Big 12 is all about motivation
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There are all sorts of differences between football in the Big 12 and the Big East. Most of them are readily evident to the eye in terms of style of play and talent level.
Here's one that is a bit more nuanced, however: motivation.
When West Virginia (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) plays Kansas (1-10, 0-8) Saturday afternoon at Mountaineer Field, it might be the first time all season the Mountaineers have not faced a team with the concrete motivation of preserving a national ranking, becoming bowl eligible or simply building on success.
The only motivation for the Jayhawks is perhaps proving that they are not as bad as they seem.
"That's just the nature of the conference we're in,'' West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday. "Last year we played three or four teams in this situation. Now, we don't get to play any.''
Indeed, from the beginning of the season right to the end, the Mountaineers have faced one team after another with something to prove and plenty to play for. Marshall certainly was motivated by its last chance to beat WVU, James Madison by playing its only FBS opponent and Maryland because of the rivalry.
Then came a string of eight straight Big 12 opponents, every one of them ranked in the Top 25 at one point or another during the season and all now bowl eligible.
Now comes a Kansas team that hasn't won since the opening week and not anxious at all to carry what would be an 11-game losing streak (and 21 straight Big 12 losses) into the offseason.
"Our last eight games have been against ranked teams that will play in a bowl game. Every team that we've played this year has been motivated to play,'' Holgorsen said. "Last year it was different. I don't think we've lined up and played an unmotivated football team this year. But the fact that we're going to line up and play a motivated team for the 12th time this season is the way they should be.''
Now, of course, the motivational aspect of the equation shifts to West Virginia.
The Mountaineers endured that five-game losing streak that followed a heady 5-0 start and a national ranking of No. 5. In snapping it last week with a 31-24 win at Iowa State, West Virginia accomplished really the only concrete goal it had left, which was to become bowl eligible.
Yes, there is still something to play for in terms of guaranteeing a winning record and enhancing the resume it presents to bowl games, but win or lose the season is not over and a bowl is guaranteed.
Holgorsen was asked if he thought the pressure was off of his players now that the streak was over and a bowl was a given.
"Yes, probably. But if we just relax and feel good about it then we'll probably get beat this week,'' he said. "That's the nature of college football. The one thing I told the guys in the locker room after the [Iowa State] game is that they don't need to feel that they accomplished anything else other than a win.''
The win did, however, earn the Mountaineers some time off. They were excused after returning from Iowa late Friday night and didn't practice as normal on Sunday. In fact, when Holgorsen met with the media Tuesday, he did so before he'd gathered his team again since returning from last Friday's game.
The hope is that the break will rejuvenate the players.
"We got them away from it a couple of days. We've been at this for pretty much every day for three or four months. They need to come back here ready and eager to go,'' Holgorsen said. "We haven't met with them since the game was over. We're not going to talk about Iowa State. That game is over and we're not going to talk about it. The first thing that comes out of my mouth will be about Kansas.
"If our guys have learned anything this year it's you'd better be ready to play. All of the opponents in the Big 12 can win on any given day. Kansas is no different. They are a couple points away from having three Big 12 wins this season. We have to play hard.''
Holgorsen did say that cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, who didn't dress last week, would practice this week.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.