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West Virginia is loaded with star power and should have a shot every week ...

... but without much depth for Dana Holgorsen to count on.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at West Virginia
Will Grier
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The 2012 Orange Bowl is one hell of a narrative device. It was what I thought to write about when Clemson won the national title in 2016; the Tigers got so pantsed on a national stage — 70-33, with WVU scoring eight touchdowns in nine drives — that head coach Dabo Swinney was forced to change his defense, bringing in Oklahoma coordinator Brent Venables. The rest is history.

The cast from that game has seen their roles and reputations enhanced since.

  • Swinney went from aggrieved, in-over-his-head coach to national champ.
  • Morris is now head coach of Arkansas.
  • Kevin Steele, the man Venables replaced, rebounded to become Auburn defensive coordinator and has done a tremendous job.
  • Venables, who was beginning to catch some heat for a stagnant OU defense, is perhaps the most consistently regarded coordinator on the planet, having four consecutive defenses that ranked sixth or better in Def. S&P+.
  • WVU’s Geno Smith (407 passing yards and six touchdowns) and Tavon Austin (123 yards and four touchdowns) were high draft picks and remain in the NFL. Austin just got traded to the Cowboys, who are talking a big game about all the ways they’ll use him.

But WVU’s Dana Holgorsen remains in Morgantown, trying to re-capture that magic.

Holgorsen was thrust into the head coach’s office a bit quicker than anticipated. He was brought in as a head coach in waiting, but the actual head coach, Bill Stewart, wasn’t interested in a succession plan just yet. He appeared to be working behind the scenes to sabotage the move, and he was forced to resign in June 2011. Oliver Luck, the WVU AD at the time (and another figure who’s made big moves; he’s now the XFL’s commissioner), had made things more awkward than he needed to, but he got his man. And a year into Holgo’s tenure, it looked like the awkwardness had been worth it.

Holgorsen hasn’t been bad. His Mountaineers collapsed to 4-8 and 102nd in S&P+ in 2013, his third year, but he was given space to rebound. WVU has averaged eight wins since, with a couple of top-30 S&P+ performances (2015-16). His 2017 squad returned so little of its production, however, that S&P+ projected a precipitous fall, from 28th to 69th.

In the end, it was pretty much dead-on — WVU fell to 63rd. But it took a key injury to bring that about. Until star quarterback Will Grier got hurt early in a home game against Texas in mid-November, the Mountaineers were 7-3 with two tight losses to good teams (Virginia Tech and TCU) and a borderline top-30 ranking.

WVU with and without Grier

WVU in 2017: First 10 games Last 3 games
WVU in 2017: First 10 games Last 3 games
Record 7 W, 3 L 0 W, 3 L
Avg. score WVU 39, Opp 29 Opp 39, WVU 20
Avg. yards per play WVU 6.8, Opp 4.5 Opp 7.0, WVU 5.9
Avg. percentile performance 65% (72% off, 47% def) 12% (26% off, 27% def)
Avg. performance vs. S&P+ proj. +4.6 PPG -16.0 PPG

The Mountaineers lost by 14 to Texas, by 28 at Oklahoma, and by 16 to Utah in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The last two games didn’t feel that close. Without Grier, the offense cratered, the defense lost hope, and this wasn’t even a top-100 team. (Mind you, the defense was pretty bad before he got hurt, too.)

With him, this might be a top-10 offense. That’s something Holgorsen, a significant branch on the Hal Mumme/Mike Leach air raid tree, hadn’t been able to replicate since Smith and Austin had left.

Grier elected to return to WVU in 2018 instead of going pro, and he returns four of last year’s top five receiving targets and most of his offensive line. You can understand why, with the addition of a few key defensive transfers, WVU fans might be thinking this is the year Holgorsen truly breaks through. Depth, however, is a massive question mark.

