No. 27 West Virginia
It's easy to point at West Virginia's 15 lost starters and Dana Holgorsen's inability to consistently win in the Big 12 and wonder how the Mountaineers will be a fringe top-25 team — if not much better — in 2017.
However, they have a core of elite players and immediate-impact additions and get back an All-American candidate in the secondary. If the Mountaineers can get past Virginia Tech in the opener, look out.
2016 Record: 10-3 (7-2, Big 12)
West Virginia had an extremely quiet 10-win season — their first since 2011.
While the Mountaineers didn't beat any elite foes and lost to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Miami by a combined 62 points, they still had a six-game winning streak and defeated nine-win teams BYU and Kansas State.
Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen (7th year, 46-31 overall)
Dan Holgorsen should have squashed any hot seat chatter with a 10-win campaign, his second in six seasons as head coach. Not only was their second-place Big 12 finish the highest since joining the conference in 2012, it was the first time finishing higher than fourth. They were also ranked in the final AP top 25 for the first time since 2011, Holgorsen's first year.
"We are seven years into the program, our depth is really good,” he said this summer. “We have adapted to the Big 12. We were fortunate to win 10 games last year, we were tied for second in the Big 12. We have got to continue to move forward a little bit and we are excited about our team and I think we are going to win a lot of games.”
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Will Grier, RB Justin Crawford, WR Ka'Raun White, WR Marcus Simms, OT Colton McKivitz, G Kyle Bosch
Will Grier is too big of a piece to be buried in the Player Additions section below. The Florida transfer could prove to be one of the best transfers the program has ever seen.
“One of the most high-character guys I’ve ever been around,” Holgorsen said. “He’s all business. Extremely smart football player. His extracurricular activities involve going home to his wife and little girl. He’s focused on graduating here, I think, at the end of summer, maybe December.”
The 6-foot-2, 204-pounder started five games for Florida in 2015 before the PED debacle that led him to Morgantown. He showed off some zip in the spring game that helped him throw for 1,204 yards and 10 touchdowns with the Gators.
“He’s just all about ball. He’s everything you want in a starting quarterback," Holgorsen added.
Grier will be joined in the backfield by running back Justin Crawford. The JUCO transfer ran wild in his first season, averaging an incomprehensible 7.4 yards per carry. He is my top candidate lead the Big 12 in rushing. Senior Ka'Raun White and sophomore Marcus Simms lead a talented receiver group.
Sophomore right tackle Colton McKivitz is dripping with All-American potential. He was pressed into action as a freshman and held Missouri's Charles Harris to zero sacks and two tackles in his first career start.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said. “I thought I’d be like a fill-in role, up big and on teams and I come in, stuff like that.”
Key Returning Defensive Players
LB Al-Rasheed Benton, LB David Long, S Dravon Askew-Henry, S Kyzir White
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson lost nine starters from a unit that did a lot of bending but minimal breaking in 2016. They return only 38.9 percent of their tackles, by far the lowest in the Big 12 and the sixth-lowest in the FBS.
Junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry is back at safety after missing all of last with a knee injury suffered in fall camp. The 6-foot, 195-pounder is a hard-hitting, sure-tackling ballhawk who could leave for the NFL with a huge season.
He'll team with senior Kyzir White to form one of the best safety duos in the Big 12 — and possibly the nation. White (below) is a former JUCO transfer and the brother of current receiver Ka'Raun and former receiver Kevin.
"He runs well for a big guy for what we do, but to play at the next level as a safety, he’d have to work on his overall speed,” said Mountaineers safeties coach Matt Caponi. “He’s really built like an outside linebacker.”
And don't be surprised if White gets more snaps inside the box like an outside linebacker given their lack of experience and depth on the edge. Weak-side linebacker David Long suffered a knee injury in July and will miss at least the first month of the season, and both defensive ends graduated. Senior Al-Rasheed Benton is back in the middle.
Notable Player Losses
QB Skyler Howard, RB Rushel Shell, WR Shelton Gibson, WR Daikiel Shorts, G Adam Pankey, C Tyler Orlosky, DE Noble Nwachukwu, LB Justin Arndt, CB Rasul Douglas
Given Will Grier's arrival, Skyler Howard's departure has been a non-talking point. He's deserving of a hat tip after throwing for 52 touchdowns more than 6,000 yards the last two seasons.
Offensive skill players Rushel Shell, Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts are also gone. Gibson, an NFL Draft early entrant, averaged more than 20 yards per catch each of the last two years, including 24 yards in 2015. They're also replacing All-American center Tyler Orlosky and one of the Big 12's better interior linemen in guard Adam Pankey.
The defense lost key players at every level, particularly in the secondary where Rasul Douglas was a third-round pick after tying for the FBS lead with a eight interceptions.
Notable Player Additions
WR David Sills V, CB Corey Winfield, S Derrek Pitts
Will Grier isn't the only notable addition for the Mountaineers. One of his top targets could be David Sills, a former quarterback who made headlines as a seventh-grader when committing to USC in 2010. He was previously on the roster but spent 2016 as a quarterback at El Camino College.
Cornerback Corey Winfield comes from Syracuse, where he played in 31 games and had 85 tackles, two interceptions and six pass breakups.
"We made that decision about four or five years ago," Holgorsen said of pursuing more FBS and JUCO transfers. "The first year in the league, we had some top-end talent, but our depth wasn't very good. Recruited a lot of high school kids, got our depth better, but we went 4-8, so we needed some more top-end talent. So started doing a lot of transfers, and they've worked out. It's just kind of what our niche has been."
True freshman safety Derrek Pitts from Charleston, W.V., should immediately see the field.
Every West Virginia fan is staring at their Oct. 28 home matchup vs. Oklahoma State and wondering if the Mountaineers could be 7-0 entering that game. To do so, they'd have to beat Virginia Tech (neutral), TCU (away), Texas Tech (home) and Baylor (away).
They close the season with Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma in consecutive weeks.
|Sunday, Sept. 3||vs. Virginia Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. East Carolina|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Delaware State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||at Kansas|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||at TCU|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||vs. Texas Tech|
|Saturday, Oct. 21||at Baylor|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Oklahoma State|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Iowa State|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||at Kansas State|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Texas|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Oklahoma|