Can you be both completely out of place and right where you belong at the same time?
During the conference realignment saga of the past couple of years -- something that has been quiet over the last couple of months, which only means it is about ready to strike again -- the specter of geographic silliness has been worse than the reality. Baylor and Washington State didn't end up in the same conference, for instance. Texas isn't joining Purdue's conference. Et cetera. (As with politics, this is usually how it works, of course. The extreme examples serve as anchors to make us appreciate the lack of extremism in the actual moves. Take, for instance, the Airline Conference.)
But while most of the actual major moves have made relative geographic sense (Texas A&M and Missouri do border other SEC states, as does Nebraska with the Big Ten, Utah and Colorado in the Pac-12, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, sort of, in the ACC), we haven't escaped occasional geographic dissonance. Boise State and San Diego State are still moving to something called the Big East Conference, after all. Pittsburgh, a new member of the ACC's Coastal Division, in no way borders a coast. But the biggest geographic oddity involving a major college football program (not named Boise State) has to be West Virginia's move to the Big 12. Perhaps this doesn't seem as weird if the Big 12 ever does expand to include programs like Florida State, Louisville or even Pittsburgh, but for now, it sticks out a bit.
In the Big East last year, West Virginia was within 7.5 hours of five of seven conference rivals, within 600 miles of six. Average distance: 437 miles. In the Big 12, only Ames is within 900 miles of Morgantown (and it's not exactly close at 871). Five of nine conference mates are at least 1,100 miles away. Morgantown to Lubbock is 1,466 miles and 25 hours away. (Meanwhile, Morgantown to Winnipeg is only 1,391 miles. Yeah.) We have heard for a long time now how EXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ [Enter Year Here] was going to damage college sports, both because it would kill old rivalries and because building new ones would be difficult with schools so far apart. I've never completely believed the latter meme (geographic proximity can help fuel a good rivalry -- just ask Missouri and Kansas fans, who share Kansas City) but it isn't a necessity. Great moments and huge games are just as helpful when it comes to stoking ire and building new, bitter rivalries. And if they continue their recent level of play, Dana Holgorsen's West Virginia Mountaineers could create plenty of moments early in their Big 12 residence.
Besides, while geography does matter to some degree, there's no questioning that West Virginia will find stylistic soulmates in its new home. Between five and seven Big 12 teams run their own version of the spread offense -- West Virginia, of course, is led by Air Raid descendent Dana Holgorsen -- and six of nine current Big 12 rivals averaged at least 75 plays per game last year. In the Big East, just one team averaged that many last year.
This fall, West Virginia leaves behind a conference to which it has actual historical, geographic ties in favor of a conference to which it closely adheres philosophically. When Holgorsen is facing off with his former boss, Mike Gundy, at Oklahoma State on Nov. 10 … or when Art Briles and Holgorsen are matching wits in Morgantown on Sept. 29, are we really going to care that they are separated by 1,000 miles? Probably not. The Big 12 was already the most MACtion-worthy major conference. And now they've added the Holgorsen offense. This is probably going to be pretty fun. We'll try to worry about that whole "Is their defense any good?" thing later.
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. […]
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.
The first nine months of 2011 were rather odd for the Mountaineers. Holgorsen was named head-coach-in-waiting despite the fact that head coach Bill Stewart didn't really approve of such a move, and when it was determined that he was sabotaging Holgorsen a bit, Stewart was dumped in the summer, and Holgorsen's "in-waiting" period ended before a single game was played. (Of course, WVU is nothing if not used to drama.)
As would have been expected following both drama and decent-sized change, West Virginia started rather slow in the fall. The Mountaineers trailed Norfolk State at halftime in their second game before taking off for an easy win, and they had to hold off what turned out to be a pretty awful Maryland team for a 37-31 win in College Park. WVU was 3-0 but barely looked it. But they began to look explosive in a loss to LSU, and for most of the next month and a half (sans an odd, lifeless loss at Syracuse), they looked the part of a Top 10 team. They hung a combined 1,184 yards and 98 points on Bowling Green and Connecticut. They rolled up 428 yards and 41 points on a slushy field at Rutgers. It took two missed field goals and an untimely turnover on downs for the Mountaineers to lose at home to Louisville.
