Big 12 opener a real bear
MORGANTOWN - In a lot of ways, nothing really changes for West Virginia's football team now that the non-conference portion of the schedule is in the rear-view mirror.
Dana Holgorsen made that clear Saturday afternoon in the immediate wake of the Mountaineers' 31-21 win over Maryland.
"We've got a good Baylor team coming here next week,'' Holgorsen said. "But we'll prepare for them just like we did Maryland and just like we did the previous two.''
Ah, but things are about to change for the Mountaineers in a very big way. And everyone - from Holgorsen to the players and the fans - is acutely aware of that.
Eleven months after last October's decision to ditch the flailing Big East for the Big 12 Conference, West Virginia dives head-first into its new affiliation with Saturday's game against Baylor. The No. 9 Mountaineers (3-0) face the No. 25 Bears (3-0) for the first time in a noon game at Mountaineer Field that will be televised by FX.
Holgorsen has done his best to ignore the Big 12 during those 11 months, and particularly during the past two. There were other, more pertinent matters at hand, and while others insisted about focusing on the new conference, West Virginia's second-year head coach seldom broached the subject.
He claims he never did to his players, preferring not to distract them from the like of Marshall, James Madison and Maryland.
"The first time I've mentioned the Big 12 to them was a few minutes ago,'' Holgorsen said following Saturday's less-than-artistic win over the Terps. "But now the non-conference portion of the schedule is over and the rest of it's going to be conference play. And our play needs to pick up.''
Indeed, what West Virginia will face Saturday against Baylor is a microcosm of what it will see throughout the nine Big 12 games it will play over the course of the rest of the season. In many ways, it is a mirror image, as well.
For instance, if there's a team in the Big 12 that plays as fast on offense as West Virginia, it's Baylor. The team that spawned Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III last season has not slowed down in his absence. The Bears are fifth in the nation in passing offense and scoring offense and sixth in total offense.
"The first time I saw them I thought, 'Man, they line up fast,' ' West Virginia linebacker Doug Rigg said of the Bears. "I didn't like that at all. But hey, we're used to it in practice going against our offense.''
Nick Florence, the senior who filled in at times for Griffin in the past, isn't missing a beat now as his successor. Florence ranks first in the nation in total offense at 387.7 yards per game, just ahead of second-place Geno Smith of West Virginia.
And perhaps just as significantly, both teams are at least statistically struggling to play defense. Baylor ranks ahead of just seven other teams. West Virginia is a bit better, but still well in the bottom half at No. 74. But they also have in common turnover margins that rank amongst the Top 15 in the country.
And neither team has really been tested by top-flight competition, Saturday's game with Maryland being the only one either team has played against a BCS conference opponent. Baylor's wins are over SMU (59-24) and Sam Houston State (48-23) at home and Friday's 47-42 win on the road at upstart Louisiana-Monroe, the same team that beat Arkansas and lost to Auburn, both in overtime.
So all in all, Baylor should be a good test for a West Virginia team that dispatched Marshall and James Madison in easy fashion before hitting just a few speed bumps against Maryland. And Holgorsen figures there's no better time for that test, given that he seems to like where his team is right now.
"Yeah, I do,'' Holgorsen said. "I've got a bunch of guys who like to play football and understand what's at stake. They like to play, they enjoy each other and I think we're a really close team that's getting tighter by the week.
"We'll get back to work and they understand what they've got to do to get better. We'll go back to work and get ready to play Baylor.''
BRIEFLY: Despite Saturday's win and a loss by No. 6 Oklahoma, West Virginia dropped a spot in this week's Associated Press poll. Kansas State, which beat the Sooners in Norman, Okla., jumped from No. 15 up to No. 7, and Stanford, which didn't play this weekend, went from a spot below WVU to a spot above.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1