USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
We can define West Virginia's in-progress slide in many ways, using many metrics, relying on many forms of statistical comparison and calling on any number of just-the-facts descriptions, but let's keep it simpler:
Last year's team was the first in the Big 12 since 2007 to lose to both Kansas and Iowa State in the same season.
That's one way to put the Mountaineers' current existence into perspective. If you're searching for another, consider that WVU is 4-12 after September during the past two years. If you're searching for a third, consider how last year's squad didn't merely finish ninth in the Big 12 in total defense – this is now par for the course – but also fifth in total offense, about 50% off Baylor's national-best clip.
Hey, Baylor is what WVU was supposed to be – and what WVU was, for a short time, during its 5-0 start as a member of its new conference in 2012. Now those were the days: West Virginia outscored Baylor and Texas to surge into the top five before tumbling to also-ran status, and then found a new low in a disastrous 2013.
How quickly all can change. The offense has gone from unstoppable to error-prone: WVU finished last year tied for 103rd in the Football Bowl Subdivision in interceptions and 120th in turnovers. The defense has stood pat, essentially making a cozy home at rock-bottom.
Unsurprisingly, Dana Holgorsen has gone from offensive mastermind – the face of Mountaineer football; the cocky can't-fail triggerman behind the 70-point Orange Bowl – to the hottest seat in the Big 12.
"We have high expectations at West Virginia University for success on and off the field and as Coach Holgorsen has acknowledged to me, we are not meeting those expectations on the field," athletic director Oliver Luck said last December.
So there's your vote of confidence, and it's as shaky a plug as you'll find on the coaching circuit. Holgorsen needs a rebound to improve his job security. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, need a rebound to prove another simple fact: that West Virginia football still matters.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
I think the Mountaineers win seven games during the regular season, sweeping the non-conference slate and winning four games against Big 12 competition – Iowa State, Kansas and two others, perhaps one an upset. Based on WVU's continued potential on offense, this team will be a nuisance to every team in league play. It might be hard to imagine a scenario where the Mountaineers challenge for a top-three spot in the Big 12, but it's even more difficult to envision a scenario where WVU falls flat.
In a nutshell: Combine an inept defense with an often unstoppably productive offense and you get seven wins, West Virginia's total during its Big 12 debut; combine defensive incompetence with offensive ineptitude and you get a four-win follow-up, the program's most disappointing season in more than a decade. Meet the gang that couldn't shoot straight: WVU's defense was an abomination, continuing a trend, but the Mountaineers' defining trait was this troubling decline on the offensive side of the ball. One can sum up the disappointment with a side-by-side comparison to 2012: WVU tossed 28 fewer touchdowns and nine more interceptions, threw for 67.1 fewer yards per game and averaged 1.3 fewer yards per attempt – and the final number might not seem large, but the total adds up when you throw the ball 464 times, as WVU did a season ago.
High point: The win against Oklahoma State. For one week, at least, WVU was a Big 12 contender.
Low point: Losing to Kansas and Iowa State. In the same season. In the same month.
Tidbit: West Virginia is 167-14-1 since 1980 when scoring 30 or more points. Of those 14 defeats, six have as a member of the Big 12: TCU (39-38), Oklahoma State (55-34) and Oklahoma (50-49) in 2012 and Baylor (72-43), Texas (47-40) and Iowa State (52-44) in 2013.
Tidbit (Kansas edition): Since joining the league two years ago, WVU has allowed an average of 501.78 yards per game, 6.48 yards per play and 40.5 points per game against Big 12 competition. Those numbers look even uglier if we remove Kansas from the equation. Without those two dates with the Jayhawks, the Mountaineers are allowing an average of 523.88 yards per game, 6.61 yards per play and 43.0 points per game during league play.
