Big 12: 2013 team previews

Baylor season preview

August, 20, 2013
Today, we break down Baylor, which finished the 2012 season as one of the hottest teams in the country.


Coach: Art Briles (67-58 overall, 10 seasons; 33-30 at Baylor, five seasons)

2012 record: 8-5 (4-5 Big 12)

Key losses: QB Nick Florence, WR Terrance Williams, WR Lanear Sampson, C Ivory Wade, S Mike Hicks

Key returnees: RB Lache Seastrunk, RB Glasco Martin, WR Tevin Reese, TE Jordan Najvar, G Cyril Richardson, DE Chris McAllister, LB Eddie Lackey, LB Bryce Hager, S Ahmad Dixon

Newcomer to watch: The Bears return two starters at defensive end, but Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman is going to be a factor. Oakman is massive at 6-foot-9, 270 pounds. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett calls him “violent,” which is not the worst thing for a D-end to be termed.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Lache Seastrunk
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsBaylor ran away from opponents at the end of 2012, and running back Lache Seastrunk is back as the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year.
Biggest games in 2013: Two games loom large on Baylor’s schedule. If the Bears can escape Manhattan, Kan., on Oct. 12 with a win, they have a very good chance to be undefeated going into a Thursday night clash with Oklahoma in Waco on Nov. 7. Baylor also plays host to Texas in the regular-season finale Dec. 7.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Bears had the second-worst defense statistically in college football last season. But the defense in late November was a far cry from the one that got torched for 70 points at West Virginia in September. During the Bears’ four-game winning streak to end the season, they forced eight interceptions and 18 tackles for loss.

With all the returning firepower on offense, the Bears are going to score points. But can they keep playing solid defense? That answer will determine whether Baylor can finally emerge as a viable Big 12 title contender.

Forecast: Few teams finished the 2012 season hotter than Baylor did. The Bears routed No. 1 Kansas State, outlasted Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, then annihilated UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.

Going into this season, the Bears feature the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year (Seastrunk), return seven defensive starters and have a favorable start to the schedule. Maybe it’s time to take Baylor seriously as a Big 12 title contender. ESPN’s new advanced stats metric, EPA (expected points added), certainly appears to.

According to EPA, which accounts for the opposing unit's strength, Baylor had one of the top two offenses in college football in 2012, along with Texas A&M. The Bears also rapidly improved their defensive EPA late in the season by forcing negative plays against top-tier offenses.

There’s no reason Baylor can’t roll the momentum of last season into this one, either.

After topping 100 yards in five of his final six games in 2012, Seastrunk enters this season a Heisman hopeful. He and Martin, who added 15 touchdowns last season, supply the Bears with a lethal one-two punch out of the backfield.

The receiving corps appears loaded, too. Williams is gone, but Reese seems primed to take over as a viable No. 1 threat. Speedy freshmen Robbie Rhodes and Corey Coleman have been dynamic so far through fall camp, too.

The only unproven part of the offense is quarterback Bryce Petty. But Briles is confident Petty can keep his offense humming. Petty has prototypical size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), an NFL arm, and three years in Briles’ system learning from Robert Griffin III and Florence. What is a reasonable expectation for Petty? Briles answered, “To break every Baylor record there is offensively.”

If Petty is as good as Briles advertises -- and the Bears keep playing opportunistic defense -- Baylor will be a force to be reckoned with. And a legit conference title threat.

Kansas season preview

August, 16, 2013
Today we take a closer look at Kansas, a squad looking to rebound after being the lone Big 12 team that didn’t make a bowl game in 2012.


Coach: Charlie Weis (36-38, six seasons, 1-11, one season at KU)

2012 record: 1-11 (0-9 in Big 12)

[+] EnlargeTony Pierson
John Rieger/USA TODAY SportsTony Pierson will look to get more carries this season for the Jayhawks.
Key losses: WR Kale Pick, CB Greg Brown, S Bradley McDougald, DE Toben Opurum, OL Tanner Hawkinson

Key returnees: RB James Sims, RB/WR Tony Pierson, LB Ben Heeney, LB Jake Love

Newcomer to watch: DB Cassius Sendish. The junior college transfer was immediately impressive in the spring, on and off the field. So impressive, in fact, that the Jayhawks brought him to Big 12 media days. He's already drawn praise from Weis for his versatility during KU’s preseason camp.

Biggest games in 2013: The middle of the season is brutal for the Jayhawks. A five-week stretch of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas and Oklahoma State will show if the Jayhawks have improved or if they still have a long way to go.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Will the Jayhawks' influx of Juco talent make a difference?

