NCAA Football Preview - West Virginia Mountaineers

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Updated: 8/20/2013 10:50 am

From there however, the wheels came off as coach Dana Holgorsen's squad lost five in a row, some in blowout fashion, with the defense being the primary culprit for WVU's unraveling.

Wins over Iowa State (31-24) and Kansas (59-10) helped regain some lost confidence, and a winning regular-season (7-5) earned the Mountaineers a Pinstripe Bowl bid against the Syracuse Orange, which turned out to be another disappointment as they fell in a 38-14 final.

2013 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: Geno Smith was the Heisman front-runner early on in the 2012 campaign, but while the talented quarterback put up impressive numbers (4,205 yards, 42 TDs, six interceptions) his team's troubles later on derailed his chances of taking home college football's top individual honor. Smith had the exceptionally good fortune of having two standout receivers at his disposal, as Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin combined for more than 2,900 yards and 37 TDs, the former finding the end zone 25 times himself.

All three record-setting players are gone, leaving more questions than answers as Holgorsen seeks suitable replacements. Inexperienced players abound on offense, and the quarterback job will likely go to junior Paul Millard, although competition will come from freshman Ford Childress and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett. The receiving corps is largely unproven, although junior college transfer Kevin White has demonstrated the skills needed to be a successful wideout in WVU's high-octane offensive attack.

While pleased with their progress to this point, Holgorsen is non-committal when talking about his starting quarterback.

"I like where we're at with it and look forward to being able to coach them. I'm not going to put a timetable on it. When one of those guys steps up, we're going to name the starter and move forward with reps."

Returning rushing leader Andrew Buie gained 851 yards and scored seven touchdowns last season, and he will likely share time in the backfield with juco transfer Dreamius Smith.

The offensive line will be a work in progress, at least at the start of the season, as only massive tackle Quinton Spain has garnered any buzz for his previous accomplishments.

DEFENSE: How bad was the WVU defense last season? Well, the unit gave up 38.1 points and 473.6 total yards per game, and its yield of 9.3 yards per pass attempt ranked dead last in the nation.

There are seven guys back with starting experience, although most would argue that's not necessarily a good thing considering the Mountaineers' struggles of a year ago. Still, guys like safety Karl Joseph (104 stops, two interceptions) and linebacker Isaiah Bruce (94 stops, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries), the team's top two tacklers as freshmen last season, have the ability to be standout performers.

Senior defensive end Will Clarke (6.5 TFL, four QB hurries) flashed signs of brilliance last year, but the line will need to play better across the board. The same goes for the secondary, which gave up one big play after another in 2012. Holgorsen hopes seniors Brodrick Jenkins and Darwin Cook, along with Joseph, will provide a unified front against opposing passing attacks.

Keith Patterson was recently promoted to full-time defensive coordinator and Holgorsen has been pleased with the changes that have been implemented.

"I really like our defensive staff right now. The communication has been the biggest probably improvement," He continued, "Keith's done that before. He's been a DC before. He's got a bunch of experience calling plays in this specific defense we want to run, and I think the results will show."

SPECIAL TEAMS: West Virginia needs to fill nearly every position on its special teams, and expected to assume starting roles are freshman kicker Josh Lambert and sophomore punter Nick O'Toole. As for the return game, replacing the explosive Austin (scores on both a kick and punt return last season) will be impossible, but someone like Jenkins could excel if the rest of the unit performs well.

OUTLOOK: Non-league bouts against FCS foe William & Mary, FBS newcomer Georgia State, and regional rival Maryland are all winnable for WVU, but the Big 12 slate offers more than a few potential pitfalls. The Mountaineers will actually know early on just how good they are, as they will play their conference opener at Oklahoma in week two.

Like last season, the middle of the schedule is where the team will likely experience some turbulent times as it will tangle with Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU and Texas from Sept. 28 to Nov. 9.

Closing against Kansas and Iowa State, like they did last season as well, could give the Mountaineers a boost, but improving upon last year's win total will be difficult.

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