TCU's ninth opponent in 2012 waits in Morgantown, in what may be the toughest road trip of the season (from here it looks like a tie with the trip to Austin, for the opposite reason: offense!). No team made more hay for itself this season in last season's bowl season than West Virginia. The Mountaineers rode the wave from that game to a high pre-season poll position (top ten is most of them).
And it's easy to fall in love with this offense: the Smith-Austin-Bailey trio of skill players is the glitziest in the country. Geno Smith in 2011: 4,385 yards (8.3 per pass), a 66 percent completion rate, 31 touchdowns and a 1.3 percent interception rate. And that was in Year One of the air raid offense he’s captaining into Heisman contention in Year Two. Yikes.
The primary targets in Smith’s cohort are receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, who accounted for 49% of WVU’s catches and 55% of WVU’s receiving yards last season. They’re moving around for 2012, and will be lining up on different sides of the field (when I saw this, I thought, "they weren’t already?").
After these two, returning experience gets pretty sparse. There’ll be a lot of new names popping up in the Big 12 receiving stats log. Look for Seniors J.D. Woods and Ryan Nehlen, and then any of the freshmen and redshirt freshmen who await their turns in the pinwheel that is Dana Holgerson’s offense. Jordan Thompson is like Brandon Carter— a smaller sized playmaker—and he’s trying to push senior J. D. Woods out of the starting spot. Devonte Robinson is speedy; Devonte Mathis is the big guy.
WVU’s runningbacks all return: senior Shawne Alston and sophomores Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. Alston is the goal line big man (235 pounds; 12 scores last season); Buie is most likely to be the star.
The Mountaineers return 100 career starts at o-line; the leader is center Joe Madsen, who sported a very aggressive-looking Mohawk at the conference media days. On his left is senior guard Josh Jenkins, who missed 2011 with an injury, but has two years’ starting experience from earlier seasons. (Junior Nick Kindler has played for Jenkins some in fall drills, and has drawn high praise.) Right guard is Jeff Braun who emerged last season. The tackles are less proven; LT Quinton Spain is a sophomore and first-year starter; Pat Eger at right tackle is vast (6-6, 301) but still growing into the role. This line is going to be fine most of the time.
And so is the offense; it’s a top notch show when clicking (see: the Orange Bowl), but has been inconsistent at times. There’s enough returning experience now (being the second year in Holgerson’s system) that we ought to expect more consistency and a whole lot of explosiveness. Best in the Big12? That remains to be seen, but it’s certainly possible.
And it will be necessary, I think, because the fruitbasket turnover on defense is not confidence inspriring.
RichRod coaxed Jeff Casteel to Tucson, taking his 3-3-5 with him. In comes Oklahoma State safeties coach Joe DeForest, who brought a simpler 3-4 (with 4-3 mixed in). The result so far has been the usual "less thinking, more playing" platitudes; but we’ll see. WVU had been very good defensively for a long time, but deteriorated in the last two years, especially against the run.
If the crew improves against the run in 2012, it’ll be because newcomers outshined the departed oldtimers. The coach for the linemen is new—Erik Slaughter, from Stephen F. Austin. He’s fully on board with DeForest’s emphasis on rushing the quarterback. DT Jorge Wright DE Will Clarke have starting experience, but JUCO transfer Shaq Rowell is getting snaps with the ones in the middle. Tyler Anderson and Chidoziem Ezemma both can play end, and also buck linebacker. But the coaches have been mixing and matching to find the best combo up front—and it it’s not clear they’ve found it yet.
Which puts pressure on the linebackers, of which only one starter returns, senior Terence Garvin. Sophomore linebackers Jewone Snow, Jared Barber, and Shaq Petteway, and freshman Isaiah Bruce will need to play quickly and well. This section of the defense is its biggest question mark.
Behind them all cornerbacks Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins return, and so does safety Darwin Cook (although he's hurt, and freshman K.J. Dillon is taking snaps in his place). Each of these players had more than 10 tackles last season. This unit is more proven than any other on the defense, but will be tested more in the Big12 than it was in the Big East.
The kicker, Tyler Bitancurt, is 73% accurate for field goals over three years. The punting situation is not so good.
FootballOutsiders is not as high on West Virginia as most other polls. The Outsiders ranks the Mountaineers 20th nationally, and call for WVU to lose four games in the Big 12. They don’t say which ones, but the mid-season stretch of Kansas State, TCU, at Oklahoma State, and Oklahoma is about as difficult a four-game stretch as any in the conference. And this two weeks after facing down Texas’s defense in Austin.
Welcome to the Big 12.