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West Virginia finished last season with a respectable 8-5 record, but still couldn't get over the hump of being a mediocre Big 12 team. The Mountaineers lost their first four conference games against ranked teams, but eased past ones in the lower echelon. Unfortunately, this doesn't look like the year they'll overcome those struggles with new faces at almost every position on the defensive side.
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One thing that isn't new is quarterback Skyler Howard, who will more or less be the decider in where this team finishes. Howard was decent last year, but inaccuracies (54.8% completion) and interceptions (14) were too much to overcome against better teams. Of course, he also set some records throwing for 532 yards and five touchdowns in the bowl game. Then again, he still threw a couple picks and was barely over 50% completion. If Howard can improve just a little bit, this offense is going to be potent with receivers Shelton Gibson (887 yards, 9 TDs), Daikiel Shorts (528 yards, 5 TDs) and Ka'Raun White all expected to take a leap as well.
Big-12 leading rushing Wendell Smallwood is gone, but Rushel Shell (708 yards, 8 TDs) should close out his career nicely with freshman Kennedy McKoy expected to spell him. To go with that, the Mountaineers have plenty of experience on the line to make the running game just as good. Senior center Tyler Orlosky anchors the unit, surrounded by Adam Pankey and Kyle Bosch.
But the question for WVU is on the defensive side where there are a lot of new starters, most notably on the back end. The secondary is full of upperclassmen, but most of them have little experience. Safeties Dravon Askew-Henry and Jeremy Tyler will be important in getting this group together, while Nana Kyeremeh was a standout cornerback in the spring.
It's almost the same situation at linebacker with Justin Arndt and Al-Rasheed Benton taking over their positions in the spring. The line is the most experienced unit on the defense with Noble Nwachukwu (8.5 sacks) being the top option to go with Christian Brown on the other end.
West Virginia's non-conference schedule is a bit tougher this season, but Missouri and BYU can both be beat and should result in wins. The better news for the Mountaineers is that their opening Big 12 schedule isn't as tough. In fact, from Sept. 18 to Oct. 14, WVU only has one game and that's against Kansas State. That's a fairly large break ahead of the Big 12 campaign to sort out any questions. Getting the likes of K State, TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor at home could help the Mountaineers in getting some upsets.
But those upsets won't happen unless Howard takes another step at quarterback. And if he does, West Virginia could easily upset one or two of the top teams in the conference and finish with a winning Big 12 record.
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2016 West Virginia Mountaineers Football Schedule
Sept. 3 vs. Missouri
Sept. 10 vs. Youngstown State
Sept. 17 vs. BYU (FedEx Field)
Oct. 1 vs. Kansas State
Oct. 15 at Texas Tech
Oct. 22 vs. TCU
Oct. 29 at Oklahoma State
Nov. 5 vs. Kansas
Nov. 12 at Texas
Nov. 19 vs. Oklahoma
Nov. 26 at Iowa State
Dec. 3 vs. Baylor
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