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2016 season preview: West Virginia Mountaineers

Skyler Howard has plenty of offensive weapons to work with this season. Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY Sports

In its sixth year under Dana Holgorsen, the West Virginia Mountaineers appears to have arrived at a crossroads. The Mountaineers continue to seek a Big 12 breakthrough, having won no more than eight games in any of the four years after joining the league on the heels of seven consecutive seasons with at least nine wins.

Is this the year? With a senior quarterback, perhaps the Big 12’s best offensive line, a solid defensive system and a tough -- but manageable -- schedule, opportunity awaits.

Our preseason look at West Virginia:

Key losses: RB Wendell Smallwood, WR Jordan Thompson, OT Marquis Lucas, NT Kyle Rose, LB Nick Kwiatkoski, LB Shaq Petteway, LB Jared Barber, S KJ Dillon, S Karl Joseph, CB Terrell Chestnut, CB Daryl Worley

Key returners: QB Skyler Howard, RB Rushel Shell, WR Shelton Gibson, WR Daikiel Shorts, OG Kyle Bosch, OG Adam Pankey, C Tyler Orlosky, DE Noble Nwachukwu, DE Christian Brown, S Jarrod Harper, S Jeremy Tyler

Preseason storyline: Can the defense reload? Departures hit the Mountaineers hard even before junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry was lost for the season with a knee injury this month. Nwachukwu, a preseason All-Big 12 pick, notched 8.5 sacks a year ago, but WVU must replace the majority of its front six -- including a strong trio of linebackers that played a huge role as the Mountaineers surrendered just 24.6 points per game a year ago, second in the league to Oklahoma.

Coordinator Tony Gibson runs a sound 3-3-5 system suited well to slow the high-octane offenses in the Big 12. His unit ranked second nationally in interceptions, fifth in forced turnovers and eighth in opponent three-and-out series last year.

Worley and Chestnut formed an impressive duo last year. With the likes of Baker Mayfield, Seth Russell and Patrick Mahomes set to take aim at the WVU secondary, quick progress at corner is a huge priority. The group includes seniors Nana Kyeremeh and Rasul Douglas in addition to transfers Antonio Crawford and Maurice Fleming.

Most interesting position: It might be the aforementioned cornerback scramble, but we can’t ignore the offense, where West Virginia is loaded with talent and experience.

Try to find a weak spot. It’s not there.

Let’s focus on the most impressive area, which is the interior of the offensive line, manned by Bosch, a preseason All-Big 12 pick. Pankey, who is suspended through at least the opener next week at Missouri, and Orlosky both received all-league consideration for our team.

At full strength, they are equipped to open holes for Shell, the former Pitt back, and provide time for Howard to pick holes in leaky Big 12 secondaries.

Game that matters most: No game jumps off the schedule. After all, they all count the same. The nonconference slate is a challenge, featuring Mizzou before a Week 4 meeting with BYU at the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field. But the most meaningful games come in Big 12 play. So we’re picking a Week 8 home matchup with TCU.

The Horned Frogs are a darkhorse league-title candidate, and they played three entertaining games with WVU before a 40-10 TCU rout last year in Fort Worth. These went to overtime in 2012 and 2013, with the road team winning each time; the Horned Frogs then won 31-30 at Mountaineer Field in 2014.

Something about the timing of this game, early in the league season, makes it likely to identify the Mountaineers as a contender or pretender in the Big 12.

Prediction: West Virginia is sneaky good. Many preseason picks slot the Mountaineers in the bottom half of the Big 12. (The media slotted them seventh, though ESPN The Magazine placed West Virginia at fourth.)

Keeping with this theme, Howard might rank as the Big 12’s most underrated quarterback. We envision an excellent senior season for him that that features a hot start as the Mountaineers arrive at the aforementioned TCU game with one loss. From there, it’s going to be a wild ride. And West Virginia’s success will depend in large part on the maturity of its defense.

With TCU, Oklahoma and Baylor at home, the Mountaineers will pull at least one upset and get to nine wins for the first time since 2011 to provide some breathing room for Holgorsen.