Phil Steele has our back again, and the timing is good. Something we circled at the Tier 4 retreat was what to make of WVU’s a) claim that it’s deep and experienced and b) depth and experience. I think we think there’s some truth and some exaggeration to one or both. It’s a strength — and that it’s a not a weakness or a question mark ought to make us agree to that — but we don’t know how much it can bench press or, more importantly, how much the guy to the right or the left can lift.
What we discover is the Mountaineers have one of the most top-heavy depth charts in the country, and nobody in the Big 12 has more juniors and seniors in the two deep.
There’s some value in this ranking, and WVU has simply sought this sort of situation for years now, but only some. An explanation:
Last season La Tech and Air Force were among the top teams in the experience chart and they improved from 4-8 to 9-5 and from 2-10 to 10-3! On the flipside Vanderbilt was #128 LY and dropped from 9-4 to 3-9!
Last season Michigan was near the bottom of this chart at #122. The young Wolverines saw their record drop for a 3rd straight year but now find themselves on top of this years article.
OK, so inexperience can cripple bad teams and experience can charge rebound teams. But look at that top five, that top 10, that top 25. (And look at No. 7. More on them later in the day.) How many of those teams are going to be something special this year? And how many of them were something last year or the last two years? Some of them have had nice seasons — and TCU is the outlier for all of this, of course — but none of those nice seasons were on a grand scale. Very few of them are even high visibility teams.
Talent is talent, and teams that recruit at high levels win with high-level recruits sooner rather than later.
So where the talent rests is important, but maybe not as important as a quantity of talent. This is where it gets interesting for the Mountaineers — and by interesting, I mean “hmmm.”
WVU returns 72.1 percent of its 2014 lettermen. That’s the 41st-best percentage in the country and the fourth-best in the Big 12, trailing Texas Tech (eh), Baylor (uhoh) and TCU (whoops). The 44 returning letters is just the 81st-best tally in the nation. This one you can sink some stock into because, in theory, having good players outranks having older players.
As far as percentages go, Charlotte leads the way with an impressive 87.5% as 56 of their 64 lettermen from the 2014 squad return. UMass comes in #2 at 84.6% and Colorado St #3 with 83.3%. Near the top last year was Mississippi State which had 82.6% lettermen returning and spent 5 weeks at #1 in the polls. Air Force was #4 last year with 80.8% back and went from 2-10 to 10-3! At the bottom is UTSA who loses an incredible 31 letterman and return just 32 (50.8%). Wyoming has the 2nd fewest at 54.1% and Florida is #126 with just 56.3%. Last year Oklahoma St was at the bottom and their record fell from 10-3 to 7-6 barely making a bowl game.
So what we have now is a snapshot of the concentration of talent and experience, which makes what follows particularly revealing, if not unsurprising. For example, WVU is the opposite of green on defense and brings back most of its leading tacklers. We knew that, and we know now welcoming back 78.22 percent of its tackles is the 15th-best number in the nation and among some good programs that should have good seasons, including Baylor, the only Big 12 team with a better number.
The Mountaineers also lost a ton of yardage from last season. Duh. But only 17 teams (one in the Big 12) lost more than WVU. We agree this is an offensive game and an offensive league, and points per game is the most critical stat. Now look at that top 25. There are more teams you expect to be something special there than in the first ranking we examined. (Shield your eyes if you believe in offensive line continuity. WVU is No. 100 there, and, again, the top 25 should be formidable.)
Conclusion? WVU’s strengths are shared or topped by others, and many of those teams don’t have the same sort of concern on offense. The only teams in the top 25 of the two-deep ranking and the bottom 25 of the returning offensive yards: WVU, ECU, Georgia Tech, South Alabama and Colorado State. Predicted Las Vegas win totals: Eight, seven, 7.5, 3.5 and 7.5