Tidbit (coaching edition): The offensive staff hasn't changed a bit: Shannon Dawson's still the coordinator, Lonnie Galloway still leads the receivers, Ron Crook the offensive line and JaJuan Seider the running backs – and Holgorsen still oversees the whole deal, of course. But changes are afoot on defense, beginning with Tony Gibson's promotion from safeties coach to coordinator, replacing Arizona State-bound Keith Patterson. In turn, Holgorsen moved Joe DeForest to safeties coach. There are also two new additions: Tom Bradley is the senior associate head coach and defensive line coach, and Damon Cogdell, formerly of Miramar High School in Miramar, Fla., takes over as linebackers coach.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Current FBS coaches promoted from within staff
1. Jimbo Fisher, Florida State
2. David Shaw, Stanford
3. Dabo Swinney, Clemson
4. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State
5. Gary Patterson, TCU
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The Mountaineers' backfield is just filthy. Charles Sims is gone, true – and missed, regardless of the incumbent personnel – but WVU will have five strong contenders for snaps in the running game and as pass-game safety valves: senior Dreamius Smith (494 yards), last year's backup; sophomore Wendell Smallwood (221 yards), a dangerously productive back last fall in a small sample size; sophomore Rushel Shell, the Pittsburgh transfer with sky-high potential as a pure runner; junior Dustin Garrison, a potential difference-maker if he's fully recovered from that knee injury; and junior Andrew Buie, perhaps the best of the bunch. Buie, who led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2012, returns to action after taking a redshirt a season ago. Quibble with the quarterback conundrum and the pieces up front, but rest assured of one fact: WVU is loaded – just loaded – at running back.
It's not all good news. But it's not a terrible situation at wide receiver, where WVU lacks game-breaking ability – there's no make-'em-miss blazer here – but is long on reliable production. At worst, the Mountaineers have the talent needed to make waves in this system; Holgorsen merely needs to find a quarterback capable of delivering the football on time, in space and under pressure. The receiver corps leads with senior Mario Alford (27 receptions for 552 yards) and sophomore Daikiel Shorts (45 for 495), the latter a promising talent, followed by senior Kevin White (35 for 507) and junior Jordan Thompson (22 for 175). Beyond this starting quartet, WVU should have no problem cobbling together a second tier between junior KJ Myers, sophomore Devonte Mathis, sophomore Vernon Davis and five redshirt and true freshmen. Blame the quarterback, not the receivers, should this passing game fail to produce.
Or blame the edges of the offensive line, which is again of substantial concern as the Mountaineers prepare for summer workouts. The interior is steady: Quinton Spain is an all-conference lock at left guard and right guard Mark Glowinski should progress nicely as a second-year starter. But WVU is worrisome at center, where sophomore Tyler Orlosky steps in as the full-time starter, and in dire straits at left and right tackle. How much help will sophomore Adam Pankey need on the blind side? Lining up alongside Spain is a good start, but you have view the Mountaineers' ability to pass protect as a weakness until proven otherwise. Junior Marquis Lucas seems more prepared for the starting job at right tackle, but his lack of prototypical experience makes him a similar question mark.
Defense: Look for Bradley's impact to be felt throughout the defense, where he'll be an invaluable sounding board for Gibson, but the longtime Penn State assistant's biggest mark will be made on this three-man defensive front. It's a front in progress: WVU lost a pair of starters, leading the one starting holdover to shift spots and placing pressure on a core of ex-reserves to pick up the slack. For starters, look for junior Kyle Rose (49 tackles, 8.5 for loss) to move from end to nose tackle, replacing Shaq Rowell; Rose has the flexibility to move back outside when WVU goes to an even front, making him Bradley's most irreplaceable cog. When Rose does move – or takes a breather – Bradley can insert sophomore Darrien Howard, a really nice-looking youngster, or Brandon Jackson, a 340-pound junior. In the three-lineman look, WVU will flank Rose with sophomore Christian Brown and senior Dontrill Hyman; junior Eric Kinsey (15 tackles) and sophomore Noble Nwachukwu will be the top reserves. Brown's blend of size and explosiveness could make him the key to the whole deal. Unfortunately, this isn't an overly impressive group by any means.
But the defense improves along the back seven. I like what the defense bring to the table at linebacker, particularly with junior Isaiah Bruce (43 tackles) moving down from the Mountaineers' hybrid linebacker-safety spot. Bruce's move will push a could-be starter into a backup role, but that's a good point: WVU has several linebackers with starting experience at its disposal, meaning this group – like the offensive backfield – has a deep and tested second tier. Not there's much debate among the top three: Bruce will be on the strong side, senior Brandon Golson (41 tackles, 4.0 sacks) on the weak side and junior Nick Kwiatkoski (86 tackles), last year's leading tackler, in the middle. They might not blow your socks off, but WVU's linebackers are a defensive strength.
