We all suffer from it. When analyzing West Virginia's chances in an upcoming season, there's usually a critical eye turned to those things that need improvement from a year ago. For WVU's football team, those areas include offensive line play, kickoff coverage and the breaking in of a new starting quarterback, and they are all items that have been discussed a great deal since the start of practice.
There's also optimism about expected improvements. If a majority of players return on offense or defense, the automatic assumption is that the performance of that group will improve. Often, that does turn out to be true, but not always, as we'll examine in just a moment.
The danger in all of this is a simple one, when looked at from a wide-angle view. While there's a good deal of attention focused on fixing problem areas, not so much attention is paid to things that were good a year ago (or for the past few years) but might be missing this year. This leads to some unrealistic expectations, and often some angst when things don't go exactly as planned.
Take, for example, West Virginia's ability to create turnovers. In 2007, West Virginia was ninth in the country in turnover margin with a +1.00 per game rating. A year later, WVU was 16th at +0.92. But in 2009, the Mountaineers fell all the way to 70th, with a –0.15 ranking. In looking at won/loss results from those years, how many people took those stats into account? Were those numbers really due to the talent WVU had for stripping and protecting the ball? How much of it was the result of the same skills for the foes it faced? And how do you evaluate those abilities prior to this year?
Turnover margin is just one item that we haven't discussed much in trying to figure out how the Mountaineers will fare this year. Here are a couple of other items you (and we) probably haven't given much consideration to.
1) Linebacker pass coverage was tremendous in 2009, thanks largely to the presence of Reed Williams. WVU's do-everything backer ranged far downfield in 2009, often dropping 15-20 yards into pass coverage to break up mid-range and deep crossing routes. He helped neutralize some of the dangerous tight ends West Virginia faced, and broke up seven passes on the season. Can anyone realistically expect the 2010 backers to match those numbers? How will that affect the pass defense?
2) West Virginia didn't yield many sacks in 2009, but a good bit of that credit has to go to quarterback Jarrett Brown, who was tougher to bring down than the Tower of London. Brown suffered just 19 sacks while getting off 296 passes. Compare that to Geno Smith, who was sacked five times while making just 49 pass attempts. If Smith had attempted as many passes as Brown, the ratio suggests that he would have been sacked 30 times. While WVU's line play improve enough to protect Smith, or will he have the pocket awareness to avoid rushers in 2010? It's certainly not fair to exect Smith to shed tacklers the way Brown did. But if the protection doesn't improve or Smith can't dodge the rush, West Virginia will be facing many more long yardage situations as a result of sacks than it did a year ago.
Of course, there's no guarantee that these, or any other items, will turn out to be negatives. WVU's linebacking corps, and experienced back five, might be better overall than they were in 2009. The offensive line may put its talent together and limit sacks. Punters Gregg Pugnetti and Corey Smith may team to match the performance of Scott Kozlowski, who was outstanding in his feel-good return to play after a couple of seasons in exile. But in evaluating the potential play of West Virginia, or any team, evaluators have to remember to look at the whole picture – not just those things that might improve.