<
>

West Virginia season preview

Today we kick off the Big 12 preview by examining West Virginia, which aims to surprise after a disappointing Big 12 debut.

WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

Coach: Dana Holgorsen (17-9 overall, two seasons; 17-9 at West Virginia, first season)

2012 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)

Key losses: QB Geno Smith, RB/WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, LB Terence Garvin

Key returnees: RB Andrew Buie, OT Quinton Spain, DE Will Clarke, LB Isaiah Bruce, S Karl Joseph

Newcomer to watch: Who knows if Charles Sims will replace Tavon Austin as West Virginia’s primary playmaker? But the transfer from Houston will definitely help. Sims, who played for Holgorsen at Houston in 2009, totaled more than 800 yards rushing for the Cougars the past two seasons.

Biggest games in 2013: West Virginia’s September schedule is unforgiving. The Mountaineers go to Oklahoma, face rival Maryland in Baltimore two weeks later, then host Oklahoma State. A road trip to Baylor also looms Oct. 5. How West Virginia fares in those four games will be a harbinger for the rest of the season.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Despite losing Austin and Stedman Bailey to the St. Louis Rams, West Virginia still has playmakers at the skill positions. But the question of who will be getting them the ball remains.

The Mountaineers have enjoyed smooth transitions at quarterback since 2005, when Pat White won the job midway through the season. For the first time since, they have a true competition at the position with junior Paul Millard, redshirt freshman Ford Childress and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett all battling to replace three-year starter Geno Smith.

Until Holgorsen names a starter, this battle will command most of the attention in Morgantown this preseason.

Forecast: It’s difficult to remember now, but at one point last season West Virginia looked like a national title contender. Then, well, the wheels came off.

These Mountaineers won’t have the star power they did last season with Smith, Austin and Bailey. But Holgorsen believes -- top to bottom -- this team will be deeper.

Nowhere is West Virginia deeper than at running back. In fact, the backfield will include the Mountaineers’ 2011 leading rusher (Dustin Garrison), their 2012 leading rusher (Andrew Buie), the No. 1 incoming junior college running back (Dreamius Smith) and Sims. If the Mountaineers can get solid quarterback play, too, they should be explosive once again in Holgorsen’s offensive scheme.

None of that will matter much, however, if West Virginia can’t improve upon a defense that ranked near the bottom of college football last season. The Mountaineers were abysmal slowing down opponents, surrendering at least 38 points in eight different games.

There’s reason to believe, however, West Virginia could be better under first-year coordinator Keith Patterson.

The defense returns seven starters, notably rising sophomores Karl Joseph and Isaiah Bruce, who were West Virginia's best defensive players as freshmen. Joseph, a safety, led the team with 104 tackles last year, and will anchor the defensive backfield again. If Patterson can pair him and veteran safety Darwin Cook with reliable cornerback play, the secondary -- which got torched in 2012 -- has a chance to be solid.

In the front seven, the Mountaineers will be counting on Bruce to elevate his game, as well, at inside linebacker in Patterson's 3-4 scheme. Bruce, who finished second only to Joseph in tackles, also has the ability to be an All-Big 12 performer.

Withstanding a brutal start to the schedule will ultimately determine whether the Mountaineers go bowling in a transition year. But if West Virginia can survive past early October, someone settles in at quarterback and its young defenders take the next step, the Mountaineers could be better than last season. Even minus the star power.