NCF Nation: Dustin Garrison

With spring practice off and rolling, plenty of questions surround the league’s programs. And while many of those won’t be fully answered until the season begins in the fall, here are some of the biggest ones Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia will face this spring:

Can freshman impact OSU's QB race?

Junior quarterback J.W. Walsh has made eight starts for the Cowboys over the last two seasons. But even with Clint Chelf now gone, Walsh still will have to fight for a job with freshman Mason Rudolph already on campus. Rudolph, who enrolled early to participate in spring ball, threw for more than 4,300 yards and 64 touchdowns his final year of high school and is one of the most highly-touted quarterback recruits ever to sign with the Cowboys. In high school, Rudolph played in an offensive scheme similar to Oklahoma State’s, which is what first interested him in the Cowboys. That should ease his transition to the college level. Of course for now, the job is Walsh’s to lose. But Rudolph has the talent and the skill set to begin applying pressure on Walsh as soon as this spring.

How will TCU adapt to the offensive overhaul?

TCU conducted its first spring practice over the weekend, and the exit polls suggested the Horned Frogs went through offensive drills fast. Like really fast. Tired of ranking near the bottom of the Big 12 in offense, Gary Patterson shook up his coaching staff and brought in Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham to install an up-tempo offensive system that resembled those of Texas Tech (Cumbie) and Oklahoma State (Meacham). As Patterson admitted after the first practice, there will be a learning curve for his players to picking up this new offensive style. But the quicker quarterback Trevone Boykin can adapt, the better off TCU will be going into 2014.

How will Texas look different under Strong?

The last time Texas had a coach other than Mack Brown running a spring practice, Bill Clinton was still president. The Charlie Strong era will begin in earnest with the start of spring practice in Austin. How will the players adjust to the new schemes of assistants Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline and Vance Bedford? How will the veterans react to their new position coaches? Who will thrive with the new staff? Who will falter? Those pivotal questions will begin to be answered this spring.

Can Texas Tech get by with only one scholarship QB?

With starting right tackle Rashad Fortenberry getting an extra year of eligibility over the weekend, the Red Raiders seem to be in good shape across the board offensively. Of course, that could change real quick should QB Davis Webb incur any kind of injury this spring. With Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma and Michael Brewer headed to Virginia Tech, the Red Raiders will be down to just one scholarship quarterback until Patrick Mahomes arrives in the summer. Though coach Kliff Kingsbury has said that Tech has a couple of capable walk-ons, an injury to Webb would hamper the spring development of an offense that will have big goals in the fall. Coming off a breakout performance in the bowl game, Webb also needs to continue developing this spring. But he also needs to remain healthy for the betterment of himself and the team.

Who will get carries for West Virginia?

Even with Charles Sims gone, the Mountaineers still enjoy a stable of capable of running backs. But where will Sims’ carries go? After rushing for 494 yards last season, Dreamius Smith is starting out the spring atop the depth chart. But he’ll have to fend off several comers to remain there. Wendell Smallwood came on strong late during his freshman season and finished the year averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Rushel Shell also joins the fray this spring after transferring over from Pittsburgh. Shell, who set a Pennsylvania high school rushing record, was formerly the No. 26 overall recruit in the 2012 recruiting class. There are still others. Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie are still around after leading the Mountaineers’ in rushing in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Oh yeah, West Virginia will also add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. Good luck to the running back who dares to take a play off in this crammed competition.
Dana Holgorsen has a reputation as a coach who loves to throw it on every down, but since leaving Case Keenum and Houston behind, that's been far from the case.

His Cougars offenses ran the ball on 36.8 percent of their downs in 2008 and even less (35.3 percent) in 2009 with Case Keenum at the helm. That's what happens when you've got a player like Keenum capable of throwing for more yards than any quarterback in college football history.

At West Virginia this season, though, we might see the most run-based offense ever with Holgorsen as a playcaller. This will be a very, very different season than anything Holgorsen's ever experienced.

For one, West Virginia's strength and experience on offense lies at running back, something he's never had. Adding Houston transfer Charles Sims, who ran for 800 yards in consecutive seasons, gives West Virginia four quality running backs, with juco transfer Dreamius Smith a fellow newcomer alongside Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, who both have 700-yard rushing seasons as Mountaineers.

West Virginia ran the ball 46.9 percent of the time last season, the most ever for an offense with Holgorsen calling the plays. That's an amazing number with so much talent in the passing game with Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, but 73 of those carries went to Austin.

This season, West Virginia will be without its top three receivers and breaking in a new quarterback whose identity may not be known until a couple of weeks before the season. Regardless of whether Clint Trickett, Ford Childress or Paul Millard wins the job, they're guaranteed to have very little experience on the field. In Childress' case, he has exactly none.

Believe it or not, Holgorsen has never had to deal with a quarterback competition as a play-calling offensive coordinator or head coach. Keenum was the clear starter at Houston when Holgorsen came aboard, and Alex Cate's transfer cleared the way for Brandon Weeden to be the clear incumbent at Oklahoma State when Mike Gundy hired him in 2010. That team also had a bona fide star at running back in Kendall Hunter, who inspired Holgorsen to run the ball on 45.8 percent of snaps and Hunter to rack up 1,548 rushing yards.

This quarterback uncertainty is new territory, but he knows exactly what he's got at running back, and now's as good a time as ever for the Mountaineers to lean on that spot.

Balanced attack pushes WVU over Texas

October, 7, 2012
10/07/12
1:07
AM ET
AUSTIN, Texas -- Geno Smith is used to having the game in his hands. It's been the story of West Virginia's season. Near the end of a chilly night in central Texas, that changed.

Smith's offensive line had a simple message for their Heisman candidate: "We got this. It's over. We're going to win this game," they said.

"Andrew Buie said, 'Put it on my back,' Smith said. "He put it on his back and led us to a victory."

Not just any victory. He led them to a 48-45 victory in West Virginia's first road trip in the Big 12, where they found a record crowd of 101,851 waiting at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium -- a crowd Texas coach Mack Brown called the loudest in 15 years.

Said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen, who was an assistant in the Big 12 for nine years: "I've never seen this place like that."

It even got after Smith at one point, serenading him with a "Geno Sucks" chant as he gestured to the crowd, egging them on.

