To begin the season, I see six teams with a legitimate chance to win the Big 12. Today we'll continue our series looking at why each team will or will not win the league. Next up: Newcomer West Virginia.
Why the Mountaineers will win the Big 12
1. They have the most explosive offense. Nobody's got a better, more experienced pass-catch combo than Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Geno Smith and his top two targets, receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The running game with Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston isn't going to scare too many folks, but it's definitely good enough to make defenses respect it, and it benefits from the play of Smith, Austin and Bailey. WVU is entering Year 2 with Dana Holgorsen, and there's not a lot of reason to believe the trio won't be even better in 2012.
2. They've got plenty of inside knowledge. Dana Holgorsen's been in the Big 12 for nine of the past 12 seasons, and his new defensive coordinator, Joe DeForest, spent more than a decade at Oklahoma State. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie and new graduate assistant Andrew McGee, a former OSU cornerback, can help provide some insight into what the Mountaineers will expect on the field in the pregame preparation.
3. They're an unknown entity. Oklahoma has to make a trip to West Virginia on Nov. 17 in a game that may decide the league title. Nobody in the Big 12 has ever played this band of Mountaineers, and WVU can perhaps use that to their advantage. Big 12 defensive coordinators are familiar with Holgorsen's schemes, but nobody was really able to stop it when he was at Oklahoma State. Don't expect that to change with WVU this year, especially with the kind of talent he's fielding offensively.
Why the Mountaineers will not win the Big 12
1. Where's the defense? West Virginia lost essentially its entire pass rush from last year's team, which ranked essentially in the middle of the pack in the offensively-challenged Big East. It's a whole new world in the Big 12. Defensive backs Darwin Cook and Terence Garvin return, along with defensive lineman Will Clarke and cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, but this isn't the Big East, and WVU is changing schemes from Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 to a 3-4 with Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson. There could be a rough road ahead of the Mountaineers when it comes to trying to stop Big 12 offenses, which are in another stratosphere compared to what WVU traditionally sees on game day. The one advantage? They've gotten plenty of work in practice this offseason.
2. The Nebraska Effect: They've got too much to learn. Nebraska was picked by plenty of folks to win the Legends Division in its first year in the Big Ten. The Huskers had the talent, but instead, went 5-3 and finished third in the division behind Michigan and Michigan State. West Virginia has the talent to win the Big 12, but has to study up on nine new teams. The rest of the Big 12 only has to adjust to two new teams. NU got rocked by Wisconsin and Michigan, teams that weren't nearly as good as Nebraska's inexperience in the league made them look. WVU may see the same fate against unfamiliar opponents.
3. The inconsistency will catch up to the Mountaineers. Everybody remembers that nationally-televised bludgeoning WVU handed out to ACC champion Clemson. Doesn't seem like enough people remember a 26-point blowout loss to five-win Syracuse, or narrow wins over sub-.500 teams like Pitt and South Florida. West Virginia wasn't as impressive on a week-to-week basis as they were in their most prominent game in 2011. Even coach Dana Holgorsen admits that game has plenty of people thinking his team is better than it actually is. Will they improve enough between January and September to be a consistent team capable of winning a much tougher league? We'll find out soon.