The numbers are again conservative; the Mountaineers are projected 43rd this time around (which would have been higher if you omitted the no-Grier portion of 2017). And with an absolutely brutal schedule — one that features 11 power conference teams, visits from Oklahoma and TCU, and road trips to not only Oklahoma State, Texas, Iowa State, and Texas Tech in conference play, but also NC State out of conference — a top-40 performance might only earn you about seven wins.

With Grier, WVU will have a chance in nearly every game. The Mountaineers have eight games with a projected scoring margin of a touchdown or less. Whether this means 5-7 or something closer to 10-2, the Mountaineers are a must-watch team this year.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at West Virginia
Dana Holgorsen
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

2017 WVU offensive radar

Considering the true star quarterback and the pass-happy nature of the Holgorsen offense, you’d assume WVU would be more capable than most teams of catching up to the chains after falling behind schedule.

You’d assume incorrectly, however. WVU’s biggest offensive strength last year was staying on schedule; the Mountaineers ranked 12th in standard-downs success rate but a miserable 116th in passing-downs success rate. Granted, the numbers were exaggerated by Grier’s absence — on non-garbage time passing downs, replacement Chris Chugunov (who has since transferred) was just 10-for-32 passing for 155 yards and three sacks — but it was a weakness even with Grief.

So despite the fact that WVU was 13th in Off. S&P+ when Grier went down, there’s a clear path for improvement in 2018. In a way, that’s exciting.

NCAA Football: Texas at West Virginia
Kennedy McKoy
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Without running back Justin Crawford, however, we’ll see if WVU is as good at keeping up with the chains. Now an Atlanta Falcon, Crawford rushed for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons and provided efficiency (46 percent success rate) that backups Kennedy McKoy (40 percent) and Martell Pettaway (30 percent) couldn’t match.

This was still a “pass to set up the run” team, though, so while it’s important to note that McKoy, a junior, has had some tantalizing moments in his first two years (137 yards against OU last year and 232 in two games against Kansas), it’s more important to check on the health of the passing game.

Health check: pretty great.

First, Grier’s line returns mostly intact. That includes all-conference left tackle Yodny Cajuste and honorable mention all-conference right tackle Colton McKivitz, plus two other 2017 starters. This is a huge line (the four returning starters average 6’5, 319), and Holgorsen brought in two 340-pound JUCOs (Joe Brown and Mike Brown) for good measure.

The receiving corps remains mostly intact, too. WVU does lose Ka’Raun White, a pretty awesome Z receiver who averaged 16.1 yards per catch with a marginal efficiency of plus-12.9 percent. The Mountaineers lose last year’s backup Z, Reggie Roberson Jr., as well.

That’s less of a concern, though, when you bring the following:

  • Gary Jennings Jr., a high-usage slot who caught 97 passes with a plus-13.1 percent marginal efficiency.
  • X receivers David Sills V and Marcus Simms, who combined for 95 catches at 17.3 yards per catch, with a plus-10.4 percent marginal efficiency. The 6’4 Sills led the nation with 18 touchdown catches despite scoring zero after Grier went down.
  • Miami H-back transfer Jovani Haskins (6’4, 238) and Alabama receiver transfer T.J. Simmons (6’2, 198), both of whom are high-three-star sophomores.
  • Six mid-three-star (or higher) true freshmen.

WVU got away with basically a four-man receiving corps last year, so depth is an unknown if Jennings, Sills, or Simms misses time. But the addition of Simmons assures decent upside, even if a true freshman or two has to get involved. As long as the injury bug doesn’t bite too hard, this passing game will be a joy to watch. Therefore, the offense as a whole will, too.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at West Virginia
David Sills V
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

2017 WVU defensive radar

Tony Gibson brought immediate stability when he came aboard as defensive coordinator in 2014. After WVU ranked 85th in Def. S&P+ in each of the two years before his arrival, the Mountaineers improved to 46th, 30th, and 37th over his first three seasons.

While the offense withstood a lack of returning production, however — in part because of two transfers in Grier and SIlls — the defense was not so lucky. It had to replace its top three linemen and five of its top seven defensive backs and suffered growing pains. The Mountaineers were 83rd in Def. S&P+ when Grier went down and finished 96th.

