Much like a kid’s Christmas, around here the anticipation of college football season begins to build about a month out. And the general consensus seems to be West Virginia should be better – but by what measure, and how much? What, exactly, constitutes success or failure? And is this, as some pundits and fans have insisted, truly a deciding season for the future of head coach Dana Holgorsen?
The most tangible, purely bottom-line topic is wins and losses. What’s enough to satiate a divided fan base? It would appear, like the television series, eight is enough. That seems to be the number most bandied about, the one that settles some fans and makes others quite pleased. But does simply that metric really measure the job status of Holgorsen? Director of Athletics Shane Lyons met nail with hammer when he said he will evaluate all coaches based upon a landslide of evidence that includes time on the job, contact status, record, facilities, financials and athletic department support, injuries, academics and other aspects. So simply slapping a must-do number is, as Lyons indicated, in error.
Frankly, none of that is imperative of now. It’s likely that a .500 record or better would garner Holgorsen another season, though then one must factor in the two years left on his contract, how that affects recruiting, etc. So if even a 7-6 mark brings a coach back, is this truly a make-or-break year? There’s clearly better depth, a finer sense of the more fertile recruiting areas for WVU and a series of assistants who truly enjoy being at West Virginia and who can build a Big 12 competitor. The growing pains and early learning curve after realignment – for the school, the coaches, the university in general – have been greatly reduced. It’s time for that talk to cease, and to begin building back to Mountaineer football.
Some of that starts today, with 15 returning starters, a pair of proven specialists and what’s expected to be the best defense since the 2010 season. But there are questions, again, involving the wideouts, the quarterback, areas along each of the lines, and the late-season swoons that have plagued the past two years. The latter, if it’s an issue, will doom the entire year, because West Virginia faces its biggest challenge in October, when the preseason Big 12 media poll’s top four selections play the Mountaineers, the top three on the road. Come out of that 5-2 or 4-3, and the remainder of the schedule sets itself up for that eight-win mark. Lose to Maryland and Oklahoma State, and a 2-5 start is likely to snowball. That written, let’s take a look at what’s probable, and possible, for West Virginia in what expects to be a key season in positioning the program and its branding for the future.
Why West Virginia might wildly exceed expectations: First, the Mountaineers have more quality depth in superior numbers than at any time during the Big 12 era. Nine returning starters on the defensive side, and a second consecutive season running the same defense under the same coordinator for the first time since 2010-11 should make the Mountaineers a more statistically and fundamentally sound unit as a whole, and able to begin to turn around a wildly lopsided minus-15 turnover margin that likely cost the team two additional wins last season.
The linebackers are deeper, and possess as much talent and basic understanding and ability to play as at any time over the last decade-plus. Jared Barber and Nick Kwiatkoski spearhead a group, coached by coordinator Tony Gibson, which understands angles of attack, and has an instinct and ability to get to the football while playing seven to eight-plus deep. The secondary has a layered texture to it, with veteran leadership from Terrell Chestnut and K.J. Dillon to the above-average skillsets of Daryl Worley and Karl Joseph.
Add in line that has climbed their way out of the lower rungs of the Big 12 and into respectable talent and size, and West Virginia’s defense should certainly better its 28 points and 399 yards allowed. The question, then, is by how much. The bet here is about five points per game, leaving it in the range of 23 points, which would put WVU in position to likely win eight, including a 3-0 start in September.
The offense once again lacks a proven quarterback and receiver, but what of it in the Holgorsen offense? The same issues were prevalent last season, when Clint Trickett was cruising up the NCAA passing yardage charts and Kevin White and Mario Alford were showcasing themselves against the likes of Alabama and Baylor. There’s little reason another player won’t emerge from a grouping that has skill in Daikiel Shorts, Shelton Gibson, Devonte Mathis, Jordan Thompson and more, mixed in with the ability of the backfield and flex backs to catch the ball.
Rushel Shell looks healthy and primed for a breakout year. Wendell Smallwood remains dangerous and multifaceted. Cody Clay is among the better tight end/back mixes in the conference. Elijah Wellman and Donte Thomas-Williams add physicality. There might not be a clear No. 1, but there’s clearly significant talent and the ability to situationally play widely varying skillsets. Add in a line that should again be good on the interior with Tyler Orlosky and Adam Pankey, and there aren’t quite as many holes in the unit as some might fathom.
