West Virginia maturing into a playoff contender with rout of TCU

MORGANTOWN, W.Va -- Five days after the Big 12 decided to stay at 10 members -- those numbers make your head spin, don't they? -- commissioner Bob Bowlsby discussed the keys to the league's long-term viability.

"In the end, you have to win," Bowlsby told ESPN.com before No. 12 West Virginia hosted TCU. "You have to do things that establish you as competing among the very best in the country. That means winning championships."

So far this season, the Big 12 has heard how it will not compete for a championship because it will not produce a playoff participant for the second time in the three-year life of the system. Oklahoma, the overwhelming favorite to repeat as Big 12 champion, lost to Houston in Week 1 and to Ohio State in Week 3. Other candidates such as TCU, Oklahoma State and Texas -- yes, the Longhorns briefly were discussed as a CFP contender -- flamed out by Oct. 1.

Who's left? There's Baylor, which breezed through its typically cushy non-league slate but could still backslide after an offseason of transition and scrutiny. And then there's West Virginia, a team that generated zero preseason buzz, other than coach Dana Holgorsen appearing on hot-seat lists. Even after the Mountaineers started 4-0, few gave them much of a chance to matter nationally.

They matter now. It's time for America to recognize what's happening at West Virginia.

The Mountaineers are 6-0 for the first time since 2006, when Rich Rodriguez had WVU among the top teams in the nation. This WVU team, like that one, is no fluke. Just look at the past two weeks.

"This was the goal. When we all got together in the spring and then in the fall, we all said, 'This is going to be our year. Let's go out,'" Mountaineers cornerback Rasul Douglas said. "We were tired of being, 'Oh, you only remember a few players on that team.' We want to be remembered as, 'Oh, that 2016 West Virginia team was good.' That's what we want to be. When you think about the U [of Miami], you think about those dynasties they had. That's what we're trying to be. And it starts here."

On Oct. 15, WVU held Texas Tech's NCAA-record-pace offense to 17 points in Lubbock, which is basically a shutout. WVU followed that on Saturday with another complete performance, dismantling TCU 34-10 at Milan Puskar Stadium.

Resist the temptation to label this team as a sling-it-around offense with a good-times coach. Yes, the Mountaineers can pass the ball and catch -- boy, can they catch it, as wideouts Daikiel Shorts Jr., Ka'Raun White and Jovon Durante all made acrobatic plays against TCU. And Holgorsen is a must-watch on the sidelines.

"They made some tough catches, some contested catches," Holgorsen said about his receivers. "[TCU] is a frustrating bunch of go against. Those guys are incredibly sound, so there wasn't a whole lot of open guys. We had to make some plays when we were contested, and we did."

Added Durante: "It was a good defense, but just playing fast and being physical, that was the way we were getting open."

But WVU also plays defense, holding TCU to 2-of-11 on third down Saturday. Unlike most defensive coordinators on a team that runs an uptempo offense, Tony Gibson has mastered a scheme that can stop opponents and force takeaways, which West Virginia has collected in every game this season and in 11 of its past 12 contests. Douglas (three interceptions) continues to be a menace for opposing quarterbacks.

The Mountaineers also excel on special teams, forcing a TCU fumble on the opening kickoff and another in the second half.

And yes, WVU can even be patient, a problem for most uptempo offenses. Its 11-play, 67-yard drive that ate 5:08 in the third quarter was textbook play-with-a-lead offense. After a slow start, WVU found its run game behind Rushel Shell III.

"It's something we talked about at halftime," Holgorsen said. "We're able to do it because we got a little bit of a lead. Our guys felt good about getting in a huddle and being in traditional sets and just running the ball. That's pretty much what we did the whole second half. It was good enough to win. If we had to sit back there and throw the ball a whole bunch, I don't know how good we would have been."

TCU coach Gary Patterson is normally a wizard after open weeks, winning 12 of his past 13 games after a bye. But WVU put a spell on the Horned Frogs, who committed three turnovers and 10 penalties.

West Virginia easily could have been the overexcited team, giddy about finally getting respect in the rankings last week. Aside from a few moments, though, the Mountaineers showed impressive maturity.

Maybe West Virginia crumbles next week at Oklahoma State and all of this playoff talk goes away. But if the Mountaineers get through Stillwater, their toughest remaining games -- Oklahoma and Baylor -- will be at home.

In a season where Colorado could win the Pac-12 South and Western Michigan could run the table, open your mind about West Virginia.

And if you must label this team, go with this: legitimate playoff contender.