Say this for West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel: he's not under any illusions about the increased challenge of coaching a defense opposite the fast-paced aerial attack Dana Holgorsen will bring to Morgantown as the Mountaineers' new offensive mastermind:
[H]aving to replace seven starters is about as easy as it sounds.
Supporting an offense that is going to play with a tenacious tempo and try to ring up touchdowns and first downs at an alarming rate is far more demanding.
"Our challenge will be to play a good, solid defense around that," Casteel said, "and if you go and look at the numbers on the other side of the ball with some of the high-tempo offenses, usually ..."
He trailed off, but the point was clear. Elite offenses [and elite defenses] are oftentimes exclusive ...
"We're going to have to make sure we're able to get off the field on third down and able to create turnovers to get off the field," Casteel said.
Casteel is correct that defenses forced to keep up with offenses that take and then leave the field just as quickly typically don't fare as well as those that get more time on the sidelines. As the story from the Charleston Daily Mail points out, only one team that finished in the bottom 20 in FBS in time-of-possession (Syracuse*) also finished in the top 20 in total defense.
Some of that is sheer statistical inevitability -- shorter possessions equals more possessions equals more plays equals more total yards no matter what the quality of the defense -- and adjusting the metric to yards per-play shows that some units (like Oregon's, which improves from 34th to a tie for 11th) are better than total defense gives them credit for. But many of the defenses in the time-of-possession bottom 20 -- Michigan, Texas Tech, Houston -- were just-plain-bad, buckling under the strain of the extra snaps and time spent on the field.
But if Casteel is right that those teams' experiences show that he has his work cut for him, here's the good news for both he and Mountaineer fans: even if his defense does take a sizable step back as his team's time-of-possession decreases, it won't matter so long as the offense puts those quick possessions to use.
Consider the fates of some of the other members of that bottom 20 in time-of-possession: Oregon went 12-0 in the regular season and earned a national championship berth; San Diego State went 9-4 for their first winning season since 1998, with those four losses coming by a combined 15 points; Notre Dame shrugged off a massive exodus of offensive talent and major injury troubles to finish the season at 8-5 and on a four-game win streak; Holgorsen's Oklahoma State team went 11-2 in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Even your national champions at Auburn finished 75th in time-of-possession, a major reason they also checked in at a mediocre 55th in yards allowed per-play.
You get the point: if you've got a functioning high-tempo offense, all the defense has to do is keep its head above water (mainly by the third-down conversions and turnovers Casteel mentions; it's no surprise Oregon finished in the top 20 in both categories, is it?) to produce an extremely successful season.
And so we won't blame Mountaineer fans for being excited about their new coaching marriage. Given both Holgorsen's and Casteel's track records, they should see both halves of that equation put into action sooner rather than later.
*That the Orange remained as successful as they were on defense even as the offense struggled to stay on the field is quite the testament to defensive coordinator Scott Shafer, who also enjoyed a successful stint at Stanford under no less a coaching authority than Jim Harbaugh. With Manny Diaz presumably locked up at Texas for the forseeable future, another solid year at Syracuse should make Shafer one of the hottest names on the defensive coordinating market next offseason.