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Has program declined or have rules changed?

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Ever take a glance backward to see what's happening over there in the Big East?

Oops. Make that the American Athletic Conference.

I know, it's a tired subject. It's simplistic, too. And given the result of that whole Pinstripe Bowl deal a year ago - when West Virginia was just crushed by the only Big East team it actually played - perhaps it's a bit disingenuous even to make the comparison.

Still, don't you just have to wonder where West Virginia's football team might be had the school somehow been able to stay where it was and not risk financial ruin by doing so?

In other words, to imagine if WVU were UConn. Or Cincinnati. Or South Florida.

Now understand, this is not to wax nostalgic. It's not meant to make excuses, either. It is, however, meant to put things in perspective. And truth be told, it might be a perspective that hurts just a little bit.

Imagine that this same West Virginia team that sits at 4-6 and needs to finish 2-0 just to salvage bowl eligibility were in the Big East. Or the AAC. Or whatever you want to call it. Would it still be in its current dilemma?

Well, for starters the Mountaineers would have played Temple, UConn, Memphis, South Florida and SMU. Those five teams have combined to win eight games. Yes, there's a chance WVU could have stumbled somewhere in there, but chances are they would win all five.

And then there is Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights have a winning record at 5-3, but West Virginia has always owned Rutgers. That's six wins.

Now on to the upper echelon. Central Florida and Louisville are a combined 15-2 and ranked in the Top 25, but neither in the Top 15 (Does that say something?). Cincinnati and Houston are each 7-2 and unranked.

Now, inject WVU into that conversation. To imagine that against that schedule West Virginia would not at least be among those teams at the top is silly. The Mountaineers would. Depending upon how the schedule might have broken, they could be unbeaten in league play or with a loss or two and going into the final weeks of the season fighting for the league title. Maybe there's a huge game against Louisville or UCF still to play, who knows?

It's not that difficult to imagine. In fact, think back just two years ago when West Virginia was 6-3 at this point and needed to sweep Cincinnati, Pitt and South Florida and get a whole bunch of help to win the Big East. They did and they got all that help and wound up in the Orange Bowl.

Was that team any better than this one? Well, you can make the argument that it had Geno Smith and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but for all that group did it also was hammered by Syracuse on a Friday night in the Carrier Dome, lost to Louisville at home and needed a miracle finish to beat South Florida.

What would it have done against Baylor and Oklahoma and Texas or on the road at Kansas State or TCU or against an unbeaten Texas Tech team or preseason Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State?

Get the idea?

Again, this is not to make excuses or to defend Dana Holgorsen or anyone else. And again, yes, it is simplistic and even worn out. You know all of this. We bring it up only because perhaps you have forgotten. There is a difference in what West Virginia is doing these days as opposed to what it had done for the past two decades. And we're not talking about losing instead of winning.

West Virginia has played 10 games, seven of them against teams that are, or at some point this season were, ranked in the Top 25. Never have the Mountaineers faced such a gauntlet.

And here's the part that you may not want to acknowledge: Had West Virginia played that kind of schedule all those years, who is to say the results wouldn't have been the same as this season?

Remember, WVU didn't begin its run of fabulous seasons - 11 straight bowl games and only twice winning fewer than nine games - until Miami and Virginia Tech left the Big East.

Yes, WVU occasionally proved itself against top-flight competition - Georgia, Oklahoma - but week in and week out, the Mountaineers played Rutgers and South Florida and UConn and, yes, Pitt and Louisville and the like. By season's end, when West Virginia was 9-4 or even 11-1, confidence had grown and the Mountaineers seemed able to compete with just about anyone.

Two years into the Big 12, though, don't you have to ask yourself this: Were those WVU teams significantly, if at all, better than the one that is now 4-6?

Perhaps a little bit. Perhaps not at all. You can say that this team hasn't recruited because it doesn't have a Pat White or a Steve Slaton, but playing against West Virginia's schedule today, would those two have been as successful?

Consider this: Of WVU's nine Big 12 games this season, the Mountaineers were betting underdogs in seven. That's a fact. Even playing at home, the Mountaineers likely would have been underdogs in all seven.

This isn't a fact, but it's a decent assumption: Against the 10 schools that currently comprise what was the Big East, West Virginia would have been favored against six of them no matter the venue. Against the other four, perhaps only Louisville and UCF would be favored in Morgantown. Perhaps.

None of this matters, of course. None of it changes the fact that in West Virginia's first two years in the Big 12, the Mountaineers have had a losing streak of five games one year, lost four of five the next and are 4-6 right now.

But merely saying that the program has declined is to ignore the reality.

The truth is, it may not have declined at all. It may not have improved, which is another issue entirely. The bottom line is it's just being asked to do more and hasn't.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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