It is almost here. The highly anticipated football season of the West Virginia Mountaineers that is. The Mountaineers will open at home this Saturday against Western Michigan, a team favored to win the Mid American Conference. It would appear that there will be no more sneaking up on people. College football people all know about West Virginia now.
Ranked as high as third in the major polls, many of the football wags have predicted that the Mountaineers will go undefeated and play for a national championship in New Orleans next January. The reason for all of this hoopla is the wealth of talent the Mountaineers return on offense and what the experts call a "manageable" schedule.
Running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White are on virtually everyone's Heisman watch list. Then there is one of my favorites, Owen Schmitt, the brute of a fullback with the 4.6 speed who can literally run over people and loves to do so. And don't forget wide out Darius Reynaud, the dimunitive wide out with speed that matches White and Slaton. Yes, folks, there is some speed to burn there.
Add to those players the much ballyhooed freshman from Fort Meyers, Florida named Noel Devine. Devine, a 5-8, 170 speedster. was one of the top recruits in the country and cast his lot with the Mountaineers. As expected, Devine is set to back up Slaton as a true freshman and get some work returning kicks. Devine may see time at one of the slot positions as well.
While Devine's emergence on the depth chart was expected, the impact of a fellow true freshman from Florida may be something of a surprise. When Jock Sanders signed with WVU not many eyebrows were raised. Sanders, from St. Petersburg, had good numbers in high school, but in the talent rich state of Florida, a year with 1,200 yards rushing may get overlooked. Especially when 100 miles down the road Devine was rushing for 2,100 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns.
So, after playing in Devine's shadow in Florida, all indications are that Sanders has been impressive enough in fall camp to pull even with Devine for playing time behind Slaton. Sanders, 5-8, 185, may initially get more time in the WVU offense because he will see more time in the slot. Coach Rich Rodriguez calls Sanders' ability to grasp the offense "uncanny."
Where the offense has question marks will be the offensive line and the wide receivers. The line returns some players, but the loss of Dan Mozes and Jeremy Sheffey can't be ignored. Especially Mozes who called the line signals for three years. Also, the departure of line coach Rick Trickett to Florida State could be a bigger loss than any player.
Trickett is widely regarded as one of the best line coaches in the business, so his departure could slow the development of a young WVU front. Trickett's successor, Greg Frey, comes with good credentials though, but the development of the offensive line bears watching.
With WVU's running game expected to have its way with opposing defenses, the passing game may not need to be top notch, but except for Reynaud there is no proven threat on the outside. Former Martinsburg star Nate Sowers has been moved from quarterback and will start in the slot. Dorell Jalloh and Tito Gonzales have made some key catches in their careers, but neither has displayed the consistency which the departed Brandon Myles did.
True freshmen Sanders, Brandon Hogan and Will Johnson are all second on the depth chart at wide out suggesting that either they are very good, or the first line of receivers may be suspect. Wes Lyons, the 6-8 prospect from Pittsburgh, is suffering from a nagging knee injury which has put him way behind. There is a ton of potential here, but the development has been slower than hoped for.
Of course the Mountaineers' achilles heel last year was its defense. The suspension of probable starters J.T. Thomas and Ellis Lankster for their alleged role in a robbery last week hasn't helped, but if anything, there is depth at linebacker and corner where Thomas and Lankster were supposed to play.
There is also experience on defense where as many as seven seniors could find themselves in the starting line up. That should bode well for WVU. With that experience on board the buzz is the coaching staff will be more aggressive this year with their defensive calls. There were plenty of times last year when the defense looked good when they were turned loose.
Will it be good enough to get the Mountaineers to the championship game?
Even with all the pieces of the puzzle in place it is hard to predict an undefeated season. There are still pieces to this puzzle to be put into place, but make no mistake, there is a lot of talent there. Enough talent that a season with more than two losses would be a disappointment. The schedule will be called soft as time goes on, but it isn't that easy, especially when you look at the road games.
If I had to guess a record for this season I would say 11-1 and a BCS spot against Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The loss will come on the road against either Maryland, South Florida or Rutgers.