2014 CFN Preview - West Virginia
West Virginia WR Mario Alford
West Virginia WR Mario Alford
Posted Jul 1, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - Why isn't this working for West Virginia? What's missing? (Getty Images)

West Virginia Mountaineers

Preview 2014

- West Virginia Previews 
2013 | 2012 | 2011 | 2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006

- Suggestions or something we missed? Let us know
- Follow us ... @ColFootballNews

-  2014 West Virginia Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players

- VOD: Previews & Breakdowns on Campus Insiders

By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Dana Holgorsen
4th year: 21-17
Returning Lettermen
Off: 20, Def: 23, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 13
Ten Best WVU Players
1. S Karl Joseph, Jr.
2. OG Quinton Spain, Sr.
3. LB Isaiah Bruce, Jr.
4. LB Nick Kwiatkoski, Jr.
5. WR Mario Alford, Sr
6. RB Dreamius Smith, Sr.
7. WR Daikiel Shorts, Soph.
8. FB Cody Clay, Jr.
9. P Nick O'Toole, Jr.
10. RB Rushel Shell, Soph.
2014 Schedule
8/30 Alabama (in Atl)
9/6 Towson
9/13 at Maryland
9/20 Oklahoma
10/4 Kansas
10/11 at Texas Tech
10/18 Baylor
10/25 at Oklahoma St
11/1 TCU
11/8 at Texas
11/20 Kansas State
11/29 at Iowa State
Okay, so what's missing? Why isn't West Virginia better and why isn't the whole Big 12 experience working out as planned?

In theory, this should be the perfect marriage between team and conference, but it's fallen on hard times. Head coach Dana Holgorsen knows how to crank up an offense and get it rolling, and the production was just fine when Geno Smith was bombing away and Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin were catching a bazillion passes, but the attack all of a sudden turned inconsistent midway through 2012 and it never pulled up out of the Too Low, Striker nosedive.

If you're going to hire an offensive-minded coach, it would be nice if the offense actually produced.

Meanwhile, the defense has been a complete and utter disaster under Holgorsen's watch, but that really shouldn't be a big deal - you don't need a killer defense to survive in the Big 12, and as Baylor proved last year, if the offense is explosive and dominant, then other issues tend to get overlooked.

Now, to be fair, the program was in a rebuilding mode after losing Smith and almost all of the top receivers, while the defense wasn't able to pick up the slack. Again, it's okay if the D isn't Alabama's, but if you're going to build a program around an offense, the attack has to be phenomenal.

Even with all the great parts of the puzzle in 2012, the offense sputtered and coughed a bit too much over the second half of the season, and now there might be a question mark about whether or not Holgorsen's offense really does work against the better teams.

By most standards, cranking out 411 yards per game is okay, but that's not getting the job done when Baylor yawns and rolls up 619 per outing, Texas Tech is averaging 100 more yards per game, and Oklahoma State and Oklahoma had more pop, too. Fortunately, the 2014 Mountaineers are loaded with experience to go along with some interesting new parts to potentially do all the things offensively it's supposed to.

It all starts with the quarterback situation that was never quite settled last year and isn't likely to be a sure thing until someone comes out and steps under center against Alabama. The backfield is loaded with good running backs, and there's upside at receiver, however, showing just how far things slipped, Daikiel Shorts led the receiving corps with 45 catches and 13 Mountaineers combined for 251 catches for 3,145 yards and 16 scores. In 2012, Bailey and Austin combined for 224 catches for 2,914 and 37 touchdowns.

The defense was young in key spots, but safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Isaiah Bruce are burgeoning stars for a group that returns nine of the top 12 tacklers. Now the experience has to lead to production, especially against the run.

So is this it for Holgorsen? Can the program that tasted so much success in 2011 with an epic Orange Bowl win withstand another losing season?

It's not like there were a bunch of cheap losses last year, and the Texas and Iowa State defeats came in overtime. If those two had gone the other way, West Virginia finishes 6-6, goes to a bowl and the narrative changes. Yeah, there was a win over Oklahoma State, but that was offset by an inexplicable loss to Kansas. There was a great defensive performance in a loss to Oklahoma, but that was followed up a few weeks later with a 37-0 pasting from Maryland.

So what's missing? Consistency. That, and an offense that blows up everything it its path. With 47 lettermen and almost all the key starters back, it's time to make some real noise in Year Three of the Big 12 experience.

What to watch for on offense: The running back situation. Most of the spotlight will be squarely on the quarterback situation as the program looks for the next Geno Smith, but the Mountaineers have an abundance of riches in the backfield to play around with. Charles Sims turned out to be the biggest positive in a dismal season earning First Team All-Big 12 honors running for 1,095 yards and 11 scores while catching 45 passes as a do-it-all back who did everything possible to bail out the inefficient passing game. He's gone, but Pitt star Rushel Shell is joining the fun after transferring over, and Dreamius Smith is a strong, tough back who finished second on the team with 494 yards and five touchdowns. Wendell Smallwood, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie all have experience and could be the No. 1 back on the right day. Don't be shocked if the Mountaineer offense concentrates more on the ground attack with this group.

What to watch for on defense: The front six has to be far, far stronger against the run, and the secondary can't make all the big plays. Like every other area of the Mountaineers, there were way too many mistakes and inconsistency was the key word. Baylor's ground attack ran in lots and lots of open spaces on the way to 468 yards and eight touchdowns, Oklahoma controlled a tight game with 316 rushing yards, and Kansas came up with 315 yards and four touchdowns – the Jayhawks ran for just five touchdowns and just over 1,300 yards against the other FBS teams on the schedule. Big Shaq Rowell was the mainstay in the defensive interior on the nose, and now the rotation of Christian Brown and Darrien Howard will have to get the job done. The linebacking corps has promise with Isaiah Bruce back, but if the front three isn't holding up better, it won't matter. By the way, Alabama is first up on the schedule.

The team will be far better if … the offense can convert on third downs and the defense can stop a few. The Mountaineers were dead last in college football in fourth down conversions – getting the job done just 4-of-18 times, and with two of those coming against William & Mary and Georgia State – but the bigger overall problem was on third downs, converting a horrendous 32% of the time and only hitting the 40% mark three times. By comparison, the 2012 offensive juggernaut converted 44% of the time and was only under 40% four times. On the other side of the ball, the defense wasn't even close in Big 12 play against everyone but the Oklahoma teams, and it allowed Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State to each convert over 60% of their third down chances over a three-week stretch.

The schedule: Yeeesh?! Who wants to be the team that faces Alabama team looking to get back on the field after a rough Sugar Bowl performance? West Virginia will be the sacrificial lamb, and after getting a win over Towson, there's a possible make-or-break game against the Big Ten's Maryland on the road. Lose that, and there's a real problem with Oklahoma up to open the Big 12 season.

The Mountaineers get a week off before hosting Kansas as part of a run of three home games in the first four Big 12 dates, and the road games are spread out without two coming in a row. However, they have to go to Oklahoma State and Texas. Baylor has to come to Mountaineer Field, and so does Kansas State after WVU gets a week off. It's likely the road game at Iowa State to close out the year will matter in the bowl picture.

Best offensive player: Senior OG Quinton Spain. There might be flashier players on the Mountaineer offense – at least that's the hope – and it's quite possible that a star emerges at quarterback or any one of a number of good running backs becomes an All-Big 12 star – again, that's the hope – but Spain is the one who can kickstart the offense, at least for the ground game. Very big and very strong, he likely would've been a mid-round draft pick had he left early, and now his stock could go up in a hurry as a team captain and an anchor to work around.

Best defensive player: Junior S Karl Joseph. Linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Isaiah Bruce might turn out to be just as important, and the linemen need to be better, but Joseph, when his game is on, is a true difference-maker. Fine, so he suffered a sophomore slump after a phenomenal freshman season, but he still had a decent year and he was active at coming up with big plays. With good size and great range, he's a tremendous hitter who's great in the open field and a good last line of defense against the run. Expect a bounceback.

Key player to a successful season: Anyone who can take over the quarterback spot and make it his. No one's asking for Geno Smith – at least not right away – but JUCO transfer Skyler Howard has a world of upside, top freshman pickup William Crest will get his chances, and Clint Trickett can be the easy option once he gets healthy after overcoming a shoulder problem. Is Paul Millard going to make a big statement? Millard and Trickett are low-ceiling, no-risk options, and Howard is the one everyone is hoping becomes The Guy with good mobility and more flash and pop to his game. Whatever happens, there can't be a revolving door at the position again.

The season will be a success if … the Mountaineers win eight games and get back to a bowl. That might be a little bit of a reach for a team that has to start out the season against Oklahoma and needs to go to Maryland. There's just enough experience to be two games better – there won't be a home loss to Kansas this time around – and it might take road wins at Texas Tech and Iowa State to get the job done, but if this really is going to be a good Big 12 program, it's time to turn things back around and be able to ball against the better teams. With Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas State coming to Morgantown, the chances will be there to make a statement.

Key game: Sept. 20 vs. Oklahoma. The Mountaineers played one of their better defensive games of the year in a 16-7 loss to the Sooners, and while this year's OU team is better, a win in the Big 12 opener could do wonders. The alternative is a potentially disastrous start with Alabama and a trip to Maryland to deal with in September, but with winnable games against Kansas and Texas Tech to follow, beating OU could make WVU one of the hot teams everyone would be talking about.

2013 Fun Stats:
- West Virginia 3rd Quarter Scoring: 44 - West Virginia 4th Quarter Scoring 105
- 3rd Down Conversion Percentage: Opponents 85-of-199 (43%) - West Virginia 59-of-185 (32%)
- Penalties: Opponents 86 for 720 yards - West Virginia 63 for 591 yards

-  2014 West Virginia Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players