2011 record: 10-3 overall, 5-2 in Big East (1st-tie)
2011 postseason: Orange Bowl (70-33 win over Clemson)
2011 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 17/No. 18
Head coach: Dana Holgorsen (10-3 in one season at West Virginia)
Offensive coordinator: Shannon Dawson (second season at WVU, first as OC)
2011 offensive rankings: 92nd rushing offense (122.7 ypg); 6th passing offense (346.8 ypg); 15th total offense (469.5 ypg); 13th scoring offense (37.6 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: eight
2011 defensive rankings: 55th rushing defense (144.8 ypg); 35th passing defense (203.5 ypg); 33rd total defense (348.2 ypg); 61st scoring defense (26.8 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: six
Location: Morgantown, W.Va.
Stadium: Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium (60,000; FieldTurf)
Last league title: 2011 (co-champs with Cincinnati and Louisville)
2011 statistics: [view]
At the quarterback position right now, it doesn’t get much better than Geno Smith in the game, and the senior is one of eight offensive starters returning from a unit that was one of the most explosive — hello, Clemson! — in its first season under Holgorsen. Also among the returning starters on that side of the ball are a pair of receivers — Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey — who were seemingly born to play in Holgorsen’s version of the spread. With experienced talent at the running back position returning as well, offense will be the least of WVU’s worries in its first season in the Big 12.
Then there’s the opposite of the worry spectrum. The defense was fair-to-middlin’ in the offensive-deficient Big East; entering the Big 12, the Mountaineers will face a greater challenge nearly every week compared to what they were used to in their former conference. As a signal that the staff was fully cognizant of both the deficiencies on defense in 2011 and the stiffer offensive competition in its new conference, WVU scrapped its 3-3-5 defense and will be going with (mostly) a version of the 3-4 defense. Suffice to say, that new iteration of the 3-4 defense will be put to the test early and often in the offensively-superior Big 12.
The Big 12 fit. Specifically, how fast can the Mountaineers get up to speed — both literally and figuratively — in a football conference that’s vastly superior to what they’ve been used to the past two decades. Gone are the likes of Cincinnati and Louisville and Pittsburgh, replaced annually with Oklahoma and Texas and Oklahoma State and TCU and… well, you get the point. With the presence of Holgorsen, it feels as if the Mountaineers will make as seamless a transition as possible and should be a prime contender in its virgin tour around the Big 12. Still, it’s an unknown how quickly WVU will adapt to its new conference home.
Make-or-break game: at Texas, Oct. 6
It’s a bit of a stretch to call this a make-or-break game for the Mountaineers; rather, it might be better to state that it should serve as a litmus test for the remainder of the conference season. The Longhorns should — should — provide a stiffer Big 12 test than they have the past couple of seasons, and give the Mountaineers a solid idea of how their first season in the Big 12 will go as it gets into the meat of their first conference slate — TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma the first three weekends in November.
Heisman hopeful: quarterback Geno Smith
In his first season in Holgorsen’s offense, Smith threw for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in 526 attempts. With an experienced group of receivers returning, and yet another offseason soaking in the scheme, Smith should enter 2012 as one of the preseason favorites, although, for whatever reason, he flies below some radars nationally.