Trying to build off of a rare 10-win season for the West Virginia Mountaineers
will be no easy task. After once again losing valuable pieces of the puzzle to the NFL, Dana Holgorsen and Co. will look to put together back-to-back double-digit-win seasons, which hasn’t happened since the Mountaineers went 32-5 under Rich Rodriguez from 2005-07.
Success on offense will begin and end with Will Grier, the multi-talented transfer quarterback from Florida. Grier went 5-0 as the Gators’ starter in 2015 as a redshirt freshman before being hit with a yearlong suspension after testing positive for use of a banned substance. He transferred to West Virginia last April and then sat out the 2016 season. He is expected to start the Sept. 3 opener against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field. Grier will partner with running back Justin Crawford, the Big 12’s leading returning rusher, to give the Mountaineers a talented backfield.
On defense, coordinator Tony Gibson will lean on the experience of safety Dravon Askey-Henry to lead a unit that returns just two other starter. The loss of cornerback Rasul Douglas and the likes of defensive lineman Noble Nwachukwu and linebacker Justin Arndt will provide big shoes to fill, but that’s the world of college football.
West Virginia is likely to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack of the Big 12, as the typical round-robin conference slate is accompanied by the aforementioned opening tilt with the Hokies. Here are the Mountaineers’ toughest games, ranked from easiest to most difficult matchup.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Delaware State
It’s almost hard to call any team a cupcake nowadays, but West Virginia can likely count this game as a “W.” The Hornets hail from the FCS ranks and went 0-11 last season, including a 79-0 loss to Missouri, the same team the Mountaineers beat 26-11 to open their 2016 season. This should provide a nice respite for West Virginia coming off of the tough opener against Virginia Tech.
11. Sept. 23 at Kansas
Kansas has only beaten West Virginia once in football since the Mountaineers joined the Big 12, and don't look for that to change any time soon. David Beaty has the Jayhawks moving in the right direction, but the Mountaineers used Kansas as a bounce-back game after taking a whooping against Oklahoma State last season, winning, 48-21. This season, West Virginia travels to Lawrence to open its conference slate, and the Mountaineers should be more than ready to end September 1-0 in Big 12 play.
10. Sept. 9 vs. East Carolina
Coming off of a 3-9 season and considered an afterthought in the American Athletic Conference race, East Carolina’s slew of talented receivers could potentially create problems early in the season for WVU’s secondary. True freshman Leroy Henley is one to watch for the Pirates, as is senior Jimmy Williams (45-818-8 in 2016), although the Pirates do lose standout Zay Jones, the FBS’ career leader in receptions.
9. Oct. 14 vs. Texas Tech
Texas Tech lost most of its firepower when quarterback Patrick Mahomes decided to enter the NFL draft. When Mahomes struggled last year, so did the Red Raiders. One of those games was against West Virginia, who beat Texas Tech 48-17 in Lubbock. Nic Shimonek takes over at quarterback and offense hasn’t been the Red Raiders’ problem during head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s tenure. But the Mountaineers’ young defense could be firing on all cylinders when Texas Tech comes to Morgantown in mid-October.
8. Nov. 4 vs. Iowa State
The Cyclones present a good challenge, as second-year head coach Matt Campbell has this team headed in the right direction. Iowa State should have a dynamic quarterback-wide receiver combo in Jacob Park and All-America candidate Allen Lazard. Timing could work in the Cyclones’ favor as well with West Virginia entering this game after playing TCU, Texas Tech, Baylor and Oklahoma State consecutively.
7. Oct. 7 at TCU
With another year under his belt, quarterback Kenny Hill could finally live up to the expectations many placed on him when he arrived at TCU. He’s got wheels, he’s got an arm and he’s in an offensive scheme tailor-made for his skill set. But Hill made too many mistakes and didn’t get enough help from his receivers in the process. An experienced defense with seven returning starters should provide Hill with some room for error, but West Virginia’s defense will have to find a way to come up with some turnovers if the Mountaineers want to win in Fort Worth.
6. Oct. 21 at Baylor
Baylor just always seems to be that team that you really don’t want to play because you never know what to expect. There are times the Bears punch you in the mouth and knock your whole scheme out of kilter, and there’s times where nothing seems to go right. West Virginia eked out a 24-21 victory over Baylor to close the regular season last year, but the game wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. Zach Smith could likely wind up turning into the QB everyone thought he would, and he could be hitting that stride in late October, making this one a bit of a toss-up.
5. Nov. 11 at Kansas State
You’ve got to give Bill Snyder credit: He makes the Wildcats a scary team. Snyder’s teams are always fundamentally sound and play tough defense in a league where defenses sometimes look non-existent. Last year’s battle between the two teams in Morgantown ended with a late touchdown pass from Skyler Howard to Jovon Durante, and Snyder’s guys still almost found a way to win it late. Always a tough game, but it’s always a fun one. Strap in for this one.
4. Sept. 3 vs. Virginia Tech (Landover, Md.)
Holgorsen has said time and time again that he hates opening with a weak opponent. Remember Missouri had won back-to-back SEC East titles (2013-14) before things went the other direction and the Tigers limped into their 2016 campaign. Virginia Tech is the defending ACC Coastal Division champion and is expected to contend again despite losing its three best offensive weapons to the NFL draft. The Hokies are always solid on defense, making this a tough opening assignment for Grier as West Virginia’s starting quarterback.
3. Nov. 18 vs. Texas
West Virginia needed everything it had and then some last season to escape Austin with a 24-21 victory over the Longhorns. Despite losing Doak Walker Award winner D’Onta Foreman, Texas should be one of the Big 12’s better teams. Quarterback Shane Buechele is coming into his own and now has head coach Tom Herman to help him take that next step in his development. The Longhorns also return 10 starters on a defense that should show steady improvement as the season progresses. There could be plenty at stake for both teams by the time this one rolls around in late November.
2. Oct. 28 vs. Oklahoma State
One of West Virginia’s two Big 12 losses last season came on the road against Oklahoma State. Three costly turnovers proved to be the difference in the Cowboys’ 37-20 win as the Mountaineers suffered their first loss after starting the season 6-0. This time, West Virginia may get the chance to play spoiler as Mike Gundy brings his team with conference title aspirations to Morgantown. The coaching matchup is always entertaining and should be no different for a game that could factor heavily into the Big 12 race before all is said and done.
1. Nov. 25 at Oklahoma
Oklahoma remains the clear-cut favorite in the Big 12 despite losing its top skill position players and the unexpected retirement of head coach Bob Stoops. Lincoln Riley knows his offense, though, and quarterback Baker Mayfield would like to put an exclamation point on the end of his storied career. Plus, West Virginia has yet to beat Oklahoma since joining the Big 12.
— 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.