Less than one year ago as another round of conference expansion began to unfold, few could have imagined that in just the next football season the West Virginia Mountaineers would be playing in the Big 12 Conference.
More than 50 consecutive years playing rivals Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and 21 years in the Big East Conference have given way to a league with the closest foe nearly 900 miles away. The 2012 schedule features 10 new opponents. Teams that once would have been the single premier game on a nonconference schedule, such as Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State now are part of a conference slate. We don't play just one - we get the whole group and then some.
All of this brings an exciting edge to the upcoming season. No longer do West Virginia fans need to worry about defending the quality of their football conference. But the move also features a substantial upgrade in the quality of opposition, and it will indeed be a challenge in 2012 and future seasons.
The Mountaineers return all of their playmakers on an offense which at its best piled up 70 points in the Orange Bowl rout of Clemson. Quarterback Geno Smith returns for his third season as a starter, and the pass receiving corps has become among the best in the nation, led by Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The running game will still be uncertain, as WVU has yet to find a feature back. The offensive line returns three starters from last season along with Parkersburg's Josh Jenkins, who started for two years before sitting out 2011 due to injury.
Those gaudy Orange Bowl numbers won't happen every week, but it does signal that on any given day this West Virginia squad will be capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent. The ability to score points won't be a concern, but can the Mountaineers defense keep opponents from doing the same?
That is the biggest question mark going into 2012. While WVU returns seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, the players who moved on were among the best of the 2011 stop unit. There will be new coordinators and a different scheme. And it must be remembered that the 2011 Mountaineer defense had a mediocre year, yielding nearly 27 points per game to mostly average Big East offenses. What they will face this season will be anything but average.
Oklahoma with Landry Jones at quarterback will be one of the most prolific offensive teams in the nation. Kansas State will return a QB who accounted for 40 touchdowns, while Texas Tech brings back a 4,000-yard passer. Oklahoma State lost a lot of its offensive firepower, but the Cowboys always seem to be able to plug in enough talent to post some big numbers running Dana Holgorsen's offense from his year as their 2010 offensive coordinator. Texas will feature a superb running attack. And I haven't even mentioned Baylor and TCU. I think you get the idea.
In 2011, West Virginia was behind at some point in all 13 games, and won their last four conference games with fourth quarter comebacks. As a result, fans became accustomed to stress and excitement while following the Mountaineers. Be prepared for more this season. It should be fun.
My crystal ball sees a 9-3 finish. That would place WVU in the upper tier of the Big 12 in its first season, which most would consider a successful year.
This Saturday: Marshall will visit Morgantown in the last of a seven game series which is unlikely to be renewed in the foreseeable future. WVU has prevailed comfortably in all but one contest, when the Herd had the Mountaineers on the ropes in Huntington in 2010 and let it slip away. Marshall always gives a spirited effort in this matchup and I would expect nothing less on Saturday. But WVU should have too much firepower. West Virginia 41 Marshall 23.
Monday Morning Quarterback is a regular weekly feature of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel during West Virginia University's football season. Parkersburg attorney Blaine Myers is beginning his 25th season as a Monday Morning Quarterback.