Truth about WVU football lies somewhere in the middle
MORGANTOWN - Coaches are fond of saying that things are seldom as bad or as good as they would appear.
Just as a reminder, of course, they're almost universally found to be saying that when things seem pretty bad, not when they seem good.
As Jeff Goldblum's character in "The Big Chill" said, "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations." Rationalizing a loss, especially a bad one, is inherent in the coaching profession.
And, boy, has Dana Holgorsen had to rationalize a few losses this season.
First there was 37-0 to Maryland. Then there was 73-42 at Baylor.
OK, so he didn't exactly rationalize either. I think he probably trotted out the never-as-bad thing, although I don't recall it specifically, but he certainly came close when, after the beatdown in Baltimore, he opined that his team was thisclose to being pretty good.
"I know it's hard to believe, but there are things that resemble football," he said.
And then two weeks later his West Virginia team went to Waco and played nothing that resembled football. And again Holgorsen repeated himself.
"I think we're still close to being a good football team,'' he said when I reminded him of his post-Maryland statement in light of his team's Baylor performance.
It's starting to become harder to believe.
Harder, but not entirely impossible.
No, this team is never going to be a really good one, at least not in terms of what West Virginia fans have come to expect. The truth is that, at best, this bunch will compete for a spot in a low-tier bowl. It is 3-3 halfway through the season. It plays Iowa State at home and Kansas on the road. If it steals one somewhere along the line, it is at least 6-6 and bowl eligible.
That's really not the point, however. Even bad teams make it to bowl games. There are just too many out there to avoid it.
No, the question is, how bad is this team? More pointedly, is it truly a bad team?
I'm actually not ready to say. Again, it's not a good one. I'm fairly certain of that because the evidence is indisputable. Let's be clear about this: West Virginia has had some awful performances this season. At least two, and perhaps three, of the six have been inexcusable.
You can't lose 37-0 to a Maryland team that is 63 points worse than another team, no matter who that team is.
You can't give up nine touchdowns in the first 10 possessions against anyone, even if it is a Baylor team that might not be finished doing that to opponents.
And, to a lesser extent, you probably shouldn't be trailing William & Mary by 10 points in the second half at home and needing a late fourth-quarter touchdown and interception to win. I know all that went on with FCS teams early this season, but how many of those FBS schools that struggled or lost in those games have gone on to be any good?
I'll tell you. One. Oregon State, which lost to Eastern Washington while in the Top 25 (the fourth ranked team ever to lose to an FCS opponent), is 4-1 now. There were nine other FCS win over eight FBS teams (Georgia State lost twice). The combined record of those eight FBS teams is now 9-29.
Oh, and there are 110 FCS vs. FBS games this season and losses by eight bad teams is pretty much expected. So losing or nearly losing to an FCS school isn't the commonplace occurrence some would like you to believe.
But I digress. The point is that those are three games that just make you shake your head. Struggling for a time with Georgia State was bad, but hey, that happens. No one takes those Panthers seriously.
What you have to wonder, though, is if this team is that bad, how does it hand Oklahoma State - then No. 11 and now No. 22 in the country - its only loss? How does it go to Oklahoma, have a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter and lose by just nine? In Norman?
The easy answer is that both those teams were having quarterback issues. Oklahoma's starter against WVU hasn't really played since that game. OSU's doesn't seem long for his job.
But if you play the quarterback card with the opponents, you have to play it with West Virginia, too. What if Clint Trickett was healthy? What if he becomes healthy? It can't be as simple as that - and it's not, especially given Holgorsen's reluctance even to say that Trickett is his quarterback - but it certainly makes a difference. Didn't we see that against Oklahoma State?
Here's another sky-is-falling retort, too. For those who deem that West Virginia's struggles are of historic proportions, understand that this isn't your father's (or even your older brother's) schedule. I know there are extenuating circumstances and I'm not simply making the tired Big 12 vs. Big East comparison. I know the Big 12 actually seems down this year. And I remember what happened the last time WVU played a Big East team, at Yankee Stadium. It was embarrassing.
I also know that records are deceiving, but chew on these for a moment: Save for winless Georgia State, WVU's other five opponents to date are a combined 17-2 in their games against teams other than the Mountaineers. Texas Tech, which is next up, would improve that to 22-2. The only losses were Maryland to Florida State and William & Mary to Villanova, both last weekend.
Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the only teams West Virginia has been impressive against this season, are 8-0 in their other games.
No, that doesn't make West Virginia's record any better. Nor does it change the fact that in the last 14 games WVU is 5-9.
But this is also a team that somehow hasn't lost back-to-back games in its last eight. Of course, it hasn't won two in a row in that period, either, alternating wins and losses since last year's season finale, but do truly awful teams do that? This team actually hasn't been on a losing streak since that infamous five-game skid last year that included an overtime loss to TCU and a one-point defeat to Oklahoma.
Again, I'm not sure what any of this means. But if you're of the school that believes this program has reached an all-time low, you weren't paying attention to Oklahoma and OSU. If you're defending it as just a couple of bad games, well, you might be blocking out just how epically horrendous those two games were.
The truth, as it always is, is probably somewhere in the middle. Because those coaches who like to say that things are seldom as bad or as good as they would appear?
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.