' Holgorsen said. "We did last year when we played Norfolk State. You're going to make reference to that because it's happening more and more.''
From one aspect, that JMU win two years ago might actually be a blessing to West Virginia. After all, Norfolk State has never beaten an FBS team, much less a ranked one, so it was probably difficult to grab the attention of WVU's players going into that game a year ago. Whether that had anything to do with it or not, Norfolk State actually led 12-10 at halftime before being blown out in the second half of a 55-12 loss.
Preparing for James Madison might actually be easier because the Dukes have a proven record of success against FBS teams, and JMU is certainly not taking the game as just a $350,000 paycheck, not with the build-up it was afforded during the summer in Virginia.
"They've been pumping it up because they're playing up a level, obviously,'' Holgorsen said. "They've played teams in the FBS for years and they've done well. They beat Virginia Tech two years ago, they came within three points of beating Maryland three years ago. So they're used to being in these games and they're going to come into it expecting to win, and our guys need to be able to counter.''
At least a couple of West Virginia's assistant coaches don't have to reach back very far to recall what it's like on the FCS side of these matchups. Both offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter coached at Stephen F. Austin right before coming to Morgantown.
"I know it'll be a big game for them because most of their guys think they should be here,'' Slaughter said, referring not necessarily to West Virginia, but to the FBS level in general. "They're definitely going to want to play at a high level. Plus, it's going to be in an NFL stadium, which is going to be big for our kids as well.
"At Stephen F. Austin we had five guys on our defense who went to NFL camps. They'll have guys [with that kind of potential].''
The Dukes, in fact, have at least nine players on their roster who began their careers at FBS schools, and six are on the depth chart for Saturday's game. Included in that group is JMU's second-year starting kicker, Cameron Starke, who was on the roster at WVU for a semester in the spring of 2009 before going to James Madison.
Holgorsen insists the Mountaineers are not taking anything for granted, referring to the JMU game as just as important as any other.
"The most important game we had was Marshall two weeks ago because it was the first game on our schedule,'' Holgorsen said. "This is Game No.2 and we're going to take them every bit as serious as we took Marshall and every bit as serious as we'll take Maryland next week. We'll treat it just like every other game that's on our schedule.''
History suggests that would be a wise move, given the upsets the FCS wins over FBS opponents that have become almost routine.
"It's going to happen again,'' Holgorsen said. "And we need to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen to us.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.