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Mountaineers open with mighty Alabama

By Dave Hickman, Staff writer
AP photo
Alabama coach Nick Saban will lead his No. 2-ranked team onto the field today in Atlanta to face West Virginia.

ATLANTA — West Virginia begins its 2014 football season here today in far from what could be considered enviable or optimal conditions.

Yes, the Mountaineers have been presented with a huge opportunity. It’s a game against the single most dominant college football program of the past five years. The mere fact that Alabama, today’s foe in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome (3:30 p.m., ABC) is ranked No. 2 seems almost a glitch. The Tide has spent far more time at No. 1 over that span than any other team and has won three of the last five national championships.

Still, opportunity is one thing. Taking advantage of that opportunity is quite another.

West Virginia goes into the game — and the season — having won just four games last year and only six times in the last 20. That’s the worst 20-game stretch for the school since Frank Cignetti’s teams won just three of 20 during a period spanning the 1977-79 seasons.

Fourth-year coach Dana Holgorsen’s future seems squarely on the line over the next three months. His offensive gift has been called into serious question, his defenses have failed to slow even a few teams since joining the Big 12 Conference and the fan base is fractured.

A poor performance against Alabama today could set the stage for another miserable fall, particularly considering the schedule that follows. The NCAA’s method for determining preseason schedule strength — opponent won-lost records from the previous season — ranks WVU’s slate as the 12th most difficult in the nation. Phil Steele’s deeper but more subjective list puts it at No. 4.

But while those are the realities, new seasons aren’t about realities. They are about hope and optimism, every team starting with a zero in the loss column. And there are reasons for optimism around the West Virginia program.

“I think it’s night and day,’’ Holgorsen said of the general condition of his program now as compared to this time a year ago. “If you just look at the overall numbers, I think we’re better at every position. We’re working with 85 scholarships for the first time in four years. We’re not having to march 10, 15 or 20 freshmen out there.’’

In terms of the overall strength of the program, that’s been the mantra for Holgorsen this summer. It is far more experienced. Two years ago, even with a roster fairly well stocked with veterans fresh from a monumental Orange Bowl win over Clemson, it was a group entirely unfamiliar with the level of competition that awaited in the Big 12. Last year, with so many of those veterans gone — particularly at the skill positions on offense — it was a struggle just to field a team without relying on the young players Holgorsen had recruited with an eye toward eventually competing on that level.

“Right now, I think it would be a safe bet to say [free safety] Dravon Henry is going to play, but he’s the only [true] freshman that is going to play,’’ Holgorsen said. “There are just a couple of redshirt freshmen who are going to be able to play, as well.

“At every position — based on what they did last year, based on the progress that they’ve made in the offseason and for the practices we’ve had since August 1st — I see improvements from either the starters or backup at every single position across the board.’’

More specifically, the offense that struggled last season — based on any metrics chosen, it was easily the worst Holgorsen had ever fielded as a coordinator or a head coach — now is at least experienced. Clint Trickett, named the starting quarterback in June in order to foster continuity within the offense, has had a year in the program instead of the mere weeks he’d had leading up to last season. The skill positions that were manned almost entirely by newcomers in 2013 are manned by the same (but no longer new) players this time around, along with a handful of fresh faces.

On defense, there’s a new coordinator — the team’s fourth in four years — but Tony Gibson’s system is essentially the same and now more familiar. And with the exception of Henry, those being counted upon not only as starters but backups are not fresh-faced kids whose last performances were in a high school stadium.

There is also experience in the special teams. Kicks and coverages need to improve dramatically, but with far more experienced players filling the roster there should be a far deeper pool from which to draw those who will play on those units.

Does any of that mean that West Virginia is on a par with Alabama? No, but no team in college football has won as many games over the last six years (72) as the Tide. Only Oregon over that span can match Alabama’s six double-digit-win seasons and no one is close to matching the three national titles. Even discounting recent history and pointing merely at this season, few teams seem to be on Alabama’s level.

Again, though, everyone begins the season 0-0, and from West Virginia’s perspective there is reason to believe that this is a team far more prepared to compete than the ones that have lost 14 of the past 20 games.

“Much more comfortable,’’ Holgorsen said of his comfort level this year as compared to last. “I think we’re better at every position.’’

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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