Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

June 8, 2014

Teams will enter college football season with questions to be answered

BLUEFIELD — Believe it or not, in 12 weeks — or just three months from today — the first college football games of the season will have been played.

Here is the first of 12 installments looking at each week of the upcoming college football season, beginning with — what else — Week 1.

There will be plenty of articles in the coming months on the high schools as well, especially when practice begins in August, but college football has become the second most popular sport in America, right behind the almighty NFL.

Quarterbacks will be the focus of Week 1 in the region, and no game will be hyped as much as West Virginia's trip to Atlanta to face Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

Other games taking place include Pikeville at Bluefield — which kicks the local season off on a Thursday night at Mitchell Stadium — followed by Beaver-Graham (or G-Men-Bluefield) and then college football on Saturday.

Virginia Tech will host William & Mary, Marshall will begin what could be an undefeated regular season at Miami of Ohio, while UCLA will visit Virginia.

Only Concord has to wait another week to kick off the season.

Of the five teams that will open the season in Week 1, only Marshall is set at quarterback, led by darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate Rakeem Cato, who has thrown for an amazing 10,176 yards and 91 touchdowns in three seasons.

No worries there, especially in Week 1, or possibly all season long. It's not exactly an SEC schedule.

Marshall will hit the road to visit Miami (Ohio), which was 0-12 last year, and has little hope against the Thundering Herd, which thrashed the RedHawks to open last season 52-14.

Miami will be under new direction, with former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin taking over the reins, and he's brought in a few Fighting Irish products, including expected signal-caller Andrew Hendrix.

Still, the RedHawks have a long ways to go. They were 122nd in the nation in scoring last season at 9.8 points a game, and 106th on the other side of the ball, surrendering 35.7 points a contest. Making matters even worst for Miami is the loss of punter Zac Murphy, who was fourth in the nation at 46.6 yards per kick.

Marshall's offense is expected to just as prolific this season, led by Cato and receiver Tommy Shuler, who could become the first receiver in NCAA history with three straight 100-catch seasons. The defense was much-improved last year, allowing 22.9 points a game, down from 43.1 in 2012.

Prediction: Marshall.

The remainder of the regional schools do have quarterback issues.

Much will be made about Alabama needing to replace A.J. McCarron, possibly by Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, but the Mountaineers are looking to answer the same questions.

No coach in the region is under more pressure than Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia, whose Mountaineers are 6-14 over their last 20 games, including 4-8 in 2013.

His high-powered offense wasn't last season, and getting on track against an inexperienced, but talented defense for a Top 5 — and possibly Top 1 or 2 — ranked team could be tricky in the Georgia Dome.

Tailback T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper return, as do three starting lineman to make the Crimson Tide potent on offense. Only four starters return on defense, but there is plenty of talent available, including Alabama's own Geno Smith, who will likely start at free safety.

Clint Trickett, who transferred to Morgantown from Florida State last season, is expected to be the front-runner for the position. West Virginia returns a talented collection of linebackers, but the Mountaineers ranked 99th in the nation in scoring defense and 101th in total defense last season.

For West Virginia to challenge Alabama, the Mountaineers need to get first downs, score six points and keep the ball away from talented punter Nick O'Toole. Holgorsen's offense ranked 113th in third down conversions in 2013, and 103th in scoring touchdowns once inside the red zone.

Prediction: Alabama.

Virginia Tech is also seeking a quarterback to replace Logan Thomas, and could also go with a transfer, Michael Brewer from pass-happy Texas Tech. Brenden Motley and Mark Leal did little to distinguish themselves during spring practice.

The Hokies, which will travel to Ohio State in Week 2, will open with William & Mary, who were 7-5 last season, including a narrow 24-17 season-opening loss at West Virginia.

The Tribe could provide a challenge to Virginia Tech's offense after allowing just 14.0 points a game last season, led by Mike Reilly, who had 13 tackles for loss and 11 1/2 sacks.

Virginia Tech, which has gone 8-5 and 7-6 over the last two seasons, will have one of the nation's best defenses led by a talented secondary. Offensively, the Hokies needs more than a quarterback, such as a playmaker in the backfield, and the offensive line has been dreadful and is now under its third coach in three years.

A.J. Hughes will be kept busy punting in the upcoming season. Who kicks field goals remains to be seen.

With a stingy defense and a ball control offense, the Tribe could give the Hokies fits, but William & Mary has lost 10 straight Virginia Tech, last winning in Blacksburg in 1976.

Prediction: Virginia Tech.

Holgorsen isn't the only regional coach in some trouble. Virginia's Mike London’s Cavaliers are just 6-18 over the last two seasons, and have lost 10 ACC games in a row.

Give Virginia credit, they do play quality non-league foes, and UCLA will be tough, having posted a 10-3 last season, finishing it up by hammering Virginia Tech 42-12 in the Sun Bowl.

The Top 10-ranked Bruins are loaded, led by Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Brett Hundley, who threw for 3,071 yards and 24 touchdowns last season. He also ran for 778 yards and 11 more scores.

While the offense is prolific, ranking 20th in the nation in scoring last season, the defense could be just as good, led by Myles Jack, who not only plays linebacker, but is versatile enough to have been chosen the Pac 12's Offensive and Defensive Freshman of the Year in 2013.

Virginia has already made a change, replacing inconsistent David Watford, at quarterback with Greyson Lambert. Kevin Parks is the leading returning rusher in the ACC, but the Cavaliers lost two linemen to the NFL and tight end Jake McGee transferred.

Defensively, Anthony Harris paced the nation with eight interceptions last season, and Eli Harold has All-America potential.

Virginia's early schedule isn't likely to produce a plus-.500 record through September, not with Louisville and a visit to Brigham Young on tap.

Prediction: UCLA.

The building continues in Bluefield, as the Rams have lost all 22 games played since rekindling football during the 2012 season.

PikeView, which defeated the Rams 42-28 in their inaugural game in 2012, tallied 56 points last season against Bluefield, which allowed 47.0 points per game, including a high of 57 and a low of 38.

Pikeville won its first three and last three games last season. Former Marshall quarterback A.J. Graham is slated to return, having thrown for 2,215 yards and 13 touchdowns for the Bears. Defensively, the Bears were led John Dudley-Hilton, the son of head coach Dudley Hilton, with 68 tackles.

Bluefield will also be trying to decide on a quarterback. The Rams had five signal-callers take snaps last season, led by Josh Erby and Ashten Dixon, but that quintet combined for 19 interceptions and just seven touchdowns.

Rodrell Smith (29-360, 3 td) and Richard Johnson (25-365, 3 td) are talented receivers, while Adrian Pope (488, 5 td) and Marion Harris (440, 3 td) led the Rams in rushing last season. Finding answers on the offensive line will be key for the Rams.

Defensively, the Rams did allow plenty of points, but Frank Brooks is one of the better defensive backs in NAIA, leading Bluefield last year with four interceptions and 77 tackles.

A deep recruiting class will be added to the holdovers for the Rams in Ordell Walker's second season at the helm, meaning plenty of competition for spots in fall camp opens in August.

Prediction: Pikeville.

Concord, which finished 8-3 last season and has won at least seven games in each of the last four years, won't play until Sept. 6 when the Mountain Lions host Mountain East Conference foe Glenville State.

Week 1: 2 wins (Marshall, Virginia Tech); 3 losses (West Virginia, Virginia, Bluefield).

—Contact bwoodson or Twitter @bdtwoodson

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