Ask any coach this question, and they'll recoil in horror. The most important game is the next one – play 'em one at a time and all that – and don't look ahead. That's valid from the standpoint of preparing a team to play, but it's much too narrow a view when looking at the overall schedule and the ways in which each game might impact the season. We've broken down some of this in our look at the way the 2016 slate is laid out, but now we'll examine the contests and try to identify the one that's the most important – the one that the Mountaineers really need to win.
First, there's the big game angle. If West Virginia is to compete for a Big 12 title, it will have to win at least two of three against Oklahoma, TCU and Oklahoma State. Those squads are all expected to be at or near the top of the conference, so to get the title, WVU must get wins against this trio. Is that enough, though, to make one of them a “must-win” on the schedule? Probably not. This shouldn't be construed as saying it's o.k. to lose to these teams, or that the Mountaineers shouldn't be expected to compete for the Big 12 Championship. However, a couple of losses here won't make the 2016 season a total bust. Wins, of course, would really boost WVU's resume, but that doesn't make them the most critical contests on the schedule.
Getting off to a good start is very important, which brings the Missouri and BYU games into the discussion. There is always great excitement leading up to the start of the season, and nothing puts a damper on that enthusiasm like an opening game loss. Back in 1991, WVU was celebrating its 100th anniversary of football (much as it is hyping the 125th this year) and there was even more than the usual amount of build-up to the opening contest. Making it even better was the fact that the opponent was Pitt – what better way to kick off the season? Unfortunately, all that excitement withered when the Mountaineers lost 34-3, setting the stage for a 6-5 season.
Hopefully, that's not a bad open for this year's pre-season build-up. But there's no denying that the first and third games of the season are very important. Get through those, and sandwich in a win over Youngstown State, and the 3-0 record gets the Mountaineers some early notoriety. It keeps West Virginia off of those ridiculous lists that mark teams as “eliminated” from national championship consideration or that deem teams “irrelevant”, and grabs more attention heading into the conference portion of the season. All of those are strong points, but still not enough to take the top spot.
Beating other “name” teams is also a selling point, especially due to the continued hype of squads whose performance is much closer to South Alabama than that of Alabama. Of course, I'm talking Texas here. No matter what the Longhorns do, they get hyped out of all proportion, so beating UT remains disproportionately important in the eyes of the shallow analysts that hold sway on the college football scene. We're trying to go deeper here, though, so that puts Texas out of the top spot.
That leaves Kansas State. I can see the question marks and 'reallys?' popping up everywhere, but hold on for just a moment. The Wildcats have a very solid program, and despite a down season a year ago, still made a bowl game (at the expense of a WVU loss). They are well-respected, usually don't beat themselves, and are a team that always has some impact on the Big 12 race. Plus, the Mountaineers have never beaten them in conference play.
That last might be holding a bit more importance than is first apparent. West Virginia should have claimed its first league win over the Wildcats last year, but a desultory showing, which has certainly contributed to the contract renewal impasse between WVU and Dana Holgorsen, sent the Mountaineers tumbling to a lower bowl and cast a pall over the end of the season. Getting a bit of revenge for that defeat is only the first of several important plus marks.
Next, K-State is the first league game on the 2016 schedule. WVU has dropped its last three consecutive league openers, so getting a win here would also help in that strong early start category – especially if it has already piled up three non-conference wins. Finally, there's the matter of simply beating the Wildcats themselves. This is the kind of program that WVU has had trouble with over the past few years, and recording a win over Bill Snyder's troops would have to result in a nice sense of accomplishment. Winning this won't send off shockwaves across the country, but the importance of proving itself against one of the most solid and stable programs in the league would count for a lot inside the Mountaineer camp, help build on a hoped-for strong early start, and at least help inch the Mountaineers toward more national notice. For those reasons, Kansas State is the pick as the most important game of the 2016 season.