Our ranking: No. 34 WEST VIRGINIA
Coach: Dana Holgorsen (46-31, entering seventh season; 46-31 overall)
2016 record: 10-3, 7-2 in the Big 12, tied for second in conference
Look back: West Virginia got off to one of its hottest starts since 2007, with the Mountaineers winning eight of their first nine games of the 2016 season. Despite only having three returning starters on defense, the unit put together its best season under Dana Holgorsen, allowing just 24 points per game while forcing 25 turnovers. The offense clicked as well, with QB Skyler Howard and RB Justin Crawford combining to help the unit average more than 480 yards per game.
Offensive starters returning: 6
Offensive starters lost: 5
Defensive starters returning: 3
Defensive starters lost: 8
Key losses: WR Shelton Gibson, QB Skyler Howard, WR Devonte Mathis, OL Tyler Orlosky, OL Adam Pankey, RB Rushel Shell, WR Daikiel Shorts, DL Christian Brown, S Jarrod Harper, DL Noble Nwachukwu
Top returnees: OL Kyle Bosch, WR Jovon Durante, OL Marcell Lazard, WR Ka’Raun White, S Dravon Askew-Henry, LB Al Rasheed-Bengon, LB David Long, S Kyzir White
Strengths: The addition of Florida transfer QB Will Grier gives new Mountaineers offensive coordinator Jake Spavital a proven player to work with as the team looks to replace one of the most productive players in school history in Howard. Grier played in six games for the Gators in 2015, passing for more than 1,200 yards with 10 touchdowns before being suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. After sitting out a season in observance of NCAA transfer rules, Grier was cleared to play in 2017.
“It didn’t take long for us to figure out that he’s a really good player,” Holgorsen said of Grier at Big 12 media days. “He’s got that starting quarterback trait. He’s a coach’s kid. He’s a winner.”
Tony Dews returns to the program to take over as running backs coach. He’ll work with three of the team’s top rushers from last season, led by Crawford (1,184 yards and four touchdowns).
Weaknesses: West Virginia’s entire front defensive line is gone, leaving defensive coordinator Tony Gibson with the difficult task of rebuilding the group. LB Al-Rasheed Benton is the top returning player (80 tackles) on a defense that lost four of its top five tacklers. Senior S Kyzir White guides a secondary that, much like the rest of the defense, lacks real experience.
West Virginia returns just two starters on the offensive line and must replace All-American Tyler Orlosky and three-year starter Adam Pankey. The duo combined for more than 78 career starts for the Mountaineers and played a big role in the program’s success on the ground. Senior OG Kyle Bosch (26 career starts) provides veteran leadership for a line that will need to bond quickly as the season progresses.
Outlook: Holgorsen went from hot seat in 2013 to earning a new contract extension through 2021 after leading the program to its first double-digit win season since 2011. Despite the success, Holgorsen tweaked his staff in the offseason, adding Spavital into the mix and giving up play calling duties to his former protégé. Holgorsen also brought in a large group of transfers to give the team with some much-needed depth.