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WVU Football: Can Mountaineers Return To Relevance?

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Dana Holgorsen made an interesting comment near the end of last season regarding the status of WVU football.

Holgorsen answers questions at Big 12 Media Days
Holgorsen answers questions at Big 12 Media Days
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Dana Holgorsen made an interesting comment near the end of last season regarding the status of WVU football.  The Mountaineers had just lost to lowly conference bottom feeder Kansas.  Holgorsen, in his press conference previewing the Iowa State matchup, answered questions in his typical manner.

It was the week of Thanksgiving, so a reporter asked Holgorsen this last question:

"What are you thankful for?"

Holgorsen responded with the following statement:

"I'm thankful for the seniors. I'm thankful for the Big 12. It's challenging, but we're relevant and we're learning a lot about ourselves as far as being in a power conference. We're going to be extremely competitive."

Holgorsen said that WVU football is relevant...but is it?

Eight or more wins in a season make a team relevant.

Bowl game wins make a team relevant.

Competing for conference championships make a team relevant.

Consider these facts:

  • The 2012 Mountaineers collapsed midseason
  • In 2013, the Mountaineers experienced their first losing season since 2001
  • With last season's record, WVU broke a string of playing in eleven consecutive bowl games
  • WVU has lost 14 of its last 20 games, including the Pinstripe Bowl to former rival Syracuse
  • WVU is 6-12 in conference play since joining the Big 12

These facts have become common knowledge.  The 2013 season has been called a "bump in the road" by WVU coaches, players, local media and fans.

Yet, the facts suggest that WVU football has been anything but relevant.

Here is what has transpired at WVU since the 2008 season.

Relevancy Part One:  Putrid Defense

WVU Defensive National Rankings (out of 120 FBS teams)

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total Defense

36

36

3

33

109

101

Passing Defense

47

46

11

35

118

106

Rushing Defense

40

37

2

55

60

90

Scoring Defense

11

31

3

16

115

99

Sacks

58

45

2

29

75

107

From 2008 to 2011, WVU won games with defense. Not anymore.  WVU's defense over the last two seasons has become the laughingstock of the college football world.  The 2013 defense hardly fared better than its 2012 counterpart. 

Injuries certainly played a part in another dismal defensive performance.  However, other factors led to ineffectiveness.

Coaches struggled to make in-game adjustments.  Fatigue and the lack of will to compete in the second half of numerous games allowed those winnable games to slip away.

Things became so bad that at the end of the year, WVU's defense allowed two redshirt freshman quarterbacks who had never started a collegiate game to lead their teams (Kansas and Iowa State) to victories.  Iowa State's offensive coordinator was fired for poor performance the day after his offense surged in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime and eventually beat WVU.

WVU lost to a team that fired its offensive coordinator the very next day.

That's how bad things had become for WVU football.

Excuses are often made that "WVU is in a real football conference now" and "no one plays defense in the Big 12."

However, relevant Big 12 teams play defense.  The following table demonstrates that defense still wins football games.  These stats also come from ncaa.com.

2013 Big 12 Defensive National Statistical Rankings

Team

Scoring

Total

Passing

Rushing

3rd Down

Red Zone

Oklahoma State

19

52

79

32

7

7

Oklahoma

22

20

30

25

18

87

Kansas State

31

26

48

27

76

116

Baylor

36

28

34

38

19

22

TCU

54

24

58

21

32

70

Texas

57

68

53

83

43

92

Texas Tech

87

84

39

98

22

69

Kansas

93

96

78

89

75

80

WVU

99

101

106

90

92

65

Iowa State

108

105

75

112

54

38

Nationally, WVU ranked at or near the bottom of every major defensive statistical category in 2013.

Relevant teams like Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor all held high positions nationally on defense.  TCU proved that defense alone cannot win games, and Texas Tech (much like WVU in 2012) proved that offense alone does not win every game.

WVU, Kansas and Iowa State served as conference bottom feeders due in part to poor defensive preparation and execution.

Relevancy Part Two:  Average Offense

WVU Offensive National Rankings (out of 120 FBS teams)

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total Offense

59

61

67

15

10

62

Passing Offense

104

90

67

6

10

34

Rushing Offense

15

24

50

92

52

82

Scoring Offense

73

67

78

14

9

79

Sacks Allowed

27

57

71

65

48

85

Holgorsen's gifted mind has been challenged since the departure of Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Holgorsen was brought to WVU because the offense had languished under coordinator Jeff Mullen's tutelage.  Yet, the 2013 season statistically demonstrated that WVU's offense had returned to the days of Jeff Mullen - of being simply average.

One factor surrounding WVU's offensive struggles is Holgorsen's decision making.  Three issues stand out from 2013.

First, Holgorsen didn't effectively utilize his best offensive player until late in the season.  Holgorsen wisely brought former Houston running back Charles Sims to WVU for his senior season.  Sims was a great addition to the team and will be a future NFL star.  However, Sims was not targeted nearly enough as an offensive weapon until the TCU game late in the season.

Second, Holgorsen had never believed in rotating quarterbacks in his previous 20 years as an offensive specialist - until 2013.  One of the worst decisions Holgorsen made was pulling quarterback Paul Millard after the loss to Oklahoma in Norman.  With this decision, Holgorsen began a carousel of starting quarterbacks - first Ford Childress, then Clint Trickett, then back to Paul Millard, then back to Clint Trickett - that most likely caused continuity problems, led to confidence problems and made all three quarterbacks wonder when they would be benched.  This must be one of the reasons why Holgorsen chose Trickett as his starter before preseason camp.

Finally, Holgorsen's game day decision making caused WVU fans everywhere to moan and groan.  Holgorsen demonstrated stubbornness last season that made little sense.  He stuck with Ford Childress in the Maryland game despite Childress clearly not being able to throw the ball past the line of scrimmage.  Holgorsen gambled and lost against Baylor on fourth down in Mountaineer territory early in that game, allowing one of the worst routs in WVU history to commence. In close games with WVU maintaining a lead, Holgorsen allowed his quarterbacks to pass the ball against Texas and Iowa State late in the fourth quarter.  WVU could not get a first down against Texas with just over a minute remaining in that game.  Against Iowa State, Trickett threw an interception at WVU's own 29 yard line with less than three minutes to play.  Both decisions allowed the opposition to send these games into overtime.

Relevancy Part Three:  Poor Special Teams Play

WVU Special Teams National Ranking (out of 120 FBS teams)

Special Teams

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Net Punting

2

11

36

101

110

7

Punt Returns

76

44

56

20

28

119

Kickoff Returns

55

61

108

26

93

112

Over the last two seasons, WVU's special teams have been anything but special.  Other than individual performances from Tavon Austin and Nick O'Toole , aka Boomstache, special teams have failed the Mountaineers.  Lack of depth has also hurt this area of the program.  Special teams coach Joe DeForest has his work cut out for him.

Further Proof Of A Decline In Relevance

Respected USA Today columnist Jeff Sagarin's ratings for WVU football from 2008 thru 2013 further prove the decline in relevance.

Sagarin Rankings for WVU Since 2008

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Overall Ranking

26

32

36

22

48

74

Strength of Schedule Ranking

47

31

60

57

29

33

Note the deterioration since 2011.  Also notice that WVU played a similarly difficult schedule in 2009 when WVU went 9-4, losing at Auburn, at South Florida, at #5 Cincinnati and to Bobby Bowden's Florida State squad in the Gator Bowl.

The Big 12 has presented WVU with greater scheduling challenges on a weekly basis.  However, WVU could never expect to play "average" and defeat a quality opponent.  In 2011, remember that Holgorsen's 10-3 squad lost at #86 ranked Syracuse and then to #61 ranked Louisville at home.

Recall how WVU played an "average" game with a chance at the national championship on the line in 2007.

The point is this - WVU gets beat when it plays an "average" game, no matter who the head coach is.

For comparison purposes, look at Sagarin's ratings over the past six years for former Big East opponents.

WVU-Former Big East Conference Opponents Comparison

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

WVU's Sagarin Ranking

26

32

36

22

48

74

Strength of Schedule Ranking

47

31

60

57

29

33

Louisville Ranking

92

87

51

61

27

20

Strength of Schedule Ranking

81

25

75

60

70

103

UConn Ranking

40

28

56

76

89

121

Strength of Schedule Ranking

53

34

65

64

69

69

Rutgers Ranking

37

41

90

36

53

100

Strength of Schedule Ranking

73

86

67

69

72

80

USF Ranking

43

39

44

59

86

143

Strength of Schedule Ranking

71

59

71

62

46

65

Cincinnati Ranking

34

8

67

30

36

67

Strength of Schedule Ranking

60

44

35

73

80

111

Pitt Ranking

27

16

32

69

59

55

Strength of Schedule Ranking

25

40

38

48

57

37

Syracuse Ranking

104

83

48

86

38

62

Strength of Schedule Ranking

34

36

73

55

45

57

The UConn, Rutgers and USF programs began a steep decline following the breakup of the former Big East conference.

Louisville continued to improve under Charlie Strong.  With his departure, it will be interesting to see what happens to the Cardinals this season.

Much like WVU, Cincinnati took a step back in 2013.

Pitt stabilized as an average team.

And Syracuse continued to be the model of inconsistency.

Now look at WVU's Big 12 opponents over the last six years.

