West Virginia Mountaineers
(10-3 overall, 5-2 and Big East Champions in 2011)
After 21 years as a member of the Big East Conference, West Virginia begins a new era and a new conference affiliation this fall as a member of the Big 12. While the Big 12 will be a new and much different experience for the Mountaineers in terms of the quality of football competition week-in and week-out, life in the Big 12 is nothing new for head coach Dana Holgorsen and new co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest.
For Holgorsen and DeForest, the 2012 football season will represent a homecoming. Holgorsen was an assistant at Texas Tech for eight seasons before joining Mike Gundy's staff at Oklahoma State, and DeForest is in his first year at West Virginia after spending the last 11 at Oklahoma State.
"There are more snaps (in a Big 12 game), so you're going to play more people," said Holgorsen, who is in his second season heading the Mountaineers' football program. "West Virginia hasn't really played freshmen, but we're going to need to...We're going to need more bodies."
Holgorsen recognizes that in employing more people and younger players in the defensive substitution packages, which is a survival requirement with the number of hurry-up offenses used in the Big 12, adjustments have to be made so that the defense and the individual assignments "make sense to the kids quicker," he said. "DeForest was good at that at Oklahoma State. He didn't complicate it."
Offensively, the Mountaineers are an ideal fit for the pass-heavy Big 12. Senior quarterback Geno Smith led the country's sixth best passing attack last season. Smith threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns, with seven interceptions. He had eight games in which he passed for more than 300 yards and four others where he exceeded 400 yards.
Smith's three primary receiving targets - Trevor Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney - are all back in 2012. Austin and Bailey both exceeded 1,000 yards in pass-receiving yardage last season and had 20 touchdowns between them. Bailey averaged nearly 18 yards a catch on 72 receptions. Austin, a short, inside-speed receiver caught a school-record 101 passes last year, and his 7.8 receptions per game ranked eighth nationally.
The Mountaineers have a serviceable running game to go with their prolific passing attack, but they are lacking an explosive, durable, breakaway threat. Last season's leading rusher, sophomore Dustin Garrison (742 yards and an average of 5.5 yards per carry), tore his ACL and MCL late in the year, and his availability is still somewhat of a question mark to begin the 2012 season. If Garrison can't go or is limited in what he can do, senior Shawne Alston, who had 416 yards on 97 carries and 12 touchdowns backing up Garrison in 2011 will get the call.
So the defending Big East champions, who unloaded on a good Clemson team for a 70-point explosion and a seven-touchdown Orange Bowl victory to cap off a 10-3 2011 season, are well armed and highly capable of scoring fast and often, which makes them an ideal fit and an especially strong challenger to the best in the offense-dominant Big 12. The Mountaineers, who come into the 2012 season ranked in the top 15 nationally, have home dates with Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State, which could set them up nicely for a strong run at the conference championship in their inaugural season.
For the past 10 seasons, West Virginia has employed a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, which has served the program well, helping deliver 95 wins and 10 bowl appearances. In view of the Mountaineers move to the Big 12, however, as well as the departure of former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who is now at Arizona, The West Virginia coaches are changing to a 3-4 defense, which they believe will give the Mountaineers the best chance to compete teams in the Big 12.
Another reason for the defensive changes is to help compensate for the loss of four All-Big East defensive performers, including two huge fixtures, literally and figuratively, on the defensive line (defensive ends Bruce Irvin, a sack master, and Julian Miller, who had 11 tackles for loss last season).
The Mountaineers just may have the best offense in the Big 12 this season, which is saying something when you consider offensive powerhouses like Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. Everybody knows West Virginia is going to score some points, but can Holgorsen's crew survive the difficult Big 12 schedule by counting on their offensive firepower to outscore their opponents. To put it another way, will the Mountaineers defense be able match up effectively enough to slow down the other team's offenses and give West Virginia the opportunity to be as successful in the Big 12 as they were in the Big East.
Defensive coordinator DeForest chose to error on the conservative side when queried about his new team's chances against the big offenses of the Big 12: "I know ‘em," he said with a big smile. "Doesn't mean I can stop ‘em."
The transition for West Virginia to the Big 12 will be a lot better than most of the teams in the conference care to admit. They should be in very good position to compete for the championship, and some college football experts are actually projecting the Mountaineers to win the conference crown. I think the new guys from Morgantown will come very close but fall just short in a close race. The Nov. 17 game between West Virginia and Oklahoma in Morgantown could decide the conference championship.
I predict a 10-2 season overall for West Virginia in 2012, with a 7-2 record in the Big 12. Project finish in the Big 12: Second.
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