In its first month in the Big 12, West Virginia charged into the league with the vigor its musket-toting mascot would toward a black bear.
After striking down Texas on the road, the Mountaineers stormed into October two seasons ago ranked in the top five of the polls.
But since that moment, West Virginia has been fighting a steady, but furious, backpedal. The Mountaineers have lost eight of their past 12 games in the league, culminating with a triple-overtime collapse to Iowa State in Morgantown to cap a bowl-less 2013 season.
Yet, minus several outgoing key performers, playing for a coach whose seat is getting warmer and a brutal slate awaiting them, the Mountaineers have gone into spring ball dead-set on finally proving their mettle in their new league this fall.
“Absolutely,” said rising senior guard Quinton Spain, who has started in every Big 12 game the Mountaineers have played in.
“We have stuff to prove.”
It’s not difficult to pinpoint where exactly it all went wrong for West Virginia.
In their final season in the Big East in 2011, the Mountaineers punched out nine wins, then punched out Clemson in the Orange Bowl with a convincing 70-33 victory.
West Virginia entered its inaugural Big 12 season with three of the best skill-position talents in the country in quarterback Geno Smith, wideout Stedman Bailey and versatile playmaker Tavon Austin, who all made starts in the NFL as rookies last season.
The Mountaineers, however, trotted out one of the worst defenses in the country by every statistical measure. And when the West Virginia offense finally cooled off after the Texas win, the bottom fell out.
Last season, the defense showed early improvement after coach Dana Holgorsen switched coordinators from Joe DeForest to Keith Patterson. But with its trio of offensive stars gone, the Mountaineers struggled to consistently score points. By the time the offense came around, injuries piled up on the other side of the ball, which crippled the West Virginia defense the final month of the season.
“The record [the past two years] has been unacceptable -- every player on this team knows it,” said cornerback Daryl Worley, who emerged as a starter as a true freshman last season. “We have yet to click as a whole, together. The Big 12 has so many complete teams -- teams known for winning, who are productive on both sides of the ball. We definitely understand that to compete in this league, we can’t just depend on the offense or the defense. Both sides have to be better.”
However, there's reason to believe that the Mountaineers could be better on both sides of the ball and field their most complete team since joining the league.
The bulk of the team, however, is back. And while injuries devastated West Virginia in the short run last season, they also allowed numerous young players to gain valuable experience for the future. The Mountaineers bring back seven starters on each side of the ball and a host of key rotation players. Despite the on-field struggles, West Virginia also inked a banner recruiting class last month, loaded with potential for instant impact.
“We lost some guys, but we were pretty young last year,” Spain said. “I feel like we’ve got more people coming back than ever. So I feel like we could be pretty good.”
That will hinge heavily on the quarterback position, which might not get resolved until the fall. Clint Trickett ended last season as the starter but is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery that repaired a torn labrum. Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and freshman William Crest, who will arrive on campus in the summer, could make this an intriguing derby.
But if Holgorsen can find his man at quarterback, the rest of the pieces seem to be in place to give the Mountaineers at least a chance of making its third season in the Big 12 the charm.
Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell, who was the nation’s third highest-ranked running back recruit in 2012, headlines a backfield that's as deep as any in the Big 12.
Elsewhere, the entire receiving and linebacking corps are basically back. Spain and veteran Mark Glowinski give the Mountaineers arguably the best one-two punch at guard in the league. Cook is the only departing starter in the secondary, which will welcome a potential future cornerstone at cornerback opposite Worley in incoming freshman Dravon Henry, who signed with West Virginia over Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State, among many others.
Off the field, the Mountaineers also made one of the best assistant coaching hires in the Big 12 this cycle, snagging former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, who was one of Joe Paterno’s top lieutenants for more than three decades.
Of course, the schedule is completely unforgiving, beginning with a neutral site clash with Alabama in Atlanta. The Mountaineers also have to face Oklahoma and Baylor and have to go to Maryland, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech -- all games they figure to be underdogs in.
But Spain said his teammates are welcoming the challenging slate. What better way for the Mountaineers to finally prove their Big 12 chops?
“Everybody on this team is hungry for real,” Spain said. “We’re ready to prove ourselves.”