"Where does that come from?" Smith said. "Obviously, I don't suck. I'll let them believe that."

[+] EnlargeAndrew Buie
Tim Heitman/US PresswireThe second of Andrew Buie's rushing TDs gave West Virginia a 48-38 lead.
Buie led them to a victory that helped West Virginia clear the highest hurdle of its Big 12 (or national?) title "marathon," as Smith called it.

The Big 12 title runs through Morgantown, with Kansas State and Oklahoma waiting later in the season.

Saturday in Austin, though, it was Buie's time.

"He carried us," said Smith, the man used to carrying the Mountaineers. "We knew we were going to need to run the ball, because those guys like to get after the quarterback."

Texas did exactly that, sacking Smith four times and twice forcing fumbles inside the West Virginia 20-yard line. Before tonight, Smith had been sacked three times in four games.

Buie's 207 yards? Holgorsen said he wasn't surprised by those. But the 31 carries? That was a head-turner.

"We did commit to the run," he said. "That was something we talked about early in the week, and there weren't any tricks, either. We lined up and we just ran it right at 'em. We felt like that was gonna be the difference. If we could do that, it was going to alleviate some of the pressure on Geno."

On West Virginia's final drive, needing points to ice the game, the Mountaineers handed the ball to Buie on seven of eight plays. He turned them into 63 yards, capping his big night with a five-yard touchdown run, his second score of the night. While his teammates ran wild and kicked off the party on the West Virginia sideline, he trotted back through a parade of backslaps before being bearhugged by his position coach, Robert Gillespie.

"If we would have just drop back pass after drop back pass, they would have had 12 sacks. Maybe 20," Holgorsen said. "We just felt like it would be in the best interest of our football team to commit to the run."

Texas stuck in its nickel package for most of the night with just two linebackers on the field, even when West Virginia used its jumbo packages with bigger bodies. Buie saw it as a sign of "disrespect," and proved he'd make the most of his opportunities.

"With coach Holgorsen, you never know what the game plan is going to be fully," Buie said. "You just always want to be prepared to run from whatever he's put inside the menu for that week. When he calls your number, obviously he has confidence in you to make plays."

Holgorsen (and Smith, who often checked to various running plays at the line of scrimmage) had confidence in Buie 31 times on Saturday night. Buie was likely West Virginia's No. 3 back entering the season behind Shawne Alston and a recuperating Dustin Garrison. He looked like a man well deserving of the No. 1 spot against one of the Big 12's top defense. Before last week's 25 carries, Buie had never had more 15 carries in a game, and hadn't topped even 100 yards in a game. He had 52 carries in his entire freshman season in 2011.

Since 2009, Texas was 18-0 when winning the turnover battle. The Horns won it 2-1 on Saturday, but Buie's effort helped the Mountaineers overcome both of Smith's fumbles and move into the driver's seat for the Big 12 title.

"We're not going to force the ball. We're not going to force the issue. We'll take what you give us. I'm a smart quarterback, I understand defenses. I understand how to exploit them." Smith said. "The offensive line did a great job of getting all those guys, finishing blocks, getting to the second level. Buie was reading it and cutting back. Yards after contact was big. He ran hard tonight."

Think West Virginia's offense is just Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey? West Virginia proved otherwise.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 6

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
10:15
AM ET
Here's what I'm keeping an eye on across the Big 12 this weekend.

1. Get 'em down and keep 'em down. Texas' tackling issues were on display in a big way in a narrow victory over Oklahoma State. The Longhorns got away with it in Stillwater. I don't think that'll be the case against West Virginia, even at home. Texas has emphasized the issue this week. How will it work?

2. Time for a quarterback change? Steele Jantz turned the ball over four times in Iowa State's loss to Texas Tech, and coach Paul Rhoads said this week the quarterback who looks best in practice will play. Does Jared Barnett finally see some time? For Jantz, it will ultimately boil down to turnovers.

3. Take care of opportunities. TCU has reached the red zone 20 times this season, but has come away with a touchdown on just nine occasions. The Horned Frogs have scored just 12 times. The touchdown percentage (45 percent) ranks 106th nationally. The Frogs are good enough to get away with it against Kansas or SMU or Virginia. Iowa State? The Cyclones will take advantage if the Frogs leave the doors open.

4. A big piece is missing. West Virginia's running game has taken a big hit with Shawne Alston on the sidelines. Coach Dana Holgorsen was tight-lipped this week in regards to Alston's status, but he's going to be needed this week against Texas. He's a better pass-blocker than Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, too. Will big back Ryan Clarke make a return, too?

5. It's real. We know that. But is it spectacular? Texas Tech took a step toward validating its defense, holding Iowa State to fewer than 200 yards of total offense, forcing four turnovers and maintaining its spot as the nation's No. 1 defense. How good is this unit, though? Oklahoma will be the toughest test yet, and its offense will be more like what Tech will see the rest of the season. Teams like OSU, Baylor and West Virginia have more high-powered offenses, but the Sooners will offer a huge checkpoint for Tech on its defensive road to redemption after an awful 2011.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
William Purnell/Icon SMIFreshman Johnathan Gray led Texas in rushing in relief at OSU; the spotlight will be brighter Saturday.
6. The young legs are back. Sophomore Malcolm Brown, Texas' leading rusher a year ago, is out against West Virginia, but he'll sit on Saturday with an ankle injury. Now's the time for hyped freshman Johnathan Gray to step up. He looked really good in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State and led the Longhorns in rushing. How will he handle West Virginia and how will he look with a week to know he'll be counted on?

7. Getting competitive yet? I stick to my belief that Kansas is better than it was last year, despite its frustrating losses and worse record than in 2011. Nothing would signify progress more than hanging with in-state rival Kansas State. When Charlie Weis got the job, he looked at K-State and Missouri to see what they had and what KU didn't have, and how the Jayhawks could start closing the gap. Here's his first chance to measure up on the field.

8. Call it a Heisman special. Geno Smith's not throwing for 656 yards against Texas. Let's just get that out of the way. The Longhorns have defensive personnel and depth unlike anything Baylor's got. It's one of a few major hurdles for Smith to go from Heisman front-runner, as he is now, to Heisman winner in December. Can he maintain his crazy numbers that are better than RG3's from a year ago?

