Before turning to an update on what's happened on the field since, let's kick off the week with a look back at our preview of the Mountaineers in August. Where Texas' fearsome defense is discussed, please insert 'lol' as appropriate.
West Virginia Mountaineers
2011: 10-3 (5-2 Big East), No. 17 AP Final Ranking
Overview: West Virginia may not be the tidiest fit in terms of geography -- for context, Morgantown is 250 miles further away from Austin than is Ames, IA -- but the Mountaineers more or less spent the past decade auditioning for the Big 12, featuring dynamic, high-octane spread offenses first under Rich Rodriguez and now former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. Although the Mountaineers visit to Austin this October will be their first since 1956, Texas fans will be forgiven for thinking they seem a familiar opponent.
A year after setting the school record with 6,104 yards of total offense, West Virginia's offense might just best that mark in 2012, with 9 of last year's starters returning, including quarterback Geno Smith. After the Mountaineers went 10-3 last year, won the Big East, and closed out the season by setting 28 Orange Bowl records en route to curbstomping Clemson 70-33, and despite the elevated competition they'll face in the Big 12 this year, expectations are high in 2012 for West Virginia in Holgorsen's second year at the helm. Their match up with Texas will be a battle of strength versus strength, as Manny Diaz and what promises to be an elite Texas defense tries to bottle up Holgorsen's basketball on grass.
Key Losses: LT Dan Barclay, G Tyler Rader, DE Bruce Irvin, DE Julian Miller, LB Najee Goode, S Eain Smith, CB Keith Tandy.
Offensive Personnel: Unless they lock quarterback Geno Smith in a closet before the game, it's not at all clear that anyone is going to have much success slowing down a West Virginia offense that capped an already prolific 2011 season by dropping a ridiculous 70 points and 589 yards of total offense on a helpless Clemson defense in the Orange Bowl. At the very least, the rest of college football has to pray that Smith reached the summit of his performance level, because if his trajectory continues upward -- even a little bit -- the Mountaineer offense literally might be unstoppable.
After a breakthrough sophomore campaign in which he passed for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, with just 7 interceptions, Smith made clear as a junior last season that he had just been warming up, exploding for 4,385 yards on 66% passing, with 31 touchdowns and no uptick in interceptions (7). In his masterpiece performance in the finale, Smith waxed poor Clemson for 407 yards and 6 TDs.
The return of virtually the entire supporting cast only raises the frightening possibility of an even more potent Mountaineer offense. Smith will have all of his favorite targets back in 2012 in Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, and Ivan McCartney, who combined to catch 222 passes and 23 touchdowns a year ago. Austin is the headliner, a multidimensional weapon with track speed, superior athleticism, and dangerous running ability with the ball in his hands. Bailey is the outside receiver and big-play deep threat (he averaged nearly 18 yards per catch), while McCartney is more steady than dynamic, working on the other size of Bailey as the Z receiver.
Up front, an offensive line that returns four starters has just one blemish, but it's potentially a big one-a hole at left tackle, where West Virginia is hoping that sophomore Quinton Spain is able to handle the job. More of a squat mauler than a natural tackle with long arms and quick feet, Spain's ability to shuffle and handle elite pass rushers is about the only weakness that could plausibly cause this offense serious problems.
Not that Dana Holgorsen necessarily cares, but the Mountaineers could stand to get a little bit more production from their running game -- encouragingly, however, the depth and experience are there, with each of the team's top three rushers returning. Shawne Alston is a 235-pound power back who is starting to find his rhythm as a rusher, particularly in the red zone, after pounding in 10 touchdowns over the final seven games. Dustin Garrison is the small and quick scat bat of the bunch, and as a true freshman last season led the tailbacks in carries (136), rushing yards (742) and yards per carry (5.5). Andrew Buie was limited by injuries last year, but provides another power back with a nose for the end zone. Both Alston and Garrison have good hands catching passes out of the backfield, but to this point has shown much ability to make big plays as a receiving back.
Manny Diaz's Nightmare Fuel: Watching helplessly as Geno Smith pulls an RGIII and destroys anything and everything the Texas defense tries to slow him down.
Manny Diaz's Aphrodisiac: On the bright side, if Geno Smith is less than brilliant, West Virginia could find itself sputtering to get into a rhythm. The Mountaineers' offensive line looks like it may be the vulnerability that limits their ceiling, as to this point Geno Smith proven human when successfully pressured, and the running game hasn't been dynamic or consistent enough to be more than a complementary component of the offense.
Defensive Personnel: There isn't any doubt about what to expect from West Virginia's offense this fall, but the defense is very much in transition as the Mountaineers prepare for their first season in the Big 12. After the Mountaineers lost defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel to Rich Rodriguez in Arizona, Holgorsen promoted Joe DeForest co-coordinator with Keith Patterson (Pitt), and the pair immediately set to work adjusting the defense away from the 3-3-5 favored by Casteel, towards a new scheme that DeForest characterizes as a mixture of 3-4 and 4-3 looks.
The expectation, however, is that West Virginia will play more of the former than the latter. "You adjust your scheme to what you have," DeForest explained to the media.
