So here's 10 things I expect will happen to WVU this year.
10. West Virginia will forget all about its fumbling woes from 2010.
There isn't much you can take from the first 30 minutes of eight fall practices. And, what the media was able to see, you've probably read about it already. One of the most memorable aspects of camp this fall was running back coach Robert Gillespie absolutely mauling his ball carriers during a drill. He ripped the ball out of Andrew Buie's hands and spun him to the ground in one practice in an eyebrow-raising moment. After seeing that and the re-emphasized presence of ball security in fall camp and from this new offensive staff, I truly believe this year's skill players will not have 30 fumbles again in 2011.
9. Inside receiver Tavon Austin will set the school record for receiving yards in a season. In addition, WVU will have six players with more than 30 catches named Austin, Stedman Bailey, Ivan McCartney, Ryan Nehlen, Devon Brown and Tyler Urban.
West Virginia has a lot of talent at receiver, and there is no better player at that position than Austin. The junior is going to have a breakout season, and will likely earn all-Big East Conference honors. Outside of Austin, it's a toss up at who will be the next receiver to benefit from the fruits of Dana Holgorsen's offensive scheme. The best bet would likely be Bailey, but I wouldn't forget about Nehlen – Holgorsen hasn't. There's going to be a steady stream of passes thrown this year, and I am expecting more than a few will be on the receiving end of them.
8. WVU will score at least three touchdowns on special teams.
This is absolutely just a gut feeling, but I have some reasoning as to why this makes my list. When new wide receivers/kick and punt return coach Daron Roberts was hired, he made it clear that he wants to be more aggressive in the return game. Holgorsen has said in the past that kick and punt return can change a game and momentum quicker than anything else in a game, as well. With Austin back to receive the kicks, I'd expect the Mountaineers to see a definitive difference in special teams in 2011.
7. The Mountaineers' weakness for the 2011 season will be the offensive line. However, the line will show improvement from last year's unit.
It's fairly obvious that the offensive line is just not where it needs to be in terms of the depth and experience. Sure, there are three veterans on the line including Don Barclay, Joe Madsen and Jeff Braun, but outside of that it's a fairly big question mark. Tyler Rader has impressed the coaching staff this fall, and it seems Pat Eger is the guy at right tackle, however I just don't know how those two will handle the pressure during a game. Depth will be the huge issue, though.
6. West Virginia will finish in the top 10 in scoring offense.
This is a pretty sure bet if West Virginia is to have similar success as Holgorsen's offenses at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State. Since 2002, the offense Holgorsen was involved with finished 10th or better in passing total and scoring, all but once (13th in scoring offense in 2006). It really is difficult to see this trend stopping with all the talent at the skill positions for the Mountaineers – especially with an experienced quarterback.
5. Freshman running back Andrew Buie will make a name for himself as the starting running back for WVU in 2011.
Holgorsen said last week that all of his running backs will get a chance to play, and I would agree that's the best to handle the position battle in Game One. What I'm likely you'll see is one of the young, inexperienced backs stand out, and that will be Buie. He was an absolute talent in high school and showed sparks in fall camp like a three-touchdown performance in one practice. He has the speed and ability catch passes out of the backfield that Holgorsen wants in an "A" back.
4. The WVU defense won't match the success the 2010 unit. But, it won't be terrible either.
WVU did lose a lot of talent from last year's defense, and it will feel that loss in the early part of the season for sure. There's little chance that the Mountaineers will have a long span of games where teams are held under 20 points. That doesn't mean it will be a bad defense, however. When the WVU offense is on point, this defense will be one of the best in the country. With a lead, it will allow defensive end Bruce Irvin, defensive tackle Julian Miller and a slew of talented linebackers to rush the quarterback.
3. The Mountaineers will stay ranked in the top 25 throughout 2011.
Before I explain, I have West Virginia finishing the regular season with a 10-2 record, which in Big East play might not necessarily mean a top 25 caliber team. Say, though, WVU loses to a non-conference opponent like LSU and likely doesn't drop out of the polls, because it would've risen inside the top 20 – maybe top 15 - prior to that game. Then, after that loss WVU will have a few solid, convincing wins and be back in the top 15 in case of another mishap. The Mountaineers, to me, will finish the regular season in the 15-20 range of the top 25.
2. Senior defensive end Bruce Irvin will be named an all-American.
There are a few experts out there that don't really think too highly of Irvin – or at least as highly as Irvin believes they should. I have a suggestion for those: Just sit back and watch Irvin dominate this year. Barring an injury, I expect Irvin to have a stunning senior season that could boost him up to a first-round NFL draft pick. He was absolutely dominant in the spring and similarly as strong in the parts of fall camp the media was able to catch. His statistics and the fact that he's already on the radar will make him an all-American.
1. West Virginia will win the Big East.
A 10-2 record should capture the Big East title in 2011. The conference is pretty awful – there's no way to get around that. It will likely play out a bit like it did in 2010 – a group of three teams (Pittsburgh, South Florida and West Virginia) will separate themselves and a game or two could decide the championship. The good thing for WVU is that it gets Pitt, the next most-talented team in the conference, at home and South Florida at the end of the season when the Mountaineers will likely be at their best.
The truth about this column is that it is fille with predictions and little facts. I will look back on it this time next year and laugh like I did a few days ago at my column in The Daily Athenaeum last year in which I said McCartney would become a starter and WVU fans would regain confidence in then-offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. That's what's fun about this time of the season. It's all a guess until kickoff on Sunday.