Monday Morning Quarterback: WVU to take opener

The West Virginia Mountaineers enter the 2018 season with a Top 25 ranking and projected by many to be a contender for one of the spots in the Big 12 Championship game. Indeed, WVU will have the best quarterback in the conference and plenty of talent at the wide receiver and running back positions.

But as we all know, preseason predictions are virtually meaningless. For virtually all but the elite teams in college football question marks remain to be answered as a season plays out, and West Virginia is no exception.

The major concern is on the defensive side of the ball, where only five starters return. Encouraging news from camp is that there appears to be more depth and talent available than the last couple of years, and this may bode well. But remember this was a defense that surrendered 31.5 points per game in 2017 and was gashed for an average of 204 rushing yards each week (4.9 per carry). Those are not winning numbers and the defense will need to be much better for the Mountaineers to achieve their goals in 2018.

It is on both sides of the line of scrimmage that WVU often fails to effectively control the game. The aforementioned defensive numbers speak for themselves, but even the offense succumbed to problems in the trenches last season. The Mountaineers were inconsistent running the football. There were too many negative yardage plays and converting third and short yardage was a struggle. Thus even with Will Grier at the helm the offense still went through stretches of futility. In consecutive weeks vs Kansas State and Iowa State, for example, WVU failed to score a single point in the second half.

And special teams? Don’t get me started. Although kickoff coverage was fairly solid in 2017 the rest was mediocre.

Football guru Phil Steele, who publishes a leading preseason publication, statistically ranked the Mountaineers’ special teams at #110 and #100 the last two seasons. That speaks for itself.

To achieve their goal of making the conference championship West Virginia therefore must (1) run the football more effectively; (2) achieve overall improvement on defense, particularly stopping the run; (3) at least get special teams performance to somewhere around average; and (4) stay relatively injury free.

So for my prediction? I will drink the Kool Aid, although sugar free—and say the Mountaineers will go 9-3.

THIS SATURDAY: For the second straight season West Virginia will open with a neutral field matchup, this time against Tennessee. These games have a fun feel of a bowl game to start the season rather than at the end. It will be played at the Carolina Panthers 75,000 seat stadium in Charlotte and is close to sold out.

The Volunteers have a proud football tradition but have fallen on hard times, with six losing season in the last 10 years.

They hit bottom in 2017 in failing to win a conference game and hired a new coach. But Tennessee fans continue to fill their 100,000 seat stadium at home in Knoxville, and will have a large contingent in Charlotte. Despite its recent struggles this is still a squad with plenty of SEC talent and must be respected. It should be a very competitive game in an enthusiastic setting.