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2011 Season Preview: The West Virginia Mountaineers And We Know Drama

West Virginia was oh, so close to being an outstanding team in 2010, but in addressing their major weakness (offense), they created some incredible offseason drama. Has the soap opera subsided now that Dana Holgorsen has taken over the head coaching position?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words.

Say what you will about the quality of the Big East as a football conference. They haven't tamped down any "Weakest BCS conference" talk by getting repeatedly drubbed in BCS bowls (average score of last three BCS bowls: Opponent 40, Big East Champion 18) or by letting in the worst BCS bowl participant in recent history last year. But they do know drama.

Both Backyard Brawl participants, West Virginia and Pittsburgh, got creative in recent months, entering the offseason intending to have one head coach and ending up with another one. Pittsburgh hired Mike Heywood, then fired him amid domestic assault charges and ended up with Todd Graham. West Virginia, meanwhile, created an awkward situation by forcing offensive coordinator and "head coach in waiting" Dana Holgorsen upon head coach Bill Stewart, then was forced to deal with the awkwardness sooner than later when Stewart was found to be allegedly attempting to sabotage Holgorsen.

So now, instead of taking the field this fall with the hottest offensive coordinator in the game and a proven defensive staff, WVU is looking at life with a rookie head coach and a defensive staff brought to Morgantown by a head man who was just forced out of town. Maybe it will work out just fine, and maybe it won't, but either way we will be entertained. Holgorsen inherits an underrated program (their four-year performance rankings place them ahead of Auburn, Penn State, Georgia and all the other recent teams I've profiled) with interesting offensive talent and athletes abound, but the drama is not so far in the rearview just yet.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 9-4 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk**: 18
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Coastal Carolina
31-0 W 19.1 - 14.7 W
10-Sep at Marshall 24-21 W 27.4 - 32.6 L
18-Sep Maryland 31-17 W 34.7 - 9.9 W
25-Sep at LSU 14-20 L 18.3 - 10.5 W
9-Oct UNLV 49-10 W 36.4 - 17.7 W
14-Oct South Florida 20-6 W 24.5 - 15.9 W
23-Oct Syracuse 14-19 L 21.8 - 21.9 L
29-Oct at Connecticut 13-16 L 26.0 - 22.0 W
13-Nov Cincinnati 37-10 W 29.7 - 9.4 W
20-Nov at Louisville 17-10 W 20.1 - (-5.5) W
26-Nov at Pittsburgh 35-10 W 51.0 - 15.3 W
4-Dec Rutgers 35-14 W 40.1 - 22.3 W
28-Dec vs N.C. State 7-23 L 19.9 - 21.8 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 25.2 78 13.5 3
Adj. Points Per Game 28.4 52 16.0 5

West Virginia showed just enough potential to be incredibly frustrating in 2010, especially on offense. The Mountaineers torched Maryland, UNLV, Pittsburgh and Rutgers and completely disappeared against Coastal Carolina, LSU, Louisville and N.C. State. The defense did all it could; the national average for points (and therefore Adj. Points) was 27.1 per game, and WVU "allowed" more than 22.3 Adj. Points just once all season. They were incredibly effective, but the offense scored just 12.0 real points per game in their four losses.

Through this prism, it is clear what appealed to WVU athletic director Oliver Luck regarding Holgorsen. He saw an opportunity to significantly upgrade the offense while maintaining a high level on defense, and he figured out a way to do it that didn't require him to fire his current head coach. The execution of the plan was egregious, but nobody will remember that if Holgorsen is able to pull off some good things in 2011 and beyond.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 60 49 64
RUSHING 84 55 97 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 42 48 36 75
Standard Downs 55 36 65 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 47 52 35 60
Redzone 84 46 94
Q1 Rk 31 1st Down Rk 48
Q2 Rk 72 2nd Down Rk 66
Q3 Rk 40 3rd Down Rk 39
Q4 Rk 85

With a non-existent running game and an offense that offered no explosiveness on standard downs, WVU quarterback Geno Smith (2,763 yards, 7.4 per pass, 65% completion rate, 24 TD, 7 INT) was forced to make plays on passing downs a bit too much. While Smith was productive and interesting for much of the season, in specific games (basically the four losses plus the Louisville game) the pressure was too much, and he faltered. You could tell from his body language that things weren't going well, and he was unable to fend off prolonged in-game slumps.

