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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

Here's a tip of the hat to West Virginia, the ninth-best program in the country since 2004.

What does Bill Stewart need to do to get off the hot seat? Win at least a share of four Big East championships in five years? It doesn’t help his cause that his predecessor, Rich Rodriguez, did just that. Stewart has still won 18 games over his first two seasons in charge, by far the most in program history, and his Mountaineers have hovered around the Top 25 mark — though have been unable to take a Rodriguez-like step forward. Yeah, Stewart’s on the hot seat. Rodriguez’s seat, on the other hand, has burst into flames. Wouldn’t things have been better for all parties involved if Rodriguez had just remained in Morgantown? Well, when considering the growing possibility of N.C.A.A. penalties due to infractions partly committed under Rodriguez’s watch… maybe not.

Conference
Big East

Location
Morgantown, W. Va.

Nickname
Mountaineers

Returning starters
16 (7 offense, 9 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 26

2009 record
(9-4, 5-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 27

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Coastal Carolina
  • Sept. 10
    at Marshall
  • Sept. 18
    Maryland
  • Sept. 25
    at L.S.U.
  • Oct. 9
    U.N.L.V.
  • Oct. 14
    U.S.F.
  • Oct. 23
    Syracuse
  • Oct. 29
    at UConn
  • Nov. 13
    Cincinnati
  • Nov. 20
    at Louisville
  • Nov. 27
    at Pittsburgh
  • Dec. 4
    Rutgers

Last year’s prediction

I’ve got the Mountaineers as a close second in the Big East, trailing only Cincinnati. So why second in the Big East? I’m worried about that tough last stretch, which pits West Virginia against the remaining top teams in the Big East, three of those squads on the road. Still, this team can make some noise early in its non-conference slate, and should be a borderline Top 25 team. My prediction is for a 9-3 regular season finish, 5-2 in the Big East.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Another nine-win finish for Stewart and the Mountaineers, giving the former Rodriguez assistant 18 wins over his first two seasons running the show in Morgantown. That’s all well and good, but West Virginia fans simply won’t be pleased until they see their boys back atop the conference, its rightful place for a five-year span from 2003-7. Things have changed, obviously. Not too much, however: West Virginia’s posted back-to-back 9-4 records, after all — not fallen off the face of the Big East map. The offense has struggled, combining to score 659 points in Stewart’s two seasons after scoring 515 points in Rodriguez’s final year alone. That’s been the major difference, in fact, as the defense has remained consistently stout despite changing the coaching change. Take note of this average offense, strong defense during Big East play: only once did West Virginia score more than 28 points in its seven conference games; only once did it allow more than 24 points.

High point An emotional win against Pittsburgh in the Backyard Brawl, snapping a two-game losing streak in the series. The 19-16 win – coming via a field goal as time expired – might not have paid back the terrible pain of that devastating loss in November of 2007, but West Virginia fans can take solace in the fact that the Panthers suffered back-to-back debilitating losses to end the Big East season.

Low point A 24-21 loss at Cincinnati on Nov. 5. It eliminated the Mountaineers from Big East title contention; with a win, they would have moved into first place. Seeing as W.V.U. beat Pittsburgh, it could have finished second in the conference if not for a 30-19 loss to South Florida on the last Friday of October.

Tidbit West Virginia has not finished a season with a sub-.500 home record since 1990, when the Mountaineers went 2-5 at, you guessed, Mountaineer Field. West Virginia is 89-30-2 at home since 1991, 39-7 since 2003.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. For the last time, I should add. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

At 59-17, West Virginia holds the ninth-best record in the F.B.S. since 2004. Can you name which programs have more wins, along with each team’s record over the past six years?

Teams already spoken for: Arizona (Zaboo), California (katster), Georgia Tech (DivePlay), Michigan (Seth), Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), T.C.U. (Burnt Orange), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Former players in the N.F.L.

17 WR Alric Arnett (Denver), TE Anthony Becht (Arizona), QB Jarrett Brown (San Francisco), QB Marc Bulger (Baltimore), OT Selvish Capers (Washington), DT Keilen Dykes (Arizona), OG Gray Isdaner (Philadelphia), LB Mortty Ivy (Carolina), CB Adam Jones (Cincinnati), CB Ellis Lankaster (Buffalo), P Pat McAfee (Indianapolis), FB Corey McIntyre (Buffalo), S Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh), RB Darius Reynaud (Minnesota), FB Owen Schmitt (Seattle), RB Steve Slaton (Houston), QB Pat White (Miami).

Arbitrary top five list

Writers with West Virginia ties, with notable work
1. Pearl Buck, “The Good Earth.
2. John Knowles, “A Separate Peace.”
3. Mary Lee Settle, “Blood Tie.”
4. Rebecca Harding Davis, “Life in the Iron Mills.”
5. Homer Hickam, “Rocket Boys: A Memoir.”

