By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Any season, of course, is a journey into the unknown, a venture down a highway that is fraught with potholes and detours, but the trip West Virginia University’s football team is about to embark upon today with the opening of camp is one filled with mystery and intrigue like no other.
On the surface, coming off a 70-33 thrashing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, one would think the Mountaineers are primed for a spectacular year, but there always is the shadow of Big East losses to Louisville and Syracuse from last year that leaves you wondering just which is the real WVU team.
As Dana Holgorsen’s second team begins its month-long preseason preparations, five questions loom large as you try to analyze exactly where they stand.
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Question No. 1: Are the Mountaineers good enough to withstand the weekly challenge of the Big 12, a conference acknowledged as far superior to the Big East conference, which they won last year?
Answer: The one certainty about joining the Big 12 is that it is a big step up from the Big East, and face it — despite the gaudy 70-33 Orange Bowl victory, the Mountaineers did not dominate the Big East.
WVU lost games to Louisville and Syracuse last year in the conference, unsavory losses that leave all kinds of questions about how they will stack up against the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas and Kansas State in the Big 12.
This is a conference that produces national champions, Heisman Trophy winners, Biletnikoff Award winners. It is a football conference that plays basketball, not a basketball conference that plays football like the Big East was.
The coaching fraternity is deep and proven, meaning a relatively young coach in Holgorsen has to match wits with Bill Snyder, Bob Stoops, Mack Brown, Charlie Weis, Tommy Tuberville and Mike Gundy game after game.
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Question No. 2: Will a rebuilt and redesigned defense be able to put the brakes on the great offenses West Virginia will face during the season?
Answer: This is the question of the century. Good defenses don’t normally do much to stop Big 12 attacks, and no one knows just how good Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson’s newly designed 3-4 defense will be.
WVU has been spitting out NFL defenders with regularity in recent years, but now they have a reshaped defense with a lot of new faces.
The 3-4 comes with more of a gambling philosophy, with the goal being to create turnovers.
That will require pressure on the passer, and two of the best pass rushers in WVU history — first-round draft pick Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller — are gone. That makes Will Clarke the man who has to do it up right.
“We should have great competition on the defensive end,” said Jorge Wright, who is scheduled to play at the nose.
Cornerback Pat Miller and Broderick Jenkins also are on the spot.
“As long as the cornerbacks are playing right, the defense will go just perfect,” Miller said.
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Question No. 3: Is the Mountaineer offensive line good enough to hold up against the kind of pressure it will face in the Big 12, especially when it goes up against Texas on the road?
Answer: This is shaping up as one of the best offensive lines the Mountaineers have put together.
It’s built around a true Rimington Award candidate in center Joey Madsen, a three-year starter at the position. The only major award winner WVU has ever produced is center Dan Mozes in 2006.
Madsen sported a Mohawk, and at least one Big 12 writer dubbed him the best quote at media day.
Make no doubt, he’s geared up for his final season.
“Every game will be a bowl game for me,” he said.
That’s the kind of stuff great seasons are made of, and Madsen isn’t the only Mountaineer to feel that way.
Another senior on the O-line, right guard Jeff Braun, also has that feeling, and had he gone to media day he would have given Madsen a run for best quote. He has moved from left guard, where he was forced to play last year due to an injury to Josh Jenkins, to right guard.
Braun says they are looking to add toughness to the mix this season.
“One thing we’ve tried to do is get a nastiness about us,’’ Braun said. “We want to be the most physical group we can be and put people on the ground. I think we’ve been doing that.”
Jenkins comes back to his left guard spot, eager to prove himself worthy of the NFL in his final year, while equally eager to prove himself is first-year starter Quinton Spain, a mountain of a man at right tackle.
Pat Eger returns at right tackle after having proven himself last year when he surprised everyone by winning the job.
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Question No. 4: Will WVU have a healthy Dustin Garrison back, creating a strong enough running game to complement the aerial assault that is acknowledged as the best in the conference?
Answer: West Virginia did not really run the ball well last year. Part of it had to do with the offensive scheme, which leans toward the pass but has a history of producing 1,000-yard rushers, part because there wasn’t really an experienced running back.
The Mountaineers gained 1,936 rushing yards, 122 per game, but that’s distorted because they rushed for 360 of them against Bowling Green, Garrison gaining 291 in 32 carries.
Garrison, however, suffered a season-ending knee injury before the Orange Bowl and is fighting to make his way back now. Even though he says he’s on schedule, no one knows for sure.
But the key to the running game may be Shawne Alston, a big back who had a big game on the big stage of the Orange Bowl.
“He’s slimmed up a little bit,” Holgorsen said of him. “He’s going to be a fifth-year senior, and he probably has the loudest voice in our locker room as far as being heard, being respected. He likes to refer to himself as the boss.”
Andrew Buie is also in the mix and don’t forget the rock ’em, sock ’em game Ryan Clarke brings at fullback. Who knows? Holgorsen may even give him a carry this year.
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Question No. 5: What are the limits on what quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey can reach this season?
Answer: There are no limits upon what the triumvirate of Smith, Austin and Bailey can do, especially as they move into a league that likes shootouts and gives up big numbers in the passing game.
Geno Smith’s performance in the Orange Bowl was unmatched in bowl history, records falling like raindrops in a summer thunderstorm.
And Austin pushed himself into the national conscience with his spectacular, four-TD performance.
All three of them are candidates for major honors, including the Heisman, but the modest Smith isn’t putting that on his list of goals for the season.
“Personal accomplishment is not the driving force,” Smith explained. “I don’t play the game of football for any type of personal accolades or special gifts or to be glorified for it. That’s not who I am,” he said. “I’m a very humble person and down to earth. If people get to know me, they find out when I’m off the football field I’m not out there boasting about anything.
“I took up this game because I love to play it and because of all the things that come along with it.”
No one, not even LSU, stopped WVU’s offense last year, and they were just scratching the surface of the scheme.
Now they know it, have a year under their belt, a stronger offensive line and additional depth at wide receiver with the addition of guys like tall Dante Campbell and elusive Jordan Thompson.
They are also driven to prove themselves.
“This is a new conference, and we’ve got some big things to prove,” Bailey noted. “People think because we are coming from the Big East, that the things we were able to do was sometimes a fluke. We are ready for every challenge coming our way.”
The question isn’t whether or not this group will shatter their own WVU records for passing, receiving and TDs, only by how much.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.