What should WVU sustain in a conference that requires infinite travel, far removed from the recruiting base, with no nearby rivals? The Mountaineers have won either seven or eight games three times in their four years in the Big 12 and were lucky to win four in the other year. If Dana Holgorsen can put 2013 further in the rearview and establish a rhythm in the eight-win range, is that enough? If it isn't ... shouldn't it be?
While his offense is experienced and explosive, his defense has to replace key pieces. But if the Mountaineers could put another top-30 product on the field while saving some of their good performances for good opponents, that might go a long way toward earning him a seventh season.
A year ago, Holgorsen and West Virginia were in an awkward place. Holgorsen had led the Mountaineers to bowls in four of his first five years and was more or less holding onto WVU’s historical pace for success.
His lone glitch year, though — a 4-8 2013 — was immensely damaging, and while he had improved since, he only had a 15-11 record in those years. Nobody sees an 8-5 season like what WVU had in 2015 as a goal; it’s a way station on your way up or down. WVU administrators didn’t appear convinced WVU was on its way up and considered letting Holgorsen walk.
The Mountaineers then went 10-3 in 2016, beating nine-win BYU and Kansas State, winning at Texas and Texas Tech, and finishing in the AP poll for the first time in five years. They produced 88 gains of 20-plus yards, ninth in the country and 26 more than they managed in 2015. They went 4-0 in one-possession games after losing five of their previous seven such finishes.
Aside from a disappointing bowl against Miami, this was the year that fans wanted to see. Holgorsen bought a reserve of goodwill, and he heads into his seventh season renewed. Florida transfer and former blue-chip quarterback Will Grier takes over alongside 1,100-yard rusher Justin Crawford.
All is well. Right?
Well, Holgo might have to spend a little bit more of that goodwill than he’d prefer. Grier helps to mitigate the loss of Skyler Howard, sure, but two of the top three receivers and five of the top seven offensive linemen are gone, and the defense must replace its top three linemen, its best linebacker, and five of last year’s top six defensive backs. The Mountaineers are going to be reliant on youth and newcomers, and the offense is putting a lot of stock in a quarterback who had about two good games before losing his redshirt freshman season to a performance-enhancing drug suspension.
WVU ranks second-to-last in my returning production measure, bringing back just 28 percent of its production, a level that virtually assures regression. Combine that with top-50 recruiting and solid-not-great recent performance, and you’ve got a drastic projected fall.
The Mountaineers win total is projected to fall from 10 to five, and while this is slightly off-base because it doesn’t take transfers into account, Grier only has 1,200 career passing yards. His addition wouldn’t make a drastic difference in the overall formula.
In 2015, WVU was misleadingly good. The Eers ranked 21st in S&P+ despite only winning eight games. They showed huge upside and suffered bad breaks in losses to Oklahoma State and Kansas State. In 2016, they regressed a hair but were on the right end of those lucky breaks.
Now Holgorsen faces maybe his trickiest coaching situation. Despite what the numbers warn, WVU is facing top-25 expectations with a roster that will look almost nothing like last year’s. The possibility for disappointment is high, and if the numbers are right, Holgo will be back on the hot seat.
That’s both fair and unfair. If WVU barely carves out a top-70 2017, as S&P+ projects — I don’t expect it to be that bad — you can debate whether that’s too low a floor for a major conference team with WVU’s recent history. Still, after two straight top-30 seasons, Holgo should be able to afford a retooling season without again being in jeopardy. Setting the bar in the wrong place could make this season feel like a crippling disappointment instead of a foreseeable reset.
Of course, there’s one way to solve these issues: avoid a setback at all. If the newcomers come through, the ceiling’s still pretty high.
2016 in review
The first half of the regular season could barely have gone any better. The Mountaineers handled Missouri and TCU by a combined 39 points at home, withstood tough tests from BYU and KSU, and throttled Texas Tech in Lubbock. They allowed more than 21 points just once and scored at least 34 points four times.
The upside was still there over the second half of the season, but the efforts were less consistent.
- First 6 games (6-0): Avg. percentile performance: 79% (~top 25) | Yards per play: WVU 6.6, Opp 5.1 (plus-1.5) | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-10.4 PPG
- Last 7 games (4-3): Avg. percentile performance: 63% (~top 45) | Yards per play: WVU 6.3, Opp 5.9 (plus-0.4) | Performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-4.0 PPG
The defense still held four of its final seven opponents to 21 or fewer points and averaged a combined 8.4 yards per play against Kansas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State. But the Mountaineers allowed 41 points per game in losses and labored to get past a faltering Texas and an already faltered Baylor.
There were just enough injuries to make this a less consistent squad. Attrition at running back led Holgorsen to tear the redshirt off of freshman Martell Pettaway in WVU’s 11th game, and the cornerback position was one of attrition and shuffling as well. On average, this team probably wasn’t quite as good as its record, but it was still good. And now it has to be just as good with a massive change in the cast of characters.
Air raid disciples are supposed to air the ball out. It’s right there in the name.
But good coaches adapt to what they are seeing from defenses, and WVU has nearly topped 3,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons. Wendell Smallwood was a revelation for the Eers in 2015, rushing for 1,519 yards at 6.4 yards per carry. And while last year was more of a committee effort, JUCO transfer Justin Crawford still hung nearly 1,200 yards on the board (at 7.3 yards per carry), and two freshmen — Pettaway and Kennedy McKoy — combined for 732 yards at 6 yards per carry.
For all the conversation about Grier, the run is now the base of the Holgo offense. WVU was balanced on standard downs last year, rushing 60 percent of the time (almost precisely the national average), but the Mountaineers were run-heavy on passing downs, throwing just 60 percent of the time. They still got the ball to guys in space (83 percent of tackles against WVU were solo tackles), and they still operated with high tempo, but the combination of Crawford, the looks given by opposing defenses, and Howard’s scramble-happy skill set made WVU a run-heavy team.
We’ll see how much that changes with Grier. The former blue-chipper got a lot of mileage out of one incredible performance in 2015; he completed 24 of 29 for 271 yards and four touchdowns in an out-of-nowhere 28-point win over a top-10 Ole Miss. His passer rating was 131.9 in his other five games, however — fine for a freshman, really — and Florida remained mostly a “run the ball and let the defense win” team.
The addition of both Grier and coordinator Jake Spavital — last seen co-authoring a Cal offense that attempted 53 passes per game — could lead to a change. But the receiving corps could determine that as well. The Mountaineers have to replace an elite efficiency receiver (slot receiver Dalkiel Shorts Jr., who produced a 63 percent success rate) and an elite big-play guy (Shelton Gibson, who averaged 22.1 yards per catch).
Senior Ka’Raun White and junior Jovon Durante are decent possession guys, but Grier’s probably going to have to count on some newcomers. JUCO transfer and QB-turned-WR David Sills had a big spring, and 6’5 JUCO transfer Dominique Maiden could quickly enter the rotation, and well, we know that redshirt freshman walk-on Druw Bowen can make hard catches, anyway:
YES SIR Druw Bowen! The freshman put in some work today! pic.twitter.com/w1a5Yvu2Nn— WVU Football (@WVUfootball) September 22, 2016
In all, unless a veteran like Durante or return man Gary Jennings begins to discover his ceiling, the JUCOs will be key to keeping the upside high in the passing game.
Something else that could lead to a change (or non-change) in WVU’s approach: turnover up front. Center Tyler Orlosky and left tackle Adam Pankey — 2016 all-conference guys who combined for 78 career starts — are both gone, as are two others who started at least six games last year. That leaves guard Kyle Bosch, tackle Colton McKivitz, and a whole lot of uncertainty up front. Tennessee transfer Ray Raulerson and JUCOs Isaiah Hardy and Kelby Wickline could help quickly, but a drop-off in run blocking is obviously possible.
Tony Gibson has been one of the country’s most underrated defensive coordinators. After a rough first year in charge at WVU, he has over the last three seasons produced Def. S&P+ rankings of 46th, 30th, and 37th, despite dealing with decent levels of turnover each year. One year he’ll have a well-seasoned front six and a brand new secondary. Another year, he’ll have the opposite.
This year, he’s got ... experience at linebacker. Senior Al-Rasheed Benton and sophomore David Long were steady contributors, and Long showed a little play-making potential in logging 4.5 tackles for loss. And he’s got some experienced guys in the back, too; it’s just that only one of them played for WVU in 2016.
Safety Kyzir White combined seven tackles for loss with five passes defensed from the SPUR safety/OLB position. The former four-star recruit has lived up to his recruiting ranking and is the type of hybrid nickel back that every Big 12 defense needs. He’s going to have a lot of new faces around him, though. Safety Dravon Askew-Henry does return after missing 2015 with injury, and Syracuse transfer Corey Winfield joins the mix. But corners Rasul Douglas, Maurice Fleming, Antonio Crawford, and Nana Kyeremeh are all gone; so are safeties Jarrod Harper, Jeremy Tyler, and Khairi Sharif. Of the 11 DBs to record at least 11 tackles last year, only four return. Turnover in the secondary is a huge signifier of a defense that is about to regress, and WVU has a lot of turnover in the secondary.
If Gibson can find some cornerbacks — Winfield? A senior like Mike Daniels or Elijah Battle? A youngster like Jordan Adams or Sean Mahone? JUCO transfer Hakeem Bailey? — you can talk yourself into the rest of the secondary holding steady. So that leads to the next big question mark.
WVU ranked a healthy 30th in Rushing S&P+ last year, an accomplishment, considering the Mountaineers weren’t particularly disruptive — 98th in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line), 124th in power success rate — but the combination of linemen eating blocks and linebackers flowing to the ball worked.
In Justin Arndt, WVU must replace its flow-to-the-ball guy. A bigger concern: the Mountaineers must also replace all three starting linemen. Darrien Howard, Noble Nwachukwu, and Christian Brown combined for 18 tackles for loss while eating blocks; that’s a tough combination to replace.
Gibson’s going to have to rely on youngsters. There are still veterans like tackle Xavier Pegues, but at end, production’s going to have to come from sophomores Adam Shuler II and Reese Donahue, redshirt freshman Jeffery Pooler Jr., and JUCO transfer Ezekiel Rose. And if Pegues or JUCO Jalen Harvey get hurt, the rotation at tackle is going to be tiny.
WVU’s defense is going to be patched together with duct tape and chicken wire. If the Mountaineers get lucky with injuries and a young end and corner step up, another top-40 performance is possible. But regression is a lot more possible.
I have three years of Special Teams S&P+ data at the moment. And in those three years, WVU has gone from ranking 12th in 2014 to 44th in 2015 to 112th in 2016. The Mountaineers ranked no better than 72nd in any single category last year and ranked worse than 100th in three: field goal efficiency (Mike Molina missed four field goals under 40 yards and made just two of five over 40), kickoff success rate (only 32 percent of Molina’s kickoffs were touchbacks, and opponents averaged 23 yards per return), and punt return success rate (21 Gary Jennings returns netted a total of 39 yards).
For better or worse, everybody’s back.
This didn’t affect WVU’s ability to win close games in 2016, but special teams can flip some tight games, and with a far less stable defense, the Mountaineers can’t afford to be this awful in special teams again this year.
2017 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|2-Sep||vs. Virginia Tech||25||-10.4||27%|
|11-Nov||at Kansas State||35||-9.4||29%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||69|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||49 / 80|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||5.3 (45)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||44 / 43|
|2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||4 / 8.4|
|2016 TO Luck/Game||-1.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||28% (30%, 25%)|
|2016 Second-order wins (difference)||7.9 (2.1)|
On the surface, it’s not hard to see why prognosticators are sticking West Virginia in the back end of their top 25s. Grier and Crawford in the backfield? Askew-Henry and White back in the secondary? Other familiar names like Benton and White? Sounds good!
It’s going to take quite a bit of good fortune for WVU to live up to that, though. The Mountaineers are starting over on the defensive line and in the secondary, the offensive line has a couple of stars to replace, and despite some veterans, the receiving corps has no proven better-than-average guys.
I figure the S&P+ projection of 69th is a bit harsh — I’m looking at ways to make JUCOs worth more in the S&P+ projection formula, since they’re more likely to contribute early — but something closer to 50th feels a lot more accurate than the top 25. And with a schedule that features games against Virginia Tech, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State, and Oklahoma away from home (not to mention Oklahoma State and Texas in Morgantown), that sets the bar at “just make a bowl again.”
To me, this looks like a reset year for WVU. And that’s okay! The Mountaineers boast upside with underclassmen at nearly every position and should be at a top-30 level in 2018. But if they go 6-6 or 7-5 this year, that should be a sign of good things to come, not a disappointment.