West Virginia’s 2012 season is only four days lapsed since the punishing Pinstripe Bowl loss to Syracuse, yet it’s not too early to take a stab at three big questions facing the Mountaineers next season.
WHO will play quarterback?
For three seasons, it has been Geno Smith’s job, and this past season he posted an incredible 42-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio while throwing for 4,201 yards.
Next year’s starting quarterback, whether it’s junior-to-be Paul Millard or redshirt freshman Ford Childress, will be working behind a retooled offensive line and throwing to a mostly-new receiving corps.
“I’m anxious to see (the competition),” Smith said minutes after last Saturday night’s Pinstripe Bowl loss. “Dana’s going to have those guys battling first thing in the morning, starting with breakfast. I’m anxious to see who comes out on top.
“I’m looking forward to seeing one of those guys prosper in this offense, because it’s done wonders for quarterbacks.”
Prognostication: At 6-foot-5, Childress is three inches taller than fellow Texan Millard, and because Childress enrolled early last January, the developmental gap is narrowed. Childress wins the starting job in a race that goes late into fall camp.
WHAT must the defense to do improve?
In the aftermath of the Pinstripe Bowl loss, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson sounded understandably disenchanted. Not only puzzled by his unit’s sudden softness against the run, Patterson was especially chapped by experienced players attending to the wrong assignment on crucial plays.
“We get a pass interference on someone who’s supposed to be in the blitz, and (instead) he’s covering the guy man-to-man,” Patterson said. “That’s my responsibility to make sure we understand what our assignments and responsibilities are.”
Patterson’s post-bowl refrain — “We’ve got to build a new foundation defensively. We have to re-establish an identity.” — seemingly indicates an offseason program predicated on building defensive toughness.
“In the Big 12 you can’t just set and play one or two coverages, you can’t just set and play one or two fronts,” he said. “You have to be multiple, and yet you have to be simple enough to where you can execute.”
Prognostication: Miami transfer Vernon Davis takes over at one cornerback spot, junior-college incomer D’Vante Henry becomes the team’s top pass-rusher and Darwin Cook enjoys a bounce-back senior season at safety. That should at least get WVU back among the FBS top 100 in pass defense. Baby steps, you know?
WHERE will West Virginia find six wins to keep its bowl streak alive?
The Mountaineers have gone bowling for 11 consecutive seasons, a string that portends to be in jeopardy given the statistical fallout of losing eight offensive starters and four on defense:
— Along with Smith, West Virginia must replace its top three receivers (Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods) and six of its top 10, when you throw in Travares Copeland, Ivan McCartney and Ryan Nehlen.
— The Mountaineers lose 312 of their 375 receptions (83 percent).
— West Virginia graduates 1,237 of its 2,219 rushing yards (55 percent).
— Gone are 55 of its 67 touchdowns and 435 of its 513 points.
— WVU loses 39 of its 85 tackles-for-loss and 13.5 of its 23 sacks.
Beyond the numbers, there’s an equally daunting factor: the odd-year schedule flip in which West Virginia must play five league road games and only four at home.
For the sake of foreshadowing argument, let’s take a stroll through next fall’s weekly lineup:
Aug. 31 Williams & Mary (win)
Sept. 7 at Oklahoma (loss)
Sept. 14 Georgia State (win)
Sept. 21 at Maryland (swing game)
Sept. 28 Oklahoma State (loss)
Oct. 5 at Baylor (swing game)
Oct. 19 Texas Tech (swing game)
Oct. 26 at Kansas State (loss)
Nov. 2 at TCU (loss)
Nov. 9 Texas (loss)
Nov. 16 at Kansas (swing game)
Nov. 29 Iowa State (swing game)
That’s two high-probability wins, five high-probability losses and five swing games.
Prognostication: Book your rooms for the Heart of Dallas Bowl (and play close attention to the cancellation policy).