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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 21: West Virginia

Red Bull! Excitement! Scoring! Touchdowns, not field goals! Punting? Never heard of it! Passing! Pass long, pass short, pass deep, pass underneath — just pass! Winning? That’s the plan! Tired of Bill Stewart? You sure are, I bet! Do you like cold beer, letting loose, staying cool, four verticals, hitches, quick screens, bubble screens, jailbreak screens, four verticals, slants and four verticals? Then you’ll love Dana Holgorsen! Punts? No way! Passes? All day, everyday! Four verticals! Red Bull? He’d love one, thank you, and then another! Excitement! I can barely contain myself! When does West Virginia kickoff? September? That long? Any Red Bull left?

Conference
Big East

Location
Morgantown, W. Va.

Nickname
Mountaineers

Returning starters
12 (8 offense, 4 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 21

2010 record
(9-4, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 35

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Marshall
  • Sept. 10
    Norfolk St.
  • Sept. 17
    at Maryland
  • Sept. 24
    L.S.U.
  • Oct. 1
    Bowling Green
  • Oct. 8
    Connecticut
  • Oct. 21
    at Syracuse
  • Oct. 29
    at Rutgers
  • Nov. 5
    Louisville
  • Nov. 12
    at Cincinnati
  • Nov. 25
    Pittsburgh
  • Dec. 1
    at U.S.F.

Last year’s prediction

So no, West Virginia is not a national contender, nor a B.C.S. bowl contender should it lose to Pittsburgh in late November. But this is a very solid team, one that despite question marks at quarterback is the best of the three-year Stewart era. The offensive front is seasoned, though there’s little proven depth on the second line. The Mountaineers have weapons at running back and receiver. The secondary should again be strong, the linebacker corps is solid — if unspectacular — and the line, should its new additions have an immediate impact, should get to the passer with far more regularity. This isn’t a great team, but a very good team; in my mind, West Virginia deserves to be ranked among the top 25 teams in the country.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Another bland season from the Mountaineers, who became all too bland once Bill Stewart replaced Rich Rodriguez on a full-time basis in 2008. Just… bland. There was talent offensively but no consistent punch; speed but no game-planning or play-calling to consistently take advantage of this speed, as West Virginia did on a weekly basis under Rodriguez. Just… bland. You know what’s sad? Stewart’s first shot at not being bland resulted in his rapid replacement as West Virginia’s head coach. Well, it’s not sad, exactly — ironic, perhaps, but the move from Stewart to Holgorsen is the most exciting thing to happen to Big East football in years. Instead of waiting until 2012, West Virginia will move forward with the former Houston and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator. Remember that frustratingly pedestrian offense? So long, 67th nationally in total offense, 78th in scoring, 67th in passing. Remember the lack of excitement? Things are going to change.

High point A four-game winning streak to end the regular season, highlighted by a 35-10 pounding of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. This was West Virginia at its best: pounding the ball on the ground, highly effective through the air and opportunistic defensively.

Low point An overtime loss to Connecticut on Oct. 29. What could have been: W.V.U. gained 414 yards to Connecticut’s 278, earned 24 first downs, controlled the clock while dictating the tempo on the ground yet still lost — four lost fumbles sealed the Mountaineers’ fate. But the foulest showing may have come during bowl play, when W.V.U. dropped a 23-7 decision to N.C. State. That wasn’t a nice way for Stewart to enter the winter.

Tidbit West Virginia has the 10th-best home record, 44-8, in the F.B.S. since 2003. The losses: Wisconsin and Cincinnati in 2003, Boston College in 2004, Virginia Tech in 2005, South Florida in 2006, Pittsburgh in 2007, Cincinnati in 2008 and Syracuse last fall. At 30-18, the Mountaineers also have the nation’s 12th-best road record during this time. So which opponent has done the most damage over the last eight years? Pittsburgh has three wins, which I can see, but would you be surprised to hear that the Panthers are tied for the most wins against W.V.U. with Cincinnati and South Florida? At least a little surprised, I’d think. The Bulls, Bearcats, Panthers, Maryland, Virginia Tech and Florida State are the only programs to have defeated the Mountaineers more than once since 2003.

Tidbit (offensive line edition) Things that make me happy: West Virginia’s list of all-Americans. The Mountaineers have 80 such selections in the history of the program. Four have been quarterbacks, like Major Harris and Pat White. Seven have been linebackers, including Sam Huff. Ten running backs, seven defensive backs, three punters, seven receivers and so on — but that’s not what makes me happy. Of the 80 all-America selections in West Virginia’s history, 29 have been offensive linemen. That makes me happy.

Tidbit (school brochure edition) A few reasons why your high school senior should consider attending West Virginia University. Are you interested in solving or getting away with crimes? The university has the largest crime scene training complex in the world. An admirer of Jim Henson? West Virginia is one of three schools in the country to offer a degree in puppetry. Like roasting things by an open fire? Researchers at West Virginia recently cloned the American chestnut, which was nearly extinct.

Former players in the N.F.L.

19 DE Scooter Berry (Houston), QB Jarrett Brown (Cleveland), OT Selvish Capers (Washington), S Sidney Glover (Buffalo), CB Brandon Hogan (Carolina), LB Mortty Ivy (Pittsburgh), CB Adam Jones (Cincinnati), CB Ellis Lankster (New York Jets), WR Wes Lyons (Pittsburgh), P Pat McAfee (Indianapolis), FB Corey McIntyre (Buffalo), S Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh), DT Chris Neild (Washington), WR Darius Reynaud (New York Giants), WR Jock Sanders (Tampa Bay), S Robert Sands (Cincinnati), FB Owen Schmitt (Philadelphia), RB Steve Slaton (Houston), LB J.T. Thomas (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Civil War guerrillas along the Border States
1. John S. Mosby.
2. William Quantrill.
3. William T. Anderson.
4. John Hanson McNeill.
5. Elijah V. White.

Coaching

Dana Holgorsen (Iowa Wesleyan ’93), entering his first season. The level of excitement surrounding his arrival is off the charts. Prior to June, it was thought that Holgorsen would spend the 2011 season as Stewart’s head-coach-in-waiting before ascending to the top spot in 2012; that month’s developments led W.V.U. to make a rapid change, promoting Holgorsen a year ahead of schedule. The only question remaining — and it’s a big one — is whether Holgorsen is ready for this endeavor: running a program. Whether he can run an offense, on the other hand, was a question put to bed long ago. Quite simply, there isn’t a better offensive mind currently coaching on the college level. His development has roots in his playing days as a wide receiver at Iowa Wesleyan, then coached by Hal Mumme. He joined Mumme at Valdosta State in 1994, coaching the quarterbacks and wide receivers for two seasons alongside then-offensive coordinator Mike Leach. You want to learn everything you need to know about the Air Raid? Then learn at the source: Mumme and Leach. His connection with the latter earned Holgorsen his first break, a promotion from coaching the receivers at tiny Wingate University to doing the same under Leach at Texas Tech. He tutored the inside receivers throughout his tenure in Lubbock, 2000-7, and added co-offensive coordinator duties from 2005-7. Holgorsen jumped at the opportunity to go it alone at Houston in 2008, joining Kevin Sumlin as part of his debut staff with the Cougars. He did wonderfully, as expected, helping U.H. lead the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring in 2009 before moving on to Oklahoma State. We all know how Holgorsen fared with the Cowboys. A year later, Holgorsen is the head coach at a major program with yearly B.C.S. bowl chances. The level of excitement? Off the charts.

Tidbit (coaching edition) First things first: Holgorsen still has defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel for at least one more season, which is wonderful news for the Mountaineers. Casteel is West Virginia through and through — born and raised — not to mention one of the nation’s most overlooked coordinators. So that’s good news. The entire defensive staff returns, with Casteel joined by safeties coach Steve Dunlap, defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich and cornerbacks coach David Lockwood. All new faces offensively: offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, who worked with Holgorsen at Texas Tech, comes over from Arizona; inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson was the offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin; receivers coach Davon Roberts comes from the Detroit Lions; and running backs coach Robert Gillespie held the same role under Holgorsen at Oklahoma State.

Players to watch

The whole deal changes offensively: system, philosophy, terminology, speed, mentality, what have you. It’s a wholesale transition that will absolutely, positively pay enormous dividends for the program. But for a time, until the roster gets the message, there will be some growing pains for the West Virginia offense. For the offensive line, the changes extend from the playbook to the weight room. No longer will West Virginia ask for smaller, more agile linemen; now, the Mountaineers want size. Depth would also be nice, but let’s take it one step at a time.

What W.V.U. has up front is two entrenched starters: senior left tackle Don Barclay and junior center Joe Madsen. Junior Jeff Braun moves over from right tackle to left guard as a replacement for senior Josh Jenkins, who will miss the year with a knee injury. Unfortunately, both Braun and Barclay sat out spring practices with injuries, slowing down their on-field knowledge of this system. Former walk-on Tyler Rader entered August atop the depth chart at right guard, ahead of sophomore Cole Bowers, who started three games last fall. The big question mark — if you believe Rader or Bowers can get it done at right guard — is at right tackle, where W.V.U. will probably go with redshirt freshman Quinton Spain. The concerns? Spain’s inexperienced altogether, but he spent the spring in Barclay’s spot on the blind side due to injuries. So he’ll need to hit the ground running on the right side.

The biggest problem, however, is depth. Bowers is a nice second option if he remains behind Rader at guard. Junior center John Bassler has played in 17 games over his first two years. Outside of that pair, there’s a dangerous amount of inexperience along the second line. Making matters worse, according to Holgorsen, is the fact that not one member of the second grouping has pushed the incumbent starters; it’s clear that Holgorsen wanted competition, and he hasn’t gotten any thus far. The offensive line should be fine if there are no injuries, but the Mountaineers have already lost one projected starter, further straining depth.

Geno Smith’s a happy camper. Why shouldn’t he be? The list of quarterbacks who blossomed in this system is a long one; just check the N.C.A.A. record books for most of the names. What Holgorsen has in Smith is a proven, talented, accurate quarterback who should take to the offense like a fish to water. Not quite like Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State’s big-armed senior, Smith reminds me more of the long line of super-productive Texas Tech quarterbacks that shuffled along the conveyer belt at the position in Lubbock. One thing is clear: Smith is going to be terrific. Last fall, the junior threw for 2,763 yards with 24 touchdowns against only 6 picks, completing just a shade less than 65 percent of his attempts. There’s clearly talent here, which makes his new marriage to Holgorsen and this offense so intriguing. Smith is a very real Heisman contender heading into 2011.

Holgorsen runs such a prolific passing attack that it’s easy to forget about the running game: Oklahoma State finished 36th nationally in that category last fall, so ignore the idea that W.V.U. won’t be able to get it done on the ground. Holgorsen’s still waiting for a back to step forward, however, and there’s a tremendous amount of competition at the position. I think West Virginia will continue to call upon junior Ryan Clarke (291 yards, 8 touchdown), who is healthy after spring knee surgery. He’ll again be the team’s short-yardage back, but look for the Mountaineers to utilize a speedier option as the lead back. One choice could be true freshman Vernard Roberts, who was on campus for spring drills. He’s currently ahead of sophomore Trey Johnson and another freshman, Daquan Hargrett. The offense will use two backs, one of which will be a bruiser, so Roberts and Clarke could share the backfield on occasion.

Nothing’s going to change defensively. As noted, the entire defensive staff is back in the fold, granting a program undergoing a massive change at least some sense of continuity. I’d be worried about West Virginia’s chances if Holgorsen had been named the head coach in January, as that may have led Casteel and company to look for work elsewhere. So one silver lining from the June change is that it kept that group in the fold, which will again find West Virginia at or near the top of the Big East defensively.

