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Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.
No. 23 West Virginia
2017 record: 7-6 (5-4 Big 12)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense
When you have the best QB in the Big 12 you have a chance
The Big 12 has a ton of quarterback questions entering the 2018 season. Teams like Oklahoma State, Texas and Kansas State have quarterback competitions entering the season and TCU and Oklahoma are also replacing their quarterbacks.
That environment makes the return of West Virginia QB Will Grier for his season even more enviable. It’s always great to return a senior QB who completed 64 percent of his passes for nearly 3,500 yards and 34 touchdowns. But to do so in a conference where the champion most always has one of the best-performing QBs in the country is a huge boost.
Baker Mayfield powered Oklahoma to the last three Big 12 championships. Before that, 2014 co-champions TCU and Baylor featured a QB that accounted for 42 touchdowns (TCU’s Trevone Boykin) and a QB that led the conference in pass efficiency (Bryce Petty). In 2013, Petty led the country in pass efficiency as Baylor won the conference. In 2012, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones threw for nearly 4,300 yards while completing two-thirds of his passes and Kansas State’s Collin Klein was a Heisman finalist.
For the sake of brevity, we’ll stop there. But you get the point. Grier gives West Virginia an outside chance at a Big 12 title.
The defense has to get better
Grier ain’t a two-way player though. West Virginia’s defense gave up 31.5 points per game in 2017; the most it had since 2013. Opponents averaged nearly 5 yards per carry against the Mountaineers. The pass rush generated less than 30 sacks for the sixth-straight season.
The low point came in a 59-31 loss to Oklahoma in November. West Virginia gave up 646 yards to the Sooners, leading to defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s quip that he should be fired.
Gibson was not fired. He’s back. So is linebacker David Long and safety Dravon Askew-Henry. They were the third and fourth-leading tacklers on the team. If he’s fully healthy for the season Long should lead the team in stops — he had 12.5 tackles for loss in 10 games in 2017.
The season’s final stretch is brutal
West Virginia doesn’t play Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma until the final four weeks of the season. That Oklahoma game is in the final week, meaning the two teams could be playing a dress rehearsal for the Big 12 title game.
No, Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen has not thought about that back-to-back possibility.
“Don’t know, never done it, and not going to think about it,” We got to play Tennessee. That’s our first game. That’s our focus. Obviously we’ve been in this league for six, seven years now, so there’s familiarity with every opponent in the league. The back-to-back thing, I don’t know. I’m sure it’s happened before. We get to a point to where that’s something we will have to deal with, we will research it and deal with it the best way possible.”
Gary Jennings, WR: The Grier-to-David Sills connection was strong in 2017. Sill caught 18 touchdowns and averaged over 16 yards a catch. He’s also a fun story because he was a highly-touted quarterback recruit before making the very successful switch to wide receiver.
But don’t let Sills overshadow Jennings, who led the team in both catches and receiving yards a year ago. Yeah, Jennings isn’t the downfield threat Sills was — he had 98 catches for 1,096 yards — but his relative lack of attention came from his distinctly not-relative lack of touchdown catches.
Jennings had just one TD in 2017. That number should increase significantly in 2018 while Sills’ total likely regresses. They’ll form one of the best receiver combinations in college football once again.
Game to watch
West Virginia is one of two Big 12 teams playing two Power Five non-conference opponents. The Mountaineers open the season against Tennessee on Sept. 1 and then visit NC State on Sept. 15.
That NC State game is our game to watch. West Virginia should beat a Tennessee team in transition. NC State is in some transition too; it’s got a whole new defensive line for 2018 and needs to replace RB Nyheim Hines and all-purpose weapon Jaylen Samuels.
But QB Ryan Finley is back and the game is in Raleigh. It’s a good litmus test for West Virginia, who may not enter as the favorite.
If West Virginia wins, the Mountaineers could have dreams of an 8-0 start before the tough final month. That would likely mean a top-10 ranking and a lot of Heisman talk about Grier.
That 8-0 start happens and West Virginia splits the final four games 2-2. That would mean 10-2 and a potential Big 12 Championship Game berth. West Virginia hasn’t won a conference title since 2011, its final year in the Big East and Holgorsen’s first season with the team.
The defense doesn’t improve to a level of respectability and the offense has to try to win too many games 45-40. Trips to NC State, Texas Tech and Iowa State turn into nightmares and the seat under Holgorsen starts to get warm.
Much like South Carolina two spots below, 8-4 seems right for West Virginia. A 7-1 start and 1-3 finish feels like a safe prediction.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.
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