- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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July is around the corner, leaving us a month away from the beginning of fall camps, and two months from the start of the season. With the 2014 season arriving in the not-too-distant future, it's time for us to break down every Big 12 team’s complete schedule.
Starting in reverse alphabetical order, we kick this series off with the West Virginia Mountaineers:
Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)
Aug. 30: Alabama (11-2)
Sept. 6: Towson (13-3)
Sept. 13: at Maryland (7-6)
Big 12 home games
Sept. 20: Oklahoma
Oct. 4: Kansas
Oct. 18: Baylor
Nov. 1: TCU
Nov. 20: Kansas State
Big 12 road games
Oct. 11: at Texas Tech
Oct. 25: at Oklahoma State
Nov. 8: at Texas
Nov. 29: at Iowa State
Gut-check time: Other than Oklahoma State, which has to play defending national champion Florida State, West Virginia might have the toughest opener of any team in the country. Not only do the Mountaineers face mighty Alabama, they face them in the heart of SEC country in Atlanta, where the Crimson Tide should own the advantage in the stands. This is not a must-win game for the Mountaineers. But how they perform against the preeminent program in college football will set the tone for the season. A valiant performance will be a good sign for the rest of the year. Conversely, a no-show would not bode well.
Trap game: Sure, Towson might just be an FCS school. But sandwiched between the opener against Alabama and a road trip to Maryland, Towson could be a tailor-made trap game for the Mountaineers. West Virginia will be coming off the emotional opener against Alabama, which could leave them physically battered. Considering Maryland completely dismantled them last year, the Mountaineers will be looking forward to that game, too. But West Virginia better look past the Tigers. Towson advanced all the way to the FCS national title game before falling to North Dakota State. Even though they graduated running back Terrance West, who was a third-round pick of the Cleveland Browns in the NFL draft, the Tigers return plenty of key players and should open in the top 10 of the FCS preseason polls. West Virginia would be wise not to overlook them. Just ask Kansas State and Iowa State, which both fell to FCS opponents last year.
Snoozer: With one of the toughest schedules in the country, the Mountaineers really don’t have a snoozer on the slate. Even the Kansas game will be compelling, considering the Jayhawks ended their 27-game conference-losing streak at the expense of West Virginia last year. The Mountaineers end this season with a trip to Iowa State. West Virginia’s fate -- for better or worse -- will most likely have already been decided by this point again.
Telltale stretch: The stretch that could dictate whether the Mountaineers can return to a bowl comes in late October, when they have four difficult -- but winnable -- games against TCU and Kansas State at home, and Oklahoma State and Texas on the road. West Virginia showed last year that it is capable of beating Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers also toppled TCU in Fort Worth in 2013, and hung tough with Texas until falling in overtime (though winning in Austin presents a much tougher challenge). The stretch wraps up with a clash with K-State on a Thursday night, when Morgantown should be rocking. To get to a bowl game, West Virginia might have to go 3-1 during this stretch. That’s a tall task. But not completely unthinkable, either.
Final analysis: West Virginia has been a disappointment during its first two seasons in the Big 12 with a combined record of 11-14. That makes this a critical year for coach Dana Holgorsen, and his future in Morgantown. The truth is, West Virginia could be improved from the past two seasons, and still not qualify for a bowl game. That’s how difficult this schedule is. Yet this team appears to be deeper and more experienced than the last two. And if the Mountaineers figure out a way to grind out seven or eight wins, it would put the Holgorsen era and the Mountaineers back on the right track going forward.
3dDavid M. Hale