Defensive lineman Marquel Combs, the No. 3 player in the ESPN JC100, leads the way as the headliner of a group which includes Sendish and receiver Rodriguez Coleman, another juco signee who is making waves in KU’s preseason camp.

Weis, mimicking Kansas State, hit the junior colleges hard in the hopes of turning the Jayhawks' fortunes around with an infusion of college-ready talent. Time will tell if it pays off.

Forecast: Even though the Jayhawks finished 1-11 in 2012, KU showed more fight than its final record displayed. Texas and Oklahoma State barely escaped Lawrence with victories, and Texas Tech needed double-overtime to knock off the Jayhawks in Lubbock.

KU has several offensive weapons, including running back James Sims and dual threat Tony Pierson, who would be key offensive threats for any Big 12 squad with their explosive playmaking ability. Sims rushed for 1,013 yards in nine games last season, while Pierson rushed for 760 yards in 11 games in mostly backup duty after Sims’ return early in the season. At quarterback, BYU transfer Jake Heaps could be the key to KU’s success as he looks to improve on the Jayhawks’ average of 148.67 passing yards per game last season, which ranked No. 113 in the nation.

Defensively, the Jayhawks hope players like Sendish and Combs can join returning linebackers Ben Heeney (112 tackles) and Jake Love (36 tackles) to slow Big 12 offenses. KU will be counting on Combs to make a major impact in the middle after he turned down offers from Kansas State, Tennessee, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and others to be a Jayhawk.

Kansas State season preview

August, 15, 2013
Today, we break down Kansas State -- the Big 12’s defending champs:


Coach: Bill Snyder (170-85-1 overall, 21 seasons; 170-85-1 at Kansas State, 21 seasons)

2012 record: 11-2 (8-1 Big 12)

Key losses: QB Collin Klein, WR Chris Harper, TE Travis Tannahill, DE Meshak Williams, DE Adam Davis, DT Vai Lutui, LB Arthur Brown, K Anthony Cantele

Key returnees: RB John Hubert, WR Tyler Lockett, WR Tramaine Thompson, OT Cornelius Lucas, C B.J. Finney, LB Tre Walker, SS Ty Zimmerman

Newcomer to watch: Snyder built Kansas State up with the help of junior college players, and quarterback Jake Waters could be next in a long line of transfers to enjoy success in Manhattan. Waters, the No. 1 junior college quarterback recruit in the country, is battling Daniel Sams to succeed Heisman Trophy finalist Klein.

Biggest games in 2013: The Wildcats have won five in a row against Texas, and if they make it six on Sept. 21 in Austin, they’ll be a dark horse contender (again) for the Big 12 title. If K-State sticks in the conference race, a Nov. 23 clash with Oklahoma will loom large.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: While seemingly everyone in the Big 12 has tried to win by outscoring the opposition, K-State has gotten things done lately by playing tough defense, especially in the trenches. The Wildcats, however, don’t have a single full-time returning starter on the defensive line or linebacker. Replacing key parts like defensive end Meshak Williams and linebacker Arthur Brown won’t be a easy.

Snyder will attempt to rebuild his front seven around linebacker Tre Walker, who played only eight games last season because of a knee injury, but has been solid when healthy.

Snyder-coached defenses are always going to be sound. But whether the Wildcats are anything more depends on if enough other guys emerge up front.

Forecast: Yes, Kansas State must replace the Big 12’s offensive and defensive players of the year in Klein and Brown. Yes, only two starters return defensively. And yes, on paper, several other Big 12 teams look like they’ll be better than the Wildcats.

But anyone discounting Snyder’s bunch deserves a history lesson. The Wildcats were picked to finish sixth in the preseason last year and won the league. They were picked eighth the year before and finished 10-3. So K-State should feel right at home being picked sixth this preseason.

Even without Klein, the offense has a chance to be more productive. The Wildcats return four offensive linemen, including All-Big 12 tackle Lucas. Leading rusher Hubert is also back, as are diminutive playmaking receiver-returners Locket and Thompson.

Quarterback, of course, will be the key. Klein was the difference-maker last season, propelling K-State to its upset at Oklahoma early in the season and into the driver’s seat of the Big 12 title race. To remain a Big 12 contender, the Wildcats will need another difference-making quarterback, especially with the defense in full rebuilding mode.