Geno Smith in Losses & Versus Louisville: 87-for-159 (55%), 786 yards (4.9 per pass), 4 TD, 5 INT (21.2 Adj. PPG)
Geno Smith in Other Eight Games: 154-for-213 (72%), 1,977 yards (9.3 per pass), 20 TD, 2 INT (32.9 Adj. PPG)

Now a junior, Smith was likely ready to improve anyway; he is more mature, and he has a deeper, more experienced receiving corps at his disposal. But throw Holgorsen into the mix, and suddenly Smith is a favorite of the Fantasy College Football crowd. And it's not hard to see why. To see what he might do, let's take a look at Oklahoma State's Offensive Footprint from last year, when Holgorsen was calling the shots.

Holgorsen is not a 'pass all the time' guy, but he does put the game in his quarterback's hands a good portion of the time. He is unafraid of running the ball, especially on second-and-long situations (to set up more manageable third downs), and perhaps most notably, he sticks with the same approach no matter the situation or field position. Oklahoma State had the second-least variable offense in the country last year, which is a bit odd for spread attacks. Tulsa's variability, for instance, was off the charts; we may lump "spread offenses" together, but there are 1,000,001 ways to run the spread.

Holgorsen's recent track record (see the Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit), of course, suggests he knows what he's doing. Nobody knows yet how he will handle the move to head coach, but it's easy to see both Smith and multiple receiving targets thriving. Tavon Austin (787 yards, 13.6 per catch, 71% catch rate, 8 TD) seems ready to be the No. 1 guy in a prolific attack, and three others -- Stedman Bailey (317 yards, 13.2 per catch, 59% catch rate, 4 TD as a redshirt freshman), Brad Starks (317 yards, 16.7 per catch, 56% catch rate, 4 TD) and J.D. Woods (205 yards, 11.4 per catch, 78% catch rate) -- provide strong depth.

Other tidbits:

  • Of course, the pass was not really the problem last year. For WVU's offense to truly click, the running game will need to improve, and despite the loss of all-timer Noel Devine, improvement is certainly within the realm of possibility. At least, it's not going to get much worse than last year. Devine (934 yards, 4.5 per carry, -11.7 Adj. POE, 6 TD) struggled through the least-effective, least-explosive season of his career in 2010, and his likely replacements -- Shawne Alston (248 yards, 4.4 per carry, -0.8 Adj. POE) and incoming four-star freshman Andrew Buie -- should at least be able to match last fall's output...
  • ...especially behind an offensive line that returns 68 career starts and is now operating one of the most line-friendly schemes in college football. Oklahoma State's star power might have resided at receiver (Justin Blackmon) and quarterback (Brandon Weeden), but do not underestimate the impact Holgorsen had up front, where one of the least experienced lines in the country played like one of the best. Holgorsen's offense is going to stretch opposing defenses out as much as anybody in the country, going both north-and-south and side-to-side, and with two third-year starters in tackle Don Barclay and center Joe Madsen (another long-time starter, guard Josh Jenkins, is redshirting this season after a knee injury), the line could take advantage of more taut opponents.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
RUSHING 5 5 6 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 15 20 11 17
Standard Downs 3 10 4 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 26 13 37 4
Redzone 2 2 2
Q1 Rk 43 1st Down Rk 7
Q2 Rk 5 2nd Down Rk 11
Q3 Rk 25 3rd Down Rk 8
Q4 Rk 2

