By KELLIS ROBINETT
Tribune News Service
It is fitting that West Virginia and TCU will share the bright spotlight of ESPN's "College Gameday" when they meet Saturday in Morgantown, W.Va.
The Big 12 newcomers have followed remarkably similar paths since switching conferences two years, almost as if they are twin programs.
West Virginia was a Big East power at the same time TCU ruled the Mountain West, but neither team could live up that success in the Big 12. The Mountaineers were loaded with NFL talent on offense their first year in the league, but slumped to a 7-6 finish. Things got worse in 2013, when they won four games. The Horned Frogs had one of the nastiest defenses around in their Big 12 debut, but they also went 7-6. Last year, they seemed outmatched and won four games.
Today, they are both contending for a conference championship. West Virginia is ranked 20th and TCU is ranked 10th. They are about to face off in what should be the Big 12's game of the week, and a national viewing audience will learn about their success stories leading up to kickoff.
"It really is pretty neat to have this matchup this weekend," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Both teams came into the league at the same time, both programs had a tremendous amount of success in other leagues -- went to BCS bowls and won championships -- and both joined the Big 12 at the same time ... We are settled in now."
Most assumed that would happen, but the timing seems too good to be true.
After a pair of four-win seasons, most expected West Virginia and TCU to finish near the bottom of the conference standings this year. But the Mountaineers are on a tear behind quarterback Clint Trickett and receiver Kevin White. All while the Horned Frogs are suddenly scoring 82 points in games behind quarterback Trevone Boykin.
When that success didn't come immediately, it seemed like both programs needed time to grow into Big 12 contenders. But Gary Patterson and Holgorsen never wavered.
"I told people it was going to take three to five years," said Patterson, TCU's coach. "You have to catch up recruiting and do all the things you need to do."
The biggest improvement both programs needed to make was depth.
"The biggest thing was having enough bodies to play at a high level," Holgorsen said. "When we first entered the league we had a couple of dynamic players, but we were playing so many freshmen. Three years later, the recruiting is so much better ... We played 58 total people in the game at Oklahoma State. Those first couple years we were fortunate to have a backup that could go into the game, let alone go into the game and play at the level we have these guys playing at right now."
So far, both teams have won big games. TCU beat Oklahoma and then pounded Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. West Virginia handed Baylor its only loss and is coming off a blowout victory at Oklahoma State.
On Saturday, one of their profiles will get another boost. Until then, their connection remains strong.
"It's been fun for both of us," Patterson said. "There have been so many critics of both of us coming into the conference. It is a positive that both of us have shown that we can compete. We talk about being relevant ... That has been our battle cry. How do we get to a point where we can become that? I think both programs are showing signs that we can be that now."
K-State's Barnett wins weekly honor
K-State defensive back Dante Barnett was named Big 12 defensive player of the week following the Wildcats' 23-0 victory over Texas. Barnett made seven tackles in the game and broke up four passes. He also helped stuff a fourth-and-1 run that preserved the shutout. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin won offensive honors after throwing for 433 yards and seven touchdowns against Texas Tech.
1. TCU (6-1, 3-1 Big 12): Scoring 82 points on a conference foe shoots you to the top of these power rankings.
2. Kansas State (6-1, 4-0 Big 12): Wildcats flexed their defensive muscles against Texas.
3. West Virginia (6-2, 4-1): In any other conference, Dana Holgorsen would be the runaway leader for Coach of the Year.
4. Baylor (6-1, 3-1): Can the Bears top 82 points against Kansas?
5. Oklahoma (5-2, 2-2): Sooners spent part of their off week complaining about downfield blocking. Not a good look.
6. Oklahoma State (5-3, 3-2): How were the Cowboys ever ranked 15th?
7. Texas (3-5, 2-3): Longhorns are a long shot to make a bowl game.
8. Iowa State (2-5, 0-4): Still searching for first conference victory.
9. Kansas (2-5, 0-4): Waco has been a place of horrors for Kansas. That shouldn't change Saturday.
10. Texas Tech (3-5, 1-4): Allowing 82 points sends you to the bottom of these power rankings.