Sams backed up Klein last year and has an intriguing skill set with his ability to scramble. When Klein got injured against Oklahoma State, Sams played well in relief, completing five of six passes while rushing for 20 yards.

Sams’ ability to pass consistently, however, is in question; Waters’ is not.

The reigning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year, Waters set a junior college record last season with a 73.3 completion percentage. He also threw 39 touchdowns to just three interceptions, including none the final seven games. Waters is a winner, too, having captured two Iowa high school state championships before quarterbacking Iowa Western to the NJCAA national title. The only real red flag is that he hasn't played a game at the FBS level.

"A young guy down in College Station came on the scene, and nobody had a clue that he was going to get himself on the field,” Snyder said, referring to Johnny Manziel. “And ended up winning a Heisman. You just never really know."

Chances of Waters -- or Sams -- becoming the next Manziel are beyond slim. But if Snyder finds another winner at quarterback, the Wildcats could surprise -- yet again.

Oklahoma season preview

August, 14, 2013
Today we take a closer look at Oklahoma, which enters the season looking to win its ninth Big 12 title under Bob Stoops.


Coach: Bob Stoops (149-37 overall record, 14 seasons; 149-37 at OU, 14 seasons)

2012 record: 10-3 (8-1 in Big 12, co-champions)

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Michael C. Johnson/US PresswireBlake Bell, who has rushed for 24 touchdowns in his career, is the favorite to start at quarterback for the Sooners in 2013.
Key losses: QB Landry Jones, LT Lane Johnson, WR Kenny Stills, S Tony Jefferson, CB Demontre Hurst, S Javon Harris

Key returnees: WR Jalen Saunders, CB Aaron Colvin, RB Damien Williams, C Gabe Ikard, RT Daryl Williams, DT Chuka Ndulue, LB Corey Nelson.

Newcomer to watch: S Hatari Byrd. The California native was so impressive early in camp that the Sooners played him at three different positions in three days, clearly looking to find a way to get the true freshman on the field this season.

Biggest games in 2013: A three-game stretch could define the Sooners' season as they travel to Notre Dame (Sept. 28) before hosting TCU (Oct. 5) and battling Texas in the Red River Rivalry (Oct. 12). Road games at Baylor (Nov. 7) and Oklahoma State (Dec. 7) are the biggest games down the stretch as OU plays three of its final four games away from Norman.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: It’s easy to assume replacing Landry Jones is the No. 1 priority. But the Sooners have three quality candidates in Blake Bell, Trevor Knight and Kendal Thompson, making the defensive line the biggest question mark at OU.

A lot of the Sooners’ defensive struggles in 2012 were rooted in their lack of a pass rush. OU doesn’t have proven playmakers at defensive tackle or defensive end but several youngsters like Jordan Phillips and Charles Tapper have plenty of upside.

Forecast: Watching OU's offense struggle to score touchdowns while Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel ran circles around the defense in the Cotton Bowl didn’t sit well in Norman. Coach Bob Stoops replaced three assistant coaches, adding new faces in the trenches with offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery joining the program.

Bell is the favorite to start at quarterback and could bring a run-pass threat at the position that was absent during Jones’ tenure. A veteran offensive line and a bevy of talented ball carriers, led by Damien Williams, should provide a strong running game that makes the transition easier for whoever is named the starter at quarterback. And top receiver Jalen Saunders is one of the Big 12’s most explosive players.

Defensively, the Sooners will need several young players to grow up quickly with just four starters returning. All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin provides a foundation for the secondary and will be counted on to slow the Big 12’s top pass catchers. Linebacker Corey Nelson hopes to have a breakout senior season and junior Geneo Grissom could finally fulfill his potential at defensive end.

Oklahoma State season preview

August, 13, 2013
Today we continue our Big 12 preview by taking a look at Oklahoma State, the preseason media favorite to win the league in 2013.

Oklahoma State Cowboys

Coach: Mike Gundy (67-35, 8 seasons; 67-35 at OSU, 8 seasons)

2012 record: 8-5 (5-4 Big 12)

Key losses: RB Joseph Randle, K Quinn Sharp, QB Wes Lunt, OL Lane Taylor, CB Brodrick Brown, LB Alex Elkins

[+] EnlargeJosh Stewart
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports Josh Stewart was one of the top receivers in the Big 12 last season as a sophomore.
Key returnees: WR Josh Stewart, DT Calvin Barnett, CB Justin Gilbert, LB Shaun Lewis, S Daytawion Lowe, QB Clint Chelf, S Shamiel Gary, LB Caleb Lavey, WR Tracy Moore, QB J.W. Walsh

Newcomer to watch: The Cowboys have considerable depth at wide receiver entering the fall, but Ra'Shaad Samples could have a breakthrough debut season. The freshman from Dallas was an Under Armour All-American and ran a 4.32 in the 40 this summer.

