West Virginia University football fans are no strangers to the rollercoaster ride of emotions that the college football season brings. As the winningest program in the history of the FBS to not raise a National Championship trophy, Mountaineer Nation is arguably more tortured by its own mediocrity than any fan base in any sport.
This feeling isn’t new. It was present even in the days before the Big East. But in today’s ever changing landscape of collegiate athletics, WVU has shown that it has the ability to adapt, to grow, and maybe someday, to contend. And by contend, I don’t mean mid-major conference titles and trips to the Orange Bowl, but for a legitimate power conference’s crown and the possibility of trips to the College Football Playoff.
Life in the Big 12 didn’t have the greatest of starts for West Virginia. With it’s shiny new conference came a shiny new coach with a shiny new style of play. But neither the coach, nor the style, could produce a winning record in a league that just didn’t seem to appreciate the luster of the revamped Mountaineers. It was only a season ago that many were ready to declare an end to the “glory days” of West Virginia football. Gone were the days of running over lesser competition en route to prestigious bowl games, and here to stay was nothing more than a new era of football purgatory.
But oh, what a difference a year makes.
It’s been far from smooth sailing in 2014. But, the Mountaineers have navigated one of the country’s toughest schedules with the kind of grit and determination that you would expect from a team teetering on the edge of the sport’s Top 25. For a brief late-season moment, the ‘Eers even controlled their own Big 12 championship destiny. Three consecutive losses later, that idea does seem a bit farfetched, but the fact that it was even thought about is something that should give every fan of the Gold and Blue great hope for the future.
Regardless of next Saturday’s outcome against Iowa State, this year has without question been the most successful for WVU since joining its new conference. More than that, this year’s team has easily been the most talented Mountaineer roster fielded in the Big 12. That alone should be enough to prove that head coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff can recruit. They’ve built depth on both sides of the ball. They’ve brought in four star recruits at key positions – most notably, freshman QB William Crest, who will be competing for the starting job next season with some guy named Skyler Howard, a sophomore that came out of nowhere to outplay Clint Trickett in the latest Mountaineer loss. Not only can Holg recruit players, he’s adding to an already solid coaching staff every season. Promoting Tony Gibson to defensive coordinator and giving him the great defensive mind of Tom Bradley to lean on has paid off immensely. They’ve helped turn around a defense that could only be described as horrid over the past couple of seasons.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement in all phases of the game, and there’s much that Dana can learn from, specifically some of the in-game mistakes he’s made over the past year. But, if there’s one flicker of hope that WVU fans can reach out and grab onto, it’s that Dana has shown a willingness to adapt to the strengths of his roster, and not simply give the tired football coach line of, “We’re just going to do the same things that have made us successful in the past.” Holgorsen isn’t perfect, but he does know this league. As he continues to learn and grow as the leader of this football team, so too will the program. It is true that the days of WVU football dominance are in the past. The Big East is nothing but a memory now, and this new challenge is unlike anything that this program has ever faced. But what we’ve learned in 2014 is that the Mountaineers are up to the challenge, and the sky truly is the limit.