Skyler Howard looked pretty solid down the stretch last year and then really came through in the Mountaineers bowl win over Arizona State when he finally found the range of his talented but young WR corps.
Going into 2016 it was already established that West Virginia would probably be at least solid on offense by virtue of returning their experienced interior OL, QB, and their more promising WRs. They were losing RB Wendell Smallwood, who was legitimately good, but Dana Holgorsen knows how to build a running game and he brought in OL/Zone blocking guru Joe Wickline in the offseason to bolster this existing strength. They also returned power back Rushel Shell and Holgorsen always has a stockpile of solid backs on campus.
Despite all of this, I figured Skyler Howard just wasn't a great enough QB for them to field an elite offense even if they did field a solid one.
I was right.
The Mountaineers are ranked 30th in offensive S&P this year and while they are a tough bunch to shut down, they aren't really blowing anyone away either. Their season on offense has played out in a fashion that I've found to be totally predictable and in line with how I perceived their program.
Where I was very wrong was about the defense. I already liked Tony Gibson's program on defense, his strategy for dealing with spread offenses, but I didn't like the fact that his team was replacing its starting nose tackle, starting three linebackers, and four/fifths of the secondary.
To me that kind of attrition suggested massive decreases in the effectiveness of their strategy, which had always depended on having a very strong secondary and disruptive linebackers. Could they really replace all those figures and still get positive results? Apparently so.
Here in their depth chart you can find the key to their success:
DE: Redshirt senior, returning starter.
DE: Redshirt senior, returning starter.
SLB: Redshirt senior.
MLB: Redshirt junior.
WLB: Redshirt freshman.
CB: Redshirt senior.
SS: Junior. JUCO transfer.
BS: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
CB: Redshirt senior. Iowa transfer.
N: Redshirt senior.
The defenders for West Virginia are all veterans who've been in the program for several years, seen what it takes to win in college football, and have honed their techniques over years of practice while facing an offense that gives them a good representation both of the better run games and the better passing games in the league.
Look elsewhere around the league and you won't find this same degree of depth and experience across the two-deep. Even if the team isn't loaded with playmakers there's a lot to be gained simply from being competent and sound at every position on defense.
In the Big 12, lining up in sound alignments and playing your assignment is half the battle.
Now let's take a look at the Mountaineer offense.
QB: Senior. Returning starter. JUCO transfer.
RB: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
FB: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
XWR: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
YWR: Senior. Returning starter.
ZWR: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
LT: Redshirt senior. Returning starter (played LG previously).
LG: Redshirt senior.
OC: Redshirt senior. Returning starter.
RG: Redshirt junior. Returning starter.
RT: Redshirt freshman.
Lots of redshirts in that mix and guys that have in the program for a while absorbing the system and the techniques, just like on defense. There's also a strong mix of returning starters on this side of the ball, unlike on defense.
The upshot of all this is that West Virginia is poised to create marginal advantages from week to week that come from experience and knowhow in winning Big 12 games. Talent still matters of course, but West Virginia has comparable talent to most of the rest of the league save for Texas and Oklahoma.
In 2017 I'll have to watch more carefully for which teams have players on the roster that have been around and know the drill. Having a starting lineup filled with kids that have been in the program for 3-5 years, whether they've been playing much or not, is a massive advantage.