He's already a good one – a borderline all-conference candidate in 2014 – but with a dose of added experience, sophomore Daryl Worley should develop into the top cornerback in the Big 12. That's not an overstatement: Worley has all the tools one needs to shine on the outside, not to mention the confident mentality, and should as such be viewed as the most promising underclassmen on WVU's roster – and one of the future stars in the Big 12. Joining Worley at cornerback is senior Ishmael Banks (32 tackles), a 16-game starter, along with JUCO transfer Keishawn Richardson, junior Terrell Chestnut and sophomore Nana Kyeremeh. The Mountaineers will replace Bruce with junior K.J. Dillon, who has been up to the task when healthy. Along the back end, WVU will shift junior Karl Joseph (68 tackles) to bandit safety, replacing Darwin Cook, while sophomore Jeremy Tyler steps in at free safety. This could be a good group.
Special teams: You can't quibble with WVU's returning talent in the kicking game: Josh Lambert hit on 17-of-23 field goals as a rookie, with four of those misses coming from beyond 50 yards, while junior punter Nick O'Toole is a reigning second-team all-league pick. What's surprising about the Mountaineers' special teams is the lack of punch in the return game; one would think Holgorsen had the requisite speed and elusiveness at the skill positions.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Quarterback: That Clint Trickett stood atop the post-spring depth chart despite offseason shoulder surgery – and despite not taking a snap during drills – speaks to two facts about the Mountaineers' standing under center: one, it's not a good situation, and two, Holgorsen clearly isn't bullish on his three healthy options – seniors Paul Millard and Logan Moore and JUCO transfer Skyler Howard. Holgorsen remains committed to Trickett, however, as he showed in naming him the starter June 24. Essentially, WVU gave Millard, Moore and Howard the chance to vault to the forefront of the competition; none took advantage of the opportunity.
So Trickett will head into the heart of summer conditioning as the Mountaineers' projected answer, needing only to prove his health, one would imagine, to enter the opener as the starter. If Trickett falters, perhaps Millard's experience puts him back into a starting position after sharing the task with Trickett last fall; perhaps Howard struts his stuff with a more concrete knowledge of the offense; perhaps incoming four-star freshman Williams Crest impresses the staff, though he's set to make an enormous leap in competition.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Kansas: Another loss to Kansas should be followed by a stampede of updated résumés. It's simply unacceptable: WVU will be outclassed by Alabama, will be a decided underdog against Oklahoma and will face a toss-up game at Maryland, but a loss to Kansas … that can't happen. Once again – as during league play a season ago – it's hard to locate the Big 12 wins; Kansas is one and Iowa State should be another, but let's remember the final month of last fall.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's difficult to be overly optimistic. But let's give optimism a try: West Virginia simply can't be worse, I'd say, and has significant room for growth at quarterback, wide receiver, the offensive line, the defensive back seven and on special teams. At the same time, I'm impressed by the quality of the backfield and the potential in the secondary; a player like Worley could become a stopper as a sophomore, a development that will provide immense aid to this new-look front and paltry pass rush. If you want to be optimistic – and who doesn't – it's possible to plug WVU for six or more wins during the regular season.
Let's be a touch more realistic about WVU's strengths, weaknesses and unknowns. One strength is the running game, which combines an absolutely loaded backfield with the offensive line's strong interior. Another could be the receiver corps, should the quarterback position deliver. But quarterback is an unknown, if not worse, until Trickett proves he can make the throws in Holgorsen's system – or until one of the four remaining options steps forward in August and grabs the starting job. Among the Mountaineers' weaknesses, consider pass protection, pass rush, interior run defense and the return game.
So this isn't a Big 12 contender, but we knew that already. Instead, I see WVU as a borderline bowl team – not three-win bad, as some have suggested, but hovering somewhere between five and seven wins. WVU wins five if the current predicaments at quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and special teams remain unresolved; WVU goes 7-5 if two or three groups improve before the opener. It's a shaky situation, in my mind. The $1 million question: How many wins does Holgorsen need to return in 2015?
Dream season: West Virginia bounces back to 8-4, finishing 6-3 in the Big 12 and tied for second place.
Nightmare season: The Mountaineers drop to 2-10, notching wins against Towson and Iowa State.
Who's No. 77? This team's quarterbacks coach was 14 when its head coach notched his first career win.
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