MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The football coaching staff at No. 9 West Virginia has insisted all week that today's game against Baylor is just another on the team's 12-game schedule. That when the team runs out of the tunnel and onto Mountaineer Field to a pulsating full house, it is playing just one team, not a whole league at once.
As coach Dana Holgorsen put it: "We're not playing the Big 12. We're playing Baylor."
That may help the team stay grounded. But today is a very big deal for the Mountaineers.
The football program, long wanting to be taken seriously on the national stage, will play its first conference game in the Big 12 conference today at noon on FX.
- Matchup: No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) vs. No. 25 Baylor (3-0), noon today, Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va. Mountaineers are favored by 12.
- TV, Radio, Internet: FX; Mountaineer Sports Network, Sirius 91 and XM 91.
- West Virginia: Has averaged 47.3 points per game and 529 yards of total offense. ... QB Geno Smith ranks No. 1 in points responsible for (26 per game), No. 2 in passing efficiency (191.23 rating), and total offense (379.67 ypg), and No. 4 in completions per game (32). ... Starting offense has not turned the ball over. ... Defense has 10 sacks.
- Baylor: No. 6 ranking in total offense (568.67 yards per game). ... QB Tyler Florence leads the nation in total offense (387.67 ypg). ... Top two receivers average 100-plus receiving yards a game, Terrance Williams with 117.7 and Tevin Reese with 101.3. ... Has the sixth-best turnover margin.
- Hidden stat: West Virginia had 20 first downs passing against blitzing Maryland last week, the most since converting 23 times via the pass against LSU in 2011.
It marks the beginning of an era expected to include high-flying offenses, massive totals when it comes to passing yards, snaps, points scored and even the number of players needed to get through a game.
And it is a big first step to earning the kind of prestige, financial boost and influence that comes from being in a power conference.
"It is historic," said athletic director Oliver Luck. " It's sometimes hard when you're in the moment to appreciate the historical nature of something. But ideally, this is our conference for a long, long time to come. I think if the players don't realize it today, they will be able to look back on it and say this was special, being able to play in the first ever Big 12 football game here."
It won't be easy.
Five of West Virginia's next nine games are against nationally ranked opponents: No. 25 Baylor today, No. 12 Texas on Oct. 6, No. 7 Kansas State on Oct. 20, No. 15 TCU on Nov. 3 and No. 16 Oklahoma on Nov. 17.
Baylor alone will be difficult.
The Bears are ranked sixth in total offense, a 568.7 yards per game average, in Division I-A, and quarterback Nick Florence leads all passers with 387.7 yards per game. Baylor also ranks sixth in turnover margin in Division I-A.
"If they throw it deep 10 times, and we just get it one time, then they're happy about that," said cornerback Darwin Cook. "They try to beat you vertically a lot of the time. It's a big challenge for us, because we aren't used to that. However, I feel like we've prepared for it all week and we will be ready for [today]."
The challenges keep coming after today, as each of the Mountaineers' remaining opponents pose a different problem schematically.
And all of them -- except for TCU, another newcomer to the conference -- have been building, recruiting and preparing to compete in this league for much longer than the Mountaineers.
West Virginia fled the Big East suddenly last year and paid dearly to do so -- about $20 million in a settlement with its old conference. They are likely to need time to catch up with recruiting.
"There is a cultural difference, and we are still adapting to it," said Holgorsen, referring to the pace of Big 12 games. "The biggest difference is the amount of kids that play in these games compared to the Big East games. You can go into a Big East game and plan on playing about 40 kids, which happened last year and has happened here for a long time.
"That's hard to do when you are taking that many snaps. Baylor is averaging 90 snaps a game."
Holgorsen expects he'll need 20 or more additional players every Saturday than he did a year ago, which means using many true and redshirt freshmen.
"Based on what Baylor is going to do -- they are going to go up-tempo and they are going to play fast -- they are going to play a lot of snaps, and that means we are going to take a lot more snaps on offense as well, which means you have to play more people. I have been saying this for some time -- this is the biggest difference in the Big 12 and the Big East," said Holgorsen. "I think the culture is changing in the Big East a little bit. They brought in teams like Houston and Boise State, and I think that culture is going to change, too."
Whatever happens on the field, the financial gain is too big to ignore.
The Big 12 distributed $1.6 billion to its members in its first 16 years and just signed a television deal with ESPN, ABC and Fox worth another $2.6 billion over the next 13 years.
Today is a day that was worth waiting for, said wide receiver Stedman Bailey.
"I'm pretty excited heading into conference play," he said. "Everybody has been waiting on this very moment. Baylor is our first Big 12 opponent, then we just have to take it week by week."wvusports
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published September 29, 2012 4:00 AM