Before we dive into the nitty-gritty of offensive analysis, it should be made clear that WVU has an offensive set of "triplets" that are in the discussion as one of the best in school history. Whether you're stacking up the current trio of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey against Pat White, Steve Slaton and Darius Reynaud, Major Harris, A.B. Brown and Reggie Rembert, or Marc Bulger, Amos Zereoue and Shawn Foreman, the current group certainly holds its own, and will, in all likelihood, hold a majority of season and career records when their eligibility expires. With such a talent base to call upon (and we haven't even gotten to a number of supporting cast members who could make the group into a quartet), WVU is expected to better it's scoring average of 37.6 points per game of a year ago. Is that realistic, however, given that a 70-point game isn't likely to occur again (not that the possibility should be discounted, of course)? It's just that most observers think that 70-point outburst was all the doing of the offense – and that certainly wasn't the case when a closer look at the Orange Bowl is made.
Of course, the offense deserves a lot of credit for its accomplishments in the blowout. It put together three touchdown drives in the early stages of the game to put the Mountaineers on top, but then got a huge boost with Darwin Cook's strip , steal and 99-yard return for a touchdown. Another 64-yard touchdown drive by the offense put the Mountaineers up 35-20, but the next two scores were set up at point blank range by the defense, which contributed a Pat Miller interception and a Bruce Irvin sack and strip to put the offense in scoring position. Again, the offense deserves credit for capitalizing on those chances, but the defense could also lay claim to 21 of WVU's 49 first half points.
There also has to be some question about Clemson's defensive effort after the avalanche of second quarter points. At some point during the 35-3 WVU onslaught, more than one Clemson defender reportedly told Mountaineer offensive players that they could "take it easy", and that "they had the game". Of course, there's no audio that corroborates those statements, but the results on the field certainly didn't do anything to dispute the notion that at least some Tiger defenders weren't playing with top effort.
Again, this isn't to say that WVU didn't earn its points. Any time an offense rolls up 595 yards, it more than did its job. But West Virginia can't expect to get four turnovers in every game in 2012, no matter how much it emphasizes stripping and stealing the ball. It can't expect Big 12 opponents to fold their tents if they are down 42-20, because most of the teams in that league are more than capable of making up such a first-half deficit. So just how much can be expected of the Mountaineer attack this year? What's realistic, and what's wishful thinking?
First, let's take a look at last year. Only nine Division 1-A teams averaged more than 40 points per game, led by Houston's 49.3. Of then nine, however, three were Big 12 teams (Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU), thus justifying the league's reputation as a scoring haven. With Oklahoma (10th), Texas Tech (22nd) and Kansas State (31st), scoring at least 31 points per game, there's no doubt that points will have to be rung up on the Mountaineer side of the ledger. (Also note that Missouri and Texas A&M, departing for the SEC, also topped 32 points per outing.) Can we assume, though, that will be the case just based on the results of the Orange Bowl?
To balance that out, we need to look at West Virginia's performance over the entire season. While there were scoring outbursts, there were also power outages. The Mountaineers managed 41 points in horrible conditions at Rutgers, but had sub-par performances against Syracuse, Cincinnati, and Pitt, all of which were in good to great weather. Of course, every team is going to have ups and downs, and the quality of defense, match-ups and the like also have effects on the final score. But if West Virginia is going to be successful in the Big 12 against most teams, it is likely going to have to average at least 40 per game – better than it did a year ago. It might be able to weather a power outage or two against teams like Kansas, but by and large it is going to have to be more consistent that it was in 2011.
One of the biggest factors to keep an eye on as the Mountaineers strive to meet that goal is turnovers. Head coach Dana Holgorsen, like just about every head coach in the country, preaches on the importance of protecting the ball. He and his new defensive staff aren't as concerned about total defense (yards given up) as they are about getting turnovers and giving their offense extra chances with the ball, so that's certainly something to measure as the season progresses. Last year, Oklahoma State rode an awesome +21 turnover margin (#1 in the nation) to their excellent record, while Kansas State (+12/#9) also parlayed that play phase into success. West Virginia? A middle-of-the-pack +1 margin, which would have put it no better than sixth in the Big 12. With a re-schemed, rebuilding defense, turnovers might be even more crucial than ever for WVU, and the offense's success in avoiding them will be every bit as importance as the defense forcing them.
Of course, these are just some of the variables in play. The offensive line seems more solid, especially on the interior, but will have to be improved at the tackle spots as well to make pass protection more consistent. The Mountaineers yielded two sacks per game in 2011, a number that would have again put it no better than mid-pack in the Big 12. Note that Oklahoma yielded just 11, Oklahoma State 12 and Texas Tech 19, in 2011, all despite attempting more passes than the Mountaineers.
What does this all mean for West Virginia's offense this fall? As the Magic 8-ball often says, "Results are impossible to predict." There's no doubt that WVU has the talent to pile up big offensive numbers, but the key will be consistency. Can the Mountaineers avoid turnovers and play consistently in most every game? Those are the biggest obstacles standing in the way of West Virginia and that 40-point per game mark, and the ones that will likely determine the success of the 2012 season.