By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This past weekend The Associated Press and USA Today’s panel of coaches agreed that West Virginia University is the 24th best team in the nation.
They will, however, play the season to find out if they were right.
This, the Mountaineers conclude, is not really a good thing for they believe they have to be a Top 10 team and a BCS team.
It might be a bit of a reach for even the most cockeyed optimist to think they could win the national championship, but then again no one thought Buster Douglas was going to beat Mike Tyson, either.
So, with the opening game against Marshall approaching at Mach One speed, we figured it was time to present 24 things that have to happen for the No. 24 Mountaineers to reach the top.
24 — West Virginia must establish itself with an impressive home victory over Marshall in the opening game.
23 — The offensive line must play much better than a year ago and, considering the lack of depth at quarterback, must protect Geno Smith as if he were their first born.
22 — Najee Goode, or whoever wins the position, must become a consistent, mistake-free middle linebacker. WVU doesn’t need an All-American in the spot, the way it uses its extra safety in the 3-3-5, but he has to be fast, smart and a sure tackler.
21 — This may be a moot point if the offense is capable of gaining 500 yards a game as coach Dana Holgorsen’s offenses have done in the Southwest, but punter Corey Smith has to punt better than he did in camp when called upon to give his defense field position.
20 — Placekicker Tyler Bitancurt needs to keep kicking as he has in the preseason to return to his 2009 form after a tough 2010 season to give the Mountaineers a chance to get points off drives that sputter out in opponent’s territory.
19 — SR Tavon Austin has to break a couple of punt returns loose for long gains to ignite the crowd and to take opponents out of their normal punting formations and objectives.
18 – This sounds simple, but you have to beat the teams you are supposed to beat. One upset can ruin a season … or, as WVU learned when Rich Rodriguez lost to Pitt, it can potentially ruin a career.
17 — D has to stand for defense, not defeat. In the past, teams Holgorsen has been offensive coordinator on have not been very good defensively, allowing a lot of points and a lot of plays. This defense has to produce three-and-out sometimes and bend but don’t break always.
16 — Cornerback Keith Tandy is as solid as they come on the corner but you know that opponents are going to have to throw if they fall behind and that means the other corner, Pat Miller, can’t allow himself to become an arson center and be torched too often.
15 — WR Ryan Nehlen has to keep performing as if he were a highly recruited star out of some Florida high school related to a proven star (former WVU coach Don Nehlen, his grandfather), which in turn will keep Ivan
McCartney performing as the highly recruited star out of some Florida high school related to a proven star (Chad Ochocinco, his cousin) that he is.
14 — At present it appears Ryan Clarke has won the battle for the big back job, which is mostly blocking, and he is going to have accept the fact that he won’t carry the ball while clearing the way for others. Any sulking about not being a runner could hurt the offense.
13 — Freshman quarterback Paul Millard is going to be itching to do some playing behind Geno Smith, and it might even be wise for Holgorsen to get him in there in runaway games so that he is prepared to play above the level of a true freshman if he has to be used in an emergency.
12 — The most crucial game in the schedule may be the Maryland game, coming on the road against a good team the week before the much-ballyhooed showdown at home against LSU. The Terps will pull off the upset if taken lightly.
11 — A year ago Robert Sands did not have as good a season as some expected due to some nagging injuries out of his safety position. While the players at safety do not have his innate talent, they are a hard-hitting, athletic group that can’t allow Sands’ absence to matter.
10 — It wouldn’t hurt if the oft-injured, talented Brad Starks got things together by the opener and came on to provide the deep threat the offense needs to be at its explosive best.
9 — Too often teams with high-tech offenses go soft. Holgorsen needs to continue to push the physical aspect of the game in a league that demands physical play.
8 — Beer in the stands can’t turn the crowd into a mob. Be loud, have fun, but stay within the bounds of acceptable behavior … even if the guy in the seat next you is wearing Marshall colors. On the other hand, if it’s Pitt colors …
7 – The spotlight is on Bruce Irvin when it comes to pass rushing, but Julian Miller is a force of his own and if teams overplay Irvin, he has to take advantage of the opportunity and feast on opposing QBs.
6 — As Bruce from the movie “Bruce Almighty” might phrase it, WVU pass-rushing star Bruce Irvin must be “B-E-A-utiful.” And healthy.
5 — At least one of the four running backs — Vernard Roberts, Trey Johnson, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison – needs to take charge and average 6 or more yards a carry while remaining fumble free to assure a running threat in a pass-first offense.
4 — A top national ranking can be attained only by defeating LSU at home in a widely viewed national TV game. The Bayou Tigers well might be No. 1 or 2 in the nation when they walk into the lion’s den that is Milan Puskar Stadium.
3 — While everyone considers quarterback Geno Smith the key to the offense, his ability to get the ball into dangerous Tavon Austin’s hands will dictate whether it is a ball-control offense or a dynamic, explosive offense. Austin is capable of a couple of breakaways a game given 12 to 20 touches.
2 — If the West Virginia defense is to come near matching last year’s, and no one expects it will with seven players gone from the nation’s No. 3 unit, Jorge Wright or Shaq Rowell will have to develop into an All-Big East nose guard capable of demanding double teams.
1 — Dana Holgorsen, unproven as a head coach, will have to be the real deal because getting a high ranking is not an easy task given the lack of respect given to the Big East.
Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.