Both coaches faced the pressure of great expectations coming into the season. Having spent years on the sideline as a player for West Virginia and as the coach for Auburn, this game touched a lot of emotional chords for me.
To most people, especially those in West Virginia, Stewart stepped into a perfect situation. He is a home-grown boy taking over the job of his dreams at a point in time when the Mountaineers were at the pinnacle of their success. If you're talking about a mountain-top experience, this surely is it. The problem is that it is a lot harder to remain on top of the mountain than it is to get there.
West Virginia has gone 11-1, 11-2, and 11-2 the last three years and came into this season with a Heisman candidate at quarterback and a No. 8 ranking. All Bill Stewart had to do was keep the Mountaineers exactly where they were and put them in a position to win the national championship. And, oh yeah, since they were unhappy with the way the old coach left, do things a little differently - like add a little motion to the offense or throw the ball downfield more - just to show everyone what the old coach should have done while he was here.
Considering the margin of error for Stewart, he may have had the most difficult job in the country. For a new head coach, a great job is one where there is room for improvement. A great job is a good program gone bad. Bob Stoops got a great job when he went to Oklahoma. So did Mack Brown at Texas and Pete Carroll at USC. Just a couple of weeks ago, Hall of Fame football coach and television analyst Lou Holtz made the statement that there is no such thing as a great job. There are only bad jobs that you make good. I'm pretty sure we were talking about the same thing.
Rich Rodriguez took West Virginia to their highest level of success and then left. Unless what he accomplished was everyday stuff, which it wasn't, keeping the program at that high level is more difficult than most people can imagine.
Thursday night against Auburn, WVU got back to that level. The Mountaineers were the spitting image of their old selves. Substitute the name Noel Devine for Steve Slaton, and this offense was as good as any we have seen in Morgantown over the last three years. Pat White was back in his comfort zone, and the Mountaineers went back to being a dominant run- first, throw-second offense that has a great chance to bring home another Big East title.
Unfortunately, the Auburn offense is back to its old self again, as well. As much as the Tigers enjoy ramming the ball down people's throat, unless they have a Cadillac Williams or a Ronnie Brown in the backfield and a Jason Campbell under center, they're just going to find themselves in too many tight ballgames with too little ability to put points on the board. That is why Tuberville felt he had to go to the spread offense in the first place.
Maybe of greater significance to the SEC was the way the West Virginia offense was able to slice and dice Auburn's tough traditional southern-style defense. In a league that prides itself in being able to stuff the running game, this is the second SEC game in a row that I have seen a spread option running attack with itty-bitty backs running up and down the field. Just two weeks ago I watched Florida pin a half-a-hundred on LSU with the same type of system.
With all this debate about whether the spread offenses of the Big 12 could run up the same kind of numbers in the SEC, it makes you wonder. Because the Big 12's versions are mostly pass oriented, I'm not sure this question has fully been answered. However, it's becoming obvious that a spread offense with a dual-threat quarterback and a strong running attack can be very successful against the best defenses the SEC has to offer.