MORGANTOWN - Let's face it. Around here, we're new to ''Big 12 Country.''
When's the last time you ventured on the back patio and were frightened back inside by an armadillo? How often have you frolicked in a field of bluebonnets? A great plain in West Virginia is that one small flat section of your yard.
Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, these were flyover states. But man did they play some football in them.
For years, we were just outsiders looking in, admirers really. We never bothered to educate on ourselves what exactly an Oklahoma Sooner was. Let's face it. This is our first rodeo.
All we knew is the Big 12 had a much higher profile than the credibility-challenged Big East, and we wanted in.
Then you do some homework and reality slaps you right square in the face.
Three seconds worth of research shows the Big 12's nonconference schedule figures to be mostly unwatchable - like paint dry on an adobe wall.
Please, not again.
Who could forget Big East brother Rutgers' 48-0 beating of North Carolina Central to begin last season? Or when South Florida played three straight against the likes of Ball State, Florida A&M, and UTEP and won by a combined score of 122-48? Or how Cincinnati opened by dropping 72 on the Austin Peay Governors? That's no way to treat a politician.
West Virginia had virtually no running game through four contests last season, then a true freshman nearly ran for 300 yards against a Bowling Green team that was doing little more than collecting a payday. (Here's the above-average dollar amount we agreed upon, thanks for the 55 points and for self-esteem boost for our running back, who was knocking over 15-year-olds a year ago).
Sadly, it's the same way in the Big 12. There are six ranked Big 12 teams, and they're scheduled, at the moment, to play exactly zero Top-25 teams in their non-conference schedule (Notre Dame, which will play Oklahoma, came in at No. 26 in the AP's preseason poll, though it's No. 24 in the coaches).
So here's what we're about to see, including WVU's Fed-Ex Field experiment against James Madison: Poor old UTEP, which won exactly two games in Conference USA last season, meets the No. 4-ranked Sooners in Week 1. Savannah State, Northwestern State and South Dakota State are other sacrificial lambs Big 12 teams will play this week.
Of course, there's a monumental difference between the two leagues here. Though they rarely did so, Big East teams had a strong need to play programs with a recognizable mascot and a pulse, just so they could remind others they, too, had one.
Playing some big shots from the SEC four straight years helped West Virginia's national profile, even as it went 1-3 in those games. Remember, if the Mountaineers were still in the Big East, they'd be playing No. 7 Florida State next weekend, a game they had to back out of in order to make room for nine Big 12 games on a schedule that was made up a few years earlier. Pitt sometimes got aggressive with the schedule, but that just led to some 6-5 seasons with Dave Wannstedt (two seasons and four head coaches ago) asking aloud why he bothers when no one else does?
But in the Big 12, it's senseless to play any of the big boys in the nonconference schedule.
When these league games start, it's going to be a battle of attrition. It's wise to get in a few softies, grab some big leads, pull your starters, and see what you've got in some of these backups.
''I wouldn't want to jump up and play the No. 1 team in the country as your first game,'' said co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, a veteran of the Big 12, having coached in the league since 2001. ''It's hard when you get in that league. When we had 12 teams, there was no break at all.''
The only drawback to playing Wassamatta U. in the first three or four weeks is the fear of a loss. With very little to gain and a whole bunch to lose from these games, the idea is to just make it through relatively unscathed. And, of course, unbeaten. (There are more than a few who think all of the Big 12 teams will sweep their way through the nonconference slate).
Having learned all of this, it appears to be a coup that the Mountaineers were able to get out of the Florida State game.
Particularly your first year in a power conference, it's important to crawl before you walk. But, the way it looks now, the Mountaineers won't completely follow their Big 12 brethren on the path toward future cupcakes. WVU is scheduled to open in two years against 2011 national champion Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. That same day, Texas is scheduled to play North Texas, which likely won't be much better by then than the 5-7 it was last year.
The learning continues.