9. Where is the elder statesman? The young'un Devonte Fields, a true freshman, has grabbed all the headlines so far this year at TCU, leading the Big 12 with five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss. Meanwhile, preseason All-Big 12 representative Stansly Maponga has been really, really quiet thus far. He's got just 1.5 tackles for loss and one sack. Can he have a coming-out party against the Cyclones?

10. A lesson in thievery is needed. Oklahoma's got just one turnover through three games this year. Buffalo is the only other team in the country who has forced just one turnover. Texas Tech has lost six turnovers this year (32nd nationally), but if Oklahoma doesn't force a turnover against the Red Raiders, the Sooners could very well be looking at an upset and a drop out of the top 25.

WVU far from flawless in win over Terps

September, 22, 2012
9/22/12
3:51
PM ET

West Virginia's offense looked unchallenged in its first two outings, racking up 69 points against Marshall in its season opener and making 42 look easy against James Madison a week ago.

Saturday? The Mountaineers didn't respond well to their first challenge of the season. The offense was held scoreless in the third quarter and was forced to punt seven times in its 31-21 win over Maryland.

The biggest reason for the struggles? It's easy to point at running back Shawne Alston's absence, but even if that's the case, West Virginia's depth at the position looks at least questionable. Alston reportedly sat with a thigh injury.

Dustin Garrison returned from an ACL injury, shedding a possible redshirt. Andrew Buie got the start in place of Alston. The duo combined for just 31 yards on 15 carries and looked underwhelming for all 60 minutes.

The explosiveness wasn't there, and the whole offense suffered because of it. The Mountaineers' lack of a running game didn't garner an ounce of respect from Maryland's defense and as a result, Geno Smith was hasseled all day. Alston's blocking prowess in the backfield was even more needed, and its absence even more apparent with Smith taking a bigger beating than he had all season. On more than one occasion, the Mountaineers' Heisman frontrunner got up and walked gingerly after taking a shot. An early injury to Ryan Clarke was another shot to WVU's backs' ability to block in the backfield.

Smith finished 30-of-43 for 338 yards and three touchdowns, going without an interception for yet another game. He joins Texas' David Ash as the Big 12's only QBs without a pick after four weeks.

Tavon Austin was the day's biggest highlight-maker, catching 12 passes for 173 yards and three scores, finishing as the school's all-time leader in receptions.

The passing game is what everyone thought it was, even with a quiet day from Stedman Bailey, who caught just seven passes for 61 yards.

Still, the running game has looked good so far this season. With Alston down, it didn't. That may get fixed.

A bigger concern? The defense gave up 302 passing yards and three touchdown passes to true freshman quarterback Perry Hills. He averaged more than 10 yards an attempt, and freshman phenom Stefon Diggs showed off his speed with 113 yards on just three catches. Two went for touchdowns, including a 56-yarder on which Diggs embarrassed the WVU defense with cutbacks.

Through three games, the defense has been unimpressive for the Mountaineers, who will face their first real tests in the next two weeks. Baylor comes to town for what should be a hyped Big 12 opener next week, followed by a trip to Texas to face the Big 12's best defense.

We know what the passing game can do when the running game is there for balance. WVU's efficiency was unmatched by anyone in the Big 12 for its first two games. But when the Mountaineers are a one-dimensional team, can its offense still be productive enough to make up for a questionable defense?

Alston's likely return gives West Virginia a chance to maintain its balance, but without that balance, the first loss of the season for West Virginia could be coming fast.
Since announcing its intentions to join the Big 12 last October, West Virginians have been dreaming of this day. The Mountaineers' Week 1 dreams came true.

Dana Holgorsen's team, giving fans around the Big 12 their first real taste of West Virginia football, was impressive. The Mountaineers knocked off in-state rival Marshall, 69-34, in a game that was never in doubt past the first quarter. For those keeping count, that's 139 points in West Virginia's past two games. New Mexico, the nation's worst scoring offense a year ago, scored 144 in all of 2011.

Plenty of folks across Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa hadn't had a chance to really see Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey play. That changed on Saturday, and the Mountaineers' Big Three was as good as advertised.

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
AP Photo/Christopher JacksonWest Virginia QB Geno Smith had a stellar season opener with four TDs and completing 89 percent of his passes.
Smith played only sparingly in the fourth quarter, but finished with 340 yards and four touchdowns on 33-of-37 passing, completing a career high 89 percent. All that talk about him beefing up and wising up this offseason? Looks like it paid off. Marshall's no Big 12 team, but it's a long way from FCS competition, too. The Thundering Herd were a seven-win team a year ago, including a bowl game. Smith even added 65 yards rushing on eight carries, highlighted by a 28-yard touchdown scamper that began with a busted running play and ended with Smith in the end zone, untouched.

Heisman watch, indeed.

Austin and Bailey finished with a game-high nine catches each, and Bailey kicked off the game's scoring with an acrobatic 32-yard catch over a defender. Austin showcased his speed on a 70-yard run in the third quarter. Austin had 119 yards of total offense and a score. Bailey had 104, with two scores.

By halftime, the Mountaineers had 200 yards of both passing and rushing to go with 21 first downs and a 34-10 lead.

Just like the Mountaineers drew it up. Starting running back Dustin Garrison didn't suit up as he tries to come back from a torn ACL suffered in pre-Orange Bowl practice, but Holgorsen has to feel pretty comfortable if the sophomore needs to redshirt. Running backs Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie looked more than capable on Saturday, running with power and making one cut before making defenders pay.

Alston finished with 123 yards and two scores on just 16 touches, an average of nearly eight yards a carry.

Now, the task is clear: Do this every week. That's what haunted WVU a year ago. Everyone knew this offense was capable of putting up these kinds of numbers.

Nobody knows if they're capable of doing it every week. The defense was less than impressive for most of the game, despite a defensive touchdown and another fumble return to set up a Paul Millard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. Marshall consistently strung together extended drives, including a 98-yard march in the first quarter to cut WVU's early lead to just 13-7.

West Virginia has the potential to score 40 every time it takes the field in Big 12 play. The defense can't ask the offense to do that, though. You're asking for trouble if that happens.

