With the Mountaineers' spring football practice in full swing, it's time to look ahead to some of the new challenges they'll face this fall in the reconstructed Big 12 Conference.
Nine starters back on offense and another offseason perfecting Head Coach Dana Holgorsen's system have brought lofty expectations to Morgantown for the 2012 football season.
Several national preseason publications are hyping this year's squad as top ten caliber and a legitimate Big 12 title contender. A few media outlets even consider the Mountaineers a dark horse for reaching the national title, including ESPN's Mark Schlabach who placed WVU at No. 7 in his "2012 Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25" back in early February.
Suffice it to say, there is a lot of hype surrounding Holgorsen's gang, and for good reason. The 70-33 record-setting Orange Bowl victory over Clemson showed what quarterback Geno Smith and his receivers are capable of in this offense.
With Smith (4385 passing yards, 31 TDs), a signal-caller who set multiple school records last year, Tavon Austin (101 catches, 1186 receiving yards, 11 overall TDs), the nation's returning all-purpose yardage leader and Stedman Bailey (1279 receiving yards, 12 TDs) back for another season, there is a lot to be excited about in Morgantown.
But with a brand new defensive scheme, three new coaches and many new starters, there are also reasons to be weary. Add to this the fact that the Mountaineers are transitioning from the worst BCS conference to arguably the second-best, and it's safe to say they'll have to show up ready to play every Saturday in the Big 12.
The players, however, say they're just excited to be competing in one of the premier conferences.
"It's different not playing Syracuse and Rutgers and all them," explained junior linebacker Doug Rigg. "Next thing you see on the schedule is Texas and Texas Tech and all those schools, and they're schools I used to grow up watching…so I'm very anxious to get into it," he said.
Fellow junior teammate Pat Eger shared the same sentiment.
"I'm so excited to go to a new conference to show the nation that we're not just a little school, we're here," stated Eger.
The players also don't think they'll be anxious about going up against some of the elite programs in college football or playing in venues such as Texas' Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, where over 100,000 UT fans gather regularly to cheer on their Longhorns and make opponents' lives miserable.
"I don't think any of us are intimated at all, so I'm pretty excited for it," Rigg emphasized.
While the players are admittedly geared up for their new competition, there's no denying the fact that it'll be a much more difficult slate.
The 10-team league features six teams that are ranked in the top 22 of Schlabach's preseason rankings. In other words, five of the nine conference opponents for the Mountaineers may be ranked, and that isn't including teams like Baylor who finished 10-3 with an Alamo Bowl trophy in 2011 or Iowa State who gave No. 3 Oklahoma State their only loss of the season.
Let's take a quick glance at what the Mountaineers will face this fall in the Big 12:
OKLAHOMA returns a Heisman candidate in quarterback Landry Jones (4463 passing yards, 29 TD's) and four offensive linemen which should make for a very explosive offense in Norman. Jones will once again have an array of options on the outside, highlighted by Jaz Reynolds and Kenny Stills, which should help lessen the blow of losing All-American receiver Ryan Broyles. Somebody will need to step up at the running back position, but Roy Finch could easily be that guy. Bob Stoops' brother, Mark, is back to run the defense which returns eight starters and has good depth, but replacing linebacker Travis Lewis and defensive end Frank Alexander won't be easy. OU does boast some of the best specialists in college football with kicker Michael Hunnicutt and punter Tress Way.
Oklahoma at WVU: Nov. 17th
TEXAS is looking to bounce back from a disappointing 2011 season which saw them finish 8-5 with a losing conference record. This is a team destined for a Big 12 title run if they can just find some consistent play from the quarterback position. The defense is loaded with playmakers and next-level talent, led by defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and cornerbacks Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. At linebacker, Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho will need replaced. But this season will likely hinge on whether David Ash (1079 passing yards, 4 TD's, 8 INT) can be the signal-caller that takes this team to the next level. He has a plethora of talent to help get him there in running back Malcolm Brown (742 rushing yards, 5 TD's) and a trio of solid receivers in Jaxon Shipley, Marquise Goodwin and Mike Davis.
WVU at Texas: Oct. 6th
KANSAS STATE was one of the biggest success stories in 2011, but anybody who has followed Bill Snyder's career shouldn't be surprised by what he accomplished in Manhattan. The Wildcats return one of the country's most dynamic quarterbacks in Collin Klein, who accounted for 40 touchdowns last year (27 rushing). But he isn't the only playmaker in town, as running back John Hubert and receivers Brodrick Smith and Chris Harper (547 receiving yards, 5 TD's) could develop into dangerous playmakers in the Big 12. Linebacker Arthur Brown (101 tackles, 9.5 TFL) is one of the nations finest and returns to anchor the defense, but replacing three starters off the front seven will be key.
Kansas State at WVU: Oct. 20th
TEXAS CHRISTIAN enters the league coming off an 11-win season for the seventh time in the past nine years. Quarterback Casey Paschall returns and will immediately be one of the league's best signal-callers. Wide receiver Josh Boyce (998 receiving yards, 9 TD's) is an explosive home-run option on the outside, and there doesn't appear to be any shortage of talent in the backfield as the Horned Frogs return three running backs who all rushed for over 700 yards last season. Unfortunately, the February drug busts put a huge stain on the program and losing All-American linebacker Tanner Brock as a result of it will hurt the defense. However, this is still a talented team who has recruited well and you can bet Gary Patterson will have his bunch ready for anyone when conference play rolls around.
