2016 West Virginia Football Preview: Season Outlook

THE FINAL OF A 10-PART SERIES PREVIEWING WEST VIRGINIA’S FOOTBALL TEAM AHEAD OF THE UPCOMING SEASON.

And in case you missed them, here are parts 1-9: Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers and Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Line | Linebackers | Secondary | Special Teams | Coaching Staff

In the final installment of our season preview we’re going to go through our schedule game-by-game, analyze how we match up with each opponent, and predict the outcome. Before we dive into that though, let’s take a look at how we got here. The purpose of this series was to take a comprehensive look at how our team is shaping up heading into the year. We’ve analyzed every position and graded based on returning production, experience, talent, and depth. Offensively, we put the QB’s at a 3.5, the running backs at a 4, the receivers and tight ends at a 4.5, and the offensive line at a 4.5. When averaged with the 4 that we gave the coaching staff on that side of the ball, we land at 4.1 out of 5. Defensively, we graded the line and the linebackers at a 4, the secondary at a 2.5, and the staff at 4.5, giving us an average of 3.75 out of 5. If you think about the grades that they used to give teams on EA Sports’ NCAA Football games, those averages would’ve put us at a B and C for offense and defense respectively, which I think is fair all things considered. As optimistic as I am about our team’s potential, we are definitely not without flaws and I feel like those grades fairly reflect that. Now let’s get to the schedule. For the sake of brevity, the Missouri section will be more in depth than the rest of the games this week, but fear not, because we’ll be releasing more detailed previews for each game as they come.

GAME 1 – 9/3 – West Virginia vs Missouri

The Mountaineers are getting right down to it this year with the SEC’s Missouri Tigers coming to town on opening weekend. The Tigers were only 5-7 in the SEC’s Eastern division last year, but all 7 losses came within their conference so there’s the perception that maybe those losses are coming against good teams. However, the fact that they both lost to and finished below the likes of Vanderbilt and Kentucky tells a different story.

Our O vs their D

Mizzou returns 8 starters and several more key contributors from a very good defense last year, and if they’re going to be competitive in this game and throughout the year it’s going to be because of that unit. They had the 5th best scoring defense in the country last year (16.2 ppg) and were 10th best at limiting explosive plays (4th against the pass, they only allowed 27 explosive passes all year), and as usual with Mizzou, a large part of this success can be attributed to the chaos caused by their defensive front, where they’re led by defensive end Charles Harris and tackles Rickey Hatley and Terry Beckner. There’s a small amount of turnover in the defensive backfield where they’ll be breaking in a new corner and safety, as well as some uncertainty about the linebacker rotation, but overall they seem pretty set with what they have on that side of the ball.

The key matchup will be our offensive line against their front 7 (but especially that front 4). The Tigers produced a ton of sacks and consistently made plays in opposing backfields last year (they return 16.5 sacks and 78 TFL), so we’re going to see right away if our big boys up front deserve all the preseason hype that they’re getting. I feel pretty good about Orlosky, Bosch, and Tony Matteo (filling in for the suspended Adam Pankey) handling whatever comes their way on the inside, but it’ll be interesting to see how well Cajuste and Lazard/McKivitz handle Harris and Marcell Frazier off the edge. Harris is a legit first round prospect, but if they’re able to hold their own and give Skyler time to throw then I’m confident that our skill guys can win their matchups on the outside.

Our D vs their O

As good as Missouri’s defense was, their offense was equally as bad, if not worse. They ranked 127th out of 128 nationally in scoring offense with an anemic 13.6 points per game, and had the 13th fewest explosive plays in the country with 81 (52 runs, 29 passes). For comparison, only Kansas had fewer among Big 12 teams (76), only one other (Kansas State) had less than 110, and even Texas, whose passing attack was virtually non-existent, was able to generate more big plays through the air.

Individually, they don’t have a whole lot that scares me either, returning only 2 guys in the SEC Top 50 in explosive runs (Ish Witter and Drew Lock) and only 2 guys in the top 50 in explosive receptions (Moore and Brown). Lock only completed 49% of his passes a year ago too, so it doesn’t seem like dinking and dunking is the most viable option either. They will get a boost at running back from Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross, but with 5 new starters along the offensive line you have to expect our front 3 to come out and control the line of scrimmage. This should leave our linebackers free to run around and make plays, and hopefully afford our secondary plenty of opportunities to take some balls away from Lock.