And there isn’t much to add about the specialists. Josh Lambert could slip a bit and still be a top 10 kicker nationally. It’s fair to expect Nick O’Toole to iron out his location issues – and grasp the holding position – and WVU has perhaps the best longsnapper in the nation in John DePalma. Now, if somebody (Vernon Davis) can simply catch those punts. And on that note…
Why West Virginia will fail to reach a bowl: One can’t blame the schedule this time. There’s no Alabama to increase the out of conference difficulty, and the Mountaineers should be 3-0 entering October, then finish with five straight games against teams unrated in the preseason. If WVU can’t reach the six-win mark against this grouping, it’ll mean significant issues that could be caused by any of the below.
First, the offense is due to backslide a bit. Finding yet another quarterback to emerge sans experience is – if not a longshot – then statistically unlikely. Add in lacking a receiver with the body, and extreme need to prove himself, of White and West Virginia is likely looking at lesser offensive production. The two starting guards are gone off a line that hasn’t performed as well as hoped in recent years, and WVU is still shuffling players to find the best mix.
Skyler Howard is, per his pedigree, what is essentially a lower-level recruit. At 6-0, 202 pounds, he’s not tall, and he struggled on some wide open midrange throws during his last start, a loss to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl. If Howard is keeping William Crest on the sidelines, then how good is the Mountaineer back-up? It seems strange that Holgorsen, with his background, still lacks a surefire starter for yet another season, though he’s proven that thought process wrong in the past. And what of the spate of backs, none of whom can emerge as a starter long enough to really get into a game and lathered up? Shell comes off injuries, and the Mountaineers have yet to show they can utilize power whenever its needed. There won’t likely be another White, or even an Alford, and WVU has still been plagued by a horrid turnover margin that really should have cost it more games without some major bailouts by the defense.
On defense, West Virginia has a bunch of players back, but off a team that surrendered more than 30 points six times and finished, with the help of a generous offense, with its worst turnover margin (-15) in the last decade. Gibson has repeatedly complained about tackling, and the secondary still takes poor angles at times. The best edge rusher is again lost, and WVU has to break in a new one this fall. The front can be controlled by larger, more physical teams, and the linebackers, which played a bit over their head last year, might have to do the same again. WVU rated just sixth in scoring defense in the 10-team conference last year, and only fifth in offense, not exactly TCU-like numbers.
Lambert is due for the sophomore slump, and did dovetail slightly at the end of the season, missing four of 10 after hitting 21 of his first 25. Can he possibly hit 4-of-5 from 50-plusyards again? There’s a new holder, and O’Toole actually looked worse as the season progressed at times, culminating with his punt to Tyler Lockett that went for a score against Kansas State. West Virginia has been unable to field punts, that group looking as bad as any in the nation, to the point where the Mountaineers decided they wouldn’t even field a punt against Baylor. Add in that the main burst for kickoffs in Alford is gone, and it seems there are a myriad of holes and questions on all three sides of the ball – and that’s before one delves into the schedule.
Sure, the first three games should be wins, but then what? Or worse, what of a loss to Maryland (or Georgia Southern), coupled with a winless October that has the record at 2-5 with games against Texas and Kansas State left? Think another Iowa State letdown isn’t possible if the Mountaineers enter 4-6/3-7, playing host to a Cyclone team playing for Paul Rhoads’ job the weekend after Thanksgiving…in front of 20,000 at Milan Puskar Stadium?
The truth, thank goodness, is probably much closer to all the positives than the negatives. When delving into the stats and the returning players – and past histories of coaches and programs – the Big 12 seems to have three levels. First, TCU, Baylor, and then Oklahoma a bit below the top two. Second, the grouping of Oklahoma State, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas State and Texas Tech. Then Iowa State and Kansas. That middle grouping is sizable, and it’s close, but it reads here Oklahoma State is a bit overrated at fourth, West Virginia is underrated at sixth, which would place the Mountaineers in the five slot. And WVU does seem, on paper and day one of camp, to have fewer overall holes than any other team in that midpoint group.
That tallies to an 8-4 overall mark – the Mountaineers are not losing to Georgia Southern, and they’ll take out the Terps as well in starting 3-0 – and a 5-4 finish in Big 12 play, with a surprising win and a disappointing defeat. Such is simply the nature of this conference, which opens play with a duo of Thurs., Sept 3 games pairing Oklahoma State at (yes) Central Michigan and TCU on the road against a stout Minnesota team in the first day of major college play. That’s 31 days, a full calendar month in which to examine, inspect, recycle and regurgitate every nugget available. Welcome to college football season. Try and pace yourself, and enjoy.