by Chuck Sippl, Sr. Editor

First year for the Mountaineers in the Big 12. True, West Virginia might not be the greatest fit geographically with its new Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas-Iowa Tornado Alley conference foes. But once old Mountaineer rival Pittsburgh agreed to bolt with Syracuse to the ACC, WV athletic director Oliver Luck (father of Andrew) didn’t hesitate to search for a better opportunity than the crumbling Big East. The move ended up costing the Mountaineers millions in exit fees, but WV should make up the money relatively easily with the bigger gates and TV revenue from the Big 12. Early ticket sales in Morgantown were sharply higher.

But so much for the finances. What fans care about most are the offensive pyrotechnics likely to ensue this season as HC Dana Holgorsen directs his explosive offense while his rebuilding Mountaineer defense tries to keep its head above water. One intangible “plus” about the West Virginia move west is that Holgorsen previously coached as an assistant for nine years in the Big 12 at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State. Several members of his staff are Big 12 veterans, as well, including new co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest (11 years at Oklahoma State).

Holgorsen, who has helped develop record-smashing QBs such as Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, Case Keenum at Houston, and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, has a big-time hurler this season in sr. Geno Smith (right), who passed for 4285 yards (31 TDs vs. only 7 ints.) in 2011. After spring, Smith expressed even higher expectations for 2012 now that he knows Holgorsen’s offense much better and has been given more freedom in operating it. The same is true for wideouts Tavon Austin (101 recs., 8 TDC LY) and Stedman Bailey (72 recs.; 12 TDs), with the latter having caught passes from Smith since they were in the sixth grade together in Miami. The Mountie WRs are expected to be enhanced further this season by 5-7 true frosh Jordan Thompson, who enrolled early for spring and immediately gained the nickname “Squirt” because of his ultra-quick moves.

Holgorsen’s version of the spread attack has usually featured a solid complementary running game, and this year is no different. 5-9, 170 soph Dustin Garrison returns after gaining 742 yards last season before suffering torn knee ligaments in practice before the Orange Bowl. But WV has depth and variety at the position, with power back Shawne Alston (only 432 YR, but 12 TDR in 2011), soph Andrew Buie, and others pushing for playing time. With two-year starting G Josh Jenkins returning after missing 2011 with a knee injury, the Mountaineers have four of five back up front, with massive 6-5, 335 soph Quinton Spain set to move in at LT. Last year, the Mountaineers scored 37.6 ppg, were No. 6 in passing yards, and stunned athletic Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. Even stepping up in class to the Big 12, the WV attack this season might surpass last year’s.

It’s the defense that has many in the Mountaineer Nation worried. CBs Pat Miller & Brodrick Jenkins and S Darwin Cook each had two interceptions last season and should keep developing. And sr. LB Terence Garvin (left vs. Marshall last September; 72 tackles, 3½ sacks LY) is a force. But the loss of pass-rush specialist Bruce Irvin (top pick of the Seahawks), LB Najee Goode, and DT Julian Miller has cost WV 19½ sacks. The lack of a pass rush and an absence of quality defensive depth usually have meant death vs. the wide-open attacks of the Big 12 in recent years. WV allowed 27 ppg last year and might regress in 2012, even though co-defensive coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson are dumping the Mountaineers’ familiar 3-3-5 for a 3-4/4-3 mix. However, DeForest expressed a concern about a lack of leadership on defense in the spring.

Sr. PK Tyler Bitancourt connected on 16 of 22 FGs LY, and Austin (two kickoff return TDs) is one of the nation’s dynamic return men. But a blocked fourth-quarter FG was a crucial factor in last year’s 38-35 home loss vs. Louisville, costing the Mountaineers the outright title in the Big East. WV was only 101st in net punting last season, another problem area that could be exacerbated by the move to the Big 12.

Summary...The Mountaineers are “fat” on offense and—on paper at least--a little “thin” on defense as they transition to the Big 12. Some Mountie offensive stars are even talking Heisman, which is dangerous thinking going into the season. The WV conference opener Sept. 29 vs. wide-open Baylor is likely to test the wiring of the scoreboard in Morgantown, even with Robert Griffin having moved on to the NFL. But WV’s road schedule (to Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Iowa State) will be much more arduous than the Mounties are used to. Those are not easy sites to grab victories. While Holgorsen’s offense has the ability to keep WV in just about any game, the WV defense doesn’t appear to be deep enough to handle the severe challenges that will be posed by the Mounties’ upgraded list of foes. West Virginia will likely pull an upset or two, but it is also likely to be an upset victim once or twice as it earns its spurs in the Big 12. When the Mounties tried to step way up in class last season, they were rolled by LSU 47-21. A good season for WV, yes. A great season, no.

Note: WV was 10-1 “over’” in Dana Holgorsen’s first season in Morgantown.


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