On paper, defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's aggressive, unpredictable 3-3-5 attack could be the perfect match with a Holgorsen offense. Holgorsen wants to wear out opponents with pace and efficiency, and with a physical defense that forces quick, disastrous mistakes, they could stretch opponents even further. But two things give me reservations:

1) The departures of safeties Robert Sands (43.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT) and Sidney Glover (53.0 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU) could be tough for a back line that prevented big plays as well as almost any team in the country. They do still return strong safety Terrence Garvin (58.5 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) and free-safety-with-potential Eain Smith (19.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU), but Glover was great in 2010, and Sands was one of the most intimidating, bigger-hitting safeties in the country. It is at least something of a concern, as is the departure of two solid playmaking linebackers, J.T. Thomas (54.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 4 PBU) and Anthony Leonard (56.0 tackles, 6.5 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU). (I guess I could have just said "I have reservations about a defense that returns just four starters" and left it at that.)

2) This is just a gut feeling (from a numbers guy taught to hate gut feelings, no less), but ... honestly, it makes me a little paranoid that Holgorsen made no changes to his defensive coaching staff after Stewart left. It's easy to understand why he didn't -- coordinator Jeff Casteel is absolutely phenomenal at his job -- but considering the drama that unfolded between Stewart and Holgorsen, my antenna is a bit raised as it pertains to Holgorsen leading a staff that consists entirely of Stewart guys. Lord knows dumping random assistants could have resulted in a new level of drama, but I find it hard to imagine that the soap opera could completely end just because a single person left town. We'll see.

Other tidbits:

  • Aside from any lingering drama, this defense certainly still has quite a bit going for it. For starters, the Mountaineers fielded the No. 2 defense in the country according to Def. F/+, and no other Big East D even landed in the Top 25. (Second-best: No. 27 South Florida.) So even if they fall, they're still going to probably be among the Big East's best. And if the offense improves as expected, that's a pretty good recipe for winning the conference, no?
  • There are also still plenty of exciting playmakers returning. Ends Julian Miller (41.0 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 3 PBU) and the all-or-nothing Bruce Irvin (19.5 tackles, 14.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) were both effective last year, Najee Goode (36.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU) should be solid at middle linebacker, and cornerback Keith Tandy (47.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 11 PBU) is ridiculously good. Throw in a couple of four-star freshman defensive backs -- Terrell Chestnut and Vance Roberts -- and an excellent 3-3-5 tackle in Scooter Berry (25.0 tackles, 4.5 TFL/sacks), and you've got a lot to work with. The main issue is simply depth. Tandy is the only proven cornerback beyond maybe Pat Miller (17.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 4 PBU), and Goode is the only linebacker who received a lot of playing time last year. The starting 11 should still be solid, but if the injuries start creeping up, it is unclear if WVU can absorb the losses.

West Virginia's 2010 Season Set to Music

This is more applicable to the offseason, but ... how about a little "Drama" from RZA? "Selling The Drama" by Live? "Stop Being So Dramatic" by Jon Chinn?

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 12
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 27
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -5 / +1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 12 (8, 4)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -4.5

Despite the losses on defense, and despite my general paranoia (which, sadly enough, did not make the list of projection factors), the 2011 Football Outsiders projections see the Big East as a two team race between the two high-drama programs, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. WVU was quite unlucky last year, in terms of both YPP Margin and fumbles luck, but they still won nine games with a new starting quarterback. They were in position to take a nice step forward in 2011 even with Bill Stewart still in charge, and assuming the drama comes to a close, the pieces are still in place. Our projections give the Mountaineers a 56% chance of finishing 6-1 or better in conference (Pittsburgh: also 56%), and getting the Panthers at home on November 25 could swing the conference in WVU's favor.

Still ... and I hate to bring it up again ... do the Mountaineers have what it takes to overcome an odd offseason? If you believe at all in vibes or karma, you have to be a little concerned, right? Or should I just stick with the numbers and ignore gut feelings, vibes and all the other things I've been taught to ignore?



Be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.


* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.