MORGANTOWN — Did Oliver Luck throw Dana Holgorsen a life preserver or an anchor when he put together one of the most difficult schedules in modern West Virginia history that begins at 3:30 p.m. this Saturday, with the Mountaineers nearly a four-touchdown underdog to No. 2 Alabama?
The NCAA rates the schedule coach Holgorsen’s Mountaineers must negotiate as they try to erase the memory of 14 losses in the last 20 games as the 12th most difficult in college football this year, but you might have a hard time convincing the team that has to go out and play those games that 11 schools are playing tougher schedules.
Certainly, if the team is overwhelmed by the schedule, Holgorsen might be dragged under, unless he either has put together a team capable of staying afloat or even structuring a winning season out of it.
Surprisingly, Holgorsen welcomes the challenge, even if his schedule does have him playing two of the nation’s top three teams according to the Sagarin ratings in the first four games (No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Oklahoma), three of the top 10 (add No. 9 Baylor), five of the top 20 (No. 16 Kansas State and No. 19 Oklahoma State) and then Texas, who just misses a top 20 ranking at No. 21.
Going further, there are eight of the top 50 with Texas Tech at No. 34 and TCU at No. 39.
The Mountaineers will go against that with a team that Sagarin ranks No. 55 in the country … and while Maryland is actually ranked behind them at No. 59, you find it difficult to find too many people who believe the Maryland team that beat WVU, 37-0, last year isn’t a top 50 team.
Is this schedule too top-heavy? Is it built for failure?
Or is it the kind of schedule that presents a challenge that a coach like Holgorsen welcomes and that his fan base clamors to see?
“I’m in favor of playing as many non-conference, neutral site, big-time games as we can each and every year,” Holgorsen said this year at the Big 12 media day. “Oliver and I have both talked about this. I’m pretty excited to say that we have one of the toughest schedules in the country. The Big 12 is tough. We all understand that. Each and every one of the Big 12 games are going to be competitive. You’ve got nine quality games that are going to happen.”
Those big-time, neutral site games are becoming a staple of WVU’s schedule and many other teams, offering a big payday and national TV exposure. WVU has lined up such games with Tennessee, with Maryland (last year) and with Virginia Tech.
It’s all part of a plan almost forced on the Mountaineers because they are stuck in a conference that makes it difficult for their fans to travel to away games.
“Non-conference is something that we have approached regionally,” Holgorsen said. “I think our fan base deserves to be able to play some teams that are recognizable in our part of the country. That’s why we’ve scheduled a non-conference game with Virginia Tech, a home-and-home with Virginia Tech, a home-and-home with Penn State. Obviously, I’ve had Maryland on the schedule.”
Holgorsen also understands the need to get what has been the biggest game on the schedule every year back.
“I would welcome back Pittsburgh for the Backyard Brawl anytime that they’d want it,” Holgorsen said.
Pitt, however, has offered no encouragement toward renewing the series.
The question that remains as the season opener draws nearer and nearer is just how accurate is the assessment of WVU in the No. 55 spot on the ratings list?
Much has been done to address the problems that turned last year into a disaster, the defensive coaching staff reworked under new coordinator Tony Gibson with the knowledge of former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley available to draw upon.
With that came a change of alignment and an emphasis on improving a non-existent pass rush from last season.
The offensive side of the ball, always a Holgorsen strength, was a weakness last year, as weak as was quarterback Clint Trickett’s arm after suffering a rotator cuff injury in the third quarter of the Oklahoma State game, his first start and WVU’s biggest victory.
Trickett has been pronounced healthy and what was an inexperienced group of receivers is now an experienced group of receivers — same guys but game-tested.
Are they ready for what lies ahead?
That is why they play the season, a season that could will either be filled with upset or upsets.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel