Bloguin Top 50: No. 30 – West Virginia

West Virginia Mountaineers
2014 Record: 7-6 overall, 5-4 Big 12 (lost to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl)

1 Burning Question: How Important was Tom Bradley?

Last season, Dana Holgorsen brought in Bradley, a veteran defensive coordinator from Penn State, to help coach the WVU D. Although his job title was defensive line coach, Bradley undoubtedly had a big hand in helping coordinator Tony Gibson construct a unit that climbed in Defensive S&P+ from 87th nationally in 2013 to 25th in 2014.

Bradley left in the offseason to join Jim Mora’s staff at UCLA, so we’ll get a better feel for how much of WVU’s improvement last season had to do with his steadying presence. The defense could be one of the best in the Big 12 if the transition goes smoothly.

2 Key Stats to Pay Attention to

174 — The combined number of catches between Kevin White and Mario Alford last year. There was no better one-two punch at receiver in the country in ‘14 than WVU’s duo, who also combined to snag 21 touchdowns on the year. The ‘Eers will rely on the running game more this season, but they still need a threat or two to emerge out wide to help keep the chains moving.

0 — The number of interceptions thrown by Skyler Howard last season. Howard started the final three games of the season in ’14 after WVU lost Clint Trickett, and, frankly, the O didn’t fall off that much. Holgo the Destroyer dialed things back a notch for the backup, who responded by taking care of the ball and making things happen with his feet and his arm. If Howard doesn’t put the team in bad spots with turnovers, the ‘Eers can build their identity around the ground game and defense.

3 Key Games That Will Make or Break the Season

Saturday, October 3, at Oklahoma
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 2-3
Last Year’s Result: L, 33-45

Why it matters: WVU has played OU tough every year since entering the Big 12, but the ‘Eers haven’t broken through yet. A win in Norman would start the conference slate on the right foot.

Saturday, October 10, Oklahoma State
Record in Last 5 Meetings: 3-2
Last Year’s Result: W, 34-10

Why it matters: Unlike OSU’s in-state rivals, WVU has had the upper hand on the Pokes in the last three years. This season, the ‘Eers have a chance to continue their mastery of OSU as Mike Gundy’s team comes to Morgantown for WVU’s homecoming game.

Saturday, November 14, Texas
Record in Last 4 Meetings: 2-2
Last Year’s Result: L, 16-33

Why it matters: WVU has the good fortune of drawing three “50-50” games at home: OSU, Texas Tech and UT. Win all three, and Holgo’s conquerors probably end the season with a winning record in conference play. The ‘Eers have an axe to grind against the Longhorns, who blew their doors off last year in Austin.

4 Key Players

Skyler Howard, QB – WVU might take on a bit more of zone read look this season with Howard at the controls for a full year. It’s possible he’ll threaten defenses even more with his legs than his arm.

Rushel Shell, RB – Between Shell and Wendell Smallwood, WVU is set at running back. Shell is more of the workhorse of the two and will likely play a bigger role in the offense’s success, particularly in short yardage.

Jordan Thompson, WR – Somebody on the roster has to be Howard’s top target. Why not Thompson, who finished third on the team in catches behind White and Alford last season? He won’t give opposing secondaries the same level of heartburn on those two, but Thompson should be a reliable option in the passing game.

Tony Matteo, OG – The ‘Eers are replacing two of the better interior linemen in the country this year. Matteo will need to get up to speed quickly.

5 Bold Predictions

5. WVU will have the best kicking game in the Big 12.

Josh Lambert was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award a year ago and a first-team All-Big 12 selection after drilling 16 field goals of 40 yards or more. Meanwhile, Nick O’Toole will handle the punting duties for the third consecutive year. Safe to say, the ‘Eers don’t have much to worry about in the kicking game.

4. WVU will have the best pass defense in the conference.

After bringing up the rear in 2012 and 2013, the WVU defense finished third in the Big 12 in passer rating last season and second in yards per attempt. The entire five-man secondary returns this season, including stud safety Karl Joseph and cornerback Daryl Worley.

3. The Mountaineers will finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 in passing offense.

Holgo has overseen some stunning offenses in his time, but this won’t be one of them. The passing game lacks the kind of studs he’s accustomed to at receiver.

2. WVU will have its best record since joining the Big 12.

Essentially, this means going better than 7-5 in the regular season. It won’t always be pretty, but WVU is well positioned to make that happen.

1. WVU will be the surprise team in the Big 12.

Oklahoma St. seems to be the consensus pick as this season’s Big 12 team on the rise. However, WVU’s underrated defense and favorable schedule is the kind of formula that tends to produce overachievers every year. The Mountaineers will join Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma as the only four teams to finish the season with winning records in conference play.