West Virginia Mountaineers
Note: My two favorite college football teams are West Virginia and SMU. WVU because of Major Harris and SMU because of the Pony Express. I hated the hiring of Bill Stewart as head coach. I think the program will most likely head south in 2009 but this team is still loaded with talent to make one last run this season before the bottom falls out.
The Good News: While the architect of West Virginia's spread offense is now coaching Michigan, the orchestrator is still in Morgantown. Pat White is one of the most dynamic open-field runners at any position I've ever seen. Even though the team lost starting running back Steve Slaton and bulldozing fullback Owen Schmitt, the rushing attack will still be potent. Noel Devine has a chance to be a huge star if he can stay out of trouble. As far as football goes, the combination of Devine and White in the backfield is the most explosive duo in the country. The offensive line returns four starters and will help pave the way for White and Devine to get into the open field, where they are close to impossible to chase down. The Mountaineers have the best group of linebackers in the Big East, led by Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy. West Virginia is excellent in all phases on special teams.
The Bad News: Stewart is a very nice guy and I'm rooting for him to succeed but I'm already hearing buzz phrases that raise a red flag with me. "Practices are more laid back," "He doesn't yell as much as Coach Rodriguez," and things like that. Those kind of things just add fuel to the perception that Stewart is better suited to be a coordinator than a head coach. On the field, WVU has some questions to answer as well. Devine is dynamic but he's only 175 pounds and there are no proven backs behind him. Someone will need to step up because Devine can't carry the load on his own. Seven starters are gone from what was a strong Mountaineers defense last season. The biggest hit was on the defensive line, where both starting tackles need to be replaced. Also, four of five starters in the secondary are gone (WVU starts five defensive backs), so there are concerns there as well. Leading receiver Darius Reynaud departed but the Mountaineers are very deep at that position.
Schedule: The Big East schedule is very manageable but the non-conference slate is a bear. The Mountaineers must travel to East Carolina and Colorado before hosting SEC power Auburn on Oct. 23. The one good thing in West Virginia's corner is teams that don't see their offensive speed on a yearly basis can get caught by surprise when they see it up close (Georgia, Oklahoma). In the Big East, WVU has to travel to Pitt and UConn but gets South Florida and Rutgers at home. The Bulls are the only team to really slow down the West Virginia offensive machine the last two seasons. Overall, this is a very demanding schedule.
Gambling Angle: With seven new starters on defense and an explosive offense, West Virginia games should once again be high scoring affairs. This will be the case particularly early in the season, while White and the offense carry a green defense. The game against Colorado should come close to racking up 100 points. Mark that one down on your calender right now. That game will fly over the total. Also, remember that WV usually creams weaker teams like Syracuse and Marshall that just don't posses the defensive speed to stop its spread-option attack.
Outlook: The Mountaineers enter the season with some uncertainty but they get ranked this high because of the conference they play in. While teams in the SEC and Big 12 are going to beat the hell out of each other, West Virginia should roll over the Big East until its season finale at home versus South Florida. Some major upsets will need to happen for that game not to decide the conference title. Like I said, while I don't love Stewart, the offense should be close to unstoppable with White and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen leading the way. If the defense can improve as the year goes on, the WV offense will take care of the rest. Wins over Auburn and South Florida could put the Mountaineers in the Orange Bowl playing for all the marbles.
Did you say SMU?? WVU is loaded at offense and only need a few breaks to be right back in the hunt for the title