Middle of the pack for WVU?

It is hard to believe that this begins the 30th year writing the Monday Morning Quarterback Column. By my estimate we are approaching 400 columns, but with WVU football one never runs out of things to say. Thanks to all you loyal readers.

The Mountaineers overachieved in 2016, taking advantage of a down year in the Big 12 Conference and winning all four of their close games. Realistically, they were about an 8-4 team that with the stars aligned turned it into a 10-2 regular season. We have occasionally been on the opposite side of that scenario in past years, so it was fun while it lasted until Miami threw cold water on us in the bowl game.

As is true almost every season, there are question marks for 2017 which will be answered along the way as the games are played. The most significant of those is on the defensive side of the ball where West Virginia returns only 3 starters. But the word from Morgantown is that there is considerable talent and more depth on that side of the ball, and a number of players who were not starters saw significant playing time in 2016. Dravon Askew-Henry, an outstanding safety who was lost all of last season to injury, also returns.

It is not often that a team loses a three year starter at quarterback but anticipates an upgrade, but that’s what Mountaineer fans are hoping for 2017. Taking snaps this season will be Will Grier, a highly touted quarterback out of high school who was 6-0 as a starter at Florida in 2015 (averaging 31 points per game), until he was suspended for the remainder of the season. Grier transferred to West Virginia and sat out last year as required by NCAA rules. Great quarterback play can overcome a lot of other deficiencies in college football. But we also must recognize that it has been nearly two years since Grier has competed on the field.

Injuries at running back hurt WVU late last season, but they should be solid with Justin Crawford, Kennedy McCoy and Martel Pettaway, all of whom showed flashes when healthy. It is at receiver where fans are most concerned. The #1 wideout (Gibson) moved on to the NFL, eligibility expired for #2(Shorts), one projected starter (Durante) transferred, and another (Stills) got himself suspended for a game. Ka’RaunWhite and Gary Jennings have experience but others will need to step up.

Most projections place the Mountaineers in the middle of the pack in the Big 12, but sometimes they do best when flying under the radar. So I am cautiously optimistic that West Virginia will have another solid season with an 8-4 record.

THIS SUNDAY: After moving to the Big 12, West Virginia has focused on returning old rivals to its nonconference schedule. This Sunday the Mountaineers travel to the home of the Washington Redskins to play Virginia Tech, who WVU battled nearly every season from 1957 to 2005.

The Hokies also are on the slate in 2021 and 2022, while Pittsburgh (2022 through 2025) and Penn State (2023,2024) are on the far horizon as well.

Virginia Tech won 10 games in 2016 and lost by only a touchdown in the ACC Championship to ultimate National Champion Clemson. It is thus understandable that the Hokies enter the game as 4 ¢ point favorites, and one would have to go out on a limb to pick a Mountaineer upset. I have had a couple big limbs in my back yard go down this summer, so I feel a little shaky there but I’m going to risk it. WEST VIRGINIA 27 VIRGINA TECH 24.