TCU at WVU: Nov. 3rd
OKLAHOMA STATE takes a big hit from their 12-win team after losing arguably the best quarterback-receiver tandem in the country in Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. On defense, eight starters return to a unit which led the nation last season in turnover margin, and they'll once again employ an aggressive approach focusing on takeaways. The quarterback position is completely up for grabs between Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and true freshman Wes Lunt, but Chelf's experience may give him the edge. Joseph Randle (1216 rushing yards, 26 TD's) is one of the best backs in America and will take some pressure of the newcomer behind center, and Tracy Moore (45 catches) and Isaiah Anderson will stretch the field as well.
WVU at Oklahoma State: Nov. 10th
BAYLOR loses its best player in program history in Heisman winner RG3, so obviously the Bears will not be what they were last season. But another critical loss is receiver Kendall Wright, likely a first-round NFL draft pick this April. Nine starters return on a defense that finished 116th in the country, but both starting tackles are gone. Nick Florence will step in at quarterback, and he will still have some talent on the outside in Terrance Williams (957 receiving yards, 11 TD's) and Tevin Reese (877 receiving yards, 7 TD's), but running back Terrance Ganaway (1547 rushing yards, 21 TD's) is gone. Art Briles is a good coach known for putting up big numbers on offense wherever he has been, but losing your top three offensive threats should make next season a rebuilding year in Waco.
Baylor at WVU: Sept. 29th
IOWA STATE had one of the biggest wins of 2011 when it knocked off the Cowboys in a Friday night ESPN tilt, but the Cyclones didn't accomplish much else last season, losing their final three games and finishing with a 6-7 record. They lack playmakers, but sophomore quarterback Jared Barnett returns even though he will be challenged in the preseason by Steele Jantz, who actually played the majority of the game in the Pinstripe Bowl. A.J. Klein (116 tackles, 7.5 TFL) and Jake Knott (115 tackles) form a tremendous linebacking duo, but an already mediocre defensive line may be even worse with three starters departing. The Cyclones took another big hit on defense losing cornerback Leonard Johnson to graduation.
WVU at Iowa State: Nov. 24th
TEXAS TECH looked like an entirely different team in the first seven games than they did in the final five. Tommy Tuberville had his troops nationally ranked in the middle of the season after knocking off then-No. 3 Oklahoma. But the entire season collapsed from there and the Red Raiders weren't even competitive. Now, Tuberville enters the season squarely on the hot seat, but fortunately for him he returns his leader on offense in senior quarterback Seth Doege. He may also have a star to throw to in wideout Eric Ward (800 receiving yards, 11 TD's), but a defense that finished 117th in scoring has to get significantly better in a hurry. Ten starters do return on that unit, but they need more production from the linebacking core. The offense will also have to be more consistent, as they disappeared at times last season scoring only 13 combined points in blowout losses to Iowa State and Oklahoma State.
WVU at Texas Tech: Oct. 13th
KANSAS enters the Charlie Weis era with not a whole lot of expectations after being one of the worst teams in the country last fall. The Jayhawks only victory over an FBS opponent was eventual MAC champion Northern Illinois in early September, but Weis will rely heavily on newly-transferred quarterback Dayne Crist and running back James Sims (727 rushing yards, 9 TD's) to keep his team relevant entering conference play. It won't be easy though, as talent is limited in Lawrence on the gridiron and both starting offensive tackles need replaced. MLB Darius Miller (81 tackles, 8 TFL) is the best defensive player on a unit that returns eight starters, but Weis still needs to recruit better athletes on that side of the ball to have any chance of stopping Big 12 offenses. The defense ranked dead last in the country in scoring D and yards allowed last season, giving up over 515 yards per contest.
Kansas at WVU: Dec 1st
To say the Mountaineers will be challenged this year would be a vast understatement, as Kansas appears to be the only real lock for a win in conference play.
The Big 12 gets all its notoriety for its offenses and rightly so, but it's interesting to note that three of the teams projected to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 standings in 2012 had three of the top five worst defenses in the country in 2011.
Almost everyone can score in this league. And the Mountaineers lost quite a bit of talent on defense, but the players and coaches have both spoken out this spring about how much more of an aggressive mentality they have right now compared to previous seasons.
This is likely a defense that is going to give up a good amount of big plays, but it's also going to take chances, put pressure on the quarterback, press the receivers at the line of scrimmage and create turnovers for the offense.
It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see the defensive statistics for this year's WVU team somewhat similar to last season's OSU defense. The Pokes finished 107th in the country in total defense, but No. 1 overall in turnover margin, recovering 20 fumbles and intercepting 24 passes.
Former Cowboys assistant coach Joe DeForest is in Morgantown running the defense now, and there's no doubt he will try to employ those same characteristics from last season's OSU team into this year's Mountaineer defense. But with some of the vaunted passing attacks that WVU will face in the Big 12, he'll have his work cut out for him in his inaugural season as defensive coordinator.