Late in the season, the offense began to slow down a bit, but WVU rallied to pull off three straight close wins (by three points over Cincinnati, by one over Pitt and by three over South Florida) and secured an Orange Bowl bid.
First Three Games: Opponents 28.7 Adj. Points per game, West Virginia 27.0 (minus-1.7)
Next Six Games: West Virginia 35.8 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 27.8 (plus-8.0)
Next Three Games: West Virginia 28.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 25.5 (plus-3.4)
While many are quite high on WVU heading into 2012 -- and while it is easy to see why with the offensive talent returning -- it does bear mentioning that WVU's explosion in the Orange Bowl was only one game. The Mountaineers looked just slightly above average in November, they suffered upset losses to Louisville and Syracuse, and they needed a 4-1 record in one-possession games to win the relatively weak Big East.
It goes without saying, then, that I struggle with some of the more extreme preseason hype involving the Mountaineers. Like USC (and 2008 Georgia), West Virginia only briefly looked as good last year as people expect them to look all season. It certainly isn't impossible for the Mountaineers to meet the hype, but hype can be a bit unfair sometimes. WVU is obviously going to be explosive, but even if it is to meet more reasonable expectations, the offense will need to be more consistent (certainly at least relatively likely), and the defense will need to prove it can function without its best players from 2011. That's far from a slam dunk.
Admit it: you got a little starry-eyed, a little excited when I mentioned the WVU-OSU and WVU-Baylor games above, didn't you? Offensive innovation, wide-open offenses, teams putting up video game totals in yards and points … offense may not win national titles without a lot of help from a strong defense (or in 2010 Auburn's case, TIMELY defense), but it can provide so much endearing entertainment value. In its history, the Air Raid has been heavy on both entertainment and yardage. Holgorsen played for Air Raid godfather Hal Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, then coached for Mumme's most direct descendent, Mike Leach, for eight years at Texas Tech before striking out on his own in 2008. Holgorsen held the offensive coordinator position at Houston for two years (2008-09) and Oklahoma State for another (2010) before landing in Morgantown. And wherever he goes, points soon follow.
The 2010 West Virginia offense was frustrating and inconsistent, ranking 108th in Off. F/+, averaging just 12.0 points per game in WVU's four losses, and, generally speaking, holding back what was a wonderful WVU defense. Holgorsen came to town, and the tables turned almost instantly. Yes, WVU was still inconsistent at times, especially in September and November, but the upside was clear. WVU improved to 13th in Off. F/+, and the Mountaineers improved to 10-3 in 2011 despite drastic defensive regression.
It is difficult to talk about Holgorsen's offensive approach and innovation without wanting to cede the floor to Smart Football's Chris Brown. So here we go.
Just like Leach and Mumme, Holgorsen installs his offense in three days and then repeats that process throughout camp. And his time as Leach’s eye-in-the-sky as Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator well prepared them. But he hasn’t hesitated to change things to fit his personnel, sometimes drastically. And it’s this creative reassembly of the various Air Raid parts into a coherent whole that has distinguished Holgorsen’s attack from other Air Raid spin-offs. The most obvious version of this are the "packaged plays," where two seemingly unrelated plays are put together, such as Y-Stick combined with the offensive line blocking a draw play. […]
And once one has gone down that route, it’s a small leap to begin thinking about combining all sorts of concepts, including quick passes and other runs, screens and runs, screens and quick passes, and so on. Once your mind has gotten beyond the typical heuristics that tell us how football is supposed to work, almost everything is on the table.
