The West Virginia Mountaineers have come close to the national title, logging three BCS bowl wins over the past seven years. It was never closer than 2007, when an unranked Pitt team with a losing record played spoiler to a national championship-bound Mountaineers team.
This season's team looks like it might be even better than the Pat White-Steve Slaton-Noel Devine trio that carried West Virginia to an 11-win season in 2007 -- tied for the best mark in school history.
West Virginia has ascended to No. 4 in this week's poll, the highest of any Big 12 team, and joins No. 6 Kansas State as the conference's best hope for a national championship. In the program's first year as a Big 12 member, is a national title in the cards? There's plenty of evidence to suggest the answer is "yes," but also plenty to suggest it is "no."
The biggest problem comes this weekend when West Virginia, fresh off its historic road win over No. 11 Texas, travels to face Texas Tech. The Red Raiders are unranked but capable of winning. The last time West Virginia completed a season without a loss to an unranked team was 2003. That includes three consecutive 11-win seasons in 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Can it avoid the program's annual pitfalls?
"I think they’re handling it well, based on how we traveled and how we acted in the locker room before the game," coach Dana Holgorsen said of his squad's early success. "We really played with a sense of urgency. We had to drag those guys off the field in warm-ups because they wanted to get out there and didn’t sub very much because the guys that were out there didn’t want to come out of the game, so I thought they did a good job with that. I think we’re playing pretty good. We set a goal at the beginning of the season to win the conference, and we’re two games into that."
At 41 years old, Holgorsen is a young coach. So was Bob Stoops. He had never been a head coach before taking over historical power Oklahoma at just 39. Holgorsen took over at age 40, and in Year 2, he's got a team looking the part of a national title contender. Stoops took a seven-win Oklahoma team in Year 1 to its first national title since 1986 in his second season.
Holgorsen has a team that has already won a BCS bowl and looks like an experienced team. Three of Oklahoma's final four Big 12 games were decided by five points or fewer, and Stoops looks back fondly on a team that felt special, truly believing it couldn't lose. Holgorsen is not going out on that limb yet, but the Mountaineers' offense mounted late drives to clinch games against ranked teams Baylor and Texas in consecutive weeks.
"We’ve got some guys that believe. I said it last week heading into this game, I like the way this team plays together. I felt like we had to play together on all three sides of the ball in order to win the game, which we did. Had to overcome some adversity on all three sides, which we did," he said. "Those are some qualities of a good team, there’s no question."
West Virginia is a good team trying to prove it's a great team. Along the way, that means playing plenty of solid, unranked teams. On Saturday, that means a trip to Texas Tech, where Holgorsen cut his teeth as a coach on Mike Leach's staff for the better part of the past decade.
"Each and every game is going to be competitive, each and every team in the conference brings something different to the table, so just gotta take them one at a time and keep playing together as a team," he said. "The next challenge is Texas Tech so that’s what we talk about."
He'll have a Heisman front-runner at his disposal in quarterback Geno Smith, and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Together, they've landed West Virginia in headlines that might not have been earned in their old conference, the Big East.
"That stadium’s never been more alive than it was on Saturday, and our guys fed off that," Holgorsen said of the atmosphere in Austin. "National TV broadcast had high ratings, which means we played in front of a whole bunch of people and had some success. That was one of the reasons we were excited about going to the Big 12 Conference."
West Virginia's early excellence? It's the reason the Big 12 is excited about having the Mountaineers.