West Virginia enters 2011 as the heavy pre-season favorite to win the Big East Championship. The Mountaineers won a share of the title last year, but, following three straight 9-4 campaigns, the glory of three 11-win seasons from 2005-2007 seems a distant memory.
The gold and blue faithful hope that new head coach Dana Holgorsen – who took the reigns in the most unexpected expected coaching change of the offseason – can bring them back to a BCS bowl. Holgorsen, an offensive wunderkind who runs an Air Raid spread system, will benefit from six returning starters on that side of the ball.
The Mountaineer defense, which last year ranked second in the nation in scoring defense, has more holes to fill but will remain formidable.
Players to watch for (Offense):
GENO SMITH (QB): Smith, a junior, looks to be the biggest beneficiary of the coaching change, as Holgorsen’s quarterbacks at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State put up prolific numbers. As a first-year starter last season, Smith threw for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions. Look for the All-Big East quarterback to put up even more impressive numbers this year.
TAVON AUSTIN (WR): Austin was one of Smith’s favorite targets last season. He caught 58 balls for a team-leading 787 yards and eight touchdowns. With Jock Sanders gone to the NFL and a new spread offense, Austin will get even more looks this year. He has been named to the Biletnikoff Award Watch List.
DON BARCLAY (LT): The offensive line was a weak spot at times for West Virginia last season. Nonetheless, Barclay was named to the 2nd Team All-Big East in 2010. As a senior, he will anchor West Virginia’s line, and he has been named to the Rotary Lombardi Award Preseason Watch List.
Players to watch for (Defense):
BRUCE IRVIN (DE): Irvin finished second in the nation in sacks last year (14.0), but he wasn’t even a starter. As a passing-down specialist, he played just 225 snaps – less than half that of the nation’s sack leader. Irvin will start in 2011, and although he is undersized at 245 lbs., his raw speed should make him the most feared pass rusher in the Big East.
KEITH TANDY (CB): Tandy, a senior and two-year starter, will provide talent and experience to the secondary in Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack defense. He led the Big East with six interceptions last year and finished as a First Team All-Big East selection. Against Syracuse in 2010, he recorded a team-high 10 tackles.
JULIAN MILLER (DT): After starting the previous two seasons at defensive end, Miller is moving to defensive tackle this year. In 2010, he recorded 9.0 sacks and a team-leading 14 tackles for loss. Along with Irvin, Miller will form one of the best pass-rushing tandems in the country.
Fearless prediction: Syracuse is 31-27 all time versus West Virginia, but last year’s 19-14 victory in Morgantown was its first against the Mountaineers since 2001. The Orange triumphed, in spite of Ryan Nassib going 5-of-13 for 63 yards, thanks to four field goals and three Geno Smith interceptions.
SU will get to face the Big East favorites in the Dome this year, and look for the Orange to once again slow the game down. Smith, whose three picks last year were nearly half his season total, will not play this poorly again, and the new-look Mountaineer offense will prove too much for SU’s defense.