Here’s what the Mountaineers will continue to do well: get pressure in the backfield. That won’t change a bit, even without two of last year’s starters gone along the defensive line. What W.V.U. has in place are two outstanding outstanding exterior linemen, one of whom, junior Bruce Irvin, will step into a starting role in 2011. Irvin was asked to do one thing last fall: get to the quarterback. And he delivered, notching at least one sack in eight games, at least two sacks in four games and 14 sacks overall, good for second in the nation. He’ll do more of the same in 2011, if not more so thanks to the added snaps. Irvin is joined up front by senior Julian Miller (54 tackles, 14 for los, 9 sacks), one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the country. There’s a hole in the middle of this three-man line, especially if junior Jorge Wright faces any suspension for his violation of team rules back in April. If he can go, I think W.V.U. will be fine with the combination of Wright and junior Josh Taylor, who has started in the past.

Injuries are what first pushed senior Najee Goode into the starting lineup; his play (47 tackles, 8.5 for loss) is what kept him there. Goode’s the lone proven linebacker in the 3-3-5 alignment, making his experience — 39 games, 13 starts — invaluable to this defense. Sophomore Doug Rigg takes over on the strong side after serving in a reserve role last fall. Here’s a name to watch: JUCO transfer Josh Francis. Smallish, compact and speedy, Francis has stepped into a starting role on the weak side, where he’ll attempt to duplicate the impact Irvin had as a first-year standout for the Mountaineers.

The secondary lost a few key faces, true. One is cornerback Brandon Hogan, who teamed with returning senior Keith Tandy (57 tackles, 6 interceptions) to form one of the nation’s best pairings. Tandy will shift over from the right side to the left to replace Hogan, while Pat Miller, a two-game starter last fall, steps into a starting role. Or he might, rather; sophomore Brandon Jenkins is right there in the mix, and should be the first cornerback off the bench if he doesn’t leapfrog past Miller. Opponents are really going to shy away from Tandy in 2011, so Miller or Jenkins need to be ready.

Junior Terence Garvin (team-best 78 tackles) is the lone returning starter at safety. The Mountaineers are in good shape at strong safety with Garvin and sophomore Mike Dorsey — no problems there. What level of production the Mountaineers land at free and bandit safety remains to be seen. What W.V.U. gets in Eain Smith (23 tackles, 1 interception) at free safety is starting experience, nine games worth, not to mention some nice production. So no issues there, perhaps, barring injury. Bandit safety Darwin Cook is the big question: young and inexperienced, he’ll be learning on the job. Depth at both safety and cornerback is an issue, yes. But I have a tremendous amount of confidence in this staff’s ability to get the most out of what they have. Those expecting a significant decline in production against the pass will be disappointed, especially with a healthy pass rush getting pressure on the quarterback.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receivers Last year’s results will have little bearing on the depth chart at wide receiver, though Tavon Austin (58 receptions for 787 yards and 8 touchdowns) will continue to be West Virginia’s top target at the position. He may be the only returning contributor locked into a starting role, however. And that’s not surprising in the least: Holgorsen inherited a similarly in-flux situation last fall at Oklahoma State only to turn a slight question mark into an unquestioned team strength. So who’s West Virginia’s Justin Blackmon? There’s no Blackmon here, I’m afraid, though few thought Blackmon would have the sort of season he had a year ago. For now, W.V.U. moves forward with Austin secure as the lead option while waiting for the rest of the depth chart to shake out. Senior Tyler Urban seems like the favorite to join Austin at inside receiver, though Holgorsen will need to find a way to best utilize his tight end size in the slot. The Mountaineers are also high on Wake Forest transfer Devon Brown. Most of the returning experience can be found at outside receiver, where the Mountaineers have placed sophomore Stedman Bailey (24 catches for 317 yards), junior J.D. Woods (18 for 205), senior Brad Starks (19 for 317) and sophomore Ivan McCartney. There’s enough here, in fact, that I’d be surprised if the Mountaineers didn’t try to play at least one inside, especially McCartney, a youngster with massive potential. Bailey seems like a receiver who will really flourish in this system, so he’d be my guess if I had to pick one contributor most likely to be West Virginia’s breakout offensive star. So here’s what we know about the receivers heading into September: there will be movement on the depth chart, Austin will be the lead guy and a sophomore like Bailey or McCartney will have a big year. And above all else, the receiver corps is going to put up some lofty numbers.

