The 2016 season looks to potentially be a breakout campaign for Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia Mountaineers. With the majority of the offense returning, including quarterback Skyler Howard, expect the Mountaineers to put plenty of points on the board.
The loss of Big 12 rushing champion Wendell Smallwood will be noticeable but not detrimental. Rushel Shell returns for his senior season and the addition of junior college national offensive players of the year Justin Crawford presents a one-two punch that will keep defenses guessing.
There are questions on the defensive side of the ball though. Replacing Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, Jared Barber and Daryl Worley will be a tall task. The secondary will be young and will see growing pains against the spread offenses of the Big 12.
The Big 12 should not be as daunting as it was last season for the Mountaineers though and an improvement upon their 8-5 record from last season is expected. With that said, let’s rank the Mountaineers’ schedule this coming season from easiest to most difficult.
12. Nov. 5 vs. Kansas
You never want to consider a conference game the easiest of the season, especially when there is a team from the Missouri Valley Conference on the schedule. Unfortunately for Kansas there isn’t much to get excited about. This game should look much like last season’s 49-0 Mountaineer victory. The only difference this year is that the game is in Morgantown.
11. Sept. 10 vs. Youngstown State
The Mountaineers will be coming off the season opener against Missouri and will therefore already have faced a legitimate Power Five school. FCS member Youngstown State, under former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini, will try to establish a run game against the Mountaineers that should not get them very far.
10. Nov. 26 at Iowa State
The Mountaineers easily handled the Cyclones last season at home, winning 30-6. Under new head coach Matt Campbell it is a new beginning in Ames. However, with a lack of depth at the receiver position the Cyclones will struggle to get anything going offensively. And with the Mountaineers’ running attack the Cyclones will struggle to stay in this game.
9. Oct. 1 vs. Kansas State
Yes the Mountaineers have failed to defeat the Wildcats since joining the Big 12 but that victory has to come sooner or later correct? Many of the playmakers that helped Kansas State come from behind last season are gone. A rebuilt offensive line and uncertainty at the skill positions should play in the Mountaineers’ favor this season, especially at home.
8. Sept. 3 vs. Missouri
The Tigers are a truly unknown this season. Under new head coach Barry Odom Missouri is looking to rebuild in multiple areas. The quarterback position is still a question mark and their best playmakers are both coming back from injury. If the Mountaineers are at full strength they should be able to cover the spread, which currently stands at 13 points.
7. Oct. 15 at Texas Tech
This matchup can go either way every year. The Mountaineers have beaten the Red Raiders by a combined eight points the last two seasons. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes may be on the cusp of a breakout season for Kliff Kingsbury’s team. That fact paired with the Mountaineers’ perceived inexperience in the defensive secondary could make this another close game. West Virginia should be able to tally a victory in Lubbock but don’t expect either team to win by double digits.
6. Nov. 12 at Texas
You simply never know what you are going to get with this matchup. The Longhorns and Mountaineers have split the last two seasons both winning at home. With the Mountaineers traveling to Austin will the trend continue? The Longhorns are looking to implement a spread offense this season under new coordinator Sterling Gilbert. But with the Longhorns’ best option to run that offense being a true freshman it may be a tall task to defeat WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and his scheme.
5. Sept. 24 vs. BYU (Landover, Md.)
With a new coaching staff at BYU there are numerous unknowns going into the 2016 season. The Cougars do return running back Jamaal Williams, who needs fewer than 1,000 yards to become the program’s all-time leading rusher. This one could be a toss-up simply because we do not know what BYU will bring to FedEx Field in September.
4. Dec. 3 vs. Baylor
Who knows what we will see from Baylor this season? With the departure of head coach Art Briles there are more questions than answers surrounding this team. Interim head coach Jim Grobe has a proven track record but plays a different style of football than Briles. At the end of the day this is still Baylor and there is no shortage of talent in the program.
3. Oct. 22 vs. TCU
Most believe the Horned Frogs may be down this season with the departure of quarterback Trevone Boykin. However, Texas A&M transfer Kenny Hill is now eligible to take the reins. While there are several key roles that must be filled on both sides of the ball for TCU, there is no shortage of talent waiting to step in. Co-offensive coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie should have the Frogs humming by October.
2. Oct. 29 at Oklahoma State
The Cowboys return a veteran offensive line and starting quarterback in Mason Rudolph. The Mountaineers will see mostly same the team they did last season in Morgantown when they lost 33-26. The Cowboys look to be one of the best teams in the Big 12 this season and this fall the Mountaineers have to travel to Stillwater to face them.
1. Nov. 19 vs. Oklahoma
For the first time since 2012 the Mountaineers play the Sooners later in the season. The Sooners will have to replace some key players on defense; however this is still a Bob Stoops-coached team that has a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Baker Mayfield running the offense. The Sooners will travel to Morgantown for this season’s matchup but until the Mountaineers rise to the challenge against one of the Big 12’s powerhouses this will continue to be the toughest game on their schedule.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.