MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Give college football credit. It never tried to fool you and push the great fiction that all schools are created equal.
That is why there are different divisions. That is why there are Power 5 conference schools and FCS schools, and the fact that some upsets occur from time to time does not change the landscape at all.
There are the haves and the have-nots … and a few schools like West Virginia.
The Mountaineers a rare breed, indeed. They have a rich history, but not a legendary history. Where Notre Dame had its “Four Horsemen”, the Mountaineers had its “Runaway Beer Truck.” Both fit the image of the school.
Oklahoma once won 47 straight games. WVU’s all-time top winning streak is 13 games and it goes back to 1952-53. Alabama has 15 national titles. WVU has none. Ohio State, Oklahoma and Notre Dame have each had seven Heisman Trophy winners. WVU has none.
What symbolizes WVU’s long, hard climb toward becoming one of college football’s elite is that the Mountaineers have more victories than any team not to have won a national championship — 757.
All of this is not pointed out as a failing on the part of the football program. Quite the opposite. It is pointed out because the Mountaineers are college football’s version of “The Little Engine That Tried”, chanting over and over “I think I can, I think I can.”
They have come close on numerous occasions, but it is always an uphill battle, the kind West Virginians like to fight. This a small state, not a rich state, a state overlooked in almost all areas … yet it has a beauty all its own, rolling hills, mountains, rivers and lakes and a population that forever is chanting “I think I can, I think I can.”
We mention this today because this week we are about to go into Big 12 play, which is a conference that offers the disparity that reeks of all that is wrong with college athletics. Indeed, rather creating a competitive balance within the conference, Oklahoma dominates nearly unchallenged at the top while Kansas languishes in a dark, dank cellar.
And right beneath Oklahoma exists Texas and Oklahoma State, each like the Sooners rich in both talent and oil … assets that give them a huge advantage.
It certainly shows up in the series with West Virginia. Historically, while WVU owns two defining victories over Oklahoma, those are the only victories against the Sooners in 12 games.
True, Don Nehlen introduced WVU to the big time when he took his team to Oklahoma in 1982 and stunned the Sooners, 41-27, after the Mountaineers played there just four years earlier and were blown away, 52-10.
Just as true, and just as unlikely, was the Mountaineers’ other win, which may have rescued the program from its lowest point ever, following up the devastating upset as a 28.5-point favorite in the Backyard Brawl to Pitt that kept them out of a National Championship showdown with Ohio State. WVU humbled the No. 3 Sooners, 48-28 in the Fiesta Bowl.
The Mountaineers now are again trying to reach out for respectability and a place among the national hierarchy in college football under Neal Brown. Their plight is summed up in their team motto, “Trust the Climb”, for indeed Dana Holgorsen left them in far worse shape than he found them when he took over from Bill Stewart.
That, in the midst of this pandemic that has thrown everyone’s plans out of whack, WVU opens at Oklahoma State in many ways symbolizes what they are always up against.
Oklahoma State is considered the team most likely to unseat Oklahoma in the Big 12 title chase (although you will get a strong argument from Austin, Texas, about that). It is the school that has built its program and facilities through the generosity of the late T. Boone Pickens, after whom the stadium is named.
He rebuilt what was once named Lewis Stadium into a college football palace as he led the fundraising with a $165-million donation that helped finance not only the revamping of the stadium but also a multi-purpose indoor practice complex, new soccer, track and tennis facilities, a new equestrian center, a new baseball stadium (completed in 2020) and new outdoor practice fields.
Sitting in football-mad Oklahoma and bordering upon Texas, which may have more football players than oil, they are in the heartland of football country. True, the competition is insane as not only all those Texas schools and Oklahoma, but an influx of national recruiters, battle over the best talent, but there’s enough to go around.
Oklahoma State comes into the game, which will be played at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Stillwater and shown on ABC, with not only the No. 11 ranking the country but with the nation’s leading rusher last season in Chuba Hubbard, whose 2,094 rushing yards, which was more than double WVU’s entire season output rushing for the entire team.
What’s more, among 11 returning starters for the Cowboys, who have yet to play a game, is quarterback Spencer Sanders, who last year threw for threw for 2,065 yards with 16 touchdowns and rushed for 628 yards,
What’s more there’s a talented defensive group that held each of its final six opponents below their season scoring average as the Cowboys won four of their final six games, including a hard-fought 20-13 victory over West Virginia in Morgantown.
For Brown, this game takes on an aura of West Virginia’s trip into Oklahoma to face the Sooners in 1982, a game with everything to gain and nothing to lose and game where, if they can spring the upset in a season where nothing is certain, it could be used as springboard back toward the Top 25 and a place among college football’s elite.