The confetti has barely settled on the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but it’s never too early to look ahead to next year — especially when there are so many reasons to be excited for the future of a program. The first-ever early signing period is behind us with National Signing Day just around the corner. Before we know it, we’ll be ready for fall camp.
West Virginia bounced in and out of the Top 25 for most of the season, but finished unranked with a 7-6 record, including a 4-4 mark in Big 12 play, after a disappointing three-game losing streak. Despite the team’s struggles down the stretch, there is a great deal of anticipation in Morgantown for Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers in 2018.
3 Reasons for Optimism About the West Virginia Mountaineers in 2018
1. Passing game
West Virginia was arguably the most fortunate Big 12 program in terms of keeping its draft-eligible talent in school. Quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills V (above, right) were among the first nationally known pro prospects to announce their intentions to return for 2018, giving a huge boost to the Mountaineers' prospects after becoming one of the top passing combos in the nation a year ago.
Grier started 11 games for the Mountaineers before suffering a season-ending hand injury against Texas, and ranked third in the Big 12 with 3,490 passing yards and 34 touchdowns as a junior. He tossed 12 interceptions, but completed a healthy 64.4 percent of his passes and averaged 9.0 yards per pass — good for sixth nationally.
Sills, a 6-foot-4 red zone threat with the athleticism to average 16.3 yards per catch, tied for the FBS lead with 18 touchdown receptions as a junior. He caught 60 passes for 980 yards, which placed him third on the team. Ka’Run White is out of eligibility, but leading receiver Gary Jennings (97 receptions, 1,096 yards, TD) is back, as is Marcus Sims, who led the team with an average of 18.9 yards per catch and scored five touchdowns on 35 receptions.
2. Offensive line
An often-underrated part of West Virginia’s passing game and overall offensive success is the offensive line. The Mountaineers actually did a good job keeping Grier safe in the pocket last season (his finger injury occurred in a freak situation in which he dove for the end zone on a play-action bootleg near the goal line, far away from his blockers). Overall, the WVU offensive line allowed 19 sacks in 500 pass plays (481 pass attempts) for a solid 3.8 percent sack rate. The unit also paved the way for 150.3 rushing yards per game and 4.25 yards per carry last year, both of which ranked fifth in the Big 12.
Most importantly looking ahead, four full-time starters are expected to return up front for 2018. Yodny Cajuste, Josh Sills, Matt Jones and Colton McKivitz have combined to make 65 career starts for the Mountaineers. West Virginia must replace veteran guard Kyle Bosch and top reserve Grant Lingafelter, but there’s a good chance the Mountaineers will be even better up front on offense next season.
With one of the most experienced rosters in the conference led by a dynamic passing attack, West Virginia looks like a Big 12 Championship Game contender — at least on offense. The defense has its bright spots as well, such as linebacker David Long and defensive backs Dravon Askew-Henry, Kenny Robinson and Dylan Tonkery, though we’ve learned it is not necessary to have a great defense to win the Big 12. Therefore, a topic of more significant note is the Mountaineers’ schedule. A team’s schedule is just as important as the talent retuning on the roster (and arguably even more so), and West Virginia’s is designed to build the momentum to make a run for a conference title.
Running down the list, non-conference games against Tennessee (Sept. 1 in Charlotte, N.C.) and NC State (Sept. 15) sandwich Week 2 FCS opponent Youngstown State. The two Power Five opponents bring name recognition that should appeal to pollsters, and though neither will kick off in Morgantown both games are winnable given the Volunteers' breaking in a new coaching staff after a disastrous 4-8 showing and the Wolfpack’s need to rebuild defensively. Later, in Big 12 play, West Virginia hosts Kansas State, travels to Texas Tech, hosts Kansas and plays Iowa State on the road before an Oct. 20 bye week and a home game with Baylor.
The end of the slate is tough. A trip to Texas, home against TCU, at Oklahoma State and home vs. Oklahoma is a Big 12 Murder’s Row, but West Virginia will likely be favored in its first eight games. If the Mountaineers make it to November with an undefeated conference record, two wins in the final four games would probably be good enough to earn a spot in the league title game. With the Longhorns yet to return to elite status and the Horned Frogs, Cowboys and Sooners all forced to fill huge holes on the offensive side of the football, an 11-1 record with an opportunity to play into the College Football Playoff isn’t out of reach.
It’s an optimistic outlook. But, hey, it’s January. We have a lot to look forward to.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.