Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

July 25, 2013

Expectations much different as new season approaches

BLUEFIELD — What a difference a year makes. At this time last July, West Virginia fans were thrilled about the Mountain-eers’ first season in the Big 12, and Virginia Tech was the favorite to play for another ACC championship, and perhaps — at least to some similar state publications, but not this one — much more.

Turn the calendar forward 12 months and expectations aren’t close to the same.

West Virginia is the preseason pick to finish eighth in the 10-team — yes, the still 10-team — Big 12. Virginia Tech, which is normally the overwhelming choice to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, is picked a distant second behind Miami by those in the media who attended the ACC media days.

In fact, out of 120 ballots cast, exactly one had Virginia Tech picked as ACC champions.

While predictions are simply guesses, both West Virginia and Virginia Tech should have plenty of bulletin board material when practice begins in two weeks.

How disappointing was 2012?

West Virginia was expected to compete for the Big 12 championship and perhaps even more, rising all the way to fourth in the nation with a 5-0 record after beating Texas.

However, that defense — which allowed 108 points in two wins against Baylor and Texas — finally proved fatal, as the Mountaineers had to beat cellar dwellers Iowa State and Kansas just to reach seven wins and qualify for a bowl, which they would probably have rather skipped.

Talk about a letdown. One year after embarrassing Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl in sunny Miami, the Mountaineers lost to former Big East foe Syracuse in the snow and cold of Yankee Stadium.

The season couldn’t end soon enough.

Ditto for Virginia Tech, which expected to at least challenge for the ACC title, but had to beat Boston College in overtime and Virginia in the final seconds to reach six wins. That was followed by more overtime in beating Rutgers in a sleep-inducing Russell Athletic Bowl .

Virginia Tech finished the season with a three-game streak, winning those final three games by a combined 13 points.

That came one season after the Hokies were a questionable call in the end zone and a late missed field goal from beating Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Expectations were high, but Logan Thomas struggled behind center, an answer was never found in the backfield and the vaunted Virginia Tech defense surrendered 28 or more points six times.

Are the so-called experts correct?

They certainly weren’t last season when both teams were expected to at least reach 10 wins, but barely reached seven.

What about 2013?

The scary part about West Virginia is there seems to be more enthusiasm for a pair of transfers — quarterback Clint Trickett and running back Charles Sims — than the holdovers already on the roster.

Is Trickett really the answer are quarterback? What about Paul Millard and Ford Childress, who have been competing for the job vacated by Geno Smith? Sims joins a crowded backfield that is talented with Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, but the question is who will catch the ball in the wide-open offense with Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey now in the NFL.

Jordan Thompson actually made the Fred Biletnikoff Award watch list, but he had just 13 catches in 2012. The offensive line also has just two starters back so Dana Holgorsen will have to be a true magician for the Mountaineers to score the 39.5 points they averaged last season.

That defense, which was among the worst in America last season, does return experience, but is that a good thing? It might help West Virginia that most of the other Big 12 schools also lost plenty of firepower so Mountaineers shouldn’t allow 34 or more points like they did in nine games in 2012.

Special teams could also be an issue. West Virginia will have all new specialists, and Austin — who was worth the price of admission — is no longer returning kicks for the Mountaineers.

Virginia Tech seems more likely to improve, at least if the nine returning starters on defense can actually reach the level of last fall when the since-graduated Bruce Taylor kept saying the Hokies were talented enough to bring back memories of past great defenses in Blacksburg.

It’s safe to say he was wrong, but the Hokies should be better with James Gayle, Jack Tyler and a healthy Antone Exum on their side.

Special teams should also be a strength, but the issue for the Hokies will be offense, which was so bad that even the ultra-loyal Frank Beamer made changes on his staff.

Thomas is back, and has a new offensive coordinator to work with, but he threw three interceptions in the spring game and two were returned for touchdowns.

Virginia Tech never did find a consistent rushing attack last season, with Thomas leading the team on the ground. Michael Holmes, who was the starting running back at the start in 2012, has been kicked off the team, but Trev Edmunds has been waiting for his chance.

Thomas will also be looking for targets, with the leading receiver back from last year having 19 receptions. Three offensive linemen do return so that should help, but the Hokies were held to less than 20 points in five games last year.

What does 2013 hold?

West Virginia should be 3-1 after the opening four games. They should be favored in their final two games. Perhaps the Mountaineers can outscore Texas Tech and get to six wins and another bowl.

What happens in those other five games will determined the fate of the Mountaineers.

As for Virginia Tech, the Hokies will start 0-1 — they will not beat Alabama, and neither will anyone else — but could be 3-1 going into the ACC schedule, although East Carolina could scare them in Greenville.

Virginia Tech doesn’t have to play Florida State or Clemson from the Atlantic Division so the season will ride on Coastal Division road games at Georgia Tech and Miami, and home tilt with North Carolina.

At least Marshall is getting a little respect. Of course, the Thundering Herd had an even worst defense than West Virginia in 2012, and an offense that actually scored more points than the Mountaineers.

Marshall has been picked second in the East Division of the watered-down Conference USA. Find a little defense and keep scoring points and perhaps the Herd could be in the mix.

As for Virginia, the Cavaliers face Brigham Young and Oregon to open the season, and have to play at North Carolina and Miami, and will host Clemson and nemesis Virginia Tech. It could be another long season in Charlottesville.

As for West Virginia or Virginia Tech, little is expected on a national scale from the Mountaineers or the Hokies.

Perhaps, just maybe, that lack of respect will lead a better season than anyone expects. Hey, it worked the other way around in 2012.   

—Brian Woodson is the sports editor for the Daily Telegraph. He encourages feedback at bwoodson@bdtonline.com

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