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September 19, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN - WVU future filled with uncertainty

MORGANTOWN — What now?

That’s the question everyone is asking around this town this week, even if No. 3 LSU is coming to town for what is the biggest football game in these parts since Pitt derailed the West Virginia University Mountaineers’ bid for a national championship in 2007.

It will be a whacked out, wild and, yes, drunken party time with an 8 p.m. start time for a national ABC audience and day-long celebration with college girl heartthrob Kirk Herbstreit, the man who invented the Heisman pose in Desmond Howard, and the eternal cutup Lee Corso.

But even with this, there will be a voice screaming in the background that WVU had better enjoy this now, for the future is filled with dark clouds of uncertainty.

With turncoat Pitt 80 miles up I-79 taking the low road into the Atlantic Coast Conference and bringing Syracuse along with it, two thieves in the night sneaking out the back door and taking with them the hopes and dreams of their longtime brothers and sisters of the Big East, WVU finds itself in a decaying conference from which there are only two roads to survival.

See, the college landscape is still far from settled, even with the ACC now at 14 teams and with Texas A&M heading into the SEC and with Colorado in the Pacific Coast Conference and TCU in the Big East, a move they surely regret at the present moment.

The word is that the nine-team Big East football conference, now down to seven with the defections of Pitt and Syracuse, could become a five-team conference in the future with Rutgers and Connecticut moving into the ACC, too.

That would give it a lock on the entire Eastern seaboard, from Boston to Miami, the most populace section of the country and a television market unlike anywhere else.

So what are those two roads to survival in the big time left to WVU?

The first — jumping to the SEC — is the most obvious, the most popular, but probably the least advantageous and least likely.

In today’s world the Mountaineers bring nothing to the SEC that it really needs, which translates into television market and money. West Virginia is a small, lightly populated state with an image problem. Even with a 60,000-seat stadium that it fills regularly, it is dwarfed by the likes of Tennessee and Alabama and Auburn, who put from 80,000 to more than 100,000 in their stadiums.

West Virginia offers not even a city of consequence, the situation being so bad that someone in a bar conversation offered the suggestion, jokingly, I am sure, that the only way to create such a city would be to have all the people of West Virginia move to Charleston.

But would things be better in the SEC, especially if college football goes to four 16-school super conferences and creates a 16-team playoff with the top four from each conference invited?

Perhaps not, for the competition to reach that via the SEC would be overbearing, having to finish in the top four in a league deep enough to offer Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Tennessee as yearly opponents.

It would seem to someone not on the inside and not privy to the realignment conversations that the most sensible road would be for the Big 12, which seems to be on the brink of collapse should Oklahoma jump to the Pac-12, and the Big East to form some sort of alliance to make their own 16-team conference.

From the Big East you would have WVU, South Florida, Cincinnati, Louisville and TCU, joined by Texas Tech, Missouri, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor. That would be a 12-team conference without Texas, which has its choice of going to the SEC or the Pac-12 and will probably head west.

While it doesn’t have the glamor of the SEC, or the money, the road to a football playoff would have far fewer landmines that exist in the SEC.

True, this has become about money, but WVU seems to be a far better fit with the likes of Missouri, Kansas, Cincinnati and Louisville than it is in the SEC.

It also could keep WVU as a significant football entity in an atmosphere where no one seems to want much of anything to do with the school.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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