The Comeback’s 2017 college football preview coverage continues with the next team in our Top 50 countdown. Coming in tied for No. 39 (with the Arkansas Razorbacks) is West Virginia of the Big 12.
West Virginia has flirted with being a Big 12 contender at times during their time in the Big 12, including last season. But when it came time for the Mountaineers to prove they were a force to reckon with against the top programs in the Big 12, West Virginia showed there was still room for improvement.
With Dana Holgorsen entering his seventh season on the sidelines in Morgantown, will there be enough in the tank with a transfer quarterback and just a handful of starters returning to make some noise in the Big 12 in 2017?
No. 39 (tie) West Virginia Mountaineers
2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2 Big 12; lost Russell Athletic Bowl vs. Miami, 31-14)
Coach: Dana Holgorsen (46-31 overall, all at West Virginia)
Last year in a nutshell
Everything looked like it was running smoothly for the Mountaineers last season right up until the end of October. After jumping out to a 6-0 start to the season keyed by non-conference victories against Missouri, BYU, and Kansas State, and double-digit victories against Texas Tech and TCU, West Virginia was tripped up on the road against Oklahoma State and later lost at home to Oklahoma in a 56-28 blowout in Morgantown. The lesson learned was West Virginia was going to be good enough to win a majority of their games, but they were still a good distance away from competing for a Big 12 championship.
247 Sports Composite Ranking: 56th
Since joining the Big 12, West Virginia has routinely finished in the top half of the conference according to the recruiting networks, but last year saw a bit of a step back in overall incoming talent. West Virginia filled out its Class of 2017 with 23 players, with none receiving a composite four or five-star ranking (they were all three-star prospects). So Holgorsen and his staff have some work to do to develop their latest recruits. Safety Derek Pitts could be a player worth watching although the returning secondary may be the strength of the defense.
3 Key Stats
-3 – West Virginia’s turnover margin against both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers could not afford to make any mistakes against the top two teams in the conference, but failed to secure the ball. West Virginia actually had a negative turnover margin in six games last season, and three resulted in losses.
14 – West Virginia’s defense picked off 14 passes last season, but 10 were by players who have moved on from the program. That means cornerbacks Corey Winfield (a Syracuse graduate transfer) and Elijah Battle need to make an impact.
88 – West Virginia’s offense can be dangerous. Last season, the Mountaineers ran 88 plays that went 20 yards or more. Only Oklahoma and Texas Tech had better numbers.
Make-or-Break Games of 2017
Oct. 21 at Baylor
Record in last five meetings: 3-2
Last year’s result: Win, 24-21
Why it matters: A week before a big home game against Oklahoma State, West Virginia travels to Waco to play Baylor in a series that has seen the home team win each of the five meetings since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12. Stealing a win on the road could help keep West Virginia in the Big 12 hunt ahead of a home game against Oklahoma State. A win against the Cowboys would be huge, sure, but a loss to Baylor may be the early decisive blow that keeps West Virginia lagging behind in the race before it really gets started.
Nov. 18 vs. Texas
Record in last five meetings: 3-2
Last year’s result: Win, 24-20
Why it matters: West Virginia’s home finale comes against the Longhorns. Will Texas be any better this season with Tom Herman as the head coach? Regardless, this may be West Virginia’s last chance to hold the upper hand on the Longhorns if Herman matches the hype in Austin moving forward. This is also the week right before the season finale on the road against Oklahoma. Depending on how the rest of the season plays out, West Virginia could need a win to stay in striking distance of a Big 12 title run before they head to Oklahoma.
Three Key Players
Will Grier, QB – West Virginia is adding former Florida quarterback Will Grier this season, and they will get the benefit of having him at the start of the season rather than have to wait until the middle of the season for a NCAA-mandated suspension to expire. Look for Grier to settle in quickly and start racking up big numbers in this offense.
Justin Crawford, RB – The Big 12 running backs were highlighted a year ago by Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, as well as Texas running back D’Onta Foreman, so you may have overlooked the year Justin Crawford had. The Big 12’s third-leading rusher only scored four touchdowns but was a proven 1,000-yard back. We’ll see if Holgorsen puts the ball in Crawford’s hands more often in the red zone, but he can be quite effective when on the field.
Dravon Askew-Henry, S – West Virginia’s defensive backfield could be the strength of the defense, and having Askew-Henry back from a torn ACL injury could be huge for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia enters November at .500. Forget about a run to a Big 12 title, because West Virginia will be more focused on just becoming bowl eligible as they flips those calendars from October to November. And with a tricky end to the season with road games at Kansas State and Oklahoma and a home date with Texas, the margin for error could be razor thin.
Will Grier becomes one of the top Big 12 passers. While I may not be predicting much from West Virginia as far as wins are concerned, I do think Will Grier bounces back in a big way with his new program.
Follow the rest of The Comeback’s Top 50 College Football Countdown leading up to the regular season.