WVU had a way better season than most predicted, but what does it really say about the future of the Mountaineers?
Being picked to finish in last place in the Big 12 motivated Neal Brown’s team all season long. He kept reminding his team about the number 14 and that it stood for that 14th place projection.
And while there were bumps in the road and tons of stress along the way, West Virginia completed the 2023 regular season with an 8-4 overall record and a 6-3 mark in conference play, good enough for 4th in the Big 12, a far cry from 14th.
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) November 26, 2023
But even though the season appears like a significant improvement, some still seem disappointed and unsatisfied. There are two ways to view the 2023 WVU football season, but only one that coincides with how the program feels about it.
Before we tackle the positives and the reasons for optimism that some are choosing to ignore, let’s be fair and look at why this particular 8-4 does still come with concerns. While it’s hard to be upset about an 8-4 season that followed a 5-7 2022 campaign, 2023 did offer the benefit of an easier schedule than last year. There’s just no denying that.
There Are Two Sides to Strength of Schedule Debate
Strength of schedule is not just calculated off of the record of your opponents, but it’s fair to bring up that the Mountaineers did not beat a team that finished with a winning record. The “big” wins came against a Pitt team that endured its worst season in over two decades, the national runner-up TCU Horned Frogs who weren’t even close to returning to national contention and an average BYU team with its backup quarterback under center all night. Maybe Texas Tech could fit the same bill, but that win isn’t anything to write home about either.
In addition to beating average to bad teams all year, West Virginia simply lucked out by avoiding having to play the cream of the Big 12 crop in Texas. They also didn’t have to face Kansas, Kansas State or Iowa State, all teams who would have surely posed a challenge to the Mountaineers, even if some more than others.
But 8-4 is still 8-4, but does need to be put into context. An 8-4 team from the SEC, or even an 8-4 season out of the 2022 version of the Big 12, is more impressive than the way WVU went 8-4. TCU got in the College Football Playoff without even winning the conference last season because they beat five ranked teams and had a resume the committee couldn’t ignore. West Virginia did not play a schedule like that this year.
Now for the rebuttal too many are ignoring.
Yes, WVU benefited from a schedule that turned out to be easier than it was initially treated. That is true. However, they took advantage of it. That’s something that’s also true and essential for a program trying to climb back to contention needs to do. It’s pretty common for programs to use a year that includes some “down” opponents on the schedule as a way to improve a record and as a stepping stone to something greater.
Anyone who watched the 2022 season should be able to realize last year’s team wouldn’t have finished 8-4 with this year’s schedule. The 2022 team may have not taken advantage of the vulnerable Panthers. The 2022 team would have never won on a night multiple key players were carted off on stretchers. No way. This season’s team fought and didn’t let the roller coaster ride stay spiraling too long. The 2023 West Virginia Mountaineers literally played better.
I’ll say this, the 2023 Mountaineers have so much more heart than the 2022 version. Last year’s team would’ve probably found way to lose to Pitt and Texas Tech and would be getting absolutely destroyed by TCU.
— Mike J. Asti (@MikeAsti11) October 1, 2023
It’s also necessary to look at the overall schedule, not just conference play. The conference schedule did not include Texas, a game WVU would have undoubtedly lost. But the overall schedule did include another top 15 ranked team in place of the Longhorns. West Virginia opened their season with one of the toughest season openers for anyone in the country. WVU traveled to State College to meet Penn State in a renewal of a matchup that has geographic connections.
Penn State may not be on the level of Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten, but they are still a quality program that is a class above most of the rest. Both Brown and athletic director Wren Baker have made their feelings known about WVU playing multiple Power Five non conference opponents. They don’t like it and argue it’s different from most programs are doing. They are right.
Pitt did become an easy opponent when most thought it would be a tougher game, but playing a program like the Nittany Lions is as tough as it gets for most outside of their conference. The only other Big 12 teams to play a comparable non conference game was Texas beating Alabama and Texas Tech losing to Oregon. So while WVU was fortunate to not see Texas on the schedule, they just traded Texas for Penn State.
There’s also one final schedule point that serves as the mic drop or my Mike Drop.
The only truly questionable loss to be mad about is Houston. Dropping a game to a Cougars team that ended up firing Dana Holgorsen and doing so in heartbreaking fashion is understandably tough to get over for fans. West Virginia made critical mistakes, but if not for a bad penalty by Garrett Greene for taking his helmet off while celebrating what was thought to be the game-winning touchdown and poorly defending a Hail Mary, WVU would have still won that game. The record is 8-4, but it should be 9-3.
With that said, losses to Penn State, Oklahoma and even Oklahoma State were all games everyone unanimously had penciled in as losses in the first place. Sure, failing to be completive against the Sooners showed West Virginia still has work to do and blowing a game to the Cowboys stings, but those are good teams.
The Youth Emerged…
As fun as it is to argue about the schedule, what actually occurred on the field is what matters the most. And what happened was Greene emerged as the true leader of the team. He morphed into a guy his teammates will run through a wall for. He also demonstrated an ability to make the offense explosive. He was far from perfect, but as Brown literally said multiple times, he showed he’s the ultimate competitor and can give WVU a chance against almost anybody when he’s at his best.
Arguably just as important as Greene establishing himself as a quarterback fans can believe in is a significant portion of the success is thanks to freshmen. Brown and others hyped the 2023 class as the one that will change the program. The players even said it themselves. It appears as if they may be right and deliver on that promise.
Jahiem White made people reflect back on a young Steve Slaton. Need I say more? White’s multiple monster performances make a case for him as the next great West Virginia running back. Traylon Ray made catches that no one else could make and became a trusted target of Greene.
Rodney Gallagher may not have put up big statistics, but progressively improved and Brown believes he can really have a break out sophomore season if he build his body. Defensively, Ben Cutter answered the call to step up at “mike” linebacker, a role his coaches literally said was unfair to ask of him, yet was required due to injury.
If WVU strictly relied on veterans and was gong to experience another mass exodus, a reason for concern would be more valid. But if the freshman who contributed in 2023 keep getting better, the Mountaineers could pose a threat for years to come.
8-4 is 8-4. It is a good season, especially after 5-7. It is not a great season. Could 2023 have been even better? Yes. But is 2023 a season to be mad about and upset over? Absolutely not. Do reasons to trust that a climb is actually occurring at WVU exist? 100%. And that’s the case now, even if it took five years to get to this point under Brown.
Some frustration is valid, but would it make sense to fire a head coach and start all over on the heels of an 8-4 season that included proof the 2023 group is Brown’s best recruiting class yet? Hell no.
Let’s see what happens in the bowl game.
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