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WHAT IF WEST VIRGINIA: What If Rich Rodriguez Went To Alabama In 2006?

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This moment shaped college football for the next decade, let’s see how it shakes out from a non-Saban perspective.

West Virginia v Cincinnati Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images
While developing this article, we may have discovered the first ever example of jersey swapping in the pre-Twitter universe.

This is one of the greatest “What If” questions in the history of college football. It creates the insane scenario of Nick Saban not spending 20 years absolutely dominating the sport by being a Snorlax sitting on everyone until they die. In my story, however, this is the only paragraph where we’re going to mention him. Assume he’s spent this past decade plus losing to Tom Brady and maybe he goes to the Browns or something.

Carry on.

The shifting sands of time fail to create a parallel universe where Chan Gailey continues to throw to Calvin Johnson against West Virginia’s not all that good 2006 secondary. Interim coach Bill Stewart leads the Mountaineers to a 38-35 victory over Georgia Tech in the Gator Bowl, but while fans are excited about a second straight New Year’s Day bowl win, it’s not quite enough to hand Stew the keys to the Pat White and Steve Slaton Ferrari that the 2007 football team is shaping up to be. The search begins for an up-and-coming football mind to replace Rich Rodriguez and lead a Mountaineer team that has the depth on both sides of the ball to compete for West Virginia’s first ever national championship.

During the chaos of a coaching search, YouTube sensation Noel Devine decides to stay with what he knows rather than deal with an uncertain future. Devine decides to attend Florida State despite a hard push from Rich Rod to get him to Tuscaloosa, his first loss as the Crimson Tide’s head coach. West Virginia finally narrows their choice to two coaches: East Carolina’s Skip Holtz and an up-and-comer in the MAC: Central Michigan’s Brian Kelly. In my timeline, we’re at least getting one nice thing and Ed Pastilong chooses Brian Kelly as the first of two seismic hires he’ll make in football and basketball before his retirement.

Despite the loss of Noel Devine in the Mountaineer backfield, the lesser known Jock Sanders proves himself to be a capable fill-in when Slaton is banged up or needs a breather. Kelly’s ability to add just enough vertical passing to West Virginia’s dynamic offense prevents teams from stacking the box and playing a containment game against the Mountaineers, and one of the most entertaining regular seasons in West Virginia history concludes with a 12-0 record and a game with the Ohio State Buckeyes in New Orleans for the first National Championship in school history. The Mountaineers edge out the Buckeyes 31-27, as Pat White reaches the ball across the plane on a late 12 yard touchdown scramble that will be memorialized in his Heisman Trophy display in the Milan Puskar Center.

2008 begins with high hopes to repeat, as Pat White looks to end his legendary West Virginia career with a second straight national championship. But it’s not to be. Without Devine, West Virginia struggles to figure out who will be Pat White’s backfield mate with Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt in the NFL. Jock Sanders gets the early looks and shows flashes, but proves to be much more effective as a receiver than as a runner. West Virginia is stunned in Week Two at East Carolina, and barely survives a tough game at Colorado. The Mountaineers continue to win games that end up closer than they should, but the emergence of freshman running back Isaiah Pead helps the Mountaineers down the stretch. They go into Heinz Field and beat a resurgent Pitt on the final possession to win the Big East championship. The Mountaineers close out Pat White’s career with a 21-20 win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl.

Despite early season struggles, West Virginia’s offense is still very compelling, and Tajh Boyd does not decommit from the program. The Mountaineers feel that they’ve scored their next great quarterback after senior Jarrett Brown gets his shot in 2009. In Tampa, however, the South Florida Bulls feel that they’ve put a class together than will take them to the next level and unseat the Mountaineer dynasty, headlined by Miramar High School teammates Eugene Smith and Stedman Bailey.

Jarrett Brown has a strong, if uneven, campaign in 2009. With Cincinnati lying dormant in this timeline, West Virginia still has the clear track to a 10-2 record and another Big East championship, their only blemish in-conference being a shellacking in Tampa at the hands of a freshman quarterback named Eu. Smith and his South Florida Bulls (we lost 30-19 to BJ Daniels in the real timeline, okay).