Still, those are questions with answers that lie in the far future as the leaves change colors.

Today is opening day, and for West Virginia, it was one to remember.
The 2011 season was unkind to Big 12 running backs from Ames to Austin, but nobody suffered a worse injury than Texas Tech's Eric Stephens.

"He tore pretty much everything," coach Tommy Tuberville said of his back, who also dislocated his knee. Doctors gave the swelling in Stephens' knee more than a month to calm down before operating.

[+] EnlargeEric Stephens
AP Photo/Sharon EllmanTexas Tech RB Eric Stephens tore both the ACL and MCL in his left knee late last season.
Saturday, he'll finally make his return to the field. Tuberville says he'll likely start, with a target of 10-15 touches.

"We discussed that. It could be less or could be more. It just depends on the situation, how he’s doing, how he reacts," he said.

Stephens performed well in fall camp after suffering the injury early last season, derailing a likely 1,000-yard season that would have been Tech's first since 1998. The only noticeable difference now is Stephens is a little overweight and looks about 90-95 percent of his usual self.

"That’s not the knee problem, he just hasn’t played football in a long time," Tuberville said. "I don’t think physically there’s a problem at all. I’m sure he’s more than 100 percent ready to go with the knee. ... I’ve never had a serious injury like that, but I can just imagine being a major college running back and getting hit all around high and low for the first time in 10-11 months, it’d be awful tough mentally."

The offseason was rough on Iowa State's Shontrelle Johnson mentally, too. Doctors doubted whether he'd return to the game after suffering a neck injury last year against Texas. He missed the spring, but doctors cleared him just before fall camp and his long-awaited return is set for Saturday afternoon against Tulsa.

"Shontrelle’s done an excellent job and had zero ill effects coming back from neck surgery this offseason," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "He’ll be on the field early. If camp is any indication, we think he’s ready to go."

Oklahoma senior running back Dominique Whaley suffered an ugly broken ankle when a player landed on the back of his legs in a win over Kansas State. He'll be on the field early for the Sooners after earning the starting job once again.

"In my mind he looks to be back to what Dom always was, that's explosive, strong, fast," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. Whether he's 100 percent or not, maybe only he and the good Lord really know. But he sure looks it to me. I'm hopeful that will be the case."

Oklahoma rival running backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown of Texas were banged up with various minor injuries last season, but a renewed focus on health, diet and fitness has hopes high that the duo will be able to stay on the field in 2012.

The running back whose status is most in doubt? West Virginia's Dustin Garrison. The sophomore led the Mountaineers in rushing as a freshman, but suffered an injury later than any other Big 12 back. He tore his ACL in preparation for the Mountaineers' 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.

Soreness led coaches to give him a few days off last week, but if he doesn't respond well to practice this week, he could redshirt in 2012, ceding the starting spot to bigger back Shawne Alston, a senior.

"The plan all along has been get him to game week and then get him out there and see what happens," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said.
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.

More contenders:
Why the Mountaineers will win the Big 12

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia's Geno Smith
Andrew Weber/US PresswireWest Virginia's Geno Smith passed for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns last season.
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 12. 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.

Big 12 spring football preview

February, 21, 2012
2/21/12
9:00
AM ET
Spring football is already under way at Texas Tech, but in the coming weeks, the Big 12's other nine programs will join the Red Raiders in taking the field as a team for the first time since January, December or November for some.

Here's a preview of what to expect:

BAYLOR BEARS

Spring practice start date: March 19
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • Nick Florence: It's not official, but the Baylor quarterback job is Florence's to lose. That means he inherits the unenviable task of replacing the school's first Heisman winner. He replaced RG3 in 2009 with mixed results, but showed some major potential in a win over Texas Tech when RG3 took a shot to the head and sat out the second half. Can he keep the bowl streak alive at Baylor? We'll get an idea this spring.
  • The defense's progression: You didn't need to see much more than the 67-56 Alamo Bowl win over Washington to know the Bears needed some work on defense. In the month of November, Baylor became the first team in FBS history to win four consecutive games in a single season while also giving up at least 30 points in each of those games. The defense can't make Florence pick up the slack to that level. Year 2 under Phil Bennett must be better. Baylor has no excuses. The Bears have the athletes on campus necessary to be at least a decent defense.
  • The team's attitude/motivation: Baylor played with a lot of purpose the past two seasons, and made history in both, cracking a 16-year bowl drought and winning 10 games this year. Is that fire still there? Baylor has to prove it is without RG3 (and Kendall Wright) carrying the team on the field, emotionally and mentally.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES

Spring practice start date: March 20
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: Or is it? Jared Barnett looked like the man of the future in Ames late in the season, leading the Cyclones to an historic upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State. But in the ugly Pinstripe Bowl loss to a mediocre Rutgers team, Barnett's inaccuracy posed big questions. He was benched and Steele Jantz stepped in, though he didn't play much better than Barnett. Turnovers were an issue for Jantz early on, but Barnett has to bounce back in the spring to make sure the job doesn't come open.
  • The receivers: Darius Reynolds was the big-play man for the Cyclones, but he's gone. It's going to be tough to replace him. Slot receivers Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz were productive, but did little to stretch defenses like Reynolds did. Can ISU find someone to fill the void?
  • The new man at left tackle: Iowa State had the luxury of having a future pro, Kelechi Osemele, at left tackle for the past three seasons. He earned All-Big 12 nods in each of those seasons, but he's gone now. Junior Carter Bykowski was behind Osemele on the depth chart, but will the converted tight end be the new man at tackle for the Cyclones?
KANSAS JAYHAWKS

Spring practice start date: March 27
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Uh, everything?: I mean, what's not to watch at KU? Charlie Weis steps in for the fired Turner Gill and tries to build KU up from nothing. The Jayhawks were one of the worst teams in Big 12 history last season, losing six games by at least 30 points. Weis will speak his mind and watching him rebuilding the Jayhawks is going to be fun. It all starts next month -- on the field, at least.
  • KU's new pass-catch combo: Dayne Crist is on campus, and so is Oklahoma transfer Justin McCay, a former blue-chip recruit who didn't quite catch on in Norman. Quarterback and receiver were arguably the two biggest positions of need for KU last year, and we'll get a preview of what could be a productive combo next season. McCay isn't officially eligible for the 2012 season yet -- he needs the NCAA to waive its mandated redshirt year after a transfer -- but the coaching staff is confident he'll have it granted.
  • The uncertainty on the depth chart: When a new staff comes in, you never know what to expect. Kansas' leading rusher in its final season under Mark Mangino, Toben Opurum, is now one of its best defensive linemen. Look for Weis to shake things up, too. Where? Who knows?
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

