The anticipation is almost over for the West Virginia University Mountaineer football team as the season begins this Saturday. While many are excited about the move to the Big 12, WVU takes on the first of three out of conference games when they take on in-state foe Marshall for the last time in the seven game series that began in 2006.
With the series ending, this will be the last time for a while that Marshall get a chance for a victory against WVU. The overall series has been completely one sided and that may even be an understatement. The Thundering Herd have never beaten West Virginia and the Mountaineers lead the all-time series, 11-0.
WVU enters this season ranked 11th in both the AP and Coaches' Poll and is there highest preseason ranking since 2008. With the performance in the Orange Bowl, many expect this team to have a ton of offensive firepower. Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have found themselves on many award watchlists. In the running game, Shawne Alston has been named the starter, but Andrew Buie expects to play. Dustin Garrison's situation with a possible redshirt is still up in the air.
Defensively for Marshall, they lost arguably their two best defenders last season in current Philadelphia Eagle Vinny Curry and last season's leading tackler Omar Brown. The Thundering Herd finished last season 58th in the nation in pass yards allowed at 255 yards per game.
The key to watch on this side of the ball is no surprise. Can the Mountaineers get a solid passing game going?
"I know that [the Marshall defense] is going to come in and play hard," WVU Quarterback Geno Smith said. "I know that they have a lot of experience. They have a couple of guys coming back this year and a couple guys that we faced last year. They have guys making transitions into new positions because they have some transfers. I know they're going to give us their best shot, mix it up, give us different looks and try and make it harder on us."
What a lot of West Virginia faithful are wondering about is how will the new defensive scheme show in their debut this Saturday, moving from the 3-3-5 to a multiple defense combing a 3-4 and 4-3 look. Key players on the defensive line are gone like Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, as well as current Tampa Bay Buccaneers Najee Goode and Keith Tandy.
Offensively for Marshall, they show a lot of talent at the skill positions. Returning sophomore starting quarterback Rakeem Cato leads the squad. He threw for 2,059 yards with 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a true freshman a year ago.
On the outside, senior Aaron Dobson leads the receiving corps after snagging 12 touchdowns last season, quadrupling the next best total. Senior Andre Booker is another playmaker on the outside that can cause problems. He returned an 87 yard punt for a touchdown last season against WVU. Sophomore running back Travon Van will get the bulk of the carries this week against West Virginia due to a knee injury suffered by junior Tron Martinez.
Rumors have been circulating recently that the Thundering Herd offense may throw in a new wrinkle this weekend. Possibly going a little more up-tempo and speed things up.
The key for West Virginia on this side of the ball is whether or not they can adjust to the new defense smoothly. Can they cover Aaron Dobson and put pressure on Rakeem Cato?
"We definitely respect their receivers," Cornerback Coach Daron Roberts said. "I think that they're coached well at the receiver position and they've had a history of making plays so we're looking forward to seeing them on Saturday."
Marshall has shown that this game is one of the biggest of the season for them year in and year out. They are expected to come out with a lot of intensity since this will be their last opportunity to beat West Virginia for a while.
As we all know, the weather can change in a heartbeat, but it does not look like we will have a repeat thunderstorm marathon from last year. It is currently calling for a high of 83 with a 20% chance of rain.
The final Friends of Coal Bowl will be aired on FX at noon on Saturday.