West Virginia Football: 3 Key Issues Mountaineers Must Address
After winning the Big East in 2011 and putting an appropriate stamp on the season with a dominating performance in the Orange Bowl, the West Virginia Mountaineers must forget about last season—and all of its successes.
Despite the Mountaineers' expected success, there are some concerns in Morgantown. The Mountaineers are headed to the Big 12 this season and adjusting to a new conference is always tough. Numerous defensive stars are gone and the offensive line is a major concern.
If West Virginia can successfully address these issues, look for the Mountaineers to be in a BCS Bowl Game in 2012.
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Any offense, even Dana Holgorsen's, is only as good as its offensive line.
With eight returning starters on offense and two possible Heisman contenders in Geno Smith and Tavon Austin running the show, the Mountaineers should have very little trouble putting up points in 2012—if their offensive line can hold up.
While the line may be losing just one starter (no big deal, right?), that one lineman is All-Big East first team left tackle Don Barclay. Barclay has taken his talents to the NFL, leaving a giant hole on the left side of the line.
Barclay will likely be replaced by big sophomore Quinton Spain. The sophomore, at 6'5'' and 335 pounds, definitely has the build of an elite offensive tackle, but that obviously doesn't guarantee anything. Barclay stood at 6'4'' and weighed 305 pounds—somewhat light compared to some offensive lineman—but he started 40 games and made it to the All-Big East first or second team twice in his West Virginia Career.
Spain, who played most of last season at right guard, will be playing the position which he was recruited for in 2010.
The rest of the line goes as follows: Pat Eger will play right tackle and should expect some competition from redshirt freshman Marquis Lucas; Jeff Braun has right guard locked down; Josh Jenkins is returning from an ACL tear that caused him to miss all of 2011 to play left guard (something of a question mark); and senior All-Big East center Joe Madsen anchors the line.
Holgorsen seems much more excited than worried about his O-line thus far in 2012 (via WVUillustrated.com)
The first group looks good, Head Coach Dana Holgorsen stated. They have a chance to be as good as we've had. Joe Madsen is a leader and is doing a fantastic job. He's a great player. Jeff Braun looks twice as good as he did in camp last year. He's in better shape, he's healthy and he understands. With Josh Jenkins coming back, he brings experience. Pat Eger is more confident than he's been, Quinton Spain is more confident. Those first-level guys are doing good things.
Whether or not Holgorsen's offensive line can perform well against Big 12 defenses will factor heavily in the Mountaineers' success in 2012.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones is just one of the elite QBs West Virginia will have to deal with in the Big 12.
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The Mountaineers will be making the jump from the Big East, where they have been for the past 22 years, to the Big 12. It goes without saying that the Big 12 offers far tougher competition on a weekly basis than the Big East.
The Big 12 is, as usual, expected to be one of the most competitive conferences in the country next season—ESPN's Mark Schlabach has six teams from the conference ranked in his early Top 25, tied with the SEC for most by a conference. Of those six (Oklahoma, WVU, TCU, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma State) Schlabach ranks only No. 6 Oklahoma higher than the No. 8 Mountaineers.
West Virginia has been the premier program in the Big East for quite some time. Since 2003, the Mountaineers have been crowned Big East Champions six times, either winning it outright or claiming a share of the title.
But the Big 12 is a whole different animal. Last season, the Big 12 produced eight bowl teams compared to the Big East's five. In those bowl games, Big 12 teams went a nationwide best 6-2, while Big East teams—including West Virginia—went 3-2.
All that said, West Virginia should do very well in the Big 12.
Their high-octane offense will fit right in with the rest of the conference and the coaching staff knows a thing or two about the Big 12. Head coach Dana Holgorsen spent nine seasons in the Big 12 before heading to West Virginia in 2010. And newly-hired defensive coordinator Joe DeForest spent the last 10 years at Oklahoma State—where he and Holgorsen were both coaches in 2010.
West Virginia has only played against Big 12 competition 18 times in the program's history, going 11-7. The team which WVU has played the most from the Big 12 is Missouri, which now plays in the SEC. Of the teams the Mountaineers will face in 2012, they've played Oklahoma the most (four times) and have a 2-2 record against the Sooners.
Obviously, West Virginia has very little history against the Big 12, but the upcoming season will change that in a hurry. Perhaps the most hyped conference game of the year will take place on November 17 when Landry Jones and the Sooners go to Morgantown. That game will likely decide the Big 12 champion and is sure to be a shootout—with two of the nation's top offenses taking the field.
That game will also be the toughest test for the Mountaineers' defense as they face one of the nation's best quarterbacks in Jones.
The Big 12 is chock-full of elite quarterbacks, even with Robert Griffin III and Brandon Weeden now in the NFL. Collin Klein at Kansas State is a viable dual-threat quarterback who can take over games; Casey Pachall at TCU and Seth Doege at Texas Tech are both top-tier gunslingers who will have breakout 2012 seasons.
Although there is some concern regarding West Virginia's first season in the Big 12, their talent level and the coaches' experience in the conference may allow the new kids on the block to take home the crown and win the Big 12.
Loss of Defensive Stars
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The Mountaineers are not known for their stifling defense, nor do they take part in grind-it-out football games that require such defense. Instead, West Virginia prides itself on its offensive power and pace, which it uses to outscore opponents.
This was evident last year, as the Mountaineer defense ranked 61st in scoring—allowing more than 26 points per game—and 41st in total defense, giving up an average of about 350 yards per game. These mediocre numbers came against below-average Big East offenses. The only Big East team (besides WVU) to crack the top 60 in yards per game last season was South Florida at No. 30.
Meanwhile, three of the top five and five of the top 28 offenses last season were current Big 12 teams. You can expect both the Mountaineers' scoring defense and total defense rankings to drop significantly after running the offensive gauntlet that is the Big 12 regular season.
New defensive coordinator Joe DeForest is going to have his hands full getting his guys ready for the high-powered offenses of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State, Texas Tech and TCU.
It's going to be a tough task, considering the five best defensive players from last year's squad graduated this spring.
Two of their top three tacklers, Najee Goode and Eain Smith—gone.
Their interception leader and sixth-best tackler, Keith Tandy—gone.
Their top two pass-rushers, Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller—gone.
Irvin and Miller are perhaps the most significant losses for the Mountaineers, due to the fact that a solid pass rush is essential to shutting down the elite passing attacks that litter the Big 12.
During all of this defensive overturn, DeForest is attempting to implement a brand new system. West Virginia has been known for its quirky 3-3-5 stack defense over the last decade. Now DeForest is going to bring a more traditional 3-4 scheme, hoping its versatility in blitz packages will help shut down Big 12 offenses and help make up for the loss of their elite pass rushers.
If DeForest can make the 3-4 scheme work and hold Big 12 teams to, let's say, about 30 points per game, that will give the elite Mountaineer offense a chance to win. After all, WVU averaged 37 points per game last season.
In a conference where high-powered offenses are the norm, the team with the best defense will have the upper hand. If this is the case, the Mountaineers will be lucky to win the Big 12, as they will field only the fourth or fifth-best defense in the conference, behind Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State and arguably TCU.