I didn't think of it until after the Oklahoma State preview, but from here forward each preview will be accompanied by a conversation with a fan from the other side. As part of today's look at West Virginia, below is my enlightening chat with Mark (WVUIE97) from The Smoking Musket, SB Nation's excellent Mountaineers blog.
PB: So, you're replacing Texas A&M, huh? Or are you taking Missouri's place? Actually, it doesn't really matter -- they're small shoes to fill either way; neither accomplished much of anything while they were here.
Well, on behalf of Longhorn fans, welcome to the Big 12. Although most UT fans were happy that the conference added West Virginia, imagine for the moment that we still needed some convincing. Give us your elevator speech for what makes y'all uniquely great.
Smoking Musket: Thanks for the welcome. We really don't feel as if we're replacing anyone. We want to chart our own course and compete with some of the best, every week. At the risk of being a bit arrogant (not my intention at all, by the way), WVU is simply taking their rightful place in one of the premier football conferences in the country. Other than the geography of it, it's where we belong.
The Mountaineers have a history of good football, though (like many) there have been some absolute dry spells back through the years. If you aren't aware, WVU has the most wins of any FBS school without a national title to it's claim (13th overall). They trail only your Longhorns and the Sooners among our new Big 12 brethren. We're tied for 5th in BCS bowl victories along with those same Longhorns and Sooners with 3 each. We have the winning pedigree, just not that elusive title that we long for.
We also have the culture. Our stadium may only hold 60,000, but opposing teams have commented that it can be as loud and imposing as the 100K+ capacity big boys. There have been instances, even recently, of somewhat lacking support in the stadium, even when the team is good. I strongly feel that can be attributed to an apathetic response to who WVU was playing, which if you look at some of the teams that have been traveling to Morgantown of late, the home slate was horrible. If you want the perfect example of what the potential holds, then check out the LSU game from last season. Epic tailgating is putting it mildly. We come early (some come a few days early) and we stay late.
And our fans are a unique bunch as well too. We are simultaneously fierce supporters and fatalistic. It's what I consider the ultimate in family, in that we can talk bad about ourselves, but we better not catch you doing it. In both of the last two BCS wins, ESPN ran a worldwide online poll for predicting the winners. In both cases, the entire world was one color picking the opponent with West Virginia the opposite. I venture to guess if there was one of those for the Sugar Bowl, the poll results would have been the same. We're also fatalistic in the sense that it seems that we get tantalizingly close to great things, yet have something happen to snatch it away. Be it a shotgun to the gut when we became the threeve-th #2 ranked team to lose in 2007 on the last day of the season or our hot shot coach bolting for another job (not just RR, there were others), or even having a possible slot in the Big 12 stolen away at the last second by back door politics.
With this move to the Big 12, the national exposure of WVU is going to be elevated to an unprecedented level, which I think can only enhance recruiting, and consequently the quality of the product on the field.
This is likely the most anticipated football season by the fanbase since I've been old enough to understand. Last season, we had the specter of conference realignment hanging over us like a dark cloud until late in the season when the Big 12 welcomed us. This is a truly exciting time in Mountaineer country.
Now that WVU (and TCU) is firmly set in the Big 12, what are you looking forward to with us as new members? What are the expectations being placed on us by the Longhorn faithful?
We're looking forward to competing with a fan base that doesn't have Daddy issues and has to blame Texas for everything bad that ever happened to them. Nebraska and A&M were just pitiful, petty creatures by the end, and the last thing we want is another unctuous fan base consumed with envy and self-loathing.
Self-criticism? Texas fans are intimately familiar with self-criticism; we're going to get along just fine. Mountaineer fans who make the trek to Austin will be welcomed enthusiastically.
Speaking of which, this will be West Virginia's debut game both in Austin and in the Big 12, which means Texas' at-times placid fan base will be fully fired up for this one. Any feelings -- good or bad -- on drawing the Longhorns on the road to open up Big 12 play? How were the Mountaineers on the road last year?
Smoking Musket: Actually WVU opens Big 12 play against Baylor at home the week before (there's talk of a bear roast at our tailgate), but UT will still be the first Big 12 road game and I'm hating that I can't make it down this year. Yeah, maybe there's a part of me that wishes that our first road game wasn't at such an imposing venue, but at the same time, they may as well start off big.