Big 12 Conference Teams' Sagarin Rankings Over The Last Six Years

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Oklahoma Ranking

3

17

10

4

12

12

Strength of Schedule Ranking

7

22

20

6

5

32

Oklahoma Ranking

20

40

11

3

17

13

Strength of Schedule Ranking

43

49

44

3

28

22

Kansas State Ranking

74

68

59

19

8

23

Strength of Schedule Ranking

62

66

61

8

14

34

Texas Ranking

4

3

64

17

16

33

Strength of Schedule Ranking

14

38

47

5

12

11

Baylor Ranking

66

80

61

13

18

9

Strength of Schedule Ranking

17

18

46

10

7

48

TCU Ranking

7

4

4

20

32

48

Strength of Schedule Ranking

69

60

76

86

16

16

Texas Tech Ranking

9

25

43

53

37

30

Strength of Schedule Ranking

27

62

53

11

36

42

Iowa State Ranking

114

66

65

43

55

72

Strength of Schedule Ranking

51

71

24

2

11

23

Kansas Ranking

31

62

119

91

98

119

Strength of Schedule Ranking

39

53

48

1

3

28

Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have been model programs for all collegiate teams to imitate.  Superb coaching and talent have combined to bring these schools success.

Kansas State and Baylor have significantly improved over the last three years.  Bill Snyder and Art Briles prove that coaching matters.

Texas and Texas Tech have remained solid programs that have struggled recently with consistency.  Both programs have hired new head coaches (Charlie Strong and Kliff Kingsbury) over the last two seasons in an attempt to bolster their teams.

TCU is looking to improve its offense in order to compete in the Big 12.  Head coach Gary Patterson hired Sonnie Cumbie and Doug Meacham from offensive minded programs Texas Tech and Houston to do just that.  Look for TCU to be much improved on offense this season.

Iowa State is a mediocre, but improving program.  It is struggling to gain relevance.

Finally, Kansas has become the conference doormat.

The 2013 season found WVU joining TCU, Iowa State and Kansas at the bottom of the Big 12 conference.  Over the last 20 matchups, WVU has played average games on offense and well below average games on defense.  That is a recipe for disaster and clearly must stop for WVU to halt its slide into irrelevance.

Prognosis

A 7-6 season followed by a 4-8 season does not make WVU football relevant.  Fielding one of the worst defenses in football over the last two years does not make WVU football relevant.

Holgorsen had this to say about last season in his latest press conference.

"It was miserable... I don't anticipate those dynamics ever happening again, in the next 30 years of coaching or however long I am fortunate enough to be able to coach. You have three new coaches that have never been with us before. We had the issues at the quarterback position that have been very well documented. You had six or seven skill kids that have been in the program for their first year. That's just a dynamic that is not good. I thought we did a pretty good job up front of holding it together with some older guys, but the timing, the continuity, the chemistry just wasn't there. Looking back on it, you sit there and you study what you did and what the plays are and try to make some changes - which we do every year. With that said, I think we are way ahead of where we were a year ago. Time will tell on how it is."

Indeed, this team has the potential to make everyone forget about the last two seasons.

Defensively, Mountaineer fans should anticipate an exciting season.  New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is in his ninth campaign at WVU, where he coached for seven seasons under nationally acclaimed defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel.  Gibson has brought a version of Casteel's 3-3-5 stack defense back to Morgantown.

In late February, Oliver Luck hired long time defensive coaching specialist Tom Bradley.  The former Penn State veteran brings 34 years of experience to WVU.  Bradley's resume is truly impressive.  He helped coach Penn State to two national championships and 27 bowl games.  Bradley earned two defensive coordinator of the year awards (2005 and 2008).  He coached 17 All-Americans and 39 future NFL players on defense.

This season's Mountaineer defense returns seven starters, including 2014 Preseason All-Big 12 defensive back selection Karl Joseph.  Lindy's Sports nationally ranks the Mountaineer linebackers as its sixth best unit.

WVU's defense possesses quality coaching, depth, talent and experience everywhere except the defensive line.

If Gibson and Bradley can get consistent, quality play from an inexperienced defensive line, then this defense could be stout.

After a two year hiatus, defense returns to Morgantown.

Offensively, six starters return.  The offense also has more depth and experience.  Numerous players received lots of game time, particularly across the line and at the skill positions.

Questions remain regarding whether Trickett and the offense - with a full year in Holgorsen's "air raid" system - possess the talent required to turn experience into effectiveness.  Reducing turnovers and taking advantage of the opportunities that the Mountaineer defense gives the offense would go a long ways toward returning WVU football to relevancy.

WVU should be competitive in almost every game.  Towson, at Maryland, Kansas, at Oklahoma State, TCU, Kansas State and at Iowa State should be winnable games.  Losses to Alabama, Oklahoma, Baylor, at Texas Tech and at Texas should not be cause for alarm.  Seven wins would get WVU to a bowl game.

Time will tell if Mountaineer football returns to relevance.  Returning to post-season play and winning eight games would be a decent start.

As always,

Let's Go, Mountaineers!