It's been a long time since West Virginia has gone into a season with a group of challenges similar to the ones it will get in its non-conference schedule this season.
The days of filling that out-of-conference slate with easy wins are long gone - or at least they are on their way to being gone - as the College Football Playoff era is set to begin this season. Instead of seeing a handful of cupcakes on the schedules of teams from the Power 5 conferences, there are going to start being several marquee matchups along the way.
WVU has already started planning for that in the future by scheduling programs like Virginia Tech, Penn State, Tennessee, BYU and North Carolina State in the coming years, but the Mountaineers are getting the ball rolling early and will be thrown into the fire from the first time they step on the field this season.
Several analysts have ranked West Virginia's non-conference schedule of No. 2 Alabama, Towson and Maryland among one of the toughest in all of college football, and it's hard to disagree. As the Mountaineers prepare for one of the most crucial seasons in recent history, against a Big 12 Conference that is full of games where there are no guaranteed victories, those three games to kick off the season will be extremely crucial to the way the rest of the year goes for this group.
Of course it all starts with Alabama, a game that has been circled on the calendar ever since it was announced a few years ago shortly after WVU won the Orange Bowl. And no matter how much it wants to insist on it being treated like any other game, it's not. A good performance, whether it's an upset win (which is pretty likely to not happen) or even just playing with the Crimson Tide for a majority of the game, will help set the tone in the way West Virginia would like.
After the way last season went, with all of the disappointments that happened, a bad loss to Alabama could be very tough on this team's psyche. As the Mountaineers have gone through camp, they've seemed pretty confident that they are tougher and better prepared to handle the adversity that is going to undoubtedly hit the team throughout the rigors of the college football season.
But a bad loss there, followed by a few tough challenges following that Alabama game, could put WVU in a tough situation entering the Oklahoma game to start Big 12 play and could find it starting to lose confidence.
There's also a flip side to that coin.
Let's say WVU comes out and is as good as this team and the coaching staff believes it can be and plays Bama close, then turns around and picks up a couple of wins against Towson and Maryland and enters the Oklahoma game at home to start conference play with its confidence sky high.
That's probably about the best-case scenario the Mountaineers can ask for with that non-conference schedule, and honestly it's what they will need if they want to have a better season.
As it has become abundantly clear over the course of the last two seasons, when Big 12 play starts up, you absolutely have to be on your A-game every time you step out on that field.
Now, as if that didn't leave a small enough margin of error to begin with, WVU is going to have to go into its non-conference group of games in a similar scenario. And if it isn't careful, it could be the start of a slide into yet another tough season.