Freedom is the final element. Holgorsen allows his players a staggering degree of freedom at the line, not just to get out of bad plays but also to find the right ones. This is rather shocking: Sure, maybe Peyton Manning or Tom Brady have the green light to make these calls, but college kids? In Holgorsen's offense, however, it makes sense. The quarterback must succeed for the team to go, and he knows his own strengths better than anyone, including the coach. Moreover, there are things that only the quarterback can see at the line. He's right in the action; he can make adjustments and respond to the defense in ways his coach, who's stuck on the sideline, cannot. Many spread, no-huddle teams nowadays have their offenses line up and then look toward the sideline to receive additional instruction. This allows coaches to get a look at the defense, but defenses also make adjustments during this time, so the offense rarely gains the upper hand. The Air Raiders skip that step and rely on the quarterback to make smart decisions.
(Brown's written a lot about Holgorsen and the Air Raid, and I encourage you to fall down the same rabbit hole I did in preparing for this piece.)
At this point, we know that Holgorsen is going to field a strong offense, especially as he begins to put his own pieces into place. (That might not take long -- he's probably putting "double-digit freshmen" on the field this year.) We also know that in Geno Smith, Holgorsen quickly found a quarterback capable of carrying the load he needs the quarterback to carry. Smith was frustratingly inconsistent at times as a sophomore in 2010, but he still managed to put together some strong overall numbers: 2,763 passing yards (7.4 per pass), a 65 percent completion rate, 24 touchdowns, and just a 1.9 percent interception rate. He improved on every one of those numbers in 2011: 4,385 yards (8.3 per pass), a 66 percent completion rate, 31 touchdowns and a 1.3 percent interception rate. Further improvement in 2012 could make him a Heisman contender (and he knows it), especially when you think about how many more plays WVU will get a chance to run this fall in the ludicrous-speed Big 12.
Depending on how you look at it, the receiving corps at Smith's disposal is either deep or thin. In Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Smith has a pair who combined for 172 catches, 2,459 yards (10.2 per target) and a ridiculous 71 percent catch rate. In the Orange Bowl, Austin looked like the best receiver in college football, touching the ball 15 times (11 catches, four carries) and generating 163 yards and four touchdowns. Austin is basically a mach-speed possession receiver; he is the integral inside receiver, running mostly short routes and fielding his share of handoffs (he had 17 carries for 188 yards in 2011). He averaged just 11.8 yards per catch last year, but his 79 percent catch rate was better than that of most tight ends. As long as there is a Bailey or, when healthy, Ivan McCartney around to stretch defenses vertically, the Holgorsen offense has a murderous combination of efficiency and explosiveness. And in 2012, Austin and Bailey will be lining up on different sides of the field, which is a pretty big deal. Still, beyond those three receivers, the experience is basically limited to seniors J.D. Woods and Ryan Nehlen, who combined for 12 catches last year. A boatload of freshmen and redshirt freshmen will have to get involved to provide a receiving corps as deep as the Air Raid requires. Last year defenses were able to shade toward Bailey and Austin to slow WVU down a bit. A couple more regular contributors, and that will be almost impossible to do.
What brings the Air Raid to a new level, however, is a strong running game. You don't have to run often, and in 2011 West Virginia did not (they ran 47 percent of the time on standard downs and 27 percent on passing downs). But they still ran more than a lot of former Mike Leach offenses, and it occasionally worked. All three of last year's running backs -- senior Shawne Alston and sophomores Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie -- return in 2012; Garrison tore up his knee late in 2011 but should be just about ready to go when the season starts. Alston is a little misshapen for the offense (at 235 pounds, he is much bigger than the typical Air Raid waterbug), but he was great in short yardage, scoring 12 touchdowns. And Buie, a former four-star recruit, might have the highest ceiling of the three. They should be running behind a strong line; the Mountaineers must replace all-conference tackle Don Barclay but do return six linemen with starting experience (100 career starts), including center and three-year starter Joe Madsen. That senior left guard (and two-year starter) Josh Jenkins returns after missing 2011 with injury is a bonus.
Step 1: Old defensive coordinator leaves.
Step 2: New defensive coordinator takes over.
Step 3: Defenders rave about new coordinator simplifying things and allowing them to just "play" instead of overthinking.