Overall, I can’t help but feel confident heading into the opening weekend. The spread opened with WVU as more than 10 point favorites, and I expect us to cover. Missouri is a solid team from a tough conference and should provide a nice test for us relative to where we are on both sides of the ball, but this is definitely a game that we should win.

West Virginia 31 Missouri 16 (1-0)

GAME 2 – 9/10 -West Virginia vs Youngstown State

To quote Charles Barkley, “I don’t know anything about Youngstown State, but I know they’re in trouble.”

Most of this will be based on what I’ve read, and considering the stuff on certain WVU-related media outlets, the only certainty regarding the Penguins is that Jim Tressel will be our coach next year after Holgorsen fails to go undefeated. Seriously though, it seems like the strength of their team will be their defense, which makes sense for a Bo Pelini team. I’ve also seen it mentioned that their running game is strong, but that they have a middling passing attack with not 2, but 3 QB’s in the mix for the starting job, which more likely means that they have zero good ones. They also lost their 2 best receivers from last year, which doesn’t bode well considering that they didn’t even generate 2000 yards through the air.

The main weakness mentioned was the offensive line, which seems to contradict the idea of a strong running game, but who knows. I do know that if their QB’s were “running for their lives” in their spring game then our defensive line should do just fine.

One thing to watch is that their return man averaged 34 yards/return and took 2 to the house last year. I’m sure our coaches will make sure everyone is aware of that danger, as cheap special teams touchdowns are a great way to let lesser teams hang around way longer than they should (see State, Kansas with Burns, Morgan Effing from last year).

Overall, the ‘Guins (not Pens?) are picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the Missouri Valley pack, so we better hope it’s not close.

West Virginia 45 Youngstown State 10 (2-0)

GAME 3 – 9/24 – West Virginia vs BYU (neutral site)

The Cougars should offer West Virginia’s defense its first real test of the season. BYU returns two very good quarterbacks, a couple of talented running backs, and always seem happy to get creative with their play calling. They lost their top pass catchers from a year ago and have a very inexperienced line, but the effects should be at least partly mitigated by their solid quarterback play.

Defensively, they’re switching to a 4-3 alignment after spending years as one of the premier 3-4 teams in the country, and are also looking to man up more, so it’ll be interesting to see how quickly they can adjust to their new scheme. I think we can count on them to have a solid front 4, but they’re starting 2 converted running backs at linebacker and a true freshman at corner, and since our receivers consistently won those 1v1 matchups last year (they were almost always open whether or not we completed the pass) I think that’s where we should try and take advantage of them.

West Virginia 30 BYU 23 (3-0)

GAME 4 – 10/1 – West Virginia vs Kansas State

The WVU conference slate kicks off with a giant purple monkey on our back. We haven’t beaten the Wildcats since joining the Big 12, and have saved some of our worst performances each year for this matchup, with Bill Snyder’s team more than happy to just sit back and watch us dig our own graves.

This year is different. It has to be. State returns some nice pieces on defense, but has several question marks on offense, where they’ll again have a different QB and 4 new offensive lineman. That’s not the best recipe for the clock-churning, mistake free football that the Wildcats have become known for, and in a perfect world our new guys on defense will have gelled enough to handle anything they throw at us. We should be in decent shape on offense, as well, because their strength (the front 7) will be directly matched up with ours (the offensive line). Not surprisingly, I like our guys better.

West Virginia 28 Kansas State 20 (4-0)

GAME 5 – 10/15 – West Virginia at Texas Tech

The last game before we really get into the meat of the schedule is also the first one that truly worries me. First of all, it’s in Lubbock and weird stuff always seems to happen there. Second, they have Pat Mahomes, who’s basically Little Ben. We’ve only had to deal with him once and I’m already sick of him. And I’m worried it’s gonna be even worse this year considering the receivers they have coming in. They return a couple guys who hurt us last year, but also brought in 2 of the top receiving recruits in the country, and these aren’t you’re standard Texas Tech Wes Welkers or Jakeem Grants, they’re certified monsters. They have more than enough weapons to take advantage of the lack of experience in our secondary.

The areas for consolation are that the Red Raiders again have a garbage offensive line (though maybe that’s also a bad thing for us considering that Mahomes is fantastic at improvising) and a garbage defense. We will definitely put up points on them, but I hate the idea of having to beat them in a shootout if the winds are swirling in Lubbock.