After five of the top six tacklers on last year's defense were defensive backs, this year the emphasis is shifting to the linebackers. To man the interior two linebacking positions in the 3-4, West Virginia will be looking to sophomore Jared Barber (who previously played middle linebacker in the 3-3-5) and junior Doug Rigg (weakside linebacker last year). The 3-4 system will require the inside linebackers to learn how to navigate tackling as a tandem, with Rigg's primary responsibility being to keep Barber clean and clear of blockers, unrestricted from getting to the ball carrier.
At the outside linebacker positions critical to the success of a 3-4 scheme, DeForest has tabbed sophomore Jewone Snow to play the hybrid "Buck" position, who is variously called on to cover receivers, fill the run, and rush the passer. After playing the hybrid role in the 3-3-5 last year, Terence Garvin will roll down to the "Star" outside linebacker position this year, where the fast and physical tackler will be launched into the backfield out of a cannon.
Up front, Will Clarke will attempt to fill the extraordinarily big shoes of first round NFL Draft pick Bruce Irvin, and the coaches think the 6-6, 269-pounder is ready for a breakthrough season. After rolling him down from linebacker to end, the Mountaineers are hopeful that the quickness of Tyler Anderson will regularly spring the 6-2, 244-pound lineman into the backfield. Finally, a trio of players are being groomed to anchor the line at the all-important nose tackle position-returning starter Jorge Wright (who makes up for size with great leverage), Imarjaye Albury (a freshman who had too good a spring not to play right away), and Shaq Rowell (solid space-eater with experience).
Finally, the Mountaineers are optimistic that the secondary can be as strong as it was last season. Both starting cornerbacks return, with field corner Brodrick Jenkins riding momentum from a strong finish in '11, and boundary corner Pat Miller looking to make more big plays in his second year starting. Former receiver Darwin Cook returns as a known asset at the strong safety spot, while the surprise of post-spring depth chart was true freshman Karl Joseph (who left SEC offers on the table to play for West Virginia) starting at free safety.
Bryan Harsin's Nightmare Fuel: Other than Bruce Irvin being allowed to suit up, it'll be turnovers, same as most games. If Texas protects the football, it should have room to run, which is when Harsin's offenses are at their most dangerous. Negating that advantage with turnovers would be devastating.
Bryan Harsin's Aphrodisiac: A defense that looks like it might struggle to stop the running game and pressure the quarterback is one this Texas offense can work over.
Enemy Insight: Talking West Virginia football with The Smoking Musket.
Dana Holgorsen & Friends: Head coach Dana Holgorsen enters his second year at the helm of the program, aided by the return of offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, but without Jeff Casteel who left to coach the Arizona defense under Rich Rodriguez. New co-coordinator Joe DeForest provides intra-staff continuity as he teams up with Keith Patterson, while Keith Patterson is well-regarded following his stints at Tulsa and Pitt.
The Player I Wish Played For Texas: Geno Smith. There's no need to be cute about this one; Texas would be in the national title conversation with Smith at the helm.
Phun Phact Only Phil Steele Would Know!! The 70 points West Virginia scored against Clemson in the Orange Bowl were the most points ever scored in a bowl game, as were the 49 points scored in the first half, and 35 points scored in the second quarter.
A Random Observation about WVU: Since 2003, the Mountaineers have a better home record (49-10, 10th nationally) than the Longhorns (46-11, 14th), but Texas has been better on the road (46-13, 3rd nationally) than West Virginia (35-19, 9th).
A Random Observation about an Unrelated Topic: After swimmer Ricky Berens picked up two medals on Tuesday, Longhorns athletes now have more medals (5) than 25 countries.
WVU Best Case Scenario: The best case scenario is a special, national title-contending season, in which Geno Smith has a Robert Griffin-like season and the defense is opportunistic a la Oklahoma State in 2011. If that happens, West Virginia will be right where the Cowboys were a year ago: favorites to win the Big 12, and perhaps even play their way into the BCS Championship Game.
WVU Worst Case Scenario: On the flipside, if the offensive line struggles, Smith is too overwhelmed by constant pressure to punish defenses consistently, and the defense can't stop anyone on the ground... West Virginia could struggle through its first tour of the Big 12, with 4 or 5 conference losses a possibility.
Degree of Difficulty for Texas (out of 10): 8.0. I won't argue with anyone who wants to rate this one even higher, but Texas actually matches up well with West Virginia. The Longhorns have the kind of disruptive defense that is essential to having a chance to slow down Geno Smith, and the Mountaineer defense looks like it could struggle to stop the run. When Texas can run the ball, the concerns on offense subside dramatically, and unless Smith just turns in too brilliant an individual performance to be stopped, the Texas defense should at least slow down West Virginia, and could conceivably hold them to a season low. Then again, that's assuming some progress on Texas' end offensively, and if it doesn't materialize, or the unit is again crippled by injuries, Texas could once more find itself on the losing end of close, low-scoring games.
However it turns out, the match up with West Virginia figures to be an exciting atmosphere and the home game of the year, and I imagine that most fans are like me in being pretty damn pleased to have the Mountaineers in the conference instead of Missouri. Welcome to the Big 12, West Virginia. Let's all have fun getting rich and laugh at Texas A&M try to win in the SEC.