Biggest games in 2013: A lot could be on the line at Bedlam this year when Oklahoma comes to town on Dec. 7. Texas, TCU and Baylor will all be tough conference tests, and OSU doesn’t start off with a cupcake: The Cowboys will travel to Houston to take on Mississippi State on Aug. 31.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can the Cowboys win the close ones this year? It’s anyone’s league in 2013, and preseason favorite Oklahoma State could struggle to win it outright if the team can’t get it done in the big games like last season. A five-point loss to Texas, three-point overtime defeat against Oklahoma and seven-point loss at Baylor accounted for three of OSU’s five losses last fall. Perhaps more stability at the quarterback spot after juggling three in 2012 will help put the Pokes over the top.

Forecast: Preseason prognostication is all about paper, about how good a team’s projected depth chart looks, and how tough a schedule appears before pads are even put on. On paper, Oklahoma State looks like a potentially great team in 2013.

The Cowboys bring back 15 starters, including perhaps the Big 12’s best receiver (Stewart) and defensive tackle (Barnett). Either Chelf or Walsh could win the starting job and OSU would still have one of the league’s best passers behind center. The cupboard of talent looks pretty stocked.

Mike Gundy finds himself in an enviable position with his preseason Big 12 favorites, but there will be several challengers to the throne. His Cowboys have a chance to go 9-0 if they knock off TCU at home. The final stretch -- Texas, Baylor, Oklahoma -- is tricky, but two games are at home and there’s a bye before OU. The Pokes have the talent and the schedule needed to win this league, there’s no doubt about that.

There are really two big question marks that must be overcome, questions OSU fans are no doubt tired of asking. The first surrounds the team's two new coordinators, including its fourth new offensive coordinator in five years. What will Mike Yurcich, the intriguing hire from Division II’s Shippensburg, bring to the table?

The second is the defense. New defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer has to fix up a unit that held up well in victory last season but gave up 47.2 points per game in its five defeats.

TCU season preview

August, 12, 2013
Today, we break down TCU, which figures to be one of the contenders for the Big 12 crown:


Coach: Gary Patterson (116-36 overall, 13 seasons; 116-36 at TCU, 13 seasons)

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

Key losses: WR Josh Boyce, OG Blaize Foltz, DE Stansly Maponga, LB Kenny Cain

[+] EnlargeCasey Pachall
AP Photo/Jake SchoellkopfTCU quarterback Casey Pachall played just four games in 2012, but finished with 948 yards, 10 touchdowns and an interception.
Key returnees: QB Casey Pachall, RB Waymon James, WR Brandon Carter, DE Devonte Fields, DT Chucky Hunter, CB Jason Verrett, S Sam Carter

Newcomer to watch: With leading receiver Josh Boyce having skipped his senior year for the NFL, TCU will need receivers to step in and produce. One of those could be Ja’Juan Story, a transfer from Florida. Story was formerly rated the No. 6 receiver recruit coming out of high school.

Biggest games in 2013: The month of October will determine whether TCU is a contender or pretender for the Big 12 crown. The Horned Frogs travel to Oklahoma on Oct. 5, go to Oklahoma State two weeks later, then on Oct. 26 play host to Texas. By then TCU could be in the driver’s seat -- or out of the race altogether. Oh, and the Horned Frogs have that season opener against LSU in Arlington, Texas.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Even though top-returning tackler Joel Hasley left the team in the preseason, TCU’s defense figures to be the Big 12’s best. Especially when All-American defensive end candidate Devonte Fields returns from a two-game suspension to begin the season.

TCU, however, doesn’t win the Big 12 title unless prodigal quarterback Casey Pachall returns to form. Pachall left school last year four games into the season to seek treatment for substance abuse. When he left, Pachall had 10 touchdowns passes to just one pick. If he can rediscover that kind of groove, TCU will be formidable.

Forecast: In just its second season in the Big 12, TCU has its sights set on winning the conference. And the Horned Frogs have the defense to do it.

TCU was the only Big 12 team to rank in the top 35 nationally in total defense. The Horned Frogs were 16th. Even without Hasley, they return eight defensive starters, including Fields, who is the overwhelming favorite to earn Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors after winning the Associated Press’ award as a true freshman last year.