West Virginia 38 Texas Tech 34 (5-0)

GAME 6 – 10/22 – West Virginia vs TCU

This is where stuff starts to get real, especially if we’re sitting at the predicted 5-0. TCU lost more talent than anyone on offense, but returns a ton on D and again figures to be right in the mix at the top of the conference.

Offensively, they not only have to replace Boykin and Doctson, but also the quietly excellent Aaron Green and Kolby Listenbee. The line is talented but also relatively inexperienced, so the Frogs will need Kenny Hill and the skill guys to gel quickly. Whatever uncertainties exist on offense though, their defense should be excellent. Josh Carraway leads an aggressive line, the linebackers will again be flying around, and the secondary receives a big boost with the return of Ranthony Texada. We will have to play an objectively great game to win, even at home, but I think we finally come out on the right side of a close one with them.

West Virginia 31 TCU 30 (6-0)

GAME 7 – 10/29 – West Virginia at Oklahoma State

On first glance this one didn’t worry me as much as the previous two. After all, we outplayed them at home last year and probably should’ve beat them. However, they return a ton of talent of both sides of the ball, and unfortunately, most of the best pieces are matched with areas that are question marks for us.

Offensively, Mason Rudolph returns at QB, but the bigger problem is that they also bring back what is arguably the league’s best 1-2 punch on the outside in Ateman and Washington. Even though the offensive line and ground game will probably be relatively weak again, I expect those three to give us all kinds of trouble.

Defensively it should be a different story, and even though they return a lot, they lost Emmanuel Ogbah, who was their main difference maker and arguably the guy who won them the game against us last year. I think our offense should be able to go in there and move the ball and put up enough points to keep up. Unfortunately though, they excel in the exact kinds of passing situations that our defense is geared to force. It’s not unlike what we’ll face with Texas Tech. And even more unfortuantely, State has a better defense than Tech, so I think this is probably as good a bet as any for our first L of the year.

West Virginia 31 Oklahoma State 41 (6-1)

GAME 8 – 11/5 – West Virginia vs Kansas

There’s honestly not a whole lot to say here. Kansas should again be at the bottom of the conference, and don’t have many guys who should trouble us on either side of the ball. If we’re in a spot where the Jayhawks are giving us trouble then we’ll probably be looking for a new HC, and I say that as a huge Dana Holgorsen fan.

West Virginia 42 Kansas 16 (7-1)

GAME 9 – 11/12 – West Virginia at Texas

I think I speak for most WVU fans when I say that I look forward to our biennial trips to Austin more than any other Big 12 venue. However, while Texas might still be a year away from really contending again in the Big 12, they have more than enough talent to give us all the trouble we’ll want.

Offensively, the Horns return most of the pieces responsible for a very strong ground game, and they think they might’ve finally found a QB capable of taking advantage of the ensuing play-action opportunities in freshman Shane Buechele.

Defensively, they should be even better. They return a ton of high-end talent, added a whole lot more, and should absolutely figure to be near the top of the league on that side of the ball. The pass defense should be especially good behind an improved pass rush, a fleet of talented sophomores, and the addition of the nation’s #1 safety recruit in Brandon Jones.

This one will come down to our defense. Offensively I think we’ll be able to move the ball reasonably well, but the Longhorns are the first team we’ll face that will truly test us on the ground. Our front 6 is going to have to bring their big boy pants if we’re going to come out of there with a win.

West Virginia 30 Texas 26 (8-1)

GAME 10 – 11/19 – West Virginia vs Oklahoma

Finally we get to the Big One. This is the game I’ve had circled since the schedule came out, and the program echoed those sentiments by making it a True Blue night game. The Sooners are the other team we haven’t been able to beat since joining the conference, but we’re going to have to at some point if we’re ever going to break into that upper echelon.

Offensively, the story is all about their backfield. Mayfield, Perine, and Mixon are as good as there is in the country, and you have to be able to stop them to have a chance. Defensively the Sooners are down a couple of playmakers from a year ago, and should probably take a small step backwards. However, they still have a ton of experience over there, and it’s still Oklahoma, so they’ll still have one of the better units in the conference.