Of WVU's three losses last year, only one of them was on the road and that was the absolute aberration against Syracuse. There were mental breakdowns all year, both home and on the road. I really don't think the venue had much to do with it as much as learning the new system and them being admittedly bored against Big East competition, and it obviously cost them twice (the other loss being LSU). Last year's team had a tendency to get bored against lower competition and as a result, almost blew it against a bad Maryland team. Hopefully with the move to the Big 12, this won't be the case. I think the coaches can point to those several games last year and illustrate what happens if you don't take your opponent seriously, even if only a half.
A bear roast?!?! And just like that, I want to go to Baylor at West Virginia. Our crowd is way too country club for that, but we travel as well or better than anyone in the country.
Alright, let's get to the football. So, this Geno Smith kid can play a little football, huh? Talk to us about when and how he's most dangerous. By contrast, what gives him trouble? And did what we saw from him at the end of last season make you think he's going to put together an even better season in '12?
Smoking Musket: When is he most dangerous? That's an easy one, every time he touches the ball. Geno isn't one to tuck it and run unless it's the last resort and he sees a hole to exploit. He knows he has great receivers who can do amazing things after he gets them the ball, especially in the Holgorsen system.
Pressure, constant and from different angles is what he's had problems with, though he does handle it quite well usually. What has given him the most trouble has been an offensive line that, for the most part, hasn't been able to hold their pass blocks long enough. Holgorsen countered that with shorter reads and drops and things got better. Also, along those lines (no pun intended) is the offensive line has been making reportedly huge strides in their techniques and consequently the results, which should carry over into this new season. Geno has bulked up a bit over the off season in an effort to improve his NFL stock, and unless that completely hampers him (and I don't think it will; it's not like he gained 60 pounds of bulk), yes, the second year bodes well for the WVU signal caller like many others historically in the Holgorsen system.
Ah yes, that wonderful time of year when everyone reportedly fixes everything. For four straight offseasons until the wheels came off and Mack Brown fired the whole staff, we heard about how this offseason, they really had fixed the running game. Only to find it worse than the year before.
Not that things don't get improved in the offseason, but here's to hoping that your offensive line issues persist during your visit to Austin this fall, because "constant pressure coming from different angles" is what Manny Diaz does best.
Before we turn to West Virginia's defense, give us a name or two on offense that may be flying a bit under the radar but whom you expect to do great things this fall.
Smoking Musket: Hmmm, let's see. Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have been the most productive receivers of the last couple years, but I'm hoping Ivan McCartney (Chad Johnson's cousin) finally lives up to his potential and becomes just as dangerous as those two. As far as the running game, you may have heard of Dustin Garrison, a Texas product who was the team's leading rusher last year and had one game of almost 300 yards, but an under the radar kind of guy would be Andrew Buie, probably best known to this point for his acrobatic run in the Orange Bowl. He's a big bruiser, who's fairly fast, but spent the bulk of last year limited by a few injuries.
I wrote about all those guys in my preview, so let's flip the field and talk defense. Your thoughts on, first of all, Jeff Casteel's departure to re-join RichRod, and second, the new co-coordinators that Hologorsen promoted, Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson? DeForest talked about moving away from Casteel's 3-3-5 base look, to a blend of 3-4 and 4-3 looks. What kinds of differences are you expecting to see in this year's defense under their direction?
Smoking Musket: Coach Casteel's 3-3-5 defenses are best when they have guys in the system for several years, which is great for that year or 2 when the experience pays off. Those other years could be maddening at times, especially in 3rd and long situations. If he felt he needed to move out to Arizona to further his career, then I certainly wish him the best. He always handled himself with dignity and class around the program, no matter the results on the field or the multiple cases of drama off it.
I'm anxious to see what DeForest can do at this level as a coordinator. We already have an idea of what Patterson can do, as he frustrated the hell out of Holgorsen's offense (but thankfully not quite enough) last year while he was at Pitt. So far, they've said the right things in the interviews I've seen and read, whether or not that translates to the field remains to be seen. From what I gather from reports and player interviews, this new defense is more fluid and aggressive, yet reactionary than the 3-3-5, which was predicated on strict adherence to assignments. The hype/hope is that it will allow players to make plays and hopefully generate more turnovers. Again, without having seen it in action, we can only hope for the best.