Spring practice start date: April 4
Spring game: April 28

What to watch:
  • Collin Klein's maturation: Kansas State's quarterback could be fun to watch this spring and next fall. His throwing motion isn't pretty, but his accuracy improved in a big way throughout the season. If that continues at a pace anything close to what we saw last year, K-State's going to be a load for everyone. Look out.
  • Developing depth at running back: John Hubert is back, and so is seldom-used Angelo Pease. Bryce Brown is gone, though. Klein handles a lot of the heavy lifting in the running game, but it'd be some nice insurance if K-State could establish some more depth in the backfield. Making Klein carry the ball 300 times again is tempting fate.
  • Stars becoming superstars: Kansas State brings back more starters than all but seven teams in college football, so this team is going to look remarkably similar in 2012 to the way it did last year. However, it should get better. And its two transfers could look dominant this spring. Cornerback Nigel Malone and linebacker Arthur Brown emerged as stars last year, but we could see the duo emerge as true game-changers this spring. Look out, Big 12 offenses.
OKLAHOMA SOONERS

Spring practice start date: March 8
Spring game: April 14

What to watch:
  • New faces on, off the field: Mike Stoops' arrival as the defensive coordinator was the biggest news this offseason in the Big 12, and Brent Venables, who had been at OU for all of Bob Stoops' tenure, left for Clemson rather than become co-defensive coordinator. Hopes are high that Stoops can revitalize Oklahoma's defense. He was in charge when the Sooners rode a dominant D to the 2000 national title, and the Sooners have the talent to win it all in 2012. Receiver Trey Metoyer joins the team this spring, and could be a major contributor immediately. Two of the team's four new tight ends are also enrolled early.
  • QB Blake Bell's role: The Belldozer is back … but so is full-time quarterback Landry Jones. How will the balance between the duo look this spring? And what new wrinkles will we see in Oklahoma's simple, yet near-unstoppable short-yardage formation that scored 13 touchdowns in the second half of 2011?
  • The battle at defensive end: Oklahoma must fill two huge holes at defensive end. Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Frank Alexander is gone, as is possible first-round pick Ronnell Lewis. R.J. Washington contributed late and has potential, but David King filled in for Lewis in the final three games of the season. The duo could be great, but it could also be pretty pedestrian. We'll get an idea this spring, but Lewis and Alexander set a high, high bar.
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

Spring practice start date: March 12
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle: This will easily be the highest-profile, highest-quality quarterback battle in the Big 12. It won't be at the level of Texas Tech in 2010, but it won't be too far off. Clint Chelf, J.W. Walsh and Wes Lunt will go head to head. All have plenty of potential, though Lunt may have the most. The big-armed true freshman also has the least experience. Anything could happen here.
  • Which receivers rise: Justin Blackmon and Josh Cooper leave huge holes behind. It's not every day a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner walks on campus. Hubert Anyiam is gone, too. Michael Harrison is unlikely to play for the 2012 season, but the school has offered no confirmation on his status. He had the most potential, but OSU is deep at the position. Who emerges as the top target? Isaiah Anderson? Tracy Moore? Josh Stewart? Anything could happen there, too.
  • Defense needs a leader: Safety Markelle Martin has been the heart of the defense the past two seasons, but his big-hitting days are over. Who becomes the new voice of the defense? It needs to find leadership this spring heading into summer voluntary workouts.
TEXAS LONGHORNS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 23
Spring game: April 1

What to watch:
  • The quarterback competition: I still think having a competition at the spot, which Texas says it will, isn't the best option, but David Ash and Case McCoy will go at it alongside early-enrolling freshman Connor Brewer. If Ash secures the job, expect an announcement heading into summer officially anointing the sophomore.
  • More sophistication on both sides of the ball: The progression is natural and likely. Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz had good first years in Austin, but this is Year 2. The spring won't be devoted to learning the playbook. It's time to master it. Both units could look markedly different, and much more refined next fall. Deny it all you like: Texas is back on its way to the top after a rough two years.
  • Maturing offensive weapons: Last season, the Longhorns relied on two true freshman running backs (Malcolm Brown/Joe Bergeron), a freshman/sophomore rotation at quarterback and its top receiver (Jaxon Shipley) was a true freshman. No. 2 (Mike Davis) was a sophomore. I hope I don't have to tell you what freshmen and sophomores do in college football. Look. Out.
TCU HORNED FROGS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 25
Spring end date: April 5

What to watch:
  • Can TCU shut out the scandal? Four team members were arrested in a recent drug sting and kicked off the team. How much of a distraction will that be for a program undergoing the most monumental change in its history? Quantifying the effects of the scandal will be pretty impossible, and we've got no idea how they'll handle the change, but will it be on players' minds?
  • The offense tightens up: The Horned Frogs' offense is absolutely loaded and ready to go for 2012. Quarterback Casey Pachall returns and brings his top three weapons (Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter) with him. Running backs Waymon James, Ed Wesley and Matthew Tucker each topped 700 yards rushing in 2011 and all return. The spring will be all about fine-tuning an already stellar offense, and it'll be fun to watch.
  • Replacing departed starters: All-America linebacker Tanner Brock was among the four football players arrested and booted from the team, as was all-conference defensive tackle D.J. Yendrey and likely starting safety Devin Johnson. Those were unforeseen losses, but TCU can't feel sorry for itself. Gary Patterson has no choice but to find new faces to fill those holes.
TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS

Spring practice start date: Feb. 17
Spring game: March 24

What to watch:
  • Once again, a new defense: Texas Tech sounds like a broken record these days when it comes to defensive coordinators. This time, Art Kaufman will be stepping to the microphone as the fourth defensive coordinator in Lubbock in four years. He's bringing a 4-3, a shift back to what Ruffin McNeil ran in 2009. Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5 and James Willis' 3-4 failed miserably in 2011 and 2010, respectively, the first two years under Tommy Tuberville.
  • The battle at running back: No one knows yet if Eric Stephens will be back next season. There's still a long way to go in his rehab from a dislocated knee he suffered last season in a loss to Texas A&M. DeAndre Washington is also out this spring after tearing his ACL against Missouri. Harrison Jeffers hung up his cleats. Who will prove to be reliable this spring? Look for the Red Raiders to try to use sophomore Bradley Marquez, freshman Javares McRoy and junior SaDale Foster in a manner similar to the way Oregon uses scatback De'Anthony Thomas, with lots of short passes and bubble screens to get them the ball in space, where they can use their speed and shiftiness to make plays.
  • Team health: Tuberville said earlier this month that the team is missing 15 players this spring. It can't afford any more injuries. It's already going to be tough to get enough done this spring, but Tech can't start getting banged up.
WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

Spring practice start date: March 11
Spring game: April 21

What to watch:
  • Dana Holgorsen's offense in Year 2: Holgorsen didn't get a chance to coach his talented offense at Oklahoma State in its second year. The results could have been crazy. They might be at West Virginia in 2012, and the beginning steps will be taken this spring as Geno Smith & Co. get more and more comfortable with the system and Holgorsen adds more wrinkles.
  • The battle at running back: Sophomore Dustin Garrison hurt his knee in practices leading up to the Mountaineers' 70-33 Orange Bowl win over Clemson, and won't be there for the spring. What does senior Shawne Alston have in store for the spring? Garrison was the featured back last season, but a big spring could help Alston earn a few carries next year.
  • Defense needs help: Najee Goode leaves a big hole at linebacker, and defensive back Eain Smith's exit means the Mountaineers enter the season without two of their top three tacklers from a year ago. Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller's talents on the defensive line will be tough to replace, and in a league that requires a great pass rush, Irvin, Goode and Miller's 19 combined sacks must be replaced somehow.
We're back, and the kindly introduction is over. It's time to get to know the real West Virginia.

How will the Mountaineers handle the transition? Big 12 blogger David Ubben and Big East blogger Andrea Adelson debated the issue.

David Ubben: TCU's jump would seem to be a lot bigger, but the Big East has had its well-chronicled struggles the past few years. The Mountaineers left the league with a convincing Orange Bowl win against Clemson, scoring 70 points in the process. Talk about endearing yourself to your new offensive-minded friends, huh? You've seen this team up close lately, though. What, if anything, do you think WVU will have to change to get back to the BCS as a Big-12 member?

[+] EnlargeBrodrick Jenkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireBrodrick Jenkins, an up-and-coming cornerback, will lead the Mountaineers into Big 12 play next season.
Andrea Adelson: Well, one thing that definitely is going to change is the way West Virginia plays defense. Long-time defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel is out, and so is the odd 3-3-5 stack defense. The Mountaineers are going to go with a 3-4 base set under former Oklahoma State assistant Joe DeForest. This should help ease the transition from the stack, as West Virginia does not have the type of players on the roster to go with four down linemen.

In addition to the new scheme, West Virginia is losing its two best pass-rushers in Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, perhaps its best defensive player in linebacker Najee Goode, and its best cover corner in Keith Tandy. There were times last season when the Mountaineers got beat deep in pass coverage, which will not bode well in Big 12 play.

However, cornerback Brodrick Jenkins has the potential to be truly terrific in 2012. He showed flashes late last season. As for the offense, coach Dana Holgorsen is looking for perfection. That means more consistent play out of an offensive line that was mediocre at times last season, and more explosion out of the run game. Starting running back Dustin Garrison is coming off ACL surgery, so it will be interesting to see whether he will be the same back come August.

Say what you will about the Holgorsen passing offense, but he definitely wants a running back to complement Geno Smith the way Kendall Hunter did with Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State in 2010. How do you think West Virginia will fit in to its new conference home?

DU: WVU is a good fit on the field. Geographically, not so much, but the Big 12 teams have to like that. There's a lot of uneasiness with TCU entering the league. That could shake up recruiting a lot and cut into the share of teams like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.

But West Virginia's clearly a strong brand. This is a team that could just as easily have been in the SEC. Instead, it's in the Big 12. The three BCS wins are a big deal, as was the Orange Bowl win. That's endeared the Mountaineers to their new opponents in the Big 12. To win like that on that kind of stage says a lot about where the program is and where it's headed. Having a coach like Holgorsen, who has lots of ties to Texas, will help them grab a few players in Texas, too. The difference between WVU and Mizzou isn't much when you think about recruiting in Texas. I could see WVU being the biggest threat to Missouri recruiting in Texas.

But like TCU, winning games gets people excited. Big 12 fans are psyched about the Mountaineers, who seem like a fun group.

How do you think WVU's transition will compare to TCU's?

AA: Watching a team put up 70 points is always fun! Hearing a guy like Holgorsen talk is always fun because you never know what he is going to say.

But on to your question: I think West Virginia will have a much smoother transition than TCU because it has played in an AQ conference already. Yeah, OK enter your Big Least jokes in here. But West Virginia has been a solid program throughout the course of its history. Note that the Mountaineers are one of just 14 schools to have 700 program victories -- joining Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12.

West Virginia is one of just three schools to have at least nine wins in seven straight seasons. That doesn't happen by accident. And it's also important to note West Virginia is not exactly in a recruiting hotbed. Talent does not come pouring out of the state the way it does in Texas. The Mountaineers have built pipelines into Florida -- Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey being two notable examples on the squad -- and try to mine talent in Baltimore, Virginia and Washington, D.C. So I do think there will be inroads made into Texas with the Big 12 affiliation.

Already on the roster from the state are starting running back Dustin Garrison and quarterback Ford Childress, an ESPNU 150 player in the class of 2012. I respect the job Gary Patterson has done in building TCU, but I simply think there is going to be much more of a growing curve for a team transitioning to an automatic qualifying conference. What do you think?

DU: I'd agree. The Big East has been weak, but there aren't any teams like New Mexico and UNLV in that league, who are little more than a week off for teams as talented as TCU has been the past few years. Show up and you win.

