This started as a best case/worst case type of article, but the pessimism required for the latter, even as an exercise, turned out to be too much for my poor soul to bear. So I settled on this. Let's get right into it.
Here are three reasons we might be worse..
1) The Injury Bug
This first one is true of just about every team in the country, but the surest path to regression is always going to be an injury to the wrong guy. If Will Grier gets hurt, or 1 or 2 of the wrong offensive or defensive lineman, we're probably in bad shape.
Starting with the QBs, the only experience we have behind Grier is Chris Chuganov, who has thrown all of 5 passes in 2 years here. By all accounts he throws a nice ball in practice, but to this point we haven't seen much against a live defense that should make us feel overly confident if he's called into action.
Along the offensive line, we have a bunch of bodies behind a solid starting group, but it seems that the next men up have yet to be established. The nice part here is that our staff emphasizes cross-training, which should allow us to plug-and-play a bit better in the event of an injury, but I feel still feel better about our coverage on the interior than I do at tackle, where we look pretty thin if something should happen to McKivitz or Cajuste.
As for the defensive line, the coaches seem to have 3 or 4 guys that they like, but behind that we just don't know. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson continues to mention that a bunch of young guys are getting looks, but it's impossible to tell at this point in camp if that's something we should be encouraged by or not (are they getting looks because they're better than expected or because the guys ahead of them are worse than expected). Either way it seems to be the reality we're living in, so you have to be worried that an injury could force us to rely on somebody who's not ready to be relied on.
2) Defensive turnover might force us to play a simplified scheme
So where that last section was more about Jim's and Joe's, this one is more about X's and O's.
The 3-3-5 is effective in large part because of the confusion it creates. Guys are lined up in weird spots and flow to their assignments at weird angles, and it's tough to prepare for when you only see it once a year. Unfortunately though, it's as difficult to play well as it is to play against, so if you're playing guys that don't understand what they're supposed to be doing then you have to dumb it down, which mitigates some of that confusion factor.
This is a worrisome scenario for us because for the second consecutive year we're experiencing a high amount of turnover on defense. All three spots along the front will feature new starters, as will strong side linebacker, bandit safety, and both corners, and even though most of those guys have been in the program, there are no guarantees that Gibby will be able to trust them to do all of the things that he likes to do. Vanilla schemes are OK if you grow NFL defenders in labs like Alabama or Ohio State, but we rely on our scheme as much as our athletes to get stops and force turnovers. If we can't do that it lowers our ceiling dramatically.
3) The Big XII might just be good again
The last reason is one that's outside of our control. Simply put, the league was probably a bit down last year, and now it looks like it might be back.
Just run through our schedule. I'm not one to put a ton of stock in preseason rankings and all that, but we play a lot of teams that people seem to think pretty highly of. Tech won 10 games last year and looks strong, Kansas State returns about 47 starters and should be back to their Bill Snyder-y best, and both of the Oklahoma schools are consensus Top 15. Those are all extremely losable games, and that's before you even get into Texas (they've recruited too well to stay bad forever), TCU (probably down but not to be taken lightly), or Baylor (ditto). There's a chance that we could field a better team than we did a year ago and still finish with a worse record. But enough of this pessimism.
Here are three reasons why I think we’ll be better.
1) The BFG hype is real
For the uninitiated, BFG stands for Billy F'ing Grier, and he represents the most obvious spot that we can take a step forward this year.
Look, Skyler Howard was one hell of a Mountaineer. The kid worked his ass off to turn himself into a pretty good football player and spent two seasons defining our team's ceiling with his play, going 18-8 as a starter during that time. I'm proud to have had him in the Old Gold and Blue, but on his best day he could not hope to have it like Will Grier has it. It's kind of like trying to compare Matt Saracen to JD McKoy in Friday Night Lights, only Will doesn't act like an pretentious sack of entitlement.
The two areas where I expect we'll see the biggest improvement are with regards to accuracy and decision making, which are objectively two most of the important factors in determining QB success. Skyler wasn't woefully inaccurate last year (his 61% completion rate was above the NCAA average of 58%), but he did get us into trouble with his decision making at times, forcing throws into coverage when he could've run it or checking to deep balls on 3rd and 2.
