MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Dana Holgorsen has an $18-million contract. He also has a recurring problem beating Top 25 teams.
This fact surfaced again Saturday, when West Virginia lost 31-24 at TCU. That makes nine consecutive losses against opponents ranked in the AP poll, a streak dating back to 2014.
Taken individually, many of those losses are excusable. Stacked nine-deep, they become problematic.
To be sure, the fourth-quarter officiating in Fort Worth contributed to the Mountaineers’ demise: The replay booth’s decision to overturn Elijah Battle’s interception looked dicey, and a sideline official’s pass interference call against David Sills was downright lousy. Yet here West Virginia sits with a 3-2 record, having clubbed three lesser opponents while falling short against two good ones.
Holgorsen received his five-year contract extension last December in the aftermath of West Virginia completing a 10-win regular season. That total has been matched only nine times during the 89 years in which the program has actually played a minimum of 10 games, so the accomplishment shouldn’t be dismissed.
Neither should the fact that Holgorsen stands 4-16 against ranked teams since West Virginia joined the Big 12. Those are high-difficulty, high-impression games that matter. Win your fair share of them and the program finds itself competing for Big 12 titles and, on the best of years, surfacing in the CFP discussion.
From managing games to hiring assistants, Holgorsen has improved dramatically since his early days as a head coach. That’s not so much an accolade as it is a necessity. Had he not developed, the program would have a different boss today.
Every debate over Holgorsen’s job performance is buffered against the backdrop of “realistic expectations” for a program like West Virginia (in-state recruiting limitations, marginal facilities relative to elite Power 5 programs,) And let’s not confuse being realistic with being under-ambitious. Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez made West Virginia a national brand across three different decades, and Holgorsen’s charge is to return to those heady times.
For big-picture context, Holgorsen’s 82-game mark of 49-33 lags behind the pace set by Rodriguez (57-25) and Nehlen (52-28-1). His predecessors also staged three top-25 finishes in their first six seasons compared to Holgorsen’s two.
The surest way to get into the Top 25, of course, is to beat a few teams that reside there, which has been Holgorsen’s downfall of late. Here’s a glimpse at how WVU’s last nine losses to ranked teams unfolded:
2017 — lost 31-24 at No. 8 TCU
2017 — lost 31-24 vs. No. 21 Virginia Tech
2016 — lost 56-28 vs. No. 8 Oklahoma
2015 — lost 40-10 at No. 5 TCU
2015 — lost 62-38 at No. 2 Baylor
2015 — lost 33-26 vs. No. 21 Oklahoma State (OT)
2015 — lost 44-24 at No. 15 Oklahoma
2014 — lost 26-20 vs. No. 12 Kansas State
2014 — lost 31-30 vs. No. 10 TCU
Five of those were one-possession games, a distinction that rightly or wrongly shines more scrutiny on coaching impact. And keep in mind, West Virginia was favored twice during that streak — by 2.5 points over K-State in 2014 and by 6 points vs. OSU in 2015.
This week presents another chance, as Texas Tech comes to Morgantown newly ranked at No. 24. Considering his Mountaineers are 3.5-point favorites, it would be a good time for Holgorsen to end the jinx before it blossoms into a more annoying distraction.