My main concern will be how well we’re able to handle that ground attack. If I’m Oklahoma this year, pretty much every team I play is going to have to convince me to not just line up and run the ball 50 times, and if they can be successful at that then we’ll have to deal with Baker play-actions, which opens up a whole new set of problems. I’m not sure if we’ll be able withstand that pounding for 4 quarters, but despite these concerns, I do think we can play with them. Outside of that Big 3 backfield I don’t think they’re quite as good overall as they were last year, and I think we’ll have much more success moving the ball on them than we did a year ago. If we can hang around and keep it close heading into the 4th, it’ll be a very interesting last 15. I’d like to think a raucous Mountaineer Field might just bring it home for us, but it’s tough to rattle somebody like Baker Mayfield. Exorcising our covered wagon-shaped demons might have to wait one more year.

West Virginia 31 Oklahoma 33 (8-2)

GAME 11 – 11/26 – West Virginia at Iowa State

The Cyclones have the distinction of being the lone trap game on our schedule, and though they were just 3-9 last year, they actually have some pretty nice talent littered around the roster. Offensively they return 3 really nice pieces in QB Joel Lanning, RB Mike Warren, and WR Mike Lazard, and they return 8 starters on defense, as well.

Unfortunately, they’ll also be replacing all 5 starters along the offensive line, and their defense was among the worst in the country last year in terms of yards and points allowed, ranking 108th and 97th, respectively. This is one where they probably have the talent, and finally, the coaching to beat us if we go in there with our minds focused on Baylor, but I’m expecting a different WVU team this year, and I expect us to go into Ames and take care of business.

West Virginia 34 Iowa State 17 (9-2)

GAME 12 – 12/3 – West Virginia vs Baylor

Home game. Season finale. Baylor is a team that’s hung 60 on us 3 out of 4 years, and I’d be lying if I said I’m not at least a little bit scared of them. However, they had without question the worst offseason of any team in the country and it remains to be seen how well (or if) they’ll recover from that.

Offensively, all the familiar faces return, including QB Seth Russell, RB’s Shock Linwood and Johnny Jefferson, and receiver KD Cannon. They also return Kyle Fuller to anchor the offensive line, so the ground game should again be among the best in the country.

The main concern for Bears will be depth. They’re down to just 70 scholarship players, and are an injury away from disaster at a couple key positions, including QB. They’re also going to take a big step back on the defensive side of the ball, where they’ve lost several multi-year starters and even more experienced contributors.

Overall, the Bears will still have plenty of talent, but we’ve seen first hand the devastating effect that attrition can take on a depleted roster over the course of a Big 12 campaign. I think ultimately we will wear them down by the 4th quarter and hit enough big plays on their inexperienced defense to see us across the finish line.

West Virginia 45 Baylor 31 (10-2)

Summary

So there you have it. A 10-2 regular season. A probable Top 15 ranking. And most importantly, Dana keeps his job and we get to see where this thing is headed. It may seem far-fetched now, and I may just be a blindly optimistic homer, but I think it’s realistically possible if two things happen.

First, we need Skyler Howard to cowboy the hell down. He got us into trouble far too often last year as a result of trying to do too much, and while you don’t want to temper that will to win, we really need him to improve his decision making in the heat of the moment. We need him to understand that it’s ok to take 4 yards on 2nd and 7 every once in a while, or to throw it away and punt on the opponent’s 47 yard line. What’s not ok is to throw a home run ball into triple coverage when you can easily scramble for a 1st down, or to force a 15 yard cross when the check down is wide open. Holgs has mentioned this repeatedly in his pressers, so you know it’s being emphasized, but you never really know how well training like that will hold up once the bullets start flying.

Second, we need our secondary to not suck. We just need them to be serviceable, and I really don’t think that’s expecting too much. There’s a lot of talent back there, and we’re not asking them to do a whole lot besides cover the guys in front of them. And though it’s an unusually good year for QB’s in the Big 12, many of the conference’s best wide receivers have moved on the NFL. You still have Ateman and Washington at Oklahoma State, KD Cannon at Baylor, Dede Westbrook at Oklahoma, Lazard at Iowa State, and a couple of talented guys at Texas Tech, but that’s it. Our defensive backs play against guys as good as any of them every day in practice, so there’s no reason that we can’t at least make it difficult for teams.

Overall, I feel like it’s one of those years where the top of league is slightly down and the middle of the league is up, and as such, the Big 12 race is wide open. Outside of Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State, I think anybody can beat anybody, and with our talent and experience on offense and a reasonably friendly schedule, this is as good a year as any for us to put everything together and contend for a Conference title.

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