In what looks to be a relatively tame opening slate for the Big 12’s elite, one of the conference’s most talented and unproven squads will take the early spotlight as they start the 2017 campaign with a huge neutral-field contest.
Sunday night’s premier matchup will have the West Virginia Mountaineers traveling to FedEx Field to meet the Hokies of Virginia Tech, renewing a rivalry put on hold for over a decade. The fight for the Black Diamond Trophy will feature two sides included in this preseason’s top-25 looking to open their year with a quality win and solidify their position among the elite. What was one of college football’s most entertaining rivalries throughout the nineties, the Border Conflict will make its return with a highly competitive battle between between two promising sides hoping to gain momentum in their season kickoff.
While the general consensus seems to give the edge to Virginia Tech (-4/-5) heading into the season, I see Holgorsen’s Mountaineers starting the year strong in a battle they have a great chance of winning. The roster has real uncertainties with transfer QB Will Grier (below) taking the helm and only a few starters returning from their stellar 2016 defensive front. Grier, who hasn’t touched the field in almost two years after a bright start at Florida, will have success with West Virginia’s offense in the long term if he stays healthy, but he’s going to be challenged right off the bat with a veteran Hokie defense boasting one of the nation’s most impressive, talent-packed secondaries.
Looking to take some of the pressure off of his new quarterback is the Mountaineers returning rushing leader, Justin Crawford (1184, 7.3 ypc, 4 TD). An increased role in this year’s offense could draw significant defensive attention throughout the course of games, allowing Grier to thrive against tougher defenses like the one they have to take on this Sunday. The junior QB has no shortage of receiving threats this season, and their spread-I offense gives him a great opportunity to put up solid numbers in his quest to restore his reputation as a legitimate prospect.
On the defensive side, West Virginia will be working with a new secondary, and a mostly new starting line, among others. Many are understandably down on the Mountaineers defense to start the 2017 campaign, but what their starting front lacks in experience they make up for in raw talent, size, and athleticism, and are likely to develop into one of the conference’s best defenses as the season continues (not saying much, but still). With battle-tested coordinator Tony Gibson (above) coming in confident with his new pieces, look to see his defense throw everything they’ve got into disrupting Tech’s redshirt Freshman QB, Josh Jackson (below). The 6’1”, 19-year-old has all the skills necessary to be the next of many great Virginia Tech quarterbacks, but he certainly has his work cut out for him in his first game against a talented and well-coached defensive front.
In a game that should feature some high-level play on both sides of the ball, I’ll be looking towards the two dynamic passers under center to dictate which way this tight matchup leans as the game goes on. Although neither Grier or Jackson have taken a snap under center for their current offense, and Grier has spent the last the last two years serving out a suspension, I’m still giving the SEC reject the edge in the opener, in his first chance to prove himself again against a worthy opponent.
Gut prediction: WVU 28, VTech 24
Also just in case you’re a bit too young (like myself) or need an extra reason to get hyped up for this rivalry, enjoy (below).
Also since it’s my first post here: it’s easiest to reach me on the twitter if you feel like yelling at me (also below).
Cover photo vis Charleston Gazette
Article photos via Charleston Gazette, Sports Illustrated, and Sportswar