The Summer of Content rolls on with a simple question: which West Virginia team was the best ever? I'm sure that everybody has one or two that immediately jump into mind, but in mine there's only one way to know for sure: an imaginary, completely opinion-based single elimination knockout where the winner takes all. Here's how it's going to work: standard 6-team format (think NFL Playoffs), with the top two seeds receiving byes and the highest seed matching up with the lowest seed in each round. I thought about pushing it to an even eight teams, but ultimately decided to keep it at six because my panel of three decided that we didn't want 2016's inclusion to be used as an excuse for a new round of Skyler-bashing. Let's meet our teams.
1. "The OG's"
1988 (11-1, lost National Championship)
The first truly great West Virginia team, and the first to run the regular season table. Every kid born into the Old Gold and Blue grows up learning the names and their stories. Major Harris, A.B. Brown, Undra Johnson, Reggie Rembert, Calvin Phillips, Bo Orlando, Renaldo Turnbull, Willie Edwards, Alvoid Mays - these guys are legends whose accomplishments will live on forever. An untimely injury to the Major turned the National Championship into one of the great "what-if's" in Mountaineer sports history, but there's no question that this group deserves strong consideration in any "best team in program history" discussion.
2. "The One That Got Away"
2007 (11-2, won Fiesta Bowl)
Our 2007 team probably deserves a 30 for 30, or at the very least its own article, so I won't go too far into it what happened to them right now, but gun-to-my-head they were the most complete West Virginia squad I've ever seen. You had final or near-final versions of Pat White, Steve Slaton, Owen Schmitt, and Darius Reynaud on offense, with the nation's 8th-ranked defense holding it down on the other side. In the immediate aftermath it seemed ludicrous that this team managed to lose twice, and unfortunately the passing of time hasn't provided any additional clarity. However, considering what we did to a very highly-regarded Oklahoma team in the Fiesta Bowl, I will go to my grave thinking that if the thing that happened didn't happen, we would've run all over whoever we would've played in the BCS Title game. Truly the One That Got Away.
3. "The Dawn of an Era"
2005 (11-1, won Sugar Bowl)
If 1988 was "The Best" and 2007 was "The Most Complete", then 2005 was without a doubt "The Most Fun". The 2005 'Eers were probably only 90% of the team that we were in 2007, but there was just this sense of newness about the whole thing that somehow made it more intoxicating. I'd compare it to the difference between being in the 3rd year of a relationship versus being in the 3rd week of one. By 2007 Steve, Pat, and Owen were cult heroes who we knew like the back of our hand, but back in 2005 everything was still new and exciting - "Holy shit Pat did what?!" - and what made it so awesome was that nobody, coaches and fans included, saw it coming. It was like one week we had no idea who these dudes were, then two days later they were coming back on Louisville, and by season's end they were running circles around the SEC Champs in the Sugar Bowl. You just couldn't help getting swept up in it all.
4. "The Overachievers"
1993 (11-1, lost Sugar Bowl)
Check your outrage, gang - neither the seed nor the section heading are intended to take anything away from what the 1993 squad accomplished. After all, they are the last WVU team to run the regular season table, and along with '88 they're one of the two who've ever done it. I think that ultimately the star power of those top three seeds pushes them into a tier of their own, but the 1993 'Eers had plenty of familiar names in their own right. The offense featured guys like Jake Kelchner, Darren Studstill, Robert Walker, Jay Kearney, and Rich Braham, while the defense surrounded veterans such as Wes Richardson, Tim Brown, and Mike Collins with early editions of WVU Hall-of-Famers Mike Logan and Aaron Beasley. Running into a Gator-shaped buzzsaw in the Sugar Bowl didn't do their legacy any favors, but for my friends and I this will always be the first great Mountaineer team that we actually remember watching live.
5. "The False Spring"
2011 (10-3, won Orange Bowl)
2011 started with no small degree of uncertainty. Coaching changes can do that. What we did know though was that Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey were all coming back, and Dana Holgorsen's reputation suggested that he was the perfect man to unleash their talents and usher in a new era of West Virginia football. And for a season, at least, he lived up to those expectations.
Holgs took that offensive firepower, added his own flair, and off we went. A group that finished the previous season ranked 67th nationally in total offense vaulted all the way into the Top 15, and the aforementioned trio of Smith, Austin, and Bailey treated us to an aerial show unlike anything we'd seen before. The reason they're a part of this tournament, though, is because for one glorious night in early January, everything came together in a beautiful crescendo, a culmination of all the flashes of brilliance that we'd seen throughout the season. The 70 points we hung on Clemson that night are still a bowl record, as are the 49 first half points and 35 2nd quarter points. We've unfortunately struggled to consistently (or even sporadically) replicate that kind of performance since, but that game (and team) still stands as a shining example of what's possible with Dana Holgorsen.
6. "The Underachievers"
1998 (8-4, lost Music City Bowl)
The fact that there's not a single 1998 highlight video on the internet tells you everything you need to know about that season. It was just one of those years where you look back and wonder what went wrong. We were absolutely loaded offensively, with Bulger and Zereoue in the backfield, David Saunders, Shaun Foreman, Khori Ivy, and Antonio Brown out wide, and Anthony Becht at tight end. Meanwhile, the defense trotted out studs like John Thornton, Gary Stills, Barrett Green, and Jerry Porter. Six of those guys had pretty successful NFL careers, and two or three more can still be found littered throughout our school's record books even twenty years later. That should've been more than enough ability for... well, maybe not a National Title run, but certainly something better than 8-4. And this is not just me saying this; we started that year ranked 11th in the country, and looking back I think that was a pretty fair assessment based on what we had. We unfortunately never came close to realizing that potential, but for a one-off, winner-take-all situation like this, 1998's overall talent gives them the edge over 2016.
Honorable mention: 2016, 2006, 1981, 1983
2016 was originally included but ultimately left off in order to accommodate the 1998 squad, which the panel unanimously decided would be more fun.
2006 misses the cut as the "worst" of the three Slaton/White years, despite going 11-2 and beating Megatron-led Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
1981 and 1983 were considered to give homage to Luck and Hostetler, but missed out because I wasn't alive then and didn't feel confident speaking to how they'd stack up against some of these other groups.
***Stay tuned for Part 2, which will feature breakdowns of the matchups themselves, starting with the quarterfinal contests featuring 2005 vs 1998 and 1993 vs 2011***