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Getting Off to a Strong Start Will be Key for West Virginia This Season

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Correlation does not always imply causation. College football is a heart-breaking business sometimes, and as we’ve all seen, the unpredictability of the sport is what makes it so great. With that being said, it’s time for football.

We’ve gotten past the magical moments of “Week 0” in the college football season, and it’s officially competition week for almost every college football team in the country. The 2021-22 season for West Virginia football is officially on the clock.

West Virginia will travel to College Park, Maryland this Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff against Maryland on ESPN. We know who’s calling the game, we know who’s playing and we know it’s long overdue for Mountaineer football. One of the only things we don’t know is if WVU can start the season off with a win against a Power Five opponent.

Maryland isn’t exactly a powerhouse in the B1G, coming off a 2-3 record in 2020 following numerous COVID-19 cancelations, and WVU is favored to win their season opener. A strong start for WVU in 2021, which can only help soothe a ravenous fanbase, should set the Mountaineers up for success as the season winds deeper into the year.

A fast start is key, so let’s look at how WVU’s starts have impacted the season over the last few seasons.

2020

2020 was a winning season! It wasn’t always pretty, but a 6-4 season — albeit a win over Army in a low tier Bowl game pushing the win-loss record over the top — was legitimate progress.

With a season-opening game against Western Kentucky, a 56-10 throttling in which the Mountaineers rushed for 329 yards and quarterback Jarret Doege put together an ultra-efficient performance, WVU’s schedule started off well enough. But, no offense to WKU, it’s… WKU. A loss would have been unacceptable.

A very winnable game against Oklahoma State in the second week ended with a 27-13 loss in which the Mountaineers’ defense received no help from the offense. However, the game was played in Stillwater, Oklahoma and perhaps it wasn’t a terrible loss. It was the continuation of disappointing losses to OK State though.

A two-game stretch against 2020 Big 12 basement-dwellers Baylor (a narrow 27-21 overtime victory) and Kansas (an expected 38-17 stomp) gave the Mountaineers a 3-1 record through for weeks. Beating WKU, Baylor and Kansas and their combined 7-22 record is expected.

WVU lost winnable games to Texas Tech and Texas along the way, beating Kansas State and TCU, before being torn apart by a very good Iowa State team in the final game of the season. 6-4. Some close calls, in wins and losses, but WVU did win a Bowl game.

Doege threw for three touchdowns twice in 2020, once against WKU and once against Kansas. The rest of the way, he threw for eight touchdowns in eight games. Of course, he’s going to thrive against weaker competition, but he needs to be better against Big 12 opponents in 2021.

2019

It may be best to just wipe the 2019 season from memory. After former head coach Dana Holgorsen’s departure, it was… not a good season for the Mountaineers after he left new head coach Neal Brown with a bare cupboard.

The Brown era began with a nearly catastrophic start, escaping FCS opponent James Madison 20-13 after being outgained on offense and mustering just 34 rushing yards. A 38-7 drubbing at the hands of Missouri the next week was one of the worst played games by the Mountaineers in the last decade. A dreadful, yet perhaps expected, start for Brown and company.

WVU bounced back the following week with a 44-27 victory over North Carolina State team that went 4-8 in what may have been former Mountaineer quarterback Austin Kendall’s finest hour (272 yards at 68% and three touchdowns), before escaping a Kansas team that won three games in 2019 in a 29-24 win.

2-2 through four games against, frankly, some poor teams isn’t good, but perhaps it was just good for Brown and company that losses to James Madison and Kansas were avoided. 2019 is certainly a year to forget for the Mountaineers, and there isn’t much to be taken away, to be honest.

WVU would lose six of the last eight games, including five straight after the Kansas win, to close the season with a 5-7 record. For Brown’s first season, it wasn’t a complete loss, but it’s water under the bridge now.

2018

Holgorsen’s last season with the Mountaineers started with a bang and ended with a whimper, but oh, the promise it held.

With Carolina Panthers’ star running back backup quarterback Will Grier at the helm of an explosive offense, the 2018 Mountaineers could provide a rough outline for a successful season. As crazy as that sounds, I know.

Stay with me here. Doege is no Grier, and WVU’s offense will likely be near where near its 2018 iteration. WVU’s current defense is better than the 2018 version though, giving hope for a bit of give-and-take with offense and defense. Yet, the teams themselves aren’t what the outline is about. It’s about setting up the season with a strong start.

A 40-14 victory over a Tennessee squad that went 5-7 in 2018 is this season’s Maryland game. A middle of the pack SEC team and a middle of the pack B1G team? The WVU defense stifled Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, and Grier lit up the Vols’ defense for 400 yards and five touchdowns. That’s… ambitious for Doege. But 300 yards and three touchdowns in a coming-out party? Now we’re talking.

The Mountaineers threw all over Youngstown State the following week, with current star senior running back Leddie Brown rushing for 115 yards in his first 100-yard game, in a 56-17 victory.

Wins over Kansas State, Texas Tech and Kansas in Big 12 play gave the Mountaineers a 5-0 start to the season, with national expectations. Grier throwing for 1,058 yards and 12 touchdowns over those three games helped. WVU’s excellent start ended with a couple of crushing losses, a particularly disappointing 45-41 loss to Oklahoma State and a 59-56 shootout loss to Oklahoma in Morgantown in back-to-back weeks to end the season.

However, the Mountaineers also beat the breaks off Baylor and TCU and walk-off against Texas in one of the games of the season in Austin, Texas — courtesy of Grier’s deep strike to Gary Jennings and subsequent two-point conversion.

Disappointing end to the season aside, a 5-0 start for WVU in 2020 — winning the key, winnable games — set up a season that led to dark horse Big 12 hopes.

That brings us to the 2021 season.

The Mountaineers play Maryland to open the season, and while Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa may be a breakout candidate, WVU’s improved offense should be enough to outscore the Maryland offense — especially if the WVU secondary can gel quickly enough to limit Tagovailoa. If the Mountaineers don’t beat LIU Post by more than four scores, we may have some issues. Look for career totals from Doege, Brown and the whole offense against the recent Division II riser.

A noon kickoff at Milan Puskar (could easily be prime time) against Virginia Tech renews an old rivalry for the first time since 2017, and it gives WVU another winnable non-conference game against an ACC foe in flux. WVU should be 3-0 entering a massive Big 12 opener against Oklahoma.

Let’s be honest with ourselves, the Mountaineers don’t have much of a chance against perhaps Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley’s most complete team. However, a 3-1 record after competing hard against the Sooners isn’t the worst thing in the world. If the Mountaineers can hang around and give the Sooners a run for their money, confidence should be high entering Week 5.

After Oklahoma, WVU’s schedule features a winnable stretch of games against Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor. Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas all travel to Milan Puskar Stadium this season, giving the Mountaineers boosts against all three. With Oklahoma out of the way early, and Kansas capping the season, WVU’s schedule is set up well for a run.

I predicted an 8-4 record from the Mountaineers this season, and if WVU isn’t at least 3-1 exiting the Oklahoma game, those chances start looking bleaker and bleaker.

A 3-1 start last season led to a winning record, a 2-2 start in 2019 led to a losing start and a 4-0 start in 2018 led to a winning record. A small sample size, but obviously winning the important non-conference games will be the first step in a strong season.

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