Over the next few weeks, we’ll be taking a look at the major players on the opposite sideline for the Tennessee Volunteers in 2018–2019. While UT is one of the more intriguing and mysterious teams in Division 1 football, some of their opponents are just as hard to predict. At the top of the list of hard-to-pin down programs is the Vols’ first opponent, West Virginia.
Why, you may ask? For one thing, this is the first time the Volunteers and the Mountaineers have met. Despite this, there are elements of the game that will be familiar — namely WVU QB Will Grier, whose career at Florida ended after a poorly timed accidental purchase at GNC (or something like that). The failed drug test right before the UT game wasn’t enough for then-Coach Jim McElwain to discipline Grier. He waited until after the Gators played UT in 2015, and Grier subsequently bailed on a declining Florida program.
But Grier landed on his feet with West Virginia, and in a year when the pass-happy Big 12 has seen a lot of turnover at the quarterback position he’s getting Heisman mentions if head coach Dana Holgorsen can pull out a huge season for him. Admittedly, Grier’s 2017 stats were ridiculous. But while the offense is designed to excel in the Big 12, the defense of the Mountaineers has been a bit of an afterthought…like pretty much every Big 12 team ever. This season in particular, the defense present a glaring opportunity for opponents to spike WVU’s title hopes.
But the Mountaineers aren’t playing a Big 12 opponent to start the season. They’re playing an SEC foe that’s hungry to prove last year was an aberration. So let’s take a look at West Virginia’s program, and see what we can learn about Tennessee’s first opponent.
WVU’S main storyline at the end of 2017 was Will Grier’s finger. Not like Rashaan Gaulden’s finger but more like Joe Theisman’s leg. After a fairly nasty fracture, Grier was sidelined for the rest of the season and WVU’s offense immediately tanked. But before you start thinking that trend is going to continue, remember that Grier threw for 34 touchdowns and 3500 yards by mid-November last year. That’s insane. West Virginia has four starters coming back on an extremely effective offensive line, plus a lot of depth and talent in the receiving corps. One potential weak spot comes at running back, where WVU has to replace 1,000+ yard rusher Justin Crawford.
But make no mistake — the run game is secondary to the Mountaineer flying circus. This is an offense that can move the ball fast and consistently through the air. Grier is also a fairly mobile quarterback who can turn a potential disaster into a positive play with either his feet or his arm. Since WVU only had 460 rushing attempts in 2017, the offensive game plan is glaringly obvious.
If — and that’s a big if — the running game hasn’t come together by September 1, a good defense can exploit that lapse. Grier airs out the ball so much, he’s prone to interceptions and is easily rattled under pressure. For those 34 TDs, he had 12 interceptions last year.
Regardless, though, this is an offense that averaged 459 yards and 34.5 points a game in 2017 and it will put up a lot of points and yards this year, as well. There are a lot of positives heading into 2018 for Holgorsen’s offense.
With any Big 12 team (with the possible exception of Gary Patterson’s TCU Horned Frogs), the offense is the star and that’s particularly true at West Virginia. Also with any Big 12 team (with the possible exception of Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma), WVU’s defense is the red-headed stepchild Holgorsen forces to hide under the front porch when company comes and especially this year. How bad were they, you ask?
Last year, WVU gave up 446 yards per game, allowing opponents to score an average of 32 points. More specifically, the run defense was abysmal, giving up an average of 204 yards per game on the ground. In the Big 12, that’s not a big deal. After all, no one has a really stout defense in a league where the order of the day is dueling offenses set to the rhythm of Dueling Banjos.
