Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10: No. 10 West Virginia Mountaineers

Dana Holgorsen and Geno Smith
“How long do you think it will take us to get to Mansion from here, Geno?”

All this week, Crystal Ball Run will be counting down what our writers consider to be the preseason top 10 teams in college football.

The rankings are based on ballots submitted by our writers in which they were asked to rank their top 10 based on pure team strength. In other words, the team that is ranked No. 1 would be favored over every other team on a neutral field, the team that is ranked No. 2 would be favored over every team except for No. 1, and so on.

We’ll be counting down in order starting with our No. 10 team, Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers of Morgantown, W. Va.

Crystal Ball Run Preseason Top 10

No. 10 – West Virginia Mountaineers

West Virginia in a word: Explosive

Air Raid maestro Dana Holgorsen showed in his first season as head coach that he was ready to get the Mountaineers back on the offensive track that West Virginia fans remembered from the days of Rich Rodriguez. The WVU offense had stagnated under Bill Stewart to the point that the ‘Eers ranked 78th in the nation in scoring offense (25.2 points per game) and 67th in total offense (372.7 yards per game) in 2010. Last year WVU ranked 13th in scoring (37.6 PPG) and 15th in total offense (469.5 YPG).

Such an explosive team should fit in well in an explosive conference like the Big 12.

Why West Virginia will live up to billing:

The lasting memories of WVU’s 2011 season all involve some version of a Mountaineer streaking by a hapless Clemson defender en route to nearly 600 yards in total offense and a 70-33 win in the Orange Bowl.

WVU brings back eight starters on offense from a year ago. They’re led by Heisman Trophy candidate Geno Smith at quarterback, but the group also includes dangerous receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney.

With a year in Holgo the Destroyer’s offense under their belts, the Mountaineers may have the best offense in the country this season.

Why West Virginia will disappoint:

A 10-3 record looks nice on the surface, but should we grade that on a curve?

The Mountaineers will face a major upgrade in competition this year as they move from the Big East to the Big 12. Getting your head handed to you by Syracuse the way WVU did last season suggests it might not be ready for primetime. The Mountaineers didn’t exactly steamroll through the Big East, either, scoring three conference wins by a field goal or less.

The ‘Eers may have to pay the toll this season to get on the Big 12 superhighway.

Key Game: at Texas (Oct. 6)

WVU makes its Big 12 debut a on Sept. 29 in Morgantown with a visit from Baylor. The real welcome to the conference comes a week later, however, as the ‘Eers travel to Austin for a date with Texas.

WVU has the good fortune of drawing the Longhorns in a potential look-ahead spot a week before the Red River Shootout. If the ‘Eers can get a road win early in the season against one of the league’s traditional powers, they could build some momentum and confidence going forward in the Big 12. A loss, and maybe they start to wonder if they’re ready for the big time.

This will be a key measuring stick game for WVU.

On the Spot: Keith Patterson and Joe DeForest

Longtime WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, a master of the 3-3-5 defense, left Morgantown in the offseason to re-join RichRod’s staff in Arizona. Holgo is going with the two-headed monster of DeForest and Patterson to replace Casteel.

Hiring DeForest, a Big 12 veteran who spent 10 years as a member of the Oklahoma St. staff, looks like a smart play with the move to the new conference. However, he and Patterson face the challenge of installing their defensive schemes using personnel recruited to play Casteel’s unique style.

How quickly they can get their guys up to speed should go a long way to determining if the ‘Eers can challenge for the conference crown.

Final Verdict:

West Virginia’s strong close to ’11 doesn’t change the fact that it was an up-and-down season in Morgantown. That’s to be expected when a new coach takes over and revamps the program in such a dramatic fashion. Holgo has now had a full year to get his offense installed, and the performance in the Orange Bowl hinted at just how dangerous this team could be in the fall following an offseason of fine-tuning the O.

On the other hand, WVU is entering a conference with more talented rosters than what the Mountaineers faced in the Big East. On top of that, their opponents will be coached by the likes of Bill Snyder and Bob Stoops, not Butch Jones and Paul Pasqualoni.

While WVU should be viewed as a legitimate dark horse in the Big 12, it’s easy to see how this team could fall far short of the expectations befitting a top 10 team.

Best Case Scenario: Big 12 championship, BCS bowl win, 11-2.

Worst Case Scenario: Seventh in Big 12, 6-6.