Fields will be surrounded by experience and talent in coach Gary Patterson’s 4-2-5 scheme, too. TCU’s top four defensive tackles are back, and the secondary is loaded. Cornerback Jason Verrett is also an All-American candidate in a secondary that returns all five starters, including standout safety Sam Carter.

All that said, TCU was stout on defense last season, too. And the Horned Frogs finished just 7-6. Whether they emerge as a true contender this season hinges heavily on how improved the offense can be with the return of Pachall and running back Waymon James, who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. James led the Horned Frogs in rushing in 2011 and was averaging 9.9 yards per carry in 2012 before injuring the knee the second game of the season. By the end of the month, TCU had lost Pachall, too, causing the offense to be wildly inconsistent the rest of the season.

If Pachall, James and a host of up-and-coming receivers like Brandon Carter can turn the Horned Frogs into a consistent offensive force, TCU just might be the team to beat in a wide open Big 12.

It won’t take long for the Horned Frogs to find out about their offense. TCU opens with a showdown against LSU in Cowboys Stadium. But if the Horned Frogs can win -- and move the ball consistently -- the rest of the Big 12 will be on notice.

Texas season preview

August, 9, 2013
Today we continue our Big 12 preview by taking a look at Texas, which is gearing up to make another run at a Big 12 title.

Texas Longhorns

Coach: Mack Brown (237-117-1, 150-43 at Texas)

2012 record: 9-4 (5-4 Big 12)

[+] EnlargeManny Diaz
John Albright / Icon SMIManny Diaz and the Texas defense returns nine starters, but will they be improved as a unit in 2013?
Key losses: S Kenny Vaccaro, DE Alex Okafor, WR Marquise Goodwin, RB/WR D.J. Monroe, TE D.J. Grant, WR Cayleb Jones

Key returnees: DE Jackson Jeffcoat, LB Jordan Hicks, CB Quandre Diggs, RB Johnathan Gray, QB David Ash, OG Trey Hopkins, WR Mike Davis, CB Carrington Byndom, WR Jaxon Shipley, OG Mason Walters

Newcomer to watch: OT Desmond Harrison

Biggest games in 2013: Oct. 12 vs. Oklahoma (in Dallas), Nov. 16 vs. Oklahoma State, Oct. 26 at TCU, Nov. 21 vs. Kansas State

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Manny Diaz fix the Longhorns' defense? Texas might be the Big 12 preseason favorite had its defense in 2012 lived up to the standard set by Diaz’s first unit in 2011. Instead, injuries to Hicks and then Jeffcoat rendered the third-year coach’s D slow-reacting and ineffective. Basic tackling was a serious issue on a near-weekly basis. Diaz gets nine starters back from that unit, but that’s not necessarily a good thing if the same problems hit just in time for the Big 12 slate.


Let’s talk about the floor and the ceiling for the potential of this particular Texas team.

Make no mistake, this Longhorns team has all the parts necessary to emerge as one of the nation’s 10 best. There is just way too much returning experience and talent at each position to dispute that.

The ceiling is a Big 12 championship and a BCS bowl game appearance, especially if Ash takes the next step and becomes one of the Big 12’s best QBs. If he’s good and healthy, Brown is confident this team can accomplish more than most expect.

The issue is the floor. Another blowout loss to Oklahoma or an early-season stumble against Ole Miss or Kansas State could send this Texas train off the rails. One serious injury to Ash, and it’s a whole different season.

What Texas is trying to avoid is falling right in the middle of that floor and ceiling, as it has the past two years. An eight- or nine-win season with losses to UT’s toughest opponents just won’t cut it this time, not with all that experience, talent and leadership on board.

That falls on Brown, who has plenty to prove this fall. He has a compelling roster of talent. What’ll he do to raise everyone’s game and make that jump from fourth place to first in the Big 12?

On paper, the offense looks loaded, and having Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron at running back is a luxury. The defense has plenty of veterans back at all three levels. Texas’ special teams should be solid if former Penn State transfer Anthony Fera gets past his injury issues.

All the pieces are there for another big run for the Horns, and the Big 12 is wide-open. It will be on Brown and his staff to put all those pieces together.

West Virginia season preview

August, 7, 2013
Today we kick off the Big 12 preview by examining West Virginia, which aims to surprise after a disappointing Big 12 debut.


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

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

[+] EnlargeAndrew Buie, Kenny Vaccaro
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLast season's leading rusher Andrew Buie returns to bolster a solid Mountaineers backfield.
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.