Coaching

Bill Stewart (Fairmont State ’75), 19-8 heading into his third full season at West Virginia. W.V.U. has finished 9-4 in each of the last two seasons, an impressive debut but one widely decried as a step back for the program. Yes, the team has failed to recapture the Rich Rodriguez touch on offense. Still, the Mountaineers have managed to win nine games in each campaign, with the 2008 finished tying Stewart with Dudley DeGroot (1948) for the most wins by a first-year West Virginia head coach. The onus is on Stewart to deliver, but let’s not act as if the Mountaineers have dropped off the map; the Mountaineers have still managed to reach a solid bowl game in each year, and has been in heavy Big East contention in each season. Stewart spent one game as the interim coach following Rodriguez’s departure, leading a devastatingly effectively West Virginia team to a blowout win over Oklahoma in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. Though he is a bit of a coaching vagabond, Stewart spent the last eight years as a Mountaineer assistant, first under Don Nehlen (2000) before seven years under Rich Rodriguez. Stewart, a West Virginia native, coached the quarterbacks his first seven years with the Mountaineers before taking on the assistant head coach title last fall. In addition to his quarterback duties, Stewart also served as the Mountaineers’ special teams coach, turning that unit into one of the best in the Big East. In addition to his stint in Morgantown, Stewart has served as an F.B.S. assistant at Navy (1984), North Carolina (1985-87), Arizona State (1988-89) and Air Force (1990-92). Those assistant stops gave him the opportunity to learn under some of the best names in recent college football coaching history, such as Dick Crum at North Carolina, Fisher DeBerry at Air Force and Nehlen and Rodriguez at West Virginia.

Players to watch

No running back strikes fear into opposing defensive coordinators quite like West Virginia’s Noel Devine. You can’t blame them: Devine had seven rushes of at least 50 yards in 2009, four of which he took for scores. His decision to return for his senior season, though surprising, was the right move. Devine needs to prove — again — that he is capable of carrying the load on an every-down basis, protecting the football and taking the pounding that accompanies a 300-carry season. He’s increased his work load in each of his three seasons, progressing from Steve Slaton’s reserve as a freshman to a career-high 241 carries last fall. His production, if measured by his yards per carry average, didn’t suffer from the additional work: Devine averaged 6.1 yards per carry, a career-low but still the eight-highest of any back with at least 200 carries in 2009. His decision to return for his senior season will also pay dividends for Devine’s Heisman hopes; he’s surely a contender, especially if the Mountaineers reach a B.C.S. bowl.

Devine will be responsible for the wide majority of West Virginia’s work on the ground, but when he does take a breather, look for redshirt freshman Daquan Hargrett — who, believe it or not, is smaller than Devine — and sophomore Shawn Alston to help pick up the slack. West Virginia also has a strong short-yardage and goal line back in sophomore Ryan Clarke, who had a very strong debut season.

Devine’s the star of the offense, to be sure. His sidekick, Jock Sanders, is nearly as important to the welfare of this offense. He made 72 receptions for 688 yards and 3 touchdowns last fall, shattering his previous career bests in the former two categories. Sanders brings a streak of 28 consecutive games with a reception heading into his final season, and stands fifth on West Virginia’s career receptions list. Junior Brad Starks (29 catches for 405 yards) will be the team’s second option, though the Mountaineers will certainly miss the production they received from Alric Arnett and Wes Lyons. Look for sophomores J.D Woods and Tavon Austin to chip in some production in the passing game.

The Mountaineers return four starting offensive linemen, though depth is a concern up front. These four linemen — Don Barclay, Josh Jenkins, Eric Jobe and Joe Madsen — played a remarkable number of snaps last season, which was great for their respective experience but did not allow for many reserve linemen to earn any meaningful game action. Barring injury, that won’t be a problem. This quartet is very talented, good fits for this system, and the engine that drives West Virginia’s powerful ground game. Redshirt sophomore Jeff Braun is the favorite to replace lost starter Selvish Capers at right tackle, though the Mountaineers will surely suffer a letdown at that spot. Senior Matt Timmerman, currently playing behind Barclay at left tackle, is another option.

For the third time in as many seasons, West Virginia will have a new starting quarterback. Last year, the Mountaineers had the luxury of inserting Jarrett Brown, an experienced hand, into the starting lineup. Brown was uneven as the starter, however, with Stewart and his staff hoping his replacement, sophomore Geno Smith, can be more consistent in the passing game. He showed flashes of his passing acumen last fall, completing 32 of his 49 attempts — 65.3 percent — for 309 yards and a score. Smith’s finest performance came against Marshall, when he completed 15 of 21 attempts for 147 yards as Brown’s replacement. Smith did miss the spring due to a foot injury, but that injury isn’t a concern. What is a concern is that Smith missed key development time with the first-team offense; he’ll have to speed up his learning curve during fall practice.

