<
>

Five questions for West Virginia in 2016

West Virginia's players doused coach Dana Holgorsen in Gatorade after the Mountaineers' Cactus Bowl win, but can they do enough to keep his job safe? Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia had an up-and-down season, going undefeated in September, winless in October, unbeaten in November, winless in December and unbeaten in January.

The result was a 8-5 record including a four-game losing streak midway through the season and a four-game win streak in November. There are high expectations for Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineers, with the fanbase looking for West Virginia to compete for a Big 12 title and their patience dwindling with each passing year. West Virginia loses plenty of experience on defense, so there are several questions about the Mountaineers heading into the offseason.

Here are five questions for West Virginia in 2016:

How hot will Dana Holgorsen’s seat get and will his players respond?

West Virginia announced Holgorsen would return before the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, a sign his job security was in question. Even a win during the bowl season won’t erase all questions about Holgorsen’s viability as the coach to lead West Virginia to its first Big 12 title. An eight-win season was a sign of progress, but it is critical the Mountaineers don’t take a step backward in 2016. Otherwise, the seat will get hot underneath the sixth-year head coach. When adversity arrives, will West Virginia's players fight for their coach?

Which Skyler Howard will trigger the offense?

Howard was one of the stars of the Big 12 bowl season with a career performance in the 43-42 Cactus Bowl win over Arizona State. He threw for 532 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in the victory. Yet he played a significant role in the Mountaineers' passing game-struggles in 2015 with seven games of 202 passing yards or less. A balanced offense is the key to any Big 12 title run, so Howard must carry the momentum from the bowl game into next season and become one of the Big 12's most productive passers.

Will inexperience limit the defense in 2016?

West Virginia had a senior-laden defense this season, helping the Mountaineers to finish second in the Big 12 at 1.53 points per drive allowed. The squad’s two-deep in the Cactus Bowl featured 10 seniors and junior All-Big 12 cornerback Daryl Worley has decided to leave early for the NFL. Thus, Tony Gibson will be dealing with a younger, less experienced defense in 2016, potentially limiting the creative chaos the Mountaineers defensive coordinator was able to design with a unit full of veterans. Young talents such as Xavier Preston will need to step up for West Virginia to have one of the Big 12’s best defenses for the second straight year in 2016.

Are the receivers ready to be consistent playmakers?

Holgorsen’s team has a roster full of talented receivers but none of them were consistent enough to become stars. Shelton Gibson could become one of the Big 12’s best while Gary Jennings and David Sills stepped up with Jovon Durante sidelined in the Cactus Bowl. Ka'Raun White also started to show his superb talent during the final stretch of 2015. West Virginia doesn’t need every single one of its young receivers to step up, but one or two emerging as consistent playmakers would help give the Mountaineers a balanced, explosive attack.

Do they believe?

Holgorsen’s words after the Cactus Bowl would lead you to believe it’s been a struggle to get his inexperienced offensive players to believe in themselves.

“A lot of it comes from having skill guys who are confident and will make that extra play,” he said of the 676 total yards his team amassed during bowl season.

The inconsistent play of Howard and the receivers might be directly related to a lack of unyielding self-confidence of those players. They showed they could make plays at various times during the year but still looked unsure at other times. If those skill players believe they can have the potential to become Big 12’s top passing offense, they might take a step toward making that a reality and, in doing so, make West Virginia a potential Big 12 title contender.