Incremental gains in Big 12 might not be enough for Dana Holgorsen

Dana Holgorsen believes West Virginia's improving depth will make it a more formidable foe in the Big 12 in 2016. AP Photo/Raymond Thompson

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Asked how he feels about coaching amid increasing pressure, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen walks over to a fridge in the corner of the conference room, cracks open an energy drink and eases back into his chair at the head of a long boardroom table.

“I wake up and work,” the 44-year-old says, taking a drag from the can. “It doesn’t bother me.”

In 2015, the Mountaineers won eight games -- more than they had in any of the three seasons since joining the Big 12.

And yet the heat has been turned up on the sixth-year head coach. A newspaper report in early December indicated the administration was weighing whether to fire Holgorsen.

Athletic director Shane Lyons, who took over for Oliver Luck earlier in the year, issued a statement in the days following the report supporting the coach.

“Dana and I will continue to work together to strengthen our football program,” Lyons said then. “No one wants to win more than Dana and I, and we will work together to ensure success.”

The Mountaineers went on to beat Arizona State in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl to get the season’s eighth victory. Even with a public declaration of support from his AD and the momentum of a bowl win, Holgorsen will likely enter the 2016 season with just two years remaining on his contract. Most coaches keep rolling four-year deals, primarily to maintain the appearance of stability, which is especially important in the recruiting world.

Those close to WVU say there have been negotiations for an additional two years, but nothing as of yet has been agreed upon. Holgorsen said that he does feel as if he has the support of his administration, including Lyons and president Gordon Gee, who arrived in 2014. But the perception of tension still remains, even as Holgorsen says it isn’t something he is concerned with on a daily basis.

“I don’t think about it. I don’t worry about it,” Holgorsen told ESPN.com. “I’m going to do what I do every day, which is wake up and coach ball. It isn’t a story in here. It isn’t a story with the team. It’s business as usual.

“I think this program is as healthy as it’s ever been. We’ve been improving consistently since Geno [Smith], Tavon [Austin] and those guys left [in 2012]. We feel like we’ll win more games next year than this past year.”

Without the offensive standouts Holgorsen referenced, the Mountaineers dipped to four wins in 2013 before rebounding with seven and then eight victories.

Incremental gains be damned: A segment of the fan base believes that West Virginia should win games in the Big 12 at the same rate as it did in its former home, the Big East. The program averaged 10 wins a season in its final seven seasons in the Big East, a conference that gradually lost its best programs to other conferences before a total rebrand as the American.

The Big 12 is proving to be a different animal, just as many believed it would be for WVU. Between the longer road trips and the conference’s depth, most coaches and administrators expected a learning curve for the Mountaineers.

“Averaging 34 points a game like we did last year, that would have led the Big East by 10 or 15 points,” Holgorsen said. “In the Big 12, it’s sixth. We’re still adjusting to that. It’s as simple as it sounds: To win the Big 12, we’ve got to score more.

“Going into Year 5 [in the conference], we know what we need to know. Our team, our program knows what the Big 12 is like, to the point where we can start thinking about competing for a conference championship. I think those are realistic expectations, just being competitive.

“Last year, we were not competitive at TCU and Baylor; we were competitive everywhere else. We lost two close games [Oklahoma State and Kansas State], and we ended up fifth.”

Holgorsen believes the Mountaineers have the depth on both sides of the ball that's required in a Power 5 league.

Despite losing talent such as safety Karl Joseph and corner Daryl Worley, coordinator Tony Gibson’s projected starting 11 on defense is comprised solely of juniors and seniors, including four fourth-year juniors and four fifth-year seniors.

“I think it’s a sign of where the program’s at,” Holgorsen said. “The last time we reloaded on defense [in 2013], it was true freshman, true freshman, true freshman, juco, juco, juco ...”

As far as the offense, staffers expressed excitement about the receiver depth -- a position group that could go seven-to-nine players deep -- and the confidence bump quarterback Skyler Howard seems to have received after a monster performance (532 yards, five touchdowns) in the bowl victory.

Several times this week, members of the staff talked about the disparity in how much of the outside world views the program compared to the its own internal sense of progress.

“I think we’ve had a good run. I think we’ve done a lot of good things,” Holgorsen said. “And I think we’re getting better.”