The continuity’s better this time around, but only to a degree. The line returns ends Reese Donahue and Ezekiel Rose (combined: 52 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, six sacks) but must replace the rest of its top seven tacklers.

Holgorsen made some waves by bringing in a pair of high-profile tackle transfers — USC’s Kenny Bigelow and Clemson’s Jabril Robinson — but while you never want to have to rely on newcomers, WVU is going to need these guys to hit the ground running. Considering Bigelow hasn’t really been healthy since early-2015, that’s a dicey proposition. Four-star freshman Dante Stills, a 284-pounder and maybe the star of the 2018 recruiting class, might need to chip in immediately, too.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma State at West Virginia
David Long Jr. (11)
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

There are fewer concerns elsewhere. WVU must replace prolific middle linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton (and likely successor Brendan Ferns will miss a third consecutive year with injury). But the Mountaineers bring back a disruptive duo in junior David Long Jr. and sophomore Dylan Tonkery (combined: 22.5 TFLs, six sacks, seven passes defensed). Depth is dicey without Ferns, but Long and Tonkery are proven.

There’s actually some depth in the back, at least at safety.

Eleven DBs made at least eight tackles last year, and only five return, but they’re a good five: safeties Dravon Askiew-Henry, Kenny Robinson, Toyous Avery, and Jovanni Stewart combined for seven TFLs and 15 passes defensed, and junior corner Hakeem Bailey was sturdy last year. WVU needs a new starting corner but should unearth a pretty good one from a pool of high-three-star sophomore Derrek Pitts, UCLA transfer Denzel Fisher, and JUCO transfer Keith Washington.

NCAA Football: Iowa State at West Virginia
Kenny Robinson
Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Despite Marcus Simms doing awesome things in kick returns, this was a below average unit. WVU ranked 90th in field goal efficiency, 90th in punt efficiency, and 119th in kickoff efficiency. That’s a good way to dig yourself a field position hole, and sure enough, WVU’s minus-3.1 yard field position margin per possession was 110th in FBS and eighth in the Big 12.

Punter Billy Kinney and kickoffs guy Evan Staley are back, but they and their coverage units need shoring up. At least Simms is back, too.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Tennessee 79 6.6 65%
8-Sep Youngstown State NR 22.1 90%
15-Sep at N.C. State 37 -4.7 39%
22-Sep Kansas State 61 5.6 63%
29-Sep at Texas Tech 47 -1.6 46%
6-Oct Kansas 103 15.6 82%
13-Oct at Iowa State 46 -2.1 45%
25-Oct Baylor 50 3.6 58%
3-Nov at Texas 27 -7.1 34%
10-Nov TCU 22 -3.9 41%
17-Nov at Oklahoma State 19 -9.4 29%
23-Nov Oklahoma 9 -12.0 24%
Projected S&P+ Rk 43
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 17 / 96
Projected wins 6.2
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.3 (49)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 42 / 39
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -7 / -5.2
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 65% (72%, 57%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.0 (0.0)

WVU is going to start with a pretty awesome starting 22. There is star power at QB (Grier), WR (Jennings, Sills), OL (Cajuste), LB (Long), and safety (Askew-Henry, Robinson), and another batch of exciting transfers is arriving, too.

You don’t usually keep your intended 22 on the field the entire year, though, and where the injury bug bites will determine much of WVU’s success. Depth issues are impossible to describe with certainty because we simply don’t know how much it will cost a team.

S&P+ sees two pretty likely losses (24 percent win probability against OU, 29 percent at OSU) and two likely wins (82 percent vs. Kansas, 90 percent vs. Youngstown State). The other eight games are projected within 7.1 or fewer points. A team with Grier, Sills, etc., could survive just fine — the Mountaineers had won three straight one-possession finishes when Grier went down, after all.

Because of depth and this ridiculous schedule, there might not be a more mysterious team in the country than WVU. Theoretically, 3-9 and 10-2 are on the table.

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