Finishing 7-6 after a scintillating 5-0 start is both a reason to remember and forget last season. West Virginia's first season in the Big 12 Conference provides reasons and examples of how and why it needs to improve in 2013.
The defense was historically bad last season, giving up the most points, most passing yards, most TD passes and most total yards in school history. While improving that side of the ball is a priority, the Mountaineers also face replacing their offensive stars.
Quarterback Geno Smith along with receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey kept statisticians and scoreboard operators frantic in 2012. That threesome's departure means West Virginia must replace nearly 75 percent of its offensive yards and 83 percent of its touchdowns from last season.
"The quarterback play in the Big 12 last year was phenomenal, and it's always going to be phenomenal," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "(This year) it's just going to be with newer people. Who our guy is going to be, I don't know."
Two juniors are competing to take over for Smith. Clint Trickett, who spent his first two seasons at Florida State before transferring, has the most game experience. Paul Millard has been in the WVU program longer and is more familiar with the system.
"It's about opportunities,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Neither of those guys has proven he doesn't deserve a chance.''
"The guy that we're eventually going to give the most reps to is the guy that takes care of the ball,'' Holgorsen said. "That could be simple quarterback-center exchanges or appropriate handoffs or interceptions and all that. They have to take care of the ball, they have to make good decisions and they have to minimize the negative things that happen.''
The Mountaineers have depth and talent at running back – so much so that junior Anthony Bouie, last year's leading rusher, as opted to sit out this season and redshirt. Senior Charles Sims, who transferred from Houston, is a versatile performer and is expected to start.
There are less than a dozen starts listed for the top eight to 10 receivers competing for playing time. Since 2006, teams with Holgorsen on the staff have had nine receivers catch 90 or more passes.
"It's not the first time we've lost receivers to the NFL and be able to line up next year and execute our offense," Holgorsen said. ''It gets me excited of being able to get out there and face the challenge of being able to take ten strong guys and coach them and be able to develop them."
Coach: Dana Holgorsen, 17-9 in three seasons.
2012: 7-6 overall, 4-5 in Big 12, tied for 5th.
Bowl: Lost to Syracuse, 38-14, in Pinstripe Bowl.
Returning starters: 4 on offense, 7 on defense.
Key players: Junior QB Clint Trickett, junior QB Paul Millard, senior RB Charles Sims, freshman RB Wendell Smallwood, junior RB Dustin Garrison, sophomore WR K.J. Myers, junior WR Kevin White, sophomore S Karl Joseph, sophomore LB Isaiah Bruce, senior S Darwin Cook, LB Doug Rigg, senior DE Will Clarke, senior DT Shaq Rowell.
Three Key Questions
1. How will the defense improve?
Perhaps the biggest adjustment West Virginia needs to make in joining the Big 12 is facing the Conference's up-tempo and high-powered offenses. Too often last season the Mountaineers found themselves unprepared and out of position when the ball was snapped. Keith Patterson takes over as the sole defensive coordinator and he is concentrating on aggressive play but also adjusting faster between plays. The fact that seven starters return and several others got playing time last year should help.
2. Will the offense keep producing?
When Dana Holgorsen is part of the coaching staff, the offense typically lights up the scoreboard. While the Mountaineers have a number of running backs who should be productive, getting Big 12-quality play from the quarterback and wide receiver positions will be the biggest challenge.
3. Can the special teams be special?
To begin with, West Virginia will have a new kicker (redshirt freshman Josh Lambert) and a new punter (sophomore Nick O'Toole). Tavon Austin was arguably one of the best kick returners in FBS history but he has moved on. And overall, the Mountaineers' kick coverage units in 2012 were average at best.
Quarterback Clint Trickett, a transfer from Florida State, and running back Charles Sims, a transfer from Houston, are eligible this season and both could have big impacts. Trickett is a junior and he lived in Morgantown while his father Rick was the Mountaineers' offensive line coach. Sims, a senior, was selected by the media as the newcomer of the year. … West Virginia was the only school to have a wide receiver and a quarterback taken among the top 95 picks in April's NFL draft – Tavon Austin went No. 12 and Geno Smith No. 39. Only five other schools have done the same the past five years: Oklahoma State and Baylor in 2012, Notre Dame and Texas in 2010 and USC in 2009. … Coach Dana Holgorsen has not suffered a losing season in 13 years as an assistant or head coach on the FBS level (2000-12). He is the only coach in the Big 12 to never experience a losing season as part of the FBS. He's also one of five active head coaches with at least three seasons of FBS experience to never suffer through a losing season as either a coach or full-time assistant.
Numbers To Note
During coach Dana Holgorsen's tenure, the Mountaineers are 10-1 in games where they average 4 yards or better per carry. … West Virginia has new assistants at quarterbacks coach, offensive line coach and running backs coach. … Last season the Mountaineers produced 47 scoring drives of fewer than 180 seconds in duration. … In 31 seasons after going to a bowl, the Mountaineers have compiled a 225-120-5 record. WVU has earned back-to-back bowl berths 16 times, including a school-record streak of 11 straight appearances.
|Aug. 31||William & Mary|
|Sept. 7||at Oklahoma*|
|Sept. 14||Georgia State|
|Sept. 21||vs. Maryland (M&T Bank Stadium, Baltimore)|
|Sept. 28||Oklahoma State*|
|Oct. 5||at Baylor*|
|Oct. 19||Texas Tech*|
|Oct. 26||at Kansas State*|
|Nov. 2||at TCU*|
|Nov. 16||at Kansas*|
|Nov. 29||Iowa State*|