WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS
Record: 9-3, 5-2 Big East
West Virginia was the preseason choice to win the Big East, as lofty expectations were placed on the Mountaineers with first-year coach Dana Holgorsen in charge. The ride may not have gone smoothly, but they finished where everybody anticipated -- with a record seventh Big East title.
It was not easy, though. The Mountaineers had to overcome a head-scratching loss at Syracuse, and then a second Big East loss to Louisville just to get back to the top of the league standings. After that 38-35 setback to the Cardinals, Holgorsen delivered a message during his weekly news conference, saying he would only travel players to the following game who gave complete effort and put the team first.
That message was embraced against Cincinnati, a 24-21 squeaker that the Mountaineers won with a blocked kick to end the game. In the three-game winning streak to close the season, West Virginia needed three second-half rallies to win. Each time, Holgorsen praised his team for its energy, for its ability to rally around one another, and for its never-give-up mentality. No longer would West Virginia believe it could roll its helmets onto the field and win without trying. It was a lesson learned the hard way.
Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB. This is a really tough call between Smith and receiver Stedman Bailey. Both had record-setting seasons for the Mountaineers. But I am giving the edge to Smith, who led the No. 1 offense in the Big East with 3,978 yards and 25 touchdown passes.
Defensive MVP: Julian Miller, DE, West Virginia. This also was a tough one for me because linebacker Najee Goode has been outstanding all season, and his forced fumble against USF allowed West Virginia to win. But Miller finished the season on an absolute tear, and his performance directly led to two huge wins. Against Cincinnati, he had seven tackles and a fumble recovery in the end zone for a score. Against Pitt, he tied a single-game record with four sacks, and added 12 tackles. He played all season with a bum ankle, too.
Turning point: Beating Cincinnati. After losing to Louisville at home for the first time since 1990, the Mountaineers fell two games behind league-leader Cincinnati in the Big East standings. But the following week, they got a chance to play Cincinnati. Everything changed that day. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros broke his ankle in the game, West Virginia pulled out a close game and won three straight to end the season, giving it a share of another conference title and a spot in the BCS.
What’s next: A date with Clemson in its first appearance in the Orange Bowl. Then, it is all about moving on to the Big 12.