West Virginia Football: How Will Mountaineers Fare in the Big 12?

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Geno Smith leads a dangerous Mountaineer offense in 2012.

<p> West Virginia Football: How Will Mountaineers Fare in the Big 12?</p>

The college football season is a couple of months away, but the countdown to 2012 has officially begun. Athlon Sports’ 2012 preseason annuals will be hitting newsstands in early June and its official top 25 countdown will begin on May 1. Picking the order of finish in each conference and compiling the top 25 is no easy task. Each day leading up to the release of No. 25 on May 1, Athlon’s editors will tackle some of the top preseason debates and question marks facing the teams and conferences for 2012.

How Will West Virginia Fare in the Big 12 in 2012?

Tony Dobies, BlueGoldNews.com (@DOBIEST on Twitter)
Many people look past some of the statistics when evaluating West Virginia’s high-powered offense. Sure, the Mountaineers put up 70 points vs. Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but realistically it was underwhelming throughout the 2011 regular season. While the talent is there, more talent is waiting on Big 12 defenses, and it will be key for the Mountaineers’ best playmakers to stand out. West Virginia’s new defensive scheme is better suited for many Big 12 offenses that it will face. The biggest question to me is how WVU’s defensive talent will stand up to Big 12. The Mountaineers have proven in the past in BCS games and regular season games vs. teams like Auburn and LSU that it can keep up in a one-game situation. But, will that change in an entirely new league? WVU could have some troubles there. I see West Virginia with a legitimate chance at winning the Big 12 title in its first year; it has a better chance than many of the other teams who switched conferences a year ago, because the Mountaineers have true Big 12 ties on its coaching staff. However, the overall depth and talent might not be there yet. A top-three finish in the conference is expected, and I’d say that’s what will happen. But, there isn’t a team in the Big 12 that would finish in the bottom half of the Big East. This up in competition will give WVU trouble.

David Fox (@DavidFox615)
West Virginia is built for quick success in the Big 12, just how quick is the question. A former assistant at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen knows the territory. As does his new defensive coordinator from Oklahoma State, Joe DeForest. Behind quarterback Geno Smith and his stable of returning receivers, West Virginia is ready to move up and down the field like a Big 12 team. The Mountaineers could lead the league in a handful of offensive categories. However, while West Virginia has the personnel to finish in the top three in the Big 12, I’m a believer that a conference move can trip up any good team. Just consider Nebraska and its loss at home to Northwestern last season. As well as Holgorsen and his staff know the league, all those new venues and new matchups could catch up with the players. I wouldn’t be shocked if West Virginia looks like a Big 12 champion one week, but ends up on the wrong end of an upset in its first trip to Texas Tech or Iowa State.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
You have to have offense to succeed in the Big 12 and West Virginia has a coal mine full of explosives on that side of the ball. In Geno Smith and his wideouts, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Dana Holgorsen has arguably the best QB-WR combination in the conference. And Holgorsen has experience in the Big 12 at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, so he should be able to ease his team into the new conference on a day-to-day operational standpoint. That said, winning the Big East and winning the Big 12 are totally different obstacles. The step-up in competition will require not only a high-flying offense but power and strength in the trenches and on defense. Both the offensive and defensive lines will be key question marks heading into conference play this fall.

The schedule is intriguing for the Mountaineers and their bid to return to a BCS bowl bid. The first four games are winnable and are at home in Morgantown, so the Mounties should be unblemished heading into their toughest road test of the season in Austin. Key swing games against Kansas State and TCU come at home and West Virginia should be favored in two important road trips to Texas Tech and Iowa State (strange things tend to happen in Ames and Lubbock). This leaves the state of Oklahoma as the deciding factor for WVU in back-to-back weekends in mid-November. Holgorsen will visit his former employer in Stillwater before hosting the conference favorite in the Sooners. The Mountaineers must win at least one of those games, without slipping up anywhere else, in order to get to 10 wins.

West Virginia will find it tough to defeat Texas and Oklahoma. But if it can beat the teams it is supposed to (Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas State, TCU) and pull-off an upset (at Oklahoma State), a 10-win season isn't out of the question. However, if the offensive line can't get movement and the defense doesn't show improvement, the Mounties will fall victim to at least one or two tough losses along the way. I will go with 9-3 for the Mountaineers first romp through the Big 12 — a record WVU fans should probably be proud and excited about as it heads into a much tougher conference.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Although Oklahoma is the preseason favorite to win the Big 12, I think the conference is more open than some may believe. The Sooners are vulnerable and Texas is still rebuilding, which gives West Virginia a chance to contend in its first season in the Big 12. The Mountaineers finished last season on a high note, scoring 70 points in the bowl rout over Clemson. The offense returns plenty of firepower, including quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. However, the offensive line and rushing attack is a concern. The Big 12 is an offensive-minded conference, so there’s little doubt West Virginia will be able to adapt to its new league without much of an issue. If the Mountaineers want to beat Oklahoma and Texas for the conference crown, the defense has to adapt to life in the Big 12. West Virginia returns six starters, but has to replace ends Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, along with cornerback Keith Tandy and linebacker Najee Goode. The Mountaineers are also changing schemes, but new co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest comes from Oklahoma State and his experience in the Big 12 should help West Virginia transition from the Big East.

Although West Virginia might have the best offensive trio (Smith, Austin and Bailey), I have concerns about the offensive line and how the defense will hold up in the new league. The schedule features road trips to Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, while the Mountaineers host Kansas State, TCU and Oklahoma. Any time a team transitions to a new league, there’s always a game that ends up as a surprise loss. I think West Virginia will be in the mix for the Big 12 title, but will fall short and likely finish third behind Texas and Oklahoma.

Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)
I think the Mountaineers will hit the ground running — actually, passing — in their new league. Many times when a school moves into a tougher conference, the week-in, week-out grind can be quite the challenge. However West Virginia’s transition will not be as severe having played in a BCS conference and having a top passing offense with veteran leaders. Senior quarterback Geno Smith and elite receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will continue to put up big points in the pass-happy Big 12, and head coach Dana Holgorsen has a familiarity with the league from his time at Oklahoma State. The WVU defense has some questions with the loss of top players like defensive end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy, so new coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson will have their work cut out. That being said, I see West Virginia finishing the regular season with nine or 10 wins and challenging Oklahoma and Texas for the Big 12 supremacy.

Where will West Virginia finish in the 2012 Big 12 standings? Check back on May 1 as the 2012 Top 25 countdown will be released one team a day.

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