2011 College Football Preview: No. 21 West Virginia Mountaineers
Dana Holgorsen isn't making life easy on anyone.
He's not making life easy on Bill Stewart, who has been forced into an awkward "last stand" as the head coach in Morgantown before handing the job over.
He's not making life easy on Athletic Director Oliver Luck and friends, either, with his apparent habit of getting kicked out of bars.
But, most of all, he won't be making life easy on opposing coordinators this fall—and that, after all, is the reason he's here.
So, whether Stewart—or local pub owners—like it or not, Holgorsen is the new general of the Mountaineers. Sort of. Eventually. Or something.
Get your popcorn ready, Mountaineers fans.
The sky is the limit for quarterback Geno Smith. The junior ranked second or better within the Big East in pass efficiency (144.7), passing yards per game (212.5 ypg) and total offense (229.2 ypg) in 2010, and now he's got Dana Holgorsen calling the shots. Hence the reason for his inclusion on early Heisman watch lists.
Noel Devine is gone after an excellent career in Morgantown. Replacing him will be a joint venture. 5'11", 219-pound, Shawne Alston will step in as more of a true running back with his prototypical size, but he'll likely share carries with Tavon Austin and sophomore Daquan Hargrett.
Austin will benefit as much as anyone from the addition of Holgorsen. The 5'9", 173-pound sophomore will also see time at wide receiver, and trying to peg him as a "running back" or a "receiver" is futile. Suffice it to say that he is the most dangerous skill player on the field for WVU—regardless of where he lines up. Senior Brad Starks and sophomore Stedman Bailey will undoubtedly be more effective as well.
But keep an eye on 6'3' sophomore Ivan McCartney. He seems to scream "Justin Blackmon" productivity in this offense.
The offensive line returns four starters once again in 2010, including seniors Don Barclay and Josh Jenkins along the left side at tackle and guard, respectively.
The pressure is on defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to match the offensive productivity, and that will be no small order.
The defensive front is depleted with the losses of two out of three starters from a season ago, but talent remains. Huge things are expected of senior defensive end Bruce Irvin. Irvin was used mostly on third downs last season, yet finished second in the nation in sacks with 14. Senior Julian Miller is moving from end to tackle to accommodate Irvin's increasing presence and bolster an otherwise thin group of interior linemen.
Only senior Najee Goode returns for a group of linebackers that continues to loom as a mystery. Goode looks to be moving to the middle, and sophomore Doug Rigg will start on the outside. But the remainder of the linebacking picture is very fluid. Junior Josh Francis and sophomore Branko Busick figure to be next in line.
If you're noticing a theme here, you're not alone. And that theme continues in the secondary, where Robert Sands, Sidney Glover and Brandon Hogan are all gone as well. Senior Keith Tandy provides some accountability at the corner spot, where he picked off six passes a season ago. But, this defense is going to need to need big plays from junior Terence Garvin to keep their heads above water.
Crucial to WVU's success in 2011 is the rebound of kicker Tyler Bitancurt. Bitancurt was virtually automatic as a freshman, but missed seven times in 17 tries last season.
Corey Smith will get the first shot at the punting duties, but this has been a problem area for the Mountaineers in recent years.
The return game was surprisingly average in 2010, but assuming that the Mountaineers choose to utilize the game breaking ability of Tavon Austin, average could soon become dangerous.
Game of the Year
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Sept. 24 vs. LSU
West Virginia played well in defeat when the two teams met in Baton Rouge last year. This year, the matchup will serve as the toughest of the year for the Mountaineers—and one of the only resume builders on their schedule.
A win vs. the Tigers would provide huge momentum heading into Big East play.
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Two words. Dana. Holgorsen.
Geno Smith is a guy that you unequivocally want on your team for the price. You can swipe him as late as the fourth round in most drafts—a risk/reward ratio that is off the charts. There could be as many as eight quarterbacks chosen ahead of him, but very of few them will possess the potential to carry your squad quite like Smith.
You'll probably want to stay away from the WVU backfield for the time being. Shawne Alston or Daquan Hargrett may help you down the road, but not both, and not now. Taking a stab at Alston at the end of your draft wouldn't be an awful idea, but that's as far as it goes.
Ivan McCartney is a super sleeper. His prototypical frame and fluidity screams production in Holgorsen's Air Raid Offense. But, McCartney is a relative unknown who will be available deep into the later rounds of the draft. If you can grab him at any point after the 12th round, do so with confidence.
The home run ball is Tavon Austin. But, he comes with a hefty price tag. A few of the guys going after him in early mock drafts: Alshon Jeffrey, Jeff Fuller, Darron Thomas and Andrew Luck. That's not meant to discourage you; only to inform you. When choosing between Austin and Alshon Jeffrey, you probably can't go wrong.
Hail, West Virginia: Final Forecast
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The defense is a concern, but the Mountaineer offense is equipped with more than enough talent (and genius) to score their way to a conference championship.
A Big East slate makes any team's schedule appear promising, but West Virginia's sets up especially nicely. LSU, Connecticut, Louisville and Pittsburgh must all travel to Morgantown. That leaves a Nov. 12 matchup vs. Cincinnati and the Dec. 1 finale vs. South Florida as the only obvious road challenges.
The problem for West Virginia is a lack of chemistry—among the coaching staff. The whole "head coach in waiting" label has proven awkward in every instance, even when the one "waiting" was selected by the guy he's "waiting" on. In this case, Stewart wanted Holgorsen about as much as he wanted a root canal—perhaps less. The pairing of this odd-couple has resulted in a tumultuous offseason and leaves doubt as to whether or not all parties involved can suck it up and make it work.
If they fail in doing so, the Big East will probably be sending another 8-4 team to the BCS.
Projection: 10-2 (6-1)