The case has already been made that Saturday’s Belk College Kickoff Classic between West Virginia and Tennessee should result in a convincing win for the Mountaineers. Anything can happen, but outside of any traumatic injuries to West Virginia’s key contributors, there's a good chane that the Mountaineers will emerge victorious, given their status as a 10-point favorite. Here are five things to watch for in this game.
1. Does Jake Spavital balance run with pass effectively?
Statistically, West Virginia had one of the best offenses in the country last year, but there was definitely still room for improvement. In 2017, the offense was too boom-or-bubble screen. Sometimes, it seemed like Spavital was calling run plays just because West Virginia hadn’t run one in a while.
West Virginia needs to walk the line between running the ball with explicit, methodical purpose and keeping things loose for an gifted improviser like Will Grier. It'll take smarter men than us to figure out how to balance that particular Jenga Tower. Still, we're looking forward to seeing how closely the Week 1 product matches our expectations.
2. Does the defensive line create an effective pass rush?
If the West Virginia defense wants to prove it is one of the best in the Big 12, it must get a better push up front than it did a year ago. That starts with defensive line guys like Ezekiel Rose, who blossomed into a fearsome pass rusher late last season. Additionally, reports out of summer camp suggest that Kenny Bigelow Jr. was demonstrating why he was once a five-star prospect. What kind of force will he be in the middle? Keep an eye on the rotations to see how Jabril Robinson, Reese Donahue and the Stills brothers are used and who gets pressure on the quarterback.
3. Do the cornerbacks get exposed?
Denzel Fisher, we hardly knew ye. The onus now falls on Hakeem Bailey to hold down the fort as West Virginia’s lockdown corner in Week 1, given that he’s the only returner with starting experience from a year ago. Derrek Pitts Jr., Josh Norwood and Keith Washington are intriguing options who will all be on the field, but even after the depth chart was released, we still don't have a crystal-clear idea of who will play what roles, nor how effective they'll be as a unit. The cornerbacks are likely to be the weakest point on the defense, but just how much of a liability they are remains to be seen.
4. What can TJ Simmons and Jovani Haskins do?
Unfortunately, fans didn't get the opportunity to see how Simmons and Haskins play in last spring's Blue-Gold Game after it was canceled. If these two guys can add the kinds of dimensions to the offense that the coaches are hoping for, then this could be a historic year. David Sills, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms are already entrenched in their offensive roles, but if Simmons can be a reliable pass catcher, who also has the ability to break off a big play, then the passing attack could be nearly unstoppable. Simmons gives the position a real depth that the majority of college football doesn’t have. Haskins can open up possibilities for West Virginia’s offense that it hasn't had since Tyler Urban or Anthony Becht.
5) Will Evan Staley prove to be a reliable kicker?
Having a weapon like Pat McAfee, Tyler Bitancurt or Josh Lambert can be a huge swing. At some point this season -- perhaps even this weekend -- Dana Holgorsen is going to have to make the call to either kick a tough field goal or let Grier gunsling his way to a first down. There are very few situations more frustrating than unreliable kicking. Staley did a great job last year on kickoffs, but can he boot the big 45-yarder with the game on the line? Hopefully, Staley gets a chance to build some confidence against Tennessee.