The first two Big 12 football seasons for West Virginia and TCU have not gone well. For the Thursday Oklahoman, I wrote about the rough adjustments for schools that have changed conferences and moved up in class. You can read that column here.
In 2012, West Virginia was picked to finish second and TCU was picked to finish fifth. Both teams went 4-5 in the league and were in a four-way tie for fifth.
In 2013, TCU was picked third and West Virginia was picked eighth. Both teams went 2-7 in the league and were in a three-way tie for seventh.
Both the Mountaineers and the Horned Frogs have been major disappointments so far. During Big 12 Media Days two weeks ago, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen and TCU coach Gary Patterson talked about the challenges their programs face.
Patterson was asked what his team can do to turn close losses into close wins, after TCU had six defeats by 10 points or less last season.
“You can’t turn the ball over,” Patterson said. “We’ve got to score points. Defensively we’ve got to keep making people kick field goals and you can’t give up the long play and stop the run. And keep playing well in special teams.
“For us, it’s finding that four or five plays. You’ve got to be a smarter football team. In this league, the margin of error is different. There were good teams in any league we’ve played in. But on a week‑to‑week basis, the margin of errors is less. And so you have to be able to understand that when those four or five plays happen, you’ve got to make sure that you make them and do it, and that comes with more like a Rose Bowl team where you’ve got 27 seniors that’s going to be a lot more smarter, more mature, where the difference if you’re playing two years ago played 17 true freshmen.
“So we got back to a bowl game (in 2012). So for me it’s all been about understanding it wasn’t broke, you’ve got to make sure you go out, gotta be physical, gotta trust each other, gotta play together as a group and also you’ve got to find a way to make those plays at the end of the ballgame in the fourth quarter, whether it’s a stop or run down, get a touchdown, a field goal, to get it done.
“It’s always going to come down to the last three series of the game in this league. Always has. Everybody can score points.”
Holgorsen said the Mountaineers are beginning to understand what they face in the Big 12.
“Going into Year 3, I think never been more excited about going into a season as we are right now,” Holgorsen said. “So I think our players in our locker room understand what the Big 12 is all about. They understand how challenging it is. They understand what the venues are like. They understand what the teams are like, personnel is like, coaching is like, style of play is like.”
Holgorsen spent a big chunk of his career as an assistant coach at Texas Tech and OSU, so he was quite familiar with the Big 12.
“I obviously tried my hardest to be able to relay that to not only the players, but the coaches and the administration and the fan base. And until we get through it for a couple of years, I knew it was going to be challenging. So with that said, I think our guys are ready to go. They’re up for the challenge. We play one of the toughest if not the toughest schedule in the country.
“Haven’t really had to mention to our guys what the challenges are ahead of us because they know and they’re working hard and they’re getting themselves ready for the challenge that exists here in 2014.”
Patterson was asked if his Frogs are better situated now than previously in trying to compete in the Big 12.
“Being in the state of Texas and playing a lot of Big 12 teams, there wasn’t any surprises,” he said. “We knew how high the competition level was, and we’ve played a lot of those teams. So I wouldn’t say that. For us, if you take our 2008 through 2011 teams of older NFL guys, I think you’ve seen a difference.
“Not making excuses. You guys know how I am. You gotta stop them, you gotta score points. You shouldn’t look around, look at anybody else, for any surprises. But for us, if anything, I thought I was too positive coming into Media Days the last couple of years.
“I’ve kind of been back to being my old self, to be honest with you. My wife, she loves Gary, but she’s not really sure about Coach P, either. So we’re all getting ready … getting ready to go.
“When people ask me, ‘Are you glad you changed?’ Yes, because TCU is in a far better place than it ever had been if we hadn’t changed conferences, get a chance to have a true champion, financially, media‑wise, nationally, everything that goes along with it. As a coach, you wouldn’t want it any different. Did my job get tougher? Yes, no doubt about it. Even though this being my third time (year in the Big 12), a lot more comfortable coming into this setting. You understand who you have to play. You know the stints, you know the players. There’s not going to be any surprises as far as you get ‑‑ everyone’s going to have good players.
“Our kids are excited. They understand the talent level. They understand how they have to play every ballgame, just like everybody else does. It takes a little bit of time to go do that. I said it before, we played our first ballgame, and I’m still saying it, would I have liked to got to another bowl game, still playing for a championship last year? Yes. Was I patient? Probably not as much as I needed to.
“What we want to build at TCU and the Big 12 is that we can be one of the top‑tier teams and always play for the conference championship one out of three years or two out of three years, that’s what we want to be able to do.
When you have the recruiting base that we do plus the financial means ‑‑ how many people can talk about everybody’s doing new stadiums and everything else, and we’ve built an indoor locker/training/weight room and we went all year on it, it’s all paid for.”
West Virginia won the Big East in the Mountaineers’ final season in that conference, then routed Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. But WVU was not Big 12-ready.
“One of the challenges that we knew going into Big 12 play several years ago is you better have depth, depth that can compete at a high level. Probably the biggest difference in the conference that we used to be in and the conference that we’re in now. For several reasons. One, when guys get injured, and they will, you need guys to step in and perform at a high level. The style of ball that exists in the Big 12, although very exciting style of play, you’re going to end up taking more snaps. So when guys get tired, you better be able to replace those guys with guys that go in, perform at a very high level.
“I think we’re at that point right now. Have 55 guys on our team that have played Big 12 football. So that just means that there’s guys that have played that are experienced and should continue to get better each and every year.”
We’ll see. As the last two seasons have proved, joining the Big 12 is cause for great celebration. Succeeding in the Big 12 is a different story.