Game(s) to watch

A date with L.S.U. will be a tremendous barometer for a program and an offense that should be hitting its stride prior to the start of Big East. Can the Mountaineers win? I don’t really think so, but if you can score on the Tigers you can score on anybody. The next-best team in the Big East, Pittsburgh, comes to Morgantown. West Virginia gets solid conference competition on the road in South Florida and Cincinnati.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I can barely contain my excitement. Hold on: I can barely contain my excitement! I think the italics and exclamation point do a better job displaying my heightened level of anticipation. What we see in Morgantown is an unlikely — and ultimately mutually beneficial — confluence of events: an offensive coordinator looking for the perfect spot; a program hungry for more; an offense mired in the muck; and a team talented enough to take firm control of a weak B.C.S. conference and run with it. That’s what we’re seeing at West Virginia, which has all the pieces, and now the coaching, to run through the Big East and earn a B.C.S. berth. Here’s what you like: Holgorsen, first and foremost. He is going to put forth an offense unlike any we’ve seen in the Big East, and I don’t think the rest of the conference has what it takes defensively to keep pace. And that’s just in year one. I think the offense will hit the ground running, albeit not at full capacity, thanks to a quarterback well-suited to run this system. There are issues along the offensive line and at receiver, though less so at the latter, which will keep the Mountaineers from reaching Oklahoma State-like heights in their first season under Holgorsen. But remember last year’s paltry offensive rankings? The offensive surge, along with what should be another fine defense, is what pushes W.V.U. to the top of the Big East. With this talent and coaching, anything less than a conference title would be a disappointment. How good can the Mountaineers be? It really depends on how well Holgorsen can take to the C.E.O. aspects of being a head coach. I think W.V.U. will take the Big East even if Holgorsen struggles first adapting to this enlarged role. But if he can hit the ground running, and if the team takes to the changes, I think West Virginia can win 10 games in the regular season. I think nine wins is a safer bet, but this team has a high ceiling.

Dream season A loss to L.S.U. is the only blot on an otherwise sterling regular season: 11-1, 7-0 in the Big East and in a B.C.S. bowl.

Nightmare season The team struggles through the changes, scuffling early before a late run sends the Mountaineers into bowl play at 7-5.

In case you were wondering

Where do West Virginia fans congregate? Message board chatter can be found at WVSports.comBlue Gold News and The Mountaineer Nation. More coverage can be found at We Must Ignite This CouchThe Smoking Musket and the Web site of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Word Count

Through 100 (100!) teams 310,725.

Up Next

Who is No. 20? You’ll find five references to Ivy League schools in tomorrow’s university’s fight song.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    Penn State!

  2. Patrick says:

    “UP NEXT

    Who is No. 20? You’ll find five references to Ivy League schools in tomorrow’s university’s fight song.”

    Well, it’s definitely not West Virginia!

  3. Matt Rob says:

    The 2010 game against LSU: a loss by 6 on the road. This included multiple lost fumbles (including one inside the LSU 20), a punt return for a touchdown, and a StewBall offense.

    Even if LSU is better than last year’s, there is no Patrick Peterson, Geno Smith is a year wiser, and this game is in Morgantown.

  4. SixWinSeason says:

    No mention of Ryan Nehlen in the receiver portion of the write-up. I thought he had been pegged as a sure starter.

  5. Steve says:

    Nice article. As a Mountaineer fan you did us well. I’m worried about the O-Line. I believe Holgs could take me you and my grandma and put us a WR and still throw for a ton of yards.

    The Smoking Musket is a great site as is WMITC. The Mountaineer Nation is ok if you can handle knee deep douchery.

  6. michael says:

    Four verticals!!1

  7. philip says:

    nicely captured the hopes and concerns of the regime change. appreciate the, um, energy in its tone.

  8. Matt Rob says:

    Texas A&M to the SEC. Who will they also add to get an even number? ESPN’s Joe Schad has said Florida State, Missouri, Virginia Tech, and Clemson are possibilities. Any thoughts on WVU’s chances? (Slightly related, I wanna see Huggs and Calipari dueling in basketball every season).

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