Last year, even Kansas beat the MAC champions, Northern Illinois, before losing its final 10 games of 2011. Big 12 champion Oklahoma State lost to 6-7 Iowa State, too. This league is so, so deep. You have to show up and play well every week, and even then, you might not win. In 2010, 11 of the league's 12 teams had five wins and at least played a game with a chance to win six and qualify for a bowl game.

This year, nine of the 10 teams did that. It's got elite teams, too. Texas and OU played for titles in 2008 and 2009 and OSU was barely shut out of the title game this year.

The depth of the Big 12 is what TCU will have to get used to. In that sense, WVU will have to adjust much less. Of course, you never know for sure. We'll find out next year. WVU had some head-scratching losses, too. Losing to Syracuse by 26 points? Really? Sheesh.

Both of these teams are built to win in 2012, and I think they'll do it. But winning a Big 12 title requires you to show up every week and play well. In the Big East, which sent an eight-win team to the BCS in 2010, that hasn't necessarily been true.

In the Big 12, Texas or OU has basically run through the year with 0-2 losses every single season. If WVU wants to win this league, they'll have to do that.

When do you think WVU will win its first title? Will it win one?

[+] EnlargeGeno Smith
Kim Klement/US PresswireGeno Smith will enter the Big 12 in his third season as West Virginia's starting quarterback.
AA: It is tough to put a time frame on when West Virginia will win a league title. As crazy as it might sound, I think this team is built to contend in 2012. The Mountaineers dropped FSU from the nonconference schedule, so you could consider Kansas as filling that void. I am sure West Virginia takes that.

Oklahoma is going to be a preseason national favorite, but after that, every single team returning has major question marks. Is Texas going to be Texas? What does Baylor do without RG3? What does Oklahoma State do without Weeden and Justin Blackmon?

You bring up a good point about the head-scratching losses. There have been a bunch of those over the last several seasons -- including TWO in a row to Syracuse. This is a team that has simply been inconsistent. It didn't put together a full game against Clemson. But I think Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey are going to be a handful for teams to stop, so I wouldn't be surprised if the Mountaineers were a surprise contender in 2012. Are you buying or selling?

DU: I'd generally agree. Year 1 seems to be their best chance. It's a wide-open year in the Big 12, and I think Oklahoma's a bit overrated heading into next year, though the potential for a national title run is there. Texas looks like it's on its way back up, but next year won't be the year.

If it doesn't happen next year, though, I don't think WVU will win a Big 12 title in the next decade. It's a solid program that I think could get into the BCS, but win the Big 12?

With the stability, metroplex location and winning tradition, I like TCU's upside a whole lot more, and its ability to win a Big 12 title in the future. I'm buying a Horned Frogs Big 12 title in the next decade. Not so much on WVU.

Time to put you on the spot: What's WVU's record next year and Big 12 finish?

AA: I can see the hate mail trickling into the Big 12 mailbag over that one, Mr. Ubben!
I am going to say West Virginia goes 10-2 and finishes second in the Big 12. What say you?

DU: Maybe so. But hey, that's how we do things on the Big 12 Blog. I call it like I see it. And I see more potential for the Froggies, though I think the Mountaineers will be a solid, solid program. I wouldn't be that surprised if they won the league, but I'm not betting on it.

This is a league built around the state of Texas, and the location's going to make it tough for them to consistently field teams that can win 11-12 games consistently.

Next year, I'll take 9-3 for the Mountaineers, but a tie for third place.

Final pregame thoughts

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
8:21
PM ET
MIAMI -- After a month of analyzing keys, players, depth charts and matchups it is time for West Virginia to show what it is made of in the Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson.

This could be the Mountaineers' final game as members of the Big East, so you know they want to go out on top. And as always, a good performance in this one can be used as a springboard into 2012, especially with so many stars coming back on offense.

West Virginia announced several lineup changes before the game began: Tyler Rader will start at right guard in place of Quinton Spain; Pat Eger will start at right tackle in place of Curtis Feigt; Shawne Alston will start in place of Dustin Garrison; and Ryan Clarke will be the B-back as Alston takes over for Garrison.

The starting spur safety will be a game-time decision.

The stadium looks to be about half full, but a larger contingent of Clemson fans is on hand for this game.

Welcome to the Orange Bowl

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
7:00
PM ET
MIAMI -- The time for talking has ended. Game time is almost here. A few important notes for you to chew on as West Virginia and Clemson prepare to kick off in the Discover Orange Bowl.

1. The Big Ten is officiating this game. So no talk about the referees having it in for West Virginia because it is en route to the Big 12.

2. Watch for the receiver rotation. Tyler Urban has been banged up, and Brad Starks is out so that means guys like Ivan McCartney, Devon Brown and J.D. Woods are going to have to step up. Also remember Dustin Garrison is out, and he was tied for fourth on the team with 24 receptions. Woods is coming off his most productive game, with four catches for 38 yards against USF.

Coach Dana Holgorsen was asked about Woods this week and said, "

"Well, we gave him a chance. And one of the things that as a head coach you try to get your guys to be accountable for what their actions are, and J.D. wasn't doing a very good job of that from an academic standpoint to a workout standpoint. He thought a lot of stuff was optional, so he wasn't able to play very much. That was carrying over on the field.

"Eleven games later he was functioning right. I guess he wanted to stay playing some football when we were playing in Florida. He's from Naples, so when we went to South Florida he had his best week of practice, we put him in there and he made plays. Then when we get to go to the Orange Bowl, I guess he figured he'd start practicing good again, so he had 15 good practices because he gets to play in Miami. I guess we'll play all our games in Florida and he'll come out and he'll practice well and do what he's supposed to do."

Let's not forget, McCartney is from Miramar, Fla., down the street from Sun Life Stadium.

3. Which young player is going to step up? Take your pick, plenty of young players will be relied upon in this game -- Andrew Buie? Wes Tonkery? Shaq Petteway? McCartney? Right guard Quinton Spain is going to have to have a good game as well to help keep the Clemson pass rush at bay.