Attrition hasn’t helped the Mountaineers either. WVU lost its leading tackler from last year — in fact, WVU lost five of their top seven tacklers. They are bringing in some outstanding transfers in Jabril Robinson who comes from Clemson and Kenny Bigelow, who played for USC. The Mountaineers are counting on both players making an instant impact on the defense, but Bigelow will need to be healthy this year after a history of knee injuries. Unfortunately, WVU doesn’t have a lot of depth on its defense
In the end, the new blood coming into defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unit is going to have to be extraordinary if the Mountaineers are going to compete with some of the teams on their schedule. Gibson runs a 3–3–5 scheme, but lost three of his five backs to graduation. I’m not sure how effective this defense will be against competent offenses. West Virginia’s greatest vulnerability defensively is hard to peg, but it’s difficult to overlook that 204 yards per game on the ground.
Especially when you consider this statistic: in 2017, Kansas rushed 50 times for 367 yards. Yes, that Kansas. The 1–11 Kansas Jayhawks rushed for 367 yards and racked up 564 yards of total offense in a 52–34 loss.
The kicking game is kind of hard to peg down. Last year, WVU only attempted 15 field goals, making 11 of them. But the primary WVU kicker graduated, so now the kicking responsibility falls on sophomore Evan Staley, while the punts will be handled by rising senior Billy Kinney, who averaged 40.9 yards per boot last year. The Mountaineers do have a serious returning threat in the dangerous WR Marcus Simms, who had a great 2017 with 819 yards on 31 returns.
The good news is that Simms is back.
The bad news is that last year’s squad was ranked 90th in field goal efficiency, 90th in punt efficiency, and 119th in kickoff efficiency and there’s no reason to think that will improve all that much.
KEYS TO THE GAME
So, the real question about the Tennessee-West Virginia game is an elemental one: how will the Mountaineers stand up against a legitimate SEC foe?
Will Grier knows what it’s like to play in the SEC. As long as he doesn’t make any thoughtless vitamin purchases in Morgantown, Tennessee will be facing the top returning QB in the Big 12 and a Heisman candidate.
The key to this matchup is simple: out of conference opponents like Tennessee don’t want to be forced to play the Mountaineers’ game. West Virginia is designed to shoot it out with the rest of the Big 12. They are focused on scoring big and scoring fast. Their defense comes across as an afterthought because it is one. The Mountaineers are counting so much on the offense to produce more points than the other team. A team with a strong run game should be able to rush at will, slowing the pace of the game down and keeping that high octane offense off the field.
Defensively, the keys to the game are two-fold. Cover those big receivers downfield and get pressure on Will Grier. Grier gets rattled when the pass rush gets too close and makes mistakes. A couple of interceptions could change the mindset of the offense, leaving the door open for their opponents to score.
At the end of the day, I can’t get past the fact that Kansas ran the ball down this 3–3–5 defense’s throat last season. And while what happened last year shouldn’t be held against either team (God knows), that weakness on the run defense seems to be an inherent flaw in Gibson’s defensive scheme. If the Mountaineers want to live up to all the hype, they have to field a defense that can compete with any team in the country. And with serious depth issues everywhere but safety, any loss due to injury quickly becomes catastrophic.
But there’s another fact that is inescapable. Since the 2012 Orange Bowl, WVU has been fairly pedestrian. They’ve never finished higher than third in the Big 12, and have gone 1–4 in bowl games. Against P5 foes they’ve been woeful, with losses to Utah, Miami, Alabama, Texas A&M, and Maryland. Their marquis P5 win was against a 4–8 Mizzou in 2016.
This game reminds me a lot of the Battle of Bristol against Virginia Tech. In order to keep the 2018 hype train going, the Mountaineers need a statement win early. They need to match up against Tennessee and prove that they can hang with a squad stuffed with SEC talent that fields both an offense and a defense. The quickest way to derail West Virginia’s best shot at a Big 12 crown and a Heisman candidate QB’s season would be to lose in Charlotte on September 1.
But the quickest way to jump start Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure on Rocky Top is with a statement win over a Big 12 opponent. On September 1, we’ll find out which team can overcome the recent past and start to forge a new path for their program and who’ll show up — vintage West Virginia or a resurrected Tennessee.