Better know a nonconference opponent: West Virginia

SEC fans, how much do you know about some of your nonconference opponents? If you haven’t studied up yet, we’re doing a series this week that will look at some of the marquee nonconference games involving SEC teams in 2016 and the opponents that they will face.

First up is West Virginia, who hosts Missouri to open the season.

Opponent: vs. Missouri

Date of matchup: Saturday, Sept. 3

Star players: QB Skyler Howard, RB Rushel Shell, WR Shelton Gibson, OC Tyler Orlosky, DE Noble Nwachukwu

Offseason storyline: Can Dana Holgorsen get West Virginia over the hump? The last memorable season in Morgantown was five years ago. It was Holgorsen’s first season at West Virginia, and it was the Mountaineers last season in the Big East. Since moving to the Big 12, seven-and eight-win seasons have become the norm. Will 2016 be any different?

The offense should be a strength. Howard returns along with seven other starters on offense, including four of the five offensive linemen. Howard struggled at times last fall, but he finished the season strong with 532 yards and five touchdowns in a Cactus Bowl victory against Arizona State. If he can produce more games like that, the Mountaineers will be tough to beat. Also back is Gibson, West Virginia's leading receiver from a year ago with 37 catches, 887 yards and nine touchdowns.

If anything holds this team back, it will be the defense. Eight starters are gone from a unit that finished among the Big 12 leaders in most major categories last season. Still, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will have his hands full trying to replicate that same type of production.

What’s at stake for Missouri: It’s a significant game for Missouri because the Tigers are coming off a season where they failed to become bowl eligible. But it’s even more significant for first-year coach Barry Odom because it will be his first game as a head coach. Yes, it will look a little strange not seeing Gary Pinkel on the Missouri sideline. But this is Odom’s team now. And as a defensive guy, he’s probably excited about the opportunity to face such a potent offense in his debut. It will be a great test for his defense and a good barometer going forward.

Though it’s his first game, there won’t be a lot of pressure on Odom. Most people will not be expecting Missouri to go on the road and beat West Virginia, so a loss won’t hurt his reputation. A win? That would likely earn him instant adoration from the fan base. The key, though, will be keeping it competitive. A blowout loss and fans might be wishing that Pinkel was still there.

As season openers go, it’s the first time the Tigers have opened against a Power 5 opponent since they beat Illinois, 23-13, in 2010.