Orange Bowl: Three Keys for WVU

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
10:30
AM ET
You saw the preview and prediction. Now here are three keys for West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson:

1. Get into rhythm. It's hard to keep up all your momentum when more than a month has passed between football games, especially when your offense is so dependent on rhythm and timing. Nobody really knows how the long layoff is going to impact this offense, but coach Dana Holgorsen has said all week that his team has done all it can to prepare for this game. What really will help rhythm is protecting quarterback Geno Smith, who doesn't do so well when he's flustered and out of the pocket. "We need to dominate," center Joe Madsen said. What also will help is the short passing game out of the backfield, an area that West Virginia is going to have to adjust with Dustin Garrison out.

2. Safety help. By now you already know how much of a blow it is for West Virginia to be without starting safety Terence Garvin, a two-year starter with 72 tackles this season and 3.5 sacks. West Virginia has no experienced players to fill in at the spur position, so the Mountaineers will go with a rotation of Shaq Petteway, Wes Tonkery and Matt Moro. There could be other tinkering as well, as the game wears on. Clemson, of course, averages 284.8 passing yards a game, and has explosive players like Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins and Dwayne Allen. Getting pressure up front is going to really help take pressure off the back end, and players like Keith Tandy and Brodrick Jenkins are also going to have to step up from their corner positions as well.

3. Be special. It cannot be stated enough how big a role special teams plays in any game, most especially one with teams as evenly matched as Clemson and West Virginia. The Mountaineers have been shaky at times in this category, and cannot afford another bad punting game -- especially with a good punter in Dawson Zimmerman on the other sideline. It will be great to see the kickoff return duel between Sammy Watkins and Tavon Austin. Watkins has one kickoff return for touchdown this season; Austin has two. One of these players could decide the game in this hugely important phase.
West Virginia is going for its first 10-win season since 2007 in the Discover Orange Bowl against Clemson tonight. Here is a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterback Geno Smith. All eyes are going to be on both quarterbacks in this game, for obvious reasons. Clemson has made it no secret this week that its No. 1 goal is to get after Smith, in order to get him out of rhythm. This, of course, would limit the number of touches for 1,000-yard receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. A few teams have been successful at getting Smith off his game, and the front Clemson brings may have that capability -- with Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson two of the more highly-rated linemen for the 2012 NFL draft. Branch had 10.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss this season, and could pose major problems. West Virginia has not been consistent on the offensive line this season, but there is some good news. The Mountaineers tend to play up to their level of competition. So getting to face a line as good as Clemson could mean an outstanding performance, which is the biggest key to getting Smith and his receivers going.

WHAT TO WATCH: West Virginia defense vs. Tajh Boyd. Much has been made about the two offenses in this game, but the defenses should not be ignored. West Virginia has made a pretty solid turnaround in the final three games of the season, allowing just 365.7 yards a game, turning up its pressure and playing much better pass defense. This group has been much more opportunistic as well. It most certainly will have to be against Clemson, a team that has fared much better in turnover margin. Tight end Dwayne Allen poses a huge threat, because he is like an extra receiver on the field, and West Virginia will be without starting safety Terence Garvin. At least the Mountaineers have experience going against an up-tempo team. Can they keep up the momentum from the end of the season?

WHY TO WATCH: Everybody loves offense, right? And everybody loves the battle for supremacy between the Big East and ACC, right? OK maybe not the latter, but there should be plenty of fireworks in this one, and plenty of NFL talent on this field. Plus, this could be West Virginia's final game as members of the Big East. If that is indeed the case, you can bet the Mountaineers will want to do nothing but go out on top.

PREDICTION: West Virginia 35, Clemson 30. Yes, I realize that West Virginia is going to be without several of its starters, including Garvin and Dustin Garrison. But I also think this is a team that found its way in the latter part of the season, and will not be denied. Simply put, West Virginia refused to lose, and every part of this team willed itself to victory against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and USF. Folks are focusing on the offenses; but West Virginia is better overall on defense and that makes the difference in this game.

Alston ready to step up for WVU

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
2:00
PM ET
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His season began on the bench, a lingering neck injury from a car accident refusing to go away.

He now ends the season as the starting running back in the Discover Orange Bowl.

[+] EnlargeWest Virginia Mountaineers running back Shawne Alston
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIREWest Virginia Mountaineers running back Shawne Alston has overcome injury to start in the Orange bowl.
How fortunes have changed for Shawne Alston in the span of a few short months. Because of an injury to Dustin Garrison, Alston will get the call Wednesday against Clemson.

"It feels good to know I didn't lose focus, my coaches and teammates kept believing in me," Alston said Monday during a media availability for West Virginia's offensive players. "I kept working hard to get back."

Even at the moments he was most discouraged, his teammates picked him up, telling him, "C'mon, man. We need you. You've got to get back."

He finally returned for the Maryland game, and has seen his carries steadily increase since then. But he still has to wear the neck roll because he is not quite 100 percent.

In addition to that, Alston also played through a leg injury late in the season, which forced him to wear a big, bulky bandage. He got hit in his leg a few times during the Louisville game, and trainers were worried he would get compartment syndrome, where pressure in the muscles build and blood flow can be constrained.

Alston was able to start the Cincinnati game the following week, but was limited to 6 yards on seven carries. The most he has carried it this season is 14 times, in a win over Rutgers. Still, he leads the team with 10 touchdown runs and though he is viewed more as a power back, Alston says he can shoulder the load.

But he isn't expected to do it alone. True freshman Andrew Buie, who also missed several games this season with various injuries, is expected to get some carries as well. Buie came into fall camp competing with Garrison and Vernard Roberts for the starting job, but Garrison pulled ahead and Buie only had 38 carries for 138 yards and a touchdown this season.

"Everything happens for a reason," he said. "I tried to stay as prepared as I can all season, just in case something did happen. Right now, I just have to step up and do the best I can."

Buie is much faster than Alston, and both are good at pass blocking. But where this team could be hurt most is in the passing game, where Garrison was a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield in the short passing game West Virginia likes to run.

Garrison is tied for fourth on the team with 24 receptions. Buie and Alston have combined for 11 catches this season. Though receiver Tavon Austin has experience in the backfield, he said Monday he didn't expect his role to change going into this game.

"We'll be doing what we've been doing previously," Austin said.

SPONSORED HEADLINES