Can West Virginia Win The Big 12?

West Virginia football has been reasonably predictable under Dana Holgorsen. They’ll put up points, give up a lot and be a threat to knock off Big 12 powers while not actually becoming one themselves. There’s excitement coming into this season surrounding quarterback Will Grier, an early frontrunner for league MVP and Heisman consideration. Can the Mountaineers have a breakthrough year, win the Big 12 and get to the New Year’s Six?

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In seven years under Holgorsen the offense has ranked higher statistically than the defense six times In some cases that’s been dramatic, like 2012, when Geno Smith blew out scoreboards and the defense routinely surrendered 40-plus. The notable exception to the rule was 2016. And it’s surely no coincidence that West Virginia won ten games that year, their best season since Holgorsen’s 2011 debut when he won the old Big East.

That makes defense the focal point and it means newcomers are going to have to step up. West Virginia already faces significant personnel losses here and it got worse in spring with some injuries and departures. But the good news is that the bar is not high in the Big 12 when it comes to defense and there is a thread of hope for the Mountaineers.

Two newcomers are going to have play significant roles. With both cornerback jobs open, Holgorsen dipped into the junior college market and grabbed Josh Norwood. Incoming freshman Dante Stills is the program’s top recruit this season. Both have to make an impact if the defense is to rise to the level of being average.

I don’t mean that as snide as it may sound—average defenses in the Big 12 can go a long way, especially when you have an offense like this one. Grier will be protected by two excellent offensive tackles in Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz. Holgorsen is a bright offensive mind. The offense can carry the defense up to a certain point.

The schedule also works in favor of a developing team that can be carried for a little while by its quarterback. West Virginia is one of five teams seen as viable contenders in the Big 12, joining Oklahoma, Texas, TCU and Oklahoma State. All four of those teams are on the November schedule. Keep in mind the Big 12 now plays a championship game with its 1-2 finishers. If the Mountaineers simply go 4-1 against the bottom half of the league in late September/October, they’ll enter November with a chance.

I wouldn’t predict West Virginia to win the conference title. The question marks are too big for that. I will say that the 7-1 odds they get to capture their first Big 12 crown are reasonably enticing, given the question marks that linger around everyone else and the quality of Grier. I think the Over/Under on wins being set at 7 is a very good value, even with a competitive schedule that includes non-conference games against Tennessee and N.C. State, along with the usual nine-game Big 12 slate.

When West Virginia makes it into major bowl games, they tend to do well—they upset Georgia in the Sugar Bowl (2005), Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl (2007) and dropped 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl (2011). This year’s team looks like about a third-place finisher, but in a Big 12 that’s often unpredictable, could easily go higher.