1. Translate experience into improvement
When ESPN’s Brett McMurphy polled every power-five conference football coach earlier this month asking for a one-word description of his team, the response he got from West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was “experienced.”
On the surface, it’s a sensible reply. The Mountaineers return 34 players — 17 on each side of the line of scrimmage — who have a combined 250 career starts.
The thing is, it hasn’t all been quality experience. West Virginia went 7-5 in 2012, its first year in the Big 12 Conference, and managed just four wins in 2013, missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2001.
Holgorsen insists it’s a “night and day” difference from last year to this one and, despite the Mountaineers’ gauntlet of a schedule, there is plenty of reason for optimism.
Starting quarterback Clint Trickett felled a giant in 2013 against then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, handing the Cowboys their first loss of the regular season, and will hope to slay another Saturday in the season-opening Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against No. 2 Alabama.
2. Defense must keep ’eers afloat
Tony Gibson will have his hands full in his first season as West Virginia’s defensive coordinator. Gibson was promoted from safeties coach this spring to become the Mountaineers’ fourth coordinator in as many seasons in hope that he can jam up the revolving door.
It will be no easy feat. West Virginia’s defense has been blown up like a powder keg in the Big 12, allowing 38.1 (2012) and 33.3 (2013) points per game in its two seasons in the conference.
Gibson will counter the Big 12’s gunslinging quarterbacks and high-flying offenses with the newly installed 3-3-5 or 3-3 Stack defense, which offers a multiple-front look that will showcase the true strengths of the defense — the linebackers and defensive backs.
Despite losing starting cornerback Ishmael Banks for the non-conference season because of academic ineligibility, the defensive backs should be less of a liability this season. Karl Joseph returns for his third season starting at strong safety, and freshman Dravon Henry, an Aliquippa product, will debut at free safety.
3. Time to finish
It’s seems silly to wrangle what-if questions when half of West Virginia’s victories in 2013 came against such ignoble opponents as Division I-A newcomer Georgia Southern and Division I-AA William & Mary, but the Mountaineers really and truly weren’t so far from reaching the postseason.
West Virginia held fourth-quarter leads against Texas Tech, Texas and Iowa State before losing in regulation, overtime and triple overtime. Reverse just two of those finishes and the Mountaineers’ bowl streak would still be alive.
Close losses are heartbreakers, but hey, at least they’re not routs.
“It’s better than getting your [butt] kicked,” Holgorsen said earlier this month. “We’re in a good conference. There’s going to be close games. That’s the beauty of the situation we’re in with the Big 12.”
With a schedule that features four teams ranked in the preseason top 25 — No. 2 Alabama, No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 10 Baylor and No. 20 Kansas State — West Virginia will have little room for error if it is to reach that precious sixth win and bowl eligibility.