The 2011 college football season kicks off next week. This is the first of three local team previews that will run this week.
Dana Holgorsen takes over a West Virginia squad that had serious Big East title hopes derailed last season by an anemic offense. After an offseason that feature an awkward coaching change made a year early, the Mountaineers look to return to the top of the Big East once again. Here's who will play key roles for the Mountaineers in the upcoming season:
Team MVP and offensive MVP: Geno Smith. Simply put: as goes Geno, goes the season. Mountaineer fans have been in a tizzy since Dana Holgorsen arrived, and their optimism centers around his pairing with this highly touted junior quarterback. Last season, as a sophomore, Smith was one of the lone bright spots on an underachieving Mountaineer offense, throwing for 2763 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 13 games. After orchestrating a last-minute comeback against Marshall early in the season, Smith was considered above reproach by Mountaineer fans who were willing to look the other way at questionable decision-making in the pocket. This season, Smith will be counted on to make quick reads in Holgorsen's pass-happy offense. Getting the ball out quickly and efficiently will be key, which suits Smith, who has problems when he lingers in the pocket. If Smith is up to the task, he could take the Mountaineers back to the BCS for the first time since 2007.
Defensive MVP: Bruce Irvin. A juco transfer, Irvin burst onto the scene last season as the conference's premier sack man. The defensive end's 14 sacks were tops in the Big East, and only six other players in the conference managed half even that total. Freakishly athletic, Irvin faced a steep learning curve last season and didn't even play every down. This year, expect him to be a factor in both the run and passing games as he and his defensive line-mates will be counted on to pressure the quarterback and relieve some pressure from WVU's held-together-with-masking-tape secondary. Playing in Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5, it's rare to see a Mountaineer win accolades as a pass-rusher, which is what makes Irvin's potential as one of the most fearsome defensive players in the nation so tantalizing. Irvin also won the hearts of Mountaineer fans this offseason by saying repeatedly in the press that he had never considered leaving early for the NFL
Strongest position group: Wide receiver. Luckily for Holgorsen, his predecessor had stockpiled plenty of undeveloped talent at wide receiver. The wideouts are the Mountaineers' deepest and most experienced position grouping and are expected to be put to good use this season. Talent-wise, Tavon Austin leads the way as a guy who can take it to the house from almost anywhere. Stedman Bailey, J.D. Woods and Brad Starks all made progress last season and are expected to take it to the next level. Training camp's biggest surprise has been the breakout play of Ryan Nehlen and Tyler Urban, two players who add height and physicality to an otherwise small and speedy crop of receivers. Holgorsen plans on spreading it around, so expect all of these guys to make the highlight reels at some point this season.
Weakest Position Group: Quarterback. Remember all those nice things I wrote about Geno Smith? Well, he'd better come through, because right now he's being backed up by tumbleweeds and the sounds of crickets chirping. That may not be entirely true, as freshman backup Paul Millard has impressed a lot of folks in camp, but you get the drift. Holgorsen is currently mining the student body for potential walk-ons, but when a mass email to incoming freshmen is part of your recruiting strategy, you know you've got problems. The Mountaineers could go far this season, but Geno's going to have to stay upright and in the game for that to happen.
Mountaineer Most Likely To Be Found Drinking On Grant Ave. After The Game: Dana Holgorsen. A lot of people don't like Holgorsen's legendary carousing, but it just means he fits right in with the party environment in Morgantown. This offseason, while Mountaineer message boards were buzzing about former coach Bill Stewart's alleged transgressions, few batted an eye at Holgorsen being escorted from a casino by the police. While Holgorsen has played things a little closer to the vest since that incident, he's already a favorite with fans, press and players for his easygoing persona.
Mountaineer Most Likely To Become a Household Name: Tavon Austin. If Geno Smith benefits the most from Holgorsen's arrival, Austin is a close second. A dynamic speedster, Austin is the perfect receiver for Holgorsen's exciting brand of football, and could etch himself into Mountaineer record books by the time the season is over. While Mountaineer fans are notorious for counting their chickens before they've hatched, Austin has a serious shot to best David Saunders' school record of 77 receptions in a season.
Best Use Of Nepotism By A Mountaineer: Ryan Nehlen. Former Mountaineer head coach Don Nehlen's grandson Ryan has been the talk of camp, and rightfully so. In a stable of miniature speedsters it was easy for the 6-foot-2 Nehlen to stand out. An award winner as the team's best walk-on, Nehlen knows that Holgorsen will spread it around this season, and it will be his opportunity make Mountaineer memories in the stadium that his grandfather helped build. While the former Nehlen was known for his relentless up-the-middle play calling, his grandson could become known for playing up high instead of down low.
Season Prediction: 9-3 (5-2 Big East), Champs Sports Bowl. Right now, there's no shortage of optimism in Morgantown. Most Mountaineer fans will gladly fill you in on how an undefeated season of 50-point blowouts is almost a foregone conclusion. While there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic on offense, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has a daunting rebuilding job ahead of him. While Holgorsen's new offense should light up the scoreboard, the opposition has a decent shot at doing the same. Look for the ‘Eers to drop one to LSU at home, and two in the conference to Pitt and South Florida. The end result? Another logjam at the top of the conference sends the Mountaineers to the Champs Sports Bowl.