The Old Gold and Blue crowd sounds off one last time in approval. Emotions inside the Georgia Dome range from the tear-streaming, heart-wrenching extremes of euphoria and remorse. Clint Trickett can't believe it. He walks up behind the center Tyler Orlosky, but it is all muscle memory. Coach Holgorsen had prepared the victory formation as a motivational ploy during practice, but the Mountaineer quarterback did not realize how truly gorgeous the sight would be.
The play clock goes black, but the game clock remains winding down. Trickett barks out the cadence. The ribbon scoreboard beyond the panting SEC linebackers reads 48-28 with the Flying WV as the victor. The infamous Script A is accompanied by zero timeouts and, with it, the death of a College Football Playoff berth for the most fabled college football program in America.
In the following days, Mark May and Dr. Lou will go on about how far the Tide have fallen, but none of that matters. The ball is snapped. Trickett's knee hits the turf. We have won. We have beaten Bama.
The West Virginia Mountaineers are heading into this Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against the Alabama Crimson Tide with a snowball's chance in hell in the view of the casual fan. Since the three-time BCS Bowl winners were annexed into the Big 12 Conference in 2012, an overall record of 11-13 with a conference record of 6-12, including an away loss to the Kansas Jayhawks last year, has labeled the program as in-over-its-head. A label that is not unfounded especially with the major contributing factors being a sheer lack of depth roster-wide due to several years of attrition and a number of assistant coaching changes causing instability in Head Coach Dana Holgorsen's program.
Nick Saban's program, however, looks to be the gold standard in college football. At least until recently. The West Virginia native has coached Alabama to win three of the last five BCS National Championships and looked to be on their way to another until the unthinkable happened. After accepting a consolation prize in the form of a BCS Sugar Bowl bid, the Oklahoma Sooners handed the Tide their second consecutive loss.
Even still, the spread is -27.5 in favor of Nick Saban's side which means Vegas believes either Alabama will take care of business or that the general public is so inelastic to the odds that the spread could be -100.5 and Joe Schmuck still would take a flyer.
The great thing about sports is that dumb things happen. Silly, inexplicable things that should never happen often do in our beloved realm of sports and they lead to the most precious of moments. Those moments are why we watch. The italicized dream certainly falls under that category. A victory for the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Georgia Dome would send shock waves across the nation and be received graciously by the lovers-of-chaos as an early, unexpected gift normally reserved for November nights serenaded by Joe Tessitore.
All of that being said, there are reasons that a win may be neither silly nor inexplicable for West Virginia. They may be viewed as insignificant to the masses, but they deserve a look. Especially the sum of their parts. Besides, all the best upsets are not due to one big blemish, but death by paper cuts.
When the transfer of Florida State QB Clint Trickett to Morgantown was made official in May 2013, excitement and curiosity swept through a fan base as many dreamed that he would be the man to replace Geno Smith. That dream never came true with Trickett only getting two passes in Week 1 and not another snap until Week 5 against the #11 Oklahoma State Cowboys. As it has become a tradition with WVU and OSU, strange things happened throughout that entire afternoon resulting in the Mountaineers knocking off the Pokes with Trickett passing for 309 yards, 1TD, and, a stat left off the box score, game managing his way into this iconic picture.
Photo credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports
At that point, Mountaineer fans had thought they, again, had found their leader. Unfortunately, Clint Trickett caught a nasty hit late in that game which plagued him the rest of the year and was never able to recreate the spark. After the season was over, it was announced Trickett was to meet with Dr. James Andrews and undergo surgery for his right shoulder. Despite missing spring practice, it was released in June that Trickett was to be the starter for the 2014 season.
That announcement was a sign that the Mountaineers had not only found a clear cut quarterback for the offense, but also a leader in a signal caller. A significant reason beyond his injury that Trickett was not able to get the offense humming in 2013 was not that he didn't have the arm (he definitely does), but that he simply did not understand the complex Air Raid system which led to massive errors in decision-making. The Florida State transfer had not been around the program long enough to soak it all in. It seemed that every Holgorsen press conference featured frustration with slimming down the playbook to the basics and the lack of hand signal comprehension leading to severe slowing of the Air Raid's coveted pace. Now, with another year under his belt including an extended summer session, the redshirt senior quarterback is able to adequately relay play calls, signals, and execute with speed in practice. Quicker reps means more reps for more personnel.
More reps with the starting quarterback, especially, is priceless for building chemistry. Having a set starter at quarterback allows the team as a whole to mesh around them. Not only in spirit, but in technique. Technique within the Air Raid same system that Trevor Knight used to rack up 348 yards and four touchdowns in the Sugar Bowl and highly related to the one Johnny Football used to throw for 464 yards and five touchdowns all against the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Nick Saban's defense does not bleed yardage often, but when it does, it is always the Air Raid.
Because Nick Saban personally coaches the defensive backs, it is often assumed that the Alabama Crimson Tide secondary is among the most disciplined units of any team in all of college football. That assumption might not be as warranted as usual this year with huge losses in Ha Ha Clinton Dix at free safety and Vinnie Sunseri in the Star (nickelback) spot. According to RollBamaRoll.com:
Junior Landon Collins returns as one of only two players who has a lock on his position. The free safety finished 2013 with the second-most tackles on the team, with 70, and will play a pivotal role in the defense’s success or failure this season. Already on the watch list for several national awards, Collins might be the best player on a defense loaded with potential. At the star position, the extra defensive back in nickel formations, senior Jarrick Williams also has a solid hold on his spot. Williams started ten games last season, one more than Collins.
