This is the first time in a long time that the win/loss expectations for West Virginia football couldn’t be any more wide-ranging or unpredictable. If you go by the Vegas Odds, then the almighty prophets in Sin City have predicted the Old Gold and Blue to win just five games, while some national and conference pundits envision them winning even fewer. It hasn’t been since Rich Rodriguez’s first year as head coach (2001) that the Mountaineers won a measly three games. Then you can go back to the last season off-season quarterback battle in 2013 where WVU only won four games.
It’s completely understandable for those outside the program and maybe even part of the fan base to feel less optimistic now than they did this time a year ago. The offense has lost nuclear weapons in Will Grier, David Sills V, Gary Jennings, Marcus Simms, Trevon Wesco, and Yodny Cajuste, some of the best to don the Flying WV. Additionally, West Virginia’s best defensive player David Long justifiably opted to go pro, while its second-best defensive player Kenny Robinson stews in the transfer portal, after a tumultuous offseason.
Turnover is inevitable in college football, but unless you’re a recruiting blue blood, most teams around the country ride ebbs and flows of talent in the system. West Virginia is no exception. New stars will have to emerge.
The schedule, especially before Halloween, is rough. Power Five non-conference opponents Missouri and NC State are slated to face the Mountaineers and then conference dates loom versus Texas and Iowa State, before heading to Oklahoma, who is still the monkey on West Virginia’s back in the Big 12. It’s natural to believe that there will be proverbial “bumps in the road” with transitioning coaching staffs, at least that’s what all the analysts that are former players say.
West Virginia has played the underdog role so much better than playing Goliath. The Mountaineers are much better when they are counted out than when they are counted on. The perfect personification of this notion comes from the 2005 team that ended up going 11-1 and defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl and took the nation by storm. Of course, it took the emergence of two transcendent talents in Pat White and Steve Slaton to get there. Albeit, there’s still reason to believe that this year’s West Virginia team compares more to that ’05 team going into the season than the 2013 team that had a myriad of issues and question marks once Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey all graduated.
For one, Austin Kendall is not like the many quarterbacks that will be leading a Division I offense for the first time over the course of the next couple of weeks. A redshirt junior, Kendall competed with two Heisman-winning quarterbacks for the starting gig at Oklahoma, probably learned a ton from them and head coach Lincoln Riley and most important, he has done everything head coach Neal Brown has asked of him to win the starting job.
The pessimists will say there isn’t enough talent on the team to contend this year in the Big 12, but the cupboard is far from being bare.
West Virginia has four capable running backs who can all be utilized in various capacities. This may be the deepest the team has been with quality backs in the stable since West Virginia joined the Big 12. The team also has the luxury of two future NFL draftees on the offensive line. An unstable offensive line can ruin even national contenders’ offenses (see Penn State last year). The o-line doesn’t seem to be the Achilles heel for West Virginia. New playmakers will emerge out wide, and if the wide receivers struggle out of the gate, West Virginia can experiment more with its tight ends out of play-action.
Defensively, Dante Stills has very good potential to garner all-conference accolades this year because of his ability to wreak havoc in opposing backfields. Reese Donahue is a solid veteran, and once WVU gets VanDarius Cowan back, it will have another beast to unleash. The linebacking core is finally healthy and received tons of valuable playing experience last year with so many guys seeing playing time. Keith Washington could find his way into receiving the same kind of draft buzz that Wesco received last year. Plus, there are other seniors in the secondary to help shield the youngsters.
Lastly, the national and conference media has already started to overhype two Big 12 teams in particular that I can see the Mountaineers beating.
First and probably the most obvious is Texas. Credit is deserved when credit is due, and Sam Ehlinger deserves the national attention he is getting. He and wide receiver Colin Johnson make for a dynamic quarterback-receiver combo, but Texas is overhauling its defense. It’s top-four pass rushers are gone, as well as two full-time starters in the secondary, to name a few. West Virginia has two weeks to prepare for the Longhorns, after what may be an experimental September. Plus, Milan Puskar Stadium will be rocking to remind Texas horns always go down.
The second is Baylor. Fans should vividly remember West Virginia lighting up the Bears in front of a national audience at home on the Thursday night before Halloween. It’s difficult to envision quarterback Charlie Brewer, who was pulled from that game, leading this Bears team, which isn’t far removed from the NCAA sanctions that riddled their roster, into contention for the Big 12 title. It would be easier to buy Oklahoma State and TCU bouncing back than Baylor, who may never reach the same heights that they did when Art Briles was there, especially when the non-conference schedule is padded with Stephen F. Austin, UTSA and Rice.
The 2019 football season will not be the 2013 season. Brown is an upgrade at head coach, and he could work his magic as early as year one. He achieved a lot more with a lot less at Troy. Plus, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will bring what fans have been calling for and only received during the Bruce Irvin era in the past decade—a consistent pass rush. Don’t sell this team short, Mountaineer Nation. It will compete.