You almost never see Steps 1-2 without Step 3 close behind. And West Virginia has followed this script precisely this offseason. Longtime WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left Morgantown to take his unique, and occasionally wicked, 3-3-5 defense to Arizona with former WVU head coach Rich Rodriguez. In his place stepped former Oklahoma State safeties coach (and former Holgorsen co-worker) Joe DeForest. While he installed what is basically a 3-4 (with 4-3 capability) this spring, we sure enough saw a steady stream of "less thinking, more playing" comments from WVU defenders. This could mean very good things for the Mountaineers in 2012 … or it could just be a rerun of what always happens when coaches leave.
Casteel's 3-3-5 was (and is) fascinating, both because of how good it can look at times and because of how personnel-specific it tends to be. In the last five seasons, WVU's defense ranked ninth, 31st, 31st, first and 52nd in Def. F/+. The 2010 defense was one of the best in recent memory according to Def. F/+ but had to replace seven starters, including tackles Chris Neild and Scooter Berry and safety Robert Sands. In 2011, the line just couldn't hold up its end of the bargain -- WVU ranked 72nd in Adj. Line Yards, 80th in Rushing S&P+ -- and the defense as a whole suffered.
Obviously no change in defensive alignment is going to matter unless the line (and, for that matter, the front seven as a whole) improves. But it's hard to see that happening in 2012 unless newcomers shine. Last year, only three Mountaineers logged more than 5.5 tackles for loss -- tackle Julian Miller, end Bruce Irvin and linebacker Najee Goode -- and all three are gone, taking with them their combined 40.0 tackles for loss, 19.5 sacks and six forced fumbles. Looking at the overall numbers tells us these players were rather all-or-nothing, so perhaps WVU can hold steady in the rankings by simply being steadier; but still, that's a lot of play-making talent to lose. Players like linebacker Terence Garvin (5.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, three passes broken up) and tackle Will Clarke (5.0 tackles for loss), along with (relative) newcomers to the rotation like junior rush end Chidoziem Ezemma, tackles Shaq Rowell and Imarjaye Albury, and sophomore linebackers Jewone Snow, Jared Barber, and Shaq Petteway will need to quickly bring some production to the table.
The secondary was at least decent last year, but it is going to need some help. Corners Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins (combined: four interceptions, 11 passes broken up, 3.5 tackles for loss) return, but they are two of only three returning WVU defensive backs who logged more than 10.0 tackles in 2011 (the third: safety Darwin Cook). And in the Big 12, you need as many quality defensive backs as you can get. That freshman free safety Karl Joseph is already a first-stringer is either really good (he's going to be a complete stud!) or really bad (nobody else was good enough to prevent his ascension).
Here's where lofty expectations can wreck a season. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 projects WVU to rank 20th in the country, with a 58 percent chance of going either 8-4 or 9-3. So I'm inclined to set the bar around there. Only, when you instead begin the season ranked 11th in the USA Today Coaches Poll, and some members of the media are giving you Top Five hype, 8-4 would seem quite disappointing, especially with such exciting seniors in Geno Smith and Tavon Austin. I guess I'll set the bar at nine wins and move on.
Geography or no, this just feels right, doesn't it? Dana Holgorsen fielded a team that LOOKED like a Big 12 squad in 2011, and now he gets to face off against kindred offensive spirits (and Texas). Like Mike Leach, Holgorsen has not yet proven himself a coach who is going to reel in all sorts of four- and five-star athletes, but that didn't stop Leach from winning at least eight or nine games every year. Holgorsen could carve out the same type of niche, and because of his offensive innovation, his squad will always be must-watch. In other words, there is a lot to like about West Virginia moving forward.
But his 2012 squad will have enough experience (not to mention a decent Big 12 schedule that brings Oklahoma, Kansas State, TCU and Baylor to Morgantown) to potentially make some noise. He's going to need some relative newcomers to step up, however, especially in the defensive front seven. And because of that uncertainty, I can't quite buy Top 10 hype, no matter how much I want to.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: