On an early January day two years ago, West Virginia unleashed an all-out blitz on Clemson in the Orange Bowl, embarrassing the Tigers and the ACC as a whole with a 70-point barrage that still elicits taunts today.
Rather than classify the performance as a farewell from the Big East, people chose to believe West Virginia would be just fine when it began Big 12 play the following September. The Mountaineers had a proud football tradition, filled with recent BCS and Big East championships. They ran an offensive style familiar to the Big 12. They had a head coach with Big 12 ties, too.
What ensued is perhaps a lesson in tempering expectations when making the jump to a more elite league. West Virginia, unprepared to handle the grind of a much more difficult league season, ended up 7-6 -- its worst record since going 3-8 in 2001. It finished in a four-way tie for fifth place, a foreign spot for a program accustomed to dominating its conference.
Now West Virginia may serve as a cautionary tale for the team it faces Saturday: Maryland. If West Virginia, with more recent success than the Terps, struggled in Year 1, what will happen to Maryland in Year 1 in the Big Ten?
What holds true for both West Virginia and Maryland is they have spent the last year celebrating. West Virginia found a viable and strong conference home, avoiding the fate that has befallen old league mates Cincinnati, UConn and USF. Maryland saw a financial windfall in the Big Ten, believing the added dollars can rescue a financially strapped athletic department.
They share much more in common. Both are geographic outliers in their respective conferences, and lag behind with their facilities and on the recruiting trail. West Virginia has not made any significant upgrades to its football stadium since it opened in 1980, for example.
Maryland, meanwhile, will be the only Big Ten team with no indoor practice facility or plans to build one when it joins on July 1, 2014. It also will have one of the smallest football stadiums in its new division.
There is no understating how much improving facilities means in the hypercompetitive collegiate landscape, as schools across the country race to upgrade, build and expand what they offer current players and potential student-athletes.
“We have to look and say what do we need to do to compete?” West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said. “Our coaches and our fans have had a chance to go out and watch let’s say a Big 12 baseball game in Austin or football or women’s soccer or whatever it would be. They’ll often come back and tell me, ‘I thought we always had good facilities in Morgantown, but boy I was really impressed with X or Y or Z.’ I think that there are some quality programs in our new conference and we have to set those as the bar for what to achieve.”
The increased television dollars both programs are set to receive should help with facilities upgrades and, in turn, recruiting. More television exposure -- in particular Maryland with the Big Ten Network -- may even have a direct tie to football success, as more recruits in different areas see their products.
Both Maryland and West Virginia have focused their efforts in roughly the same region in the past. West Virginia, it seems, must turn some of its focus to Texas. Maryland coach Randy Edsall has said his program plans to recruit into the Midwest. Neither rates at the top of their respective conferences in recruiting class rankings.
Where recruiting plays such a large role is building depth. Luck mentioned depth as the one area where West Virginia had a hard time keeping up through last season, saying it seemed as if the elite Big 12 teams have similar depth to an NFL squad.
Perhaps most unforeseen was getting coaches and players to change their mentality. West Virginia had won nine or more games between 2005-2011 in the Big East. It won or shared six league titles since 2003. It made three BCS appearances -- winning all three. Though the old Big East had some good programs, it did not compare to the Big 12 top to bottom.
“It’s adapting to a tougher, more challenging environment. That’s a mental challenge as well as a physical challenge,” Luck said. “You can’t really bring your B or your C game to a Big 12 conference game, you’ve got to bring your A game because there are good teams. There are no gimmes traditionally on the schedule in any one of these sports. That’s a change in mentality.”
Of the Big East teams that switched conferences before 2013, only Virginia Tech saw immediate and sustained success. Miami and Boston College have not.
Programs moving up in conference struggle at the outset more often than not. Texas A&M adjusted well. But Missouri did not. Nebraska has yet to find its championship footing in the Big Ten. Former BCS teams Utah and TCU have struggled, too. Colorado has gotten worse.
Nearly all of these are recent moves, so it is too early to judge. On the surface, it appears West Virginia had to sacrifice its football success in the short term for the good of its overall athletic program. The same fate could very well befall Maryland.
“I haven’t thought much about how long it’s going to take,” Luck said. “I think very often it can be looked at as an excuse, which I don’t want to provide. We need to go about our business the best way we can, adapt as quickly as we can. We’re delighted to be in the conference.”
Maryland is no doubt delighted, too, but the Terps are in a different situation. West Virginia brought a track record of success to the Big 12, along with a name brand and a rather large fan base. The Terps have struggled with that all in the ACC. The hope is that games against the likes of Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State will draw more fans and interest.
The flip side, of course, is if Maryland cannot compete, support may turn into greater apathy.
Fans want to cheer a winner. Both programs have hard work ahead to get to that level consistently.