The West Virginia Mountaineers football team currently sits where most expected it would - 3-1, with the lone loss a respectable one-score game on the road at LSU. With the results following the chalk, it seems that there are still many questions that need to be answered. Answer these, and we'll have a good idea what conference play holds ...
1. How good is that defense, really? Right now, the Mountaineers are the nation's seventh-ranked defense, giving up a paltry 13 points a game. The schedule hasn't been a murderers' row, with LSU's offense struggling in a manner that's drawn the attention of the national press. So, how good are they? Bruce Irvin is beginning to blossom into a fantastic pass-rusher, and Chris Neild has been an unsung hero anchoring the D-Line and giving Irvin the room to move. The secondary has made strides in recent weeks, as Keith Tandy has done an about-face from giving up the big play to gobbling up interceptions. This unit won't have to face any legendary offenses, but it will be asked to shut down some decent running teams, which it seems to be built to do. If the guys in back can avoid getting burned, the Mountaineers can continue to hold opponents in the teens for the rest of the season.
2. Is this a throw-first football team? Geno Smith came out swinging against UNLV and never looked back. For the most part, when the football has been moving down the field it's been in the air and on the arm of the sophomore quarterback. He's averaging nearly twenty completions a game for a Mountaineer team that hasn't put the ball in the air this much since Marc Bulger was on campus. Smith has proved capable in leading the team down the field, and it takes advantage of the Mountaineers' deepest position group: the receivers. Tavon Austin and Jock Sanders are Devine's doppelgangers and give defenses fits trying to cover them. Smith's adroit passing has turned Stedman Bailey into a breakout player, and revived the career of Brad Starks. It's amazing to see a Mountaineer team that is built for the pass, but if there ever was one, this is it.
3. If this is throw-first team, what's with the play-calling? The chief complaint so far this season is that the play-calling coming in from Jeff Mullen and company has been schizophrenic. The offense crawled to a standstill in the second halves of the Maryland and LSU games after the air attack was shelved in favor of inside running. It could be that this was still a team finding its equilibrium, and by know they know who they are. Coming out throwing against UNLV and not letting up til the game was out of hand, which was at halftime, seems to suggest that they've learned their lesson. From here on out look for the Mountaineer coaching staff to try and spring Devine by making him the third option, instead of banging back into the line for more abuse.
4. Can the offensive playmakers stay healthy? Noel Devine's foot injury in LSU game, and Bill Stewart's unwillingness to pull him, showed little faith in the backups at tailback. Devine only rushed a paltry three times against UNLV and he broke out for 28- and 48-yard touchdowns on two of them, showing the game-changing speed we haven't really seen this season. The rest of the game, Stewart went with a combo platter of Trey Johnson, Shawne Alston and Matt Lindamood. All seemed to be solid replacements, but none have the big-play explosiveness of number seven. Even more troubling, as the Mountaineer begin to rely increasingly on the pass, is the vacuum at backup quarterback. No one is ready to hand the reins to Barry Brunetti, and third-stringer Jeremy Johnson just left the team. Keeping Devine and Smith upright is the most important task for the Mountaineers going forward.
5. What's the competition like? For the entire off-season we were told the Big East was a two-horse race between WVU and Pitt. Now the Panthers are stumbling and the Mountaineers are the only team in the conference that has managed to live up to any kind of pre-season prognostication. Connecticut and Rutgers, two teams perennially on the brink, have each struggled, and almost the entire conference hovers within one game of .500, at either 3-2 or 2-3. Amazingly, the only other one-loss Big East team is Syracuse, led by upstart QB Ryan Nassib. Is this kid the real deal, and is Syracuse back? Who knows, but right now they seem to be the only other Big East team that can look itself in the mirror in the morning. The upside to all this is that it is absolutely the Mountaineers' conference to win. The downside is, everyone else thinks they have a shot too, and if the Mountaineers drop a couple they risk falling into a muddled mush of teams that will be hard to crawl out of.