Fair enough. Whatever DeForest and Patterson do, the one thing that's clear is that after 5 of the top 6 tacklers last year were defensive backs, this year the emphasis will be on the linebackers. Give us your take on the Mountaineers at the position.
Smoking Musket: This is the biggest wildcard group of the team in my opinion. With WVU switching from a 3 LB set to a base set utilizing 4, some players have slightly newer positions and responsibilities. Terrence Garvin slides down from Safety to a "star" linebacker, Jewone Snow and Josh Francis may split time at "buck" with Jared Barber returning at "will" and Doug Rigg checking in at "sam." Most of those received plenty of action last year with Garvin the most experienced of the bunch. Also Tyler Anderson has moved down to the D-line, but there are hints he may play some type of hybrid linebacker/d-lineman position at times.
Alright Mark, we need to wrap this up so I can post it with the West Virginia preview that I'm going to publish. You started this conversation with a bang, so let's go out firing too. Give us your early, pre-camp feeling about this West Virginia team. How good a season does Geno Smith have? Heisman finalist good, or less than that? Do the Mountaineers compete for the Big 12 title in year one? Do they win it? And most importantly, do they beat Texas?
Smoking Musket: My pre-camp feelings are mixed, honestly. The potential for a great GREAT season is there, yet... the loss of personnel and change of coaches and systems on the defensive side of the ball has me skittish. My opinion is working under two assumptions about last year's team: first, the coaching transition and learning curve were important factors, and second, the team admittedly took some of the competition lightly.
Both of those factors are now clearly in the rearview mirror with a year of experience under their belt on O and a clear step-up in competition that the team has to be ready for every week (ok, maybe not Kansas). With those issues seemingly resolved, this offense should be able to score with anyone in the country on a given day. There were signs leading into Morgantown when I was in school saying "Welcome to Touchdown City." If they aren't already up again, they need to be. Whether or not the defense can hold the opponents remains to be seen. Another thing we haven't touched on in this conversation is special teams, which were erratic, at best, last season. There needs to be marked improvements in that area as well this year. Intensity will be at unprecedented levels this season for WVU. Both on and off the field in the stadiums. I fully expect many, if not all, of the other Big 12 teams to come out gunning to knock the new guys off the perceived pre-season perch bestowed on us by the media. I'm excited, yet trying to stay realistic.
I can't help but think Geno is going to have an absolutely outstanding season, putting up numbers never before dreamed of in Morgantown. I saw an article the other day that Geno will have a distinct advantage geographically with Heisman voters that not many else can claim. He plays on a team in the MId-Atlantic region of voters and playing against teams from the Mid/Southwest region, getting in essence enhanced exposure to the Heisman voters. I think the number he will put up will be Heisman-worthy, but team results may dictate the final vote. Do I think he makes the official trip to New York? I put the odds at better than 75%, providing he remains healthy.
Do I think WVU will compete for the Big 12 championship this first year? Yes. Will they win it? I'm not sure. If the defense and special teams can pull things together, then why not? It will be no small feat if they can. In fact, it will be a huge feat and maybe one that would rival the Final Four run of a few years ago. The preseason opinion of this conference rivals the SEC this year. Seven out of ten teams ranked to start? Seriously?!?! This is as big-time as it gets. I think Dana, Geno and company will sure as hell give it a run, but a bit of health and luck will surely be needed as well.
Now for the big one. Do I think WVU beats Texas? Does the Mountaineer carry a gun? Y'all's defense is scary good this year (and most years, in fact), but I think Geno has just enough ammo to pull out a close one in the end. 22-20.
Thanks for giving me the chance to expound on what I can. Looking forward to a fun, long an prosperous future in our new league. I won't be able to make it down this year, but hoping for 2014. Make sure you come up and visit us as well.
Count on it. Thanks for the great chat, good luck this season, and welcome to the Big 12. We're damn glad you're here.