West Virginia was selected to finish sixth in the Big 12 by the media at the preseason media days, and it appears that — for the most part — the CBS Sports college football experts collectively predict WVU to finish either sixth or seventh in the 10-team conference.
With the exception of Barrett Sallee, however. Sallee not only named WVU as the most underrated team in the Big 12 entering the season but selected the Mountaineers to finish third in the conference this season.
Regarding WVU’s underrated standing in the Big 12, Sallee wrote:
“Neal Brown inherited a mess when Dana Holgorsen bailed, so don’t hold the 11-11 record in two years against him. He has his program set up for a very surprising year with nine of their top 10 receivers returning, along with 1,000-yard back Leddie Brown toting the rock and a defense that has eight starters back off the best defense in the Big 12 last year. There is plenty to suggest that the offense will take a leap forward, which should give Brown all that he needs to push for a decent bowl game in 2021.”
Without much national media attention, Sallee’s analysis is not only welcomed but correct. WVU does appear well-positioned in the conference for a surprising run of the table. An 8-4 or 9-3 season, with how that season could potentially unfold discussed on Mic Drop with Mike Asti Sunday night, certainly could be possible.
With an improved Jarret Doege helming the offense, a marked improvement from 2020 should be what allows WVU to surpass preseason expectations. Doege has seen a lot of praise — and increased expectations — this offseason, as he’s received strong votes of support from head coach Neal Brown and his trainer, TEST Football Academy quarterback’s coach Tony Raccioppi.
With senior running back Leddie Brown among the best running backs in not just the Big 12 but the entire country and a receiving corps featuring redshirt junior Bryce Ford-Wheaton, junior Winston Wright, redshirt junior Sam James and freshman Kaden Prather among others, the offense won’t be on the levels of Geno Smith or Will Grier’s iterations, but it shouldn’t be an anchor like last season.
The losses of Darius Stills and Tony Fields II to the NFL, along with losing Tykee Smith and Dreshun Miller to the transfer portal, will hurt. However, the pieces are still in place for one of the top defenses in the Big 12.
Senior defensive lineman Dante Stills and sophomore nose guard Akheem Mesidor should both challenge for All-Big 12 honors this season, if not more. The defensive line and linebackers return a mix of experienced veterans and underclassmen taking the next step. The secondary has more questions, but with veteran leaders like redshirt seniors Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae already in place, a joint effort to replace Smith and Miller will be the path moving forward with players like redshirt junior cornerback Jackie Matthews, redshirt senior safety Scottie Young and redshirt junior cornerback Nicktroy Fortune.
WVU’s 2021 season likely hinges on just how improved Doege is and how WVU can manage the non-conference stretch of Maryland, LIU Post and Virginia Tech before Oklahoma comes to town on Sept. 25.