There’s a faint whiff of charred upholstery in the air and that can only mean one thing. As Rant Sports continues its 100 college football previews in 100 days, the West Virginia Mountaineers of the Big 12 slot at #10 in the rankings.
Rodney Farva of Super Troopers fame, told an eloquent tale during that classic American film where he referenced the great Charlie Rich setting the Country Musician of the Year award on fire when it was won by John Denver. That seems apropos of the Mountaineer faithful and the singer whose song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is played at every West Virginia home game.
2011 provided a lesson in patience for the Mountaineers. Bill Stewart’s uncomfortable firing, Dana Holgorsen’s accelerated promotion and a lawsuit with the Big East that eventually cost $20 million. The prize? One of the most intriguing head coaches in college football, a new conference home in the reconstructed Big 12 and piles of television money arriving in Morgantown.
Even better, West Virginia left the Big East with a conference title and decimated Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Teams may have been hotter at the end of 2011 but no program or fan base deals with fire quite like the Mountaineers.
Heisman candidates generate a sexier following than trying to engage a drooling IHOP crowd with offensive line examples of a sophisticated pancake. So it makes sense to start with senior quarterback Geno Smith. His 2011 numbers (4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, 65.8% completion rate) impress and even more when considering it was his first year in the altered-Air Raid. Smith will be counted on to carry the Mountaineer offense in a Big 12 known for scoring while facing defenses on a weekly basis above Big East-caliber.
He’ll have help in a pair of receivers already being touted for all-conference honors. Tavon Austin (101 receptions, 1,186 yards, 8 touchdowns) and Stedman Bailey (72 receptions, 1,279 yards, 12 touchdowns) catch what’s thrown at them better than a $2 Morgantown Lady of the Night. The issue in this up-tempo offense, is are they alone out wide? Redshirt senior J.D. Woods and true freshman Jordan Thompson will start but against defenses like Texas and Oklahoma, can they create the same havoc?
At running back, sophomore Dustin Garrison (742 yards, 6 touchdowns, 5.5 YPC) hasn’t healed from a 2011 knee injury and may redshirt. That leaves senior Shawne Alston (416 yards, 12 touchdowns, 4.3 YPC) with the brunt of the carries, where he’ll be aided by sophomore Andrew “I ain’t your” Buie (172 yards, 1 touchdown, 3.4 YPC). This is a unit capable of pushing the Mountaineers to a Big 12 title. Can the other side of the ball do the same?
A hold-over from the Rich Rodriguez era, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left for Tucson over the winter and took with him his 3-3-5 alignment. Joe DeForest, a defensive coach on the same Oklahoma State staff as Holgorsen, arrives with a 3-4 in hopes of slowing down offenses that won’t resemble Rutgers or Connecticut. As is the case in any passing league, the defensive line decides how successful the unit becomes. Will Clarke (26.5 tackles, 2 sacks, 5 TFL) and Jorge Wright (29.5 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 3.5 TFL) man the tackle and end positions, respectively and represent most of the only non-potential production in the front seven.
Terence Garvin (57.5 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL) is a standout linebacker but he’s going to need more from Doug Rigg and Jared Barber besides Mel Gibson-esque action movie names. In the secondary, true freshman Karl Joseph already stole a safety spot and you can bet he’ll be picked on by opposing quarterbacks if he’s not performing early.
The other safety, Darwin Cook (68 tackles, 2 interceptions, 4 PBU) provides a security blanket for Joseph in the event he’s not completely ready but the Big 12 puts an onus on exposing secondaries. Corners Pat Miller (58 tackles, 2 interceptions, 3 PBU) and Brodrick Jenkins (24.5 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 PBU) need to continue causing turnovers because the best analysis I’ve read of signal-caller’s in the league is that they throw receivers open, they don’t wait for them to get there.
Three non-conference victories precede a date with Baylor in Morgantown that’s a guaranteed winner if your lady enjoys points. The following week, West Virginia travels to Austin for a game against Texas that has become the preseason microcosm of their 2012 goals. Lose and 8-4 or 9-3 is very likely. Win and there’s no reason the Mountaineers can’t contend for a Big 12 title. In November, three consecutive weeks of TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma leads me to believe 2-1 there is something to admire.
I haven’t caught the Mountaineer hype train because I remember 2011 games besides the Orange Bowl. That same squad who destroyed the Tigers lost by 26 to Syracuse and though this is the second year in Holgorsen’s system and Geno Smith returns, I’m not seeing conference behemoth potential. West Virginia may not grab the crown in 2012 but there’s enough firepower there to make them dangerous. Just don’t let them around any Coach of the Year awards, those things are highly flammable.