The defensive line returns intact, with ends Scooter Berry and Julian Miller flanking nose tackle Chris Neild. Behind this starting trio is significant depth, enough so that West Virginia is contemplating serving out of a four-man front on a far greater basis than in years past. Berry and Neild are battle-tested, experienced linemen, bringing 57 career starts into 2010. Berry battled injuries last fall, hampering his production, but after off-season shoulder surgery should be back at full health. Miller stepped up in his stead, leading the team in team in tackles for loss (14) and sacks (9). Keep an eye on JUCO transfer Bruce Irvin, who will provide a boost to West Virginia’s pass rush. This is a strong front.

Two more starters return at linebacker: seniors J.T. Thomas and Pat Lazear. Thomas will continue to man the weak side after finishing second on the team in tackles (76) and tackles for loss (7) to go with his two interceptions. He’s an all-conference candidate, as is Lazear. The latter will move from the strong side to the middle in 2010, replacing starter Reed Williams — a big loss. Lazear’s move opens up a hole on the strong side, of course.

It’s also a question whether Lazear can take to the middle; if he does falter, well, he’ll move back to the strong side, where he led the team with 78 tackles a season ago. In that case, senior Anthony Leonard would take over at middle linebacker. Leonard is best suited for the middle, in fact, where he played a very key role when Williams was lost to injury in 2008. For now, however, Leonard will start on the strong side; again, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that he and Lazear swap spots at some point during the season.

The lone loss in the secondary is that of bandit safety Nate Sowers, who made 43 tackles (5.5 for loss) in 2009. The Mountaineers will replace Sowers by moving senior Sidney Glover from spur safety into his spot; a pretty logical move, given Glover’s strong play in the secondary last fall: he made 60 tackles (7 for loss) to go with 1.5 sacks and 2 interceptions. Sophomore Terence Garvin steps in at spur safety.

You have to like what West Virginia brings to the table at cornerback, with senior Brandon Hogan and junior Keith Tandy returning for another season in the starting lineup. The pair combined for four interceptions last fall, with their willingness to step in against the run an added bonus for West Virginia’s defense. If the Mountaineers are going to have optimum depth at cornerback, they’ll need sophomore Pat Miller and redshirt freshman Brodrick Jenkins to step up behind the starting duo. There are no problems at free safety: junior Robert Sands might be the best ball-hawking safety in the Big East, while fellow junior Eain Smith is a capable, tested reserve. Tandy led the Mountaineers with five interceptions last fall. Perhaps depth at cornerback is a concern; regardless, from top to bottom, West Virginia has the best secondary in the Big East. The Mountaineers have the conference’s best defense, period.

Position battles to watch

Punter West Virginia has the luxury of 18 players with starting experience, nine of each side of the ball. Obviously, there aren’t very many positions open to debate. I thought quarterback might be one, but alas, the job is Smith’s to lose. In fact, the most heated position battle of the fall is taking place at punter, where the Mountaineers must replace second-team all-Big East pick Scott Kozlowski. Yes, punter. Here are West Virginia’s options: fifth-year senior Gregg Pugnetti, a longtime reserve, and sophomore Corey Smith, a former transfer. Who will win the starting job? Whichever punter is more consistent, a missing component through West Virginia’s early fall practices. Pugnetti has patiently waited for this opportunity, backing up Pat McAfee and Kozlowski over the last four years. Smith’s leg is intriguing, as the former Alabama transfer could push second-string kicker John Howard, a redshirt freshman, for place kicking duties. So, yeah. Pay attention to West Virginia’s punting game, whether the job falls to Pugnetti or Smith. If the offense doesn’t improve, the starter will be kept busy. Busy punting.

Game(s) to watch

A road to trip to L.S.U. should be exciting, as are rivalry games with Marshall — the Friends of Coal Bowl — and Maryland. The season will be made during Big East play, however, so keep an eye on how the Mountaineers fare against Cincinnati, Connecticut and Pittsburgh.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Even if West Virginia loses to Pittsburgh on Nov. 27 — and I’m not saying it will — the Mountaineers are still worthy of a Top 25 ranking. Why? Because this team should have little to no difficult winning nine games, and are a very viable contender for its first double-digit win finish since Rodriguez’s departure. Not to say it’s all peachy in Morgantown: the Mountaineers will have their third starting quarterback in as many years; the kicking game is relatively unsure; and, most of all, the offense needs to push back against the statistical decline that has defined each of the last two seasons. 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.

Dream season West Virginia loses to L.S.U. in non-conference play, but a Big East sweep leaves the Mountaineers at 11-1 and atop the conference heading into their B.C.S. bowl.

