West Virginia is expected to finish eighth as a result of the Big 12 Conference preseason media poll. My initial thought was that this prediction was too low, but it wasn’t surprising at all. In fact, it was rather expected after the Mountaineers lost Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey to the NFL draft.
The real question here is, do the Mountaineers have the potential to finish higher than eighth in the conference? This is really a simple question, but it’s one that involves many factors as to whether or not they will over achieve or under achieve. Using the eighth spot as a barometer to kick-off the season, it wouldn’t take much for WVU to finish higher. This team does have that key word ‘potential’ in its arsenal, the schedule is rather difficult, but somehow, someway, they could actually be just as good or even better than last years 7-6 squad, which garnered massive amounts of preseason media hype.
This WVU team is flying well under the radar, as they most likely should be with only three offensive starters returning, but West Virginia is the type of team that seems to thrive in situations like these. Being underdogs right out of the gate could be serious motivation to spur this team into a higher result than eighth. Week-in and week-out, WVU found out the hard way last season about life in the Big 12, as opposing offenses ran up and down the field on them.
Hopefully, the Mountaineers have taken the opportunity this off-season to learn from their mistakes. They now know what kind of defensive depth is really needed to be able to compete against Big 12 offenses, and they seem to have much more depth this year. They also know they can’t just outscore teams this season, like they tried to last year, but ultimately it backfired on them with a Swiss cheese defense.
One difference I see this year, as opposed to last, is a more balanced team. The defense will have to do their part, but head coach Dana Holgorsen’s offense always scores points. That’s the name of the game in his ‘Air Raid’ attack. Even if WVU has to use all three quarterbacks this season, they’re going to throw the ball and throw it often.
The running game is an area where the Mountaineers can achieve offensive balance. It should be strong with a plethora of running backs, as long as the offensive line comes together to block for them. I don’t see any major flaws with the guys up front, they’ll just need to gel quickly before the second game, which is a pivotal Big 12 match up against Oklahoma. If they can give the backs some openings to dash through, the offense will still be very productive and possibly very balanced, which will keep opposing defenses on their heels.
We saw last year how Oklahoma State was still able to function well with their high powered offense, even though they used three quarterbacks. West Virginia could do the same with Ford Childress, Clint Trickett, and Paul Millard. Obviously, WVU would like for one to emerge out of camp, but if one can’t set himself apart from the others, it doesn’t mean the Mountaineers won’t have a productive season offensively. Life after Geno Smith begins, and WVU has the depth to be much better than eighth, but it’s not proven depth, in most cases. Just because it’s not proven, doesn’t mean it won’t be good.
This team is actually filled with more talent and depth on defense than last season, if that talent proves itself, the Mountaineers will finish a good ways ahead of their eighth place projection, because the offense is still going to score points. In a league which features high powered offenses, I think the team with the best defense will most likely win the Big 12. Which is why I would tend to favor TCU as one of the top teams. With the Big 12 as wide open as ever, a solid defense is going to go a long way toward finishing at or near the top of the standings.
Nearly every team in the Big 12 is replacing their starting quarterback, which should help WVU’s more experienced defense, with seven returning starters. There’s no reason the Mountaineers can’t finish in the middle of the conference. There are four teams I would put ahead of WVU for sure going into the season. In no particular order, I see TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Oklahoma as being better than WVU. All bets are off with anyone else in the conference. Some think highly of Baylor, but I’m not drinking the Bears Kool-Aid just yet. They do play a rather easy schedule that’s back loaded with their biggest games, but their defense was just as poor as WVU’s last season. It’s not unreasonable to think the Mountaineers can finish ahead of them.
Kansas State is losing nearly their entire defense from last year’s Big 12 championship team, and must replace Heisman candidate Collin Klein. Bill Snyder has been known to work his magic, but I’d expect them to take a step back into the middle of the pack. At Texas Tech, they’ll be adjusting to new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, I don’t expect them to be much better than WVU, if any better at all. Although, Kingsbury is a young up-coming coach that should have success in the future, just not a bunch this season.
This leaves Iowa State and Kansas as the doormats. Kansas head coach Charlie Weis called his own team ‘a pile of crap’ during Big 12 media days. A successful season for this Kansas team would be winning one conference game, which they were unable to accomplish last year. Iowa State was picked ninth and I think that’s about right. They could end up being a spot or two better, but it’s hard to imagine they’ll be any worse than the Jayhawks.
Where does all this leave WVU? They have an outside chance of finishing as high as fourth place. I can’t put them any lower than an eighth place finish, with Kansas and Iowa State in the conference. If they overachieve, it will most likely still leave them in the middle of the Big 12 pack. It’s reasonable to think this team has the potential to finish fifth or sixth, which would most likely leave them with a record similar to last season.
With not much national hype, the Mountaineers will have a chance to create their own on the field, and prove nearly every national pundit wrong. In a sense, this season is even more intriguing than the last.