There is no doubt in Dana Holgorsen's mind that West Virginia is getting into something different, and more difficult, moving into the Big 12.
He knows first-hand. The Mountaineers' coach worked in the conference nine of the past 12 years, mostly as an apprentice to Mike Leach and the offensive wizardry created at Texas Tech, which opened the throttle throughout the pass-happy Big 12.
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That kind of entertainment attracts a huge following.
"The one thing that I've been telling the people of West Virginia is what we're getting into is the same thing we've got at home," Holgorsen said. "And that didn't necessarily exist in the conference [Big East] that we were in last year. It means a lot. The culture is there. The support's there. The fan base is there."
And West Virginia is eager to prove it belongs. Returning all of its offensive firepower off a 10-3 team that won the Big East and hammered Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl, the Mountaineers were picked second in the Big 12 in a preseason media poll.
Considering they have never played a game in that conference, the level of respect is quite impressive.
Especially with Geno Smith, a quarterback who figures to leave West Virginia as its all-time passing leader, being named the preseason pick as the all-conference quarterback. Tavon Austin earned the same distinction at wide receiver, a position where the Mountaineers also feature returnees Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney.
"To have people think we're that good is an honor," said center Joe Madsen, "and we can't wait to prove we belong there. It's great respect that they would pick us that high."
No doubt, especially since the Big 12 features six teams that won 10 games last season, as well as three conference champions, with Oklahoma State the defending Big 12 champ and West Virginia and TCU (Mountain West) coming in from other leagues.
Holgorsen, who also spent a year on the Oklahoma State staff in addition to his work with Leach at Texas Tech, is also appreciative of the advance billing. Yet he knows West Virginia must play to its strengths to fulfill any projections. That will require the defense to play solid under Joe DeForest, a new coordinator hired out of Oklahoma State. It also means the offense must play to its potential behind Smith and occasionally do what the best Big 12 teams do, outscore opponents.
"You're going to score points. You're going to give up big plays. It doesn't mean the game's over," Holgorsen said. "You just got to keep playing defensively. I think we've got some guys in place that understand that."
Another critical element will be special teams. Austin could be his new league's most electrifying player after leading the nation last season in all-purpose yards. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, though that dimension will be limited this season with kickoffs administered from the 35-yard line. Still, he also returns punts.
"Tavon is potentially one of the more dynamic guys I've been around," Holgorsen added. "What's awesome about the Big 12 as opposed to where we were last year is just the national exposure, and it's going to be West Coast to East Coast. We're going to be put in some venues to be able to shine if they can handle that. And that's our job as coaches, to put them in those positions and make sure that they're prepared, then get them on that stage and see what they can do."
HEAD COACH: Dana Holgorsen, second year at West Virginia, 10-3 record as a head coach and at West Virginia.
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: WR/KR/PR Tavon Austin -- After leading the FBS in all-purpose yardage, the Big 12 becomes Austin's playground as he performs an encore. Virtually the same pieces are in place with QB Smith delivering the football and WR Bailey providing another option to keep defenders honest. Austin, because of his skills as a returner who scored twice on runbacks last season, could emerge as the most dynamic player in the conference.
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BREAKOUT STAR: RB Dustin Garrison -- Garrison is a returning starter, but the need exists for the sophomore to become more consistent coming off ACL surgery, which kept him out of the Orange Bowl. Garrison flashed his potential with a 291-yard rushing performance against Bowling Green last season, then failed to reach the 100-yard mark in any of his last six games. Of course, with the Mountaineers' pass-first offense, his opportunities diminish. Still, Garrison provides a nice changeup, much like other Big 12 running backs.
NEWCOMER TO WATCH: DT Kyle Rose -- The 6-foot-4 freshman spent his redshirt season packing on weight and checks in at 270 pounds. He could get his chance off the edge in the new defense installed by Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson. The presence of two veteran lineman, NT Jorge Wright and DE Will Clarke, should help in Rose's development. Clarke is the sack leader among returnees, but had just two last season.
KEYS TO SUCCESS: Avoiding overconfidence will be a big key early after West Virginia was showered with much love from media in its new conference. Smith is capable of putting up huge numbers in year two of the spread attack installed by Holgorsen, who is considered one of the game's top innovators. The early schedule will allow the Mountaineers to tinker if they so choose, and could be most valuable for a revamped defense. Getting that unit to stiffen with regularity will be vital to mount any kind of championship run, though a pair of 1,000-yard receivers (Bailey and Austin) help pile on points if necessary. Capitalizing on the specialty talents of Austin as a return man, as well as accurate K Tyler Bitancurt, is also critical.
AREAS OF CONCERN: The move into the Big 12 looms as the biggest hurdle for the Mountaineers, yet it will consume them if they don't focus on what improvements can be made within their team. The top five players on defense last season were all seniors, so returnees must step up big and newcomers must also make an immediate impact. LB Terence Garvin, the top returning tackler, bolsters the run defense in the new 3-4. The offensive line also must improve if any kind of consistent rushing attack can be generated with RB Dustin Garrison. Consistency, however, is relative given how often the Mountaineers air the ball.
-- The exit fees demanded by the Big East as part of a settlement with West Virginia over its departure from the Big 12 were resolved in late July. West Virginia forfeited $9 million of its year-end distribution from the Big East, an amount that left the school with $985,832. West Virginia agreed to a $20 million settlement with the Big East and completed that responsibility. Included was an $8.5 million payment on Feb. 17 from the "Big 12 transition fund" created by the WVU Foundation.
-- The addition of Joe DeForest as the defensive co-coordinator poses some potential problems when West Virginia visits Oklahoma State on Nov. 10. DeForest spent the past 11 seasons with the Cowboys, serving as safeties coach and special teams coordinator.
-- LB Sam Lebbie was unable to qualify academically as part of West Virginia's 2012 recruiting class. Other recruits whose availability was uncertain before camp was set to unfold were RB Roshard Burney, WR Dee Joyner and WR Deontay McManus.