Nightmare season Losses to L.S.U. and Maryland are followed by losses to South Florida, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Rutgers: 5-7, 2-5 in the Big East.

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 Couch and The Smoking Musket.

Up Next

Who is No. 20? Our next school is the flagship institution of its home state’s 16-school system despite being the second-largest university by enrollment in the state.

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

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Comments

  1. Ute says:

    I was wrong about Utah. But I think North Carolina is 20th.

  2. Havik says:

    I’m not too sure, though i have a bad track record with guessing on here. Anyways, good, I’ve been waiting for their preview

  3. Colin says:

    Definitely UNC.

    (NCSU is the largest university in the state. Go Wolfpack!)

  4. jerjharris says:

    Alright, I got:

    1. Texas 69-9
    1. Boise 69-9
    3. USC 68-10
    4. Florida 64-15
    5. OSU 62-14
    6. LSU 62-16
    7. VT 62-18
    7. Oklahoma 62-18

  5. Jim Narby says:

    Nebraska must be next. -Jim Narby

  6. Gotham Gator says:

    Hard to know whether the NCAA’s absurd policy of “vacating” wins is considered. Assuming not…

    1. Texas 69-8
    2. Boise State 69-9
    3. USC 68-10
    4. The Mighty Florida Gators 64-15
    5. Ohio State 62-14
    6. Oklahoma 62-18
    6. Virginia Tech 62-18
    8. L.S.U. 60-18 (not a better percentage record, but more wins, which is what you asked)

    Also, Utah is tied with West Virginia at 59-17.

  7. Matt Rob says:

    If Geno can establish even a modest threat as a passer, this team is gonna be able to blaze down the field with its running backs and veteran offensive line.

    I think a 10 win season is certainly doable this year.

    Go ‘eers!

  8. Jerjharris says:

    I post here before and it didn’t make it up here. But, I have Texas tallied at 69-9.

    Texas 69-9
    Boise 69-9
    USC 68-10
    UF 64-15
    OSU 62-14
    OU 62-18
    VT 62-18
    LSU 60-12

  9. Jerjharris says:

    *LSU 60-18

  10. Gotham Gator says:

    I will amend my earlier list to correct my error in tallying Texas’ losses. I must have missed one of their many defeats to Oklahoma – they really do get difficult to count. My LSU tally remains the same.

    1. Texas 69-9
    2. Boise State 69-9
    3. USC 68-10
    4. The Mighty Florida Gators 64-15
    5. Ohio State 62-14
    6. Oklahoma 62-18
    6. Virginia Tech 62-18
    8. L.S.U. 60-18

  11. Clayton Adams says:

    Personally I just don’t think Geno Smith is the real deal. If Stewart couldn’t get the Mountaineers to the Big East championship with Pat White I have a hard time believing he can do it with Geno Smith. Sorry to offend all the mountaineer fans, but I just don’t think Bill Stewart is a championship caliber coach. His play calling in the UC game last year when it came down to the wire, he just choked. Maybe he learned from his mistakes. It does help having Noel Devine and Jack Sanders, that’s a scary back field.

    Go bearcats, three peat.

  12. Matt Rob says:

    I am little more optimistic regarding WVU’s season and Bill Stewart. Last year they were a questionable overturned call (or, ignoring that, a poor fourth down call in the second half) in the Cincy game away from winning the Big East.

    Cincy will be pretty deadly this year, with Collaros as the full-time quarterback. I will give you that.

  13. birdland says:

    Could also be the University of Florida as UCF is the largest university in the state. Makes more sense for UNC to be ranked here though.

  14. birdland says:

    Could also be the University of Florida as UCF is the largest in the state. Makes more sense for UNC to be ranked here though.

  15. ponder says:

    21? Maybe you missed the Gator Bowl where FSU handled the Mountaineers with their backup quarterback? Okay, so the WVU backup quarterback from the Gator Bowl should improve the team, but will he overcome the fall-off resulting from Coach Dobber’s bumbling? WVU underperformed last year. There is no reason to expect Devine to improve his already big numbers. Coach Dobber is about to pull a Larry Coker.

    Paul: I’m with you on Stewart, in that he’s struggled. I think the weapons on offense can help overcome West Virginia’s recent decline on offense. As for 2011…

  16. philip says:

    unless all the coaching pieces finally click, i don’t want think about where that thought about 2011 is leading.

    another good blog: http://blogs.dailymail.com/wvu/

    as civil and insightful a site for sports fans to comment and commiserate as any i know.

  17. [...] Five and Five: No. 21, West Virginia By PAUL MYERBERG Paul Myerberg is getting you ready for the upcoming college football season over at Pre-Snap Read. The Quad will also feature a daily look at each of Paul’s top 50 teams in the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 21, is West Virginia. You can find a larger West Virginia preview here. [...]

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