At strong safety, Nick Perry is the likely starter, with Geno Smith missing a substantial portion of fall camp with a knee sprain. Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones are currently holding down the corner positions. Coach Saban has been pleased with Jones in camp so far, which is good, because he needs to improve. Maurice Smith has practiced with the first group at the dimeback (sixth DB) spot.
Going against West Virginia's offense will not just be if the combination of Collins, Perry, Sylve, and Jones can cover a duo of Mario Alford, Kevin White, Shelton Gibson, KJ Myers, Vernon Davis, or Devonte Mathis. The game will be won on whether Williams and Smith (or Trey DePriest/any other linebackers that play Alabama's "Star and Money" aka nickelback and dimeback positions) can cover any combination of Daikiel Shorts, Jordan Thompson, Cody Clay, Eli Wellman, Vernon Davis, Wendell Smallwood, Dustin Garrison, Logan Moore, or whatever other running back is motioned to the slot or runs a wheel route or screen from the backfield. That is a long list of players that the Mountaineers can continue to spell out or move around the field. If Clint Trickett can find Alford or White deep or at least threaten Collins and Perry so that they don't cheat up to help the slot, West Virginia will have mismatches on the inside against players with limited experience and even less proven production on the first game of the year.
The end of the 2013 season marked an end of an era in Crimson Tide history with the departure of AJ McCarron at quarterback. He leaves Tuscaloosa a winner of the Maxwell Award, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, and a runner-up for the Heisman all while being a two-time SEC Champion and three-time BCS National Champion. Even with all of the accolades, the public's perception of McCarron has largely been not as a playmaker, but as a game manager to steer the talent-driven machine that is Alabama. The time has come to choose another man to hand the ball off to TJ Yeldon and Derrick Henry, but the decision has yet to be made.
In fact, several outlets have said that there is a strong possibility that the Tide will be splitting snaps between two signal callers: Jacob Coker, Florida State transfer, and Blake Sims, former backup to McCarron. When Coker made the move to Tuscaloosa in January, it was widely understood that he would be the starter even with undergoing knee surgery earlier in November. While reports show no indication that the knee is slowing Coker down, there have been signs that he has not taken to the position quickly enough to take the starting job outright by August 30th. Coker has the skill set to take Alabama where the Tide expect to be at the end of the year, but if it is not showing in practice, then there is no reason to believe that he will be a stud out of the gate in the Georgia Dome.
Blake Sims, however, has been with the program longer and his teammates are familiar with him. His improving performance in fall camp shows there is a true competition for the starting spot even with Coker having the natural talent. Several members of the media have mentioned that it is a strong possibility that Coker and Sims both take snaps in the season opener against West Virginia. As Mountaineer fans can tell you, it is near impossible to keep the rhythm of an offense going switching quarterbacks like that even when the opponent is William & Mary in your home stadium. Seeing how Nick Saban's staff will work this out will be a major headline going into the game, especially with it being Lane Kiffin's debut.
The first major headline this offseason was the departure of Doug Nussmeier, then-Alabama offensive coordinator, for the OC position at Michigan. The fan base seemed undecided on how to feel about the news considering both the successes and perceived failures. Over his two years, Nussmeier coached AJ McCarron and the Alabama offense to a National Title in 2012, but 2013 lead to several lackluster performances and an end to the pistol formation. The offensive coordinator position in Tuscaloosa is largely thought of more of a caretaker position rather than a coaching job. The pro style is a permanent fixture in the Crimson Tide program and is not to be changed. Doing away with the formation that highlighted Mark Ingram to bring the Heisman Trophy back from New York for the first time in the program's history is not going to be viewed positively. For these reasons, Nussmeier's departure was concerning, but not the end of the world depending on who Nick Saban was able to get. And then... they hired Lane Kiffin.
If you do not know who Lane Kiffin is, you have gone too long missing out on one of the most fascinating spectacles in American sports. This Daniel Tosh lookalike has jumped from one high caliber coaching position to another without achieving success at any of them while racking up quite a controversy list. The Oakland Raiders fired in him in 2008 for conduct detrimental to the organization. From Oakland, he was hired as head coach of the Tennessee Volunteers where he accused Urban Meyer of cheating and told Alshon Jeffery on a recruiting call that "he would end up pumping gas for the rest of his life like all the other players from that state who had gone to South Carolina." Kiffin left Tennessee in 2010 after one year of coaching to the dismay of the Vol faithful to take the then-recently vacant USC head coach position.
Kiffin's rollercoaster of a career appeared to have ended last September following a 62-41 loss to Arizona State where he was called off the team bus at 3AM and fired in the LAX airport parking lot. An event that lead to this live Gameday cringe fest.
And yet, somehow, the most unlikely bromance in college football was revealed when Nick Saban hired the unemployed Kiffin. This hire immediately gave Kiffin a shot of credibility to be called upon by one of the greatest ever to join his staff. This hire, however, does not erases his failures. Lane Kiffin is not widely ridiculed because of anything specifically personal, but it is the tire fire that follows him everywhere he goes. If the Lane Kiffin experiment works at Alabama, it will be the first position he has held where it has actually worked since 2007. He has somehow stumbled on a career path reverse of the Peter Principle. Perhaps he has found his proper position to succeed, but if I had to bet on the matchup headlining the inaugural game of Kiffin's tenure at Alabama versus West Virginia's defensive coordinator Tony Gibson featuring tag team partner Tom Bradley, I would be the chaos-loving Joe Schmuck to take a flyer on the Mountaineers and pray Finebaum was not cancelled on Monday.