West Virginia had a very successful season last year, as they finished the season 10-3 and had a huge Orange Bowl victory over the Clemson Tigers. This year, they return a total of 15 starters and are looking to really build on their recent success as they head into their new home, the Big 12.
Although we still may be months away from college football kicking off, spring ball is right around the corner. The Mountaineers' first spring practice is scheduled for March 11, and the spring game will take place on April 21.
As we get closer to spring practice and the regular season, here are five things the Mountaineers must work on for their season to be successful.
West Virginia struggled running the football last season, as they averaged only 122 yards a game on the ground, which was fourth in the Big East and 92nd in the country.
Before last year's BCS Orange Bowl, running back Dustin Garrison sprained his MCL and ACL. The sophomore running back should be ready to play by the time the regular season starts, but he won't participate in spring ball.
This, of course, opens things up for the senior running back Shawne Alston, who had a solid game against Clemson in the Orange Bowl. He finished the game with 77 rushing yards and two touchdowns, showing glimpses of his potential with every carry. In his three-year career, he only has 159 touches, but if he can run like he did in the postseason, he will steal carries away from Garrison throughout the year.
The running back position is fine for the Mountaineers; the only question that remains is, who is going to be the feature back by the time the season starts, and can he contribute better than last year?
Converting on third downs is absolutely huge in football games. It continues the momentum for the offense and makes things miserable for the opposing defense, as they have to stay on the field and try even harder to give the ball to their offense.
Last season, West Virginia wasn't bad at converting on third downs, but they were average, as they picked up a first down 40.8 percent of the time. That's good for an average team, but if you're West Virginia and have BCS National Championship goals, that percentage has to increase, especially when seven teams were above 50 percent.
When you have an offense like the Mountaineers and have eight starters returning, this should be one of the easier things to improve on.
West Virginia returns a total of seven starters on a defense that played very well, but this is more about the coaching than anything.
Last year, West Virginia ran the odd 3-5-5 scheme that made things very difficult for the opposing offenses. This season, they look to have four down linemen, and things will look different because several coaching changes have taken place.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left West Virginia to join Rich Rodriguez out in Arizona. That now makes former Oklahoma State safeties coach Joe DeForest the co-defensive coordinator for the Mountaineers, and former Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Keith Patterson was just hired as an assistant.
West Virginia's defense was ranked 61st in points allowed last season, and with seven starters returning, it'll be interesting to see how these coaching changes affect their production this season. The talent is there; it just may take time adjusting.
Now that we know the defense may take time to adjust to, the turnover margin must improve if the Mountaineers want to take that next step. They were tied with a few teams such as Penn State and Arkansas, but having a turnover margin of plus-one doesn't make you an elite team. Teams such as LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin were at least plus-10, while Oregon was plus-nine.
Ways to really take that next step in climbing up the college football ladder is to limit your turnovers and force the other team into them. And averaging a fumble a game is nothing short of unacceptable.
Now, you can still win games without making a significant impact in the turnover margin (like USC and Oklahoma did), but I promise that record will look a lot better if these statistics improve heading into next season.
West Virginia has an extremely talented team on both sides of the ball, but if they're going to take that next step, they must cut down the penalties. Last season, the Mountaineers averaged 6.2 flags a game, which was tied for 70th worst in the country, and the 53.6 penalty yards per game were 77th worst in college football.
Several other teams that won BCS bowls last season were in the top 20 for avoiding penalties, including Michigan and Alabama. If West Virginia wants to remain one of the top teams in the country, they must stop shooting themselves in the foot and become more disciplined.
Randy Chambers is a B/R featured columnist that covers college football and the NFL. You can contact him @Randy_Chambers or Randy.Chambers7@yahoo.com.