By comparison, Grier completed 66% of his passes at Florida and 66% of his passes in the Blue-Gold game, so I'm going to go ahead and assume he'll probably be somewhere between 65% and 70% for the season. That 5% increase may not seem like much, but it would've equated to about 19 extra completions over the course of Skyler's 404 pass attempts last year (about 1.5 per game). Think of some of the easy throws that Skyler just straight missed last year, and where our offense might’ve been if he hadn’t. Will isn’t going to miss those.
Even better, Grier seems to have a natural pocket presence, displaying an innate understanding of where to move, when to try to extend plays, and when to just tuck it and take what he can get with his feet. When combined over the course of a season, those two improvements will likely mean more first downs, less stalled drives, more points, and less turnovers. Those are all things that are helpful when trying to win football games.
2) Offensive efficiency could vastly improve
This is related to reason #1, but I also think there's an opportunity for us to be much better on offense this year, despite losing multi-year starters like Daikiel Shorts, Tyler Orlosky, and Shelton Gibson.
The Mountaineers finished last season ranked 17th nationally in yards per game, 26th in yards per play, and 10th in total explosive plays (runs of 10+ yards or passes of 20+ yards), but despite all that we finished only 49th in points per game. The likely explanation? We weren't very efficient, and we didn't take very good care of the football.
Efficiency wise, we weren't terrible on third down, converting 42.8% of our opportunities (45th nationally), but we were absolutely awful in the red zone, converting trips into points just 80.7% of the time (92nd nationally) and scoring touchdowns on just 57.9% of them (89th). That means we literally came away with nothing about once in every five trips inside our opponents' 20. Let that sink in for a minute.
As for turnovers, we did a characteristically good job of forcing them (25, tied for 24th nationally) but we were pretty sloppy about giving them away, as well (21, tied 82nd). I don’t want to put that all on Skyler, but with 10 interceptions and a handful of fumbles it's easy to see where a majority of those giveaways came from. It's also easy to see that even a marginal improvement in either of these areas could have a big impact on results, and as evidenced by Will's completion percentage and superior 3.3:1 touchdown to interception ratio he had at Florida (Skyler was 2.6:1 last year), marginal improvement seems a safe bet.
3) Tony Gibson Magic
The first two reasons give me even more confidence in the third: Gibby has been in this situation before with our defense and has made it work.
A lot of the critics I see out there seem to conveniently forget that we replaced 8 starters on defense last year, as well, including all 3 linebackers and all 5 defensive backs. And you know what happened? The defense just kept right on chugging along, finishing 2nd in the Big 12 in both scoring and total defense.
Consider the following: all of the lineman slated to start and play in 2017 have been in the program for at least one year (and in many cases, two or three), and three of them were solid contributors last year in backup roles. It's not as if we're throwing a bunch of children out there and hoping for the best; these are capable young men who have simply been waiting for their turn, which happens every year at big-time programs all across the country.
Ditto for the linebackers, where we won't have a single first year guy in the rotation. We'll be led by Al-Rasheed Benton in the middle and one of last year's breakout stars, David Long, on the weak side, with senior Xavier Preston, JUCO star Quondarius Qualls, and most of that much-heralded 2016 class rotating in behind them. Plenty of talent and experience there for Gibby to make it work.
The one area that I think we can reasonably be alarmed about is out wide at corner, where we'll be fielding two new starters for the second straight season. That kind of turnover is always going to be hard to manage, but there are a couple of positives. We brought in some kids who are experienced (albeit at other schools) and built to play the way that Gibby likes to play. Even more important though is what we're bringing back at safety. Kyzir White burst onto the scene last year and was arguably our best defender for much of the season, and now he's joined by former freshman All-American Dravon Askew-Henry at the free. That's quite a backbone in the middle of the field, and should provide a nice safety net while the guys on the outside get their feet wet.
Throw it all together and it's hard to imagine Gibby fielding a unit that's not at the very least serviceable, and with the improvement I expect us to see on offense that might be all we need. If they end up being better than that (which I think is likely), then the Oklahoma schools better take a minute before writing themselves into the Big 12 Championship Game.