All good things, however, must come to an end. Charlie Weis has run his course in South Bend, and Notre Dame wants a champion. Brian Kelly heads to the Golden Dome and loyal assistant Bill Stewart, despite a valiant effort, does not have enough guns to keep up with Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators in the Sugar Bowl. It’s time for another coaching search, this time headed by new athletic director Oliver Luck, whose ascent to the Iron Throne of West Virginia Athletics was sped up in my new world order.

West Virginia considers a myriad of candidates including Butch Jones and Skip Holtz, but Luck eventually settles on Al Golden - who was at that time considered a miracle worker for turning Temple football into a winning product. Holtz eventually settles into mediocrity at Louisville - who lost out on their bid for Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong to USF, with the appeal of a potential star quarterback in Geno Smith as the tipping factor in his decision.

West Virginia’s defense is dominant in 2010, but the offense sputters under Golden. Redshirt freshman Tajh Boyd shows promise but makes the mistakes all young quarterbacks make, and fans wonder why they spent $30 on Boyd-To-Heastie t-shirts as the sophomore wide receiver fails to emerge as a threat and eventually drops off the face of the planet. (If someone has a Boyd to Heastie shirt, please contact me.) Geno Smith’s USF Bulls emerge as the champions of a very weird, very boring Big East conference and fall to Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, but not without giving the Sooners a bit of a second half scare.

During this time, the Pitt Panthers are starting to feel coach fatigue with Dave Wanstedt and fire their head coach despite decent showings and fairly strong recruiting classes. The Mike Haywood disaster sticks to script, and blessed with a second chance, the Panthers look to counter West Virginia and USF’s defensive minded hires and target the architect of one of the best offenses in the country: Oklahoma State’s Dana Holgorsen.

As you know, 2011 is the year of the conference expansion apocalypse. Football is played in the background as everything we know about college football explodes in slow motion. In the press box during West Virginia’s game at Maryland, Oliver Luck goes into overdrive as Pitt and Syracuse shock the college football world and announce that they would become the 13th and 14th members of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

In this universe, West Virginia is a national champion, and has won all but one Big East Championship since 2005. The SEC, hellbent on not allowing the ACC and Big Ten to soak up all the 14 team glory, decides on resume over television sets and chooses West Virginia over Missouri as the 14th member of the SEC, Pawwwwwl. Oliver Luck flips off the league offices in Providence and manages to jettison the Mountaineers out of the Big East a year early with a rising start quarterback in Tajh Boyd leading the way.

The Mountaineers, however, fail to wrap up the Big East championship for the second consecutive year under Al Golden, as the South Florida Bulls win a classic in Tampa to take the tiebreaker over our 9-3 Mountaineers. Bulls fans will forever remember a clutch conversion from Smith to Bailey on a late fourth down as the springboard to their second consecutive Big East championship. This success would create the Bulls way out of the dying Big East, with the Big 12 making a radical eastward move and establishing a footprint in the valuable Florida recruiting fields. The Mountaineers would enter the SEC with a fanbase quickly tiring of the mixed results of Al Golden, and the shadow of joining a division that has been ruled by Urban Meyer’s Florida Gator machine lingering over them....

That’s where I’ll leave this what if. I could have kept diving down this ridiculous rabbit hole, but I’d rather not write about us getting sat on in our first two years in the SEC before making a coaching change and probably hiring an assistant from Urban Meyer’s “Nick Saban never came back to the SEC so I didn’t leave Florida” Gator dynasty. Maybe we get Tom Herman for a year, who knows. More than likely, we descend into a very Missouri like state of mediocrity. But, at the end of the day, we have that 2007 national championship in my universe, and I feel that in the end, that’s enough for most of you.

If you enjoyed this big, dumb descent into madness and would like to see some more and have some ideas that aren’t “What if Dan Dakich Didn’t Leave,” please hit me up at @MKirchner12 or @SmokingMusket with your prompts.