It’s T-minus 22 days and counting until West Virginia returns to the field to begin preparation for the 2014 football season.
And staring the Mountaineers right in the face is a meeting with Alabama (most likely a top 3 team when the preseason polls come out in mid-August) in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome in the 2014 Chic-fil-A Kickoff Game
West Virginia’s new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will be under the gun right away preparing for a Crimson Tide offense that features perhaps the best rushing attack in the country in T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry, who combined to rush for 2,311 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2013, and a dynamic junior wide receiver in Amari Cooper who shows 104 receptions for 1,736 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa.
Those four players right there are as good as anybody’s in the country.
Likely quarterbacking the Crimson Tide offense is talented Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, who spent time in the same Florida State QB room with West Virginia’s Clint Trickett
And then there is new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin – Doug Nussmeier’s replacement brought in last January to stir things up offensively. The Kiffin-Saban paring is an interesting one in contrasting styles – Saban, the ball-control, run-centric, defensive-minded coach and Kiffin the wide-open, fast-paced, throw-it-all-over-the-lot coach.
Last year, Alabama ran the ball 96 more times than it threw it while Kiffin’s offense at USC once averaged 49.1 points and 579.8 yards per game for a season. Saban, the vocal critic of the no-huddle, fast-paced style of play in college football these days now has a guy calling plays on the sidelines who has made a name for himself running this style of offense.
So, will Alabama look more like USC or will it continue to resemble the Alabama that we have grown accustomed to seeing win SEC and national titles?
That is a question Gibson and his defensive coaches must have an answer for when the two teams hit the field in Atlanta on Aug. 30. This summer, Gibson has probably watched more movies than Siskel and Ebert ever did trying to figure all of this out.
“We’ve watched them all – a lot of USC and obviously a lot of Alabama stuff for personnel and what they have,” Gibson said recently. “We’ve been studying a lot of different film to see what we’re going to get.”
What West Virginia is going to get is likely a lot of Mr. Yeldon, a lot of Mr. Drake, a lot of Mr. Henry and some passes down the field to Mr. Cooper.
“Alabama has three really good running backs, they’ve got a new quarterback, they’ve got a really good wide receiver, so who knows,” Gibson said. “It’s a crapshoot going in. But this is the way we’ve always been – and the way we’ve approached it on any staff I’ve ever been on – we better make sure that we worry about us first and get this team going in the right direction and make sure we’re doing all the right things to get them prepared to play and then I think a lot of that (pre-game preparation) will take care of itself.”
Gibson is in charge of rebuilding a Mountaineer defense that has not been very good the last two years, giving up an average of 455 yards and 33.3 points per game last season after surrendering a dismal 473.6 yards and 38.1 points per game in 2012.
Those defensive numbers are just not going to win you many football games – no matter how many yards and how many points your offense puts on the scoreboard each game.
Some of West Virginia’s defensive struggles, of course, have been a product of the youth and inexperience it has had on the defensive side of the football the last two seasons; some of it is a product of the transition from the Big East to the Big 12, and some of it is a product of the top-quality offenses that the Mountaineers have faced in the Big 12.
But, it’s also time for the defense to clean these things up and put a unit out on the field capable of stopping people on a more consistent basis this season.
“I’m really happy with where we’re at,” Gibson said. “I like our guys right now. They are in a good place and they’re working their tails off.”
Perhaps facing Alabama in the opener has something to do with that?
“They understand what Alabama is all about and we’ve talked about it in-depth through the end of spring and early in the summer here. We’ve talked a lot about what Alabama brings, what they have and our kids are well aware of it,” said Gibson. “They see every time College Football Live comes on or SportsCenter that they’re usually talking about Alabama football, so I think our kids will be prepared and will be ready and excited to play.
“Alabama takes care of itself,” Gibson added. “I don’t want our kids to get caught up in that. I want them to worry about West Virginia and what we’re doing and that will all come. What a great opportunity for our kids to go in front of the whole country at 3:30 … go to Atlanta and get to play Alabama. We’ve talked more about that as a defense than probably anything else.”
Yet you can bet the defensive coaches have talked a lot amongst themselves about what they expect to see from Alabama in the opener.
Will it be wide open the way Kiffin has done things in the past? Or, will it be closer to the vest the way Saban has preferred to do things so successfully in the past?
Earlier this spring, Kiffin called his new Alabama offense a “half-and-half” system with some of the old and some of the new - so he offered no clues there.
We’ll see. Stay tuned.