West Virginia yet to find footing in Big 12

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Twenty-three months ago, West Virginia pummeled Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl, the program's third Bowl Championship Series victory in a decade.

"I was thinking, 'Orange Bowl? Yeah baby, we're going to the national championship game next year,' " senior nose tackle Shaq Rowell recalled.

Today, Rowell has only the NFL left in his sights, and the Mountaineers already have entered winter hibernation, a 4-8 record spelling their first missed postseason since 2001.

"Every great dynasty that ever ruled came to an end," Rowell said. "Everything evolves."

It's difficult to quantify West Virginia's fall from among the most promising programs in college football, but it's fairly simple to pin down the date it all began to cave.

It was Oct. 28, 2011, three months before that win against Clemson, when former West Virginia president Dr. James P. Clements announced the school's move from the Big East Conference, its home for 21 years, to the Big 12.

Instead of a rebirth, the Mountaineers awoke to a new reality -- the perennial power became a Big 12 punching bag.

After two seasons, West Virginia has a 6-12 conference record and has finished seventh and eighth in the Big 12.

After the musical chairs of conference realignment began in June 2010 with Nebraska and Colorado moving to the Big Ten and Pac-10 (now Pac-12), respectively, it was "of the utmost priority," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said, for the Mountaineers to have "a home in a so-called power conference when the dust settled."

When the Big 12 came calling, West Virginia accepted the bid despite being nowhere near the conference's geographic footprint. It was far from home, but it was a landing spot in a "power conference," a group that includes the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference.

"The alternative is that we certainly could have declined the Big 12's invitation," Luck said recently. "Nobody held a gun to our head and forced us to make the move. But I don't think any of our fans would want to see us in a position like [Connecticut] is today."

The Huskies were left behind in the conference shuffle and ultimately settled for the American Athletic Conference.

And the truth is that West Virginia is hardly alone in its post-realignment struggles.

Of the five programs that have risen to "power conferences" since 2010 -- Utah, West Virginia, TCU, Pitt and Syracuse -- none has registered a winning record in conference play since the transition.

The teams combined for 9.2 wins per season in the three years before their respective moves, but have only averaged 5.7 since. They have three winning regular-season records among their nine combined seasons in the new conferences.

The transition certainly has been a shock to the Mountaineers fan base, but those comparing West Virginia to Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri, legitimate contenders in the Big Ten and SEC, are forgetting that those schools simply moved from one power conference to another -- they already were built for success. As Luck noted, "the Big East was probably a little bit lower in the pecking order."

"I think [fans] understand that with the shifting landscape of college football, we made the decision that we thought was best for the overall interest of the university and of the state, for that matter," Luck said. "If I had to do it over again, I would do the exact same thing. I think 99.9 percent of the fans understand that."

Luck drew a parallel between the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs, who both moved into the Big 12 in 2012 -- TCU from the Mountain West Conference -- and have had identical 7-6 (4-5 Big 12) and 4-8 (2-7 Big 12) records since then.

TCU played in BCS games in 2010 (Fiesta Bowl) and 2011 (Rose Bowl); West Virginia won the Orange Bowl the next year. Neither earned a bowl bid this season.

"We're literally in the same boat," Luck said.

The remaining question is how to fix it.

Luck released a statement Tuesday backing coach Dana Holgorsen, but he acknowledged that "this upcoming season is going to be a very important one, a very critical one."

Luck said he has no specific time line for when he expects West Virginia to climb into contention; his primary concerns are that the staff cultivates depth and keeps high-caliber recruits coming through the door.

It's not only on the coaches to secure a recruit's commitment, Luck added, it's dependent on having the proper facilities, support staff and living arrangements -- the whole package.

Facility upgrades are progressing. For West Virginia, it's another step toward finding its footing in a whirlwind two years of transition.

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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