2011 Record: 10-3 (5-2 in Big East)
Head Coach: Dana Holgersen (second year head coach)
Last Bowl Game: 2011 season Orange Bowl: squashed Clemson 70-33
Stats to Cheer: had 226 plays of 10 or more yards, 72 plays of 20 or more yards and 35 plays of 30 or more yards in 2012 (1st in Big East)
Stat to Fear: gave up 13.3 more points in 2011 than in 2010
Phil Steele's Returning Starters: (Offense: 8; Defense: 6; Specialists: 2)
Key Defensive Returnees: LB Terence Garvin (72 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 INT), CB Pat Miller (66 tackles, 2 INT), S Darwin Cook (85 tackles, 2 INT), DL Jorge Wright (38 tackles), LB Jewone Snow (42 tackles)
Key Offensive Returnees: QB Geno Smith (31 TD, 7 INT), RB Dustin Garrison (742 yds rush, 6 TD), RB Shawn Alston (416 yds, 12 TD), WR Tavon Austin (101 rec, 8 TD), WR Stedman Bailey (72 rec, 12 TD)
Inside Scoop with the Eye and Eer Blog:
CFBZ: Dana Holgorsen's offense runs better when he has weapons at RB. Who do you see stepping up at that position this year for WVU?
Eye and Eer: WVU actually has some depth at running back, even though all of the contenders have limited experience but Shawne Alston, who stepped up big in the Orange Bowl. Alston has been impressive in preseason camp and will start the season as the top back. Alston is a bruising back, who can also break a big one. As you noted, the running game is an important facet of Holgorsen's offense and it took the Mountaineers awhile to get it going last year. When Alston needs a breather or WVU needs a quicker option, Holgorsen will also use Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. Buie opened the season as the No. 1 back last year, while Garrison was the leading rusher. All of a sudden, the running game is not a weak spot.
CFBZ: Outside of Oklahoma, which Big 12 teams do you think will present the biggest match-up problems for the Mountaineers?
Eye and Eer: Each of the four road games are the biggest concerns. These are new environments, longer trips and WVU's players just don't know what to expect. The Texas game is probably the toughest match up because the Longhorns probably have the conference's top defense and they could shut down Geno Smith and the offense. If that happens it could be a long game, and a quick end to those who think WVU can win the league. I'm also concerned with TCU, who can put up some serious points and WVU's new 3-4 defense will be a work in progress.
CFBZ: What areas do you see as the biggest potential weaknesses this year and who needs to step up in those areas?
Eye and Eer: WVU needs to create ways to put pressure on the talented quarterbacks of the Big 12 or those guys will pick them apart down the field. Even in the Orange Bowl rout, the defense struggled at first to get any serious pressure on Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. Once he was relegated to throwing every down it became a little easier. That pressure will come from Will Clarke, who must replace Bruce Irvin. Clarke is a physical specimen at 6-foot-6, 269 pounds and he'll hold his own in the Big 12.
Another area of concern is the offensive line, which had an up-and-down year in Holgorsen's first season. The return of Josh Jenkins at left guard should solidify the line and make it tough on Big 12 defenses.
CFBZ: What is your gut feeling on the final record for the 2012 season and what makes the season successful in your eyes?
Eye and Eer: I know a lot of people think WVU can win the Big 12 in its inaugural season, but I think this is too much to expect. Could it happen? Of course. The Mountaineers are talented. But the transition will be tough and I think a 9-3 season is reasonable and should be good enough to be considered a successful first year in a new conference.
Last year Dana Holgersen was thrust into the role of head coach one year early. The hope was to let him run the offense for a year and then take over for Bill Stewart in 2012. It turned out that wasn't such a great idea and when the plan blew up Holgersen had to take on more than he had originally anticipated. The Mountaineers had their ups and downs but overall it's hard to complain about a 10-3 season that ended with a 70-33 win in a BCS bowl game.
The offense will be better this year. Geno Smith gets his second year under Dana Holgersen and he's already being hyped as a fringe Heisman candidate. Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney are all back to lead the receiving corps. All of the leading rushers are back as well, although that's an area that needs to improve and should as the young guys got some experience last year. Did I mention that they have the most offensive line starts back in the conference? There is no reason not to like the direction that the offense is headed.
On defense, Jeff Casteel is out and Joe DeForest (Okie State) and Keith Patterson (Tulsa/Pitt). They have installed a 3-4 and based on what the coaches have to say it's been going well (what else are they going to say?). The big issue for the Mountaineers is going to be depth on the defense.
Heading into the Big 12, the Mountaineers are going to get some serious competition this year. Lucky for them they get to ease into that competition as they start off with Marshall and James Madison. Then they get a QB-less Maryland and then they get the RG3-less Baylor Bears. WVU should be 4-0 heading into a huge test at Texas. The Mountaineers should play five Top 25 teams in the regular season. Last year they played just two. Between our four voters in our top 25, I voted the Mountaineers the lowest at #14. When I look at their schedule I just think it's going to be difficult for them to escape their tough Big 12 schedule with any less than three losses. That being said, majority rules and they have been voted in at #9 which equates to a 10-2 season in my book. It's possible, but it's going to be tough.
2012 Prediction: 10-2
Top 25 Countdown
#9 West Virginia
#12 Michigan State
#14 Kansas State
#16 Virginia Tech
#17 Boise State
#19 Ohio State
#23 Oklahoma State
Previous 2012 Previews: