Will Grier and the Mountaineers have their work cut out for them in November if they want to have a shot at winning the Big 12
Now that Baker Mayfield has finally finished his collegiate eligibility, the hunt for the Big 12 title is wide open. Oklahoma is still the favorite to win the conference championship, but the Sooners will face stiff challenges from Texas, TCU and West Virginia.
The Mountaineers limped to a 7-6 record in 2017, including a three-game, season-ending losing streak, but Dana Holgorsen’s squad was 7-3 with a healthy Will Grier at quarterback. Grier is back for his senior season, as is 1,000-yard receiver Gary Jennings and All-American David Sills, who caught 18 touchdown passes. The trio will work with an offensive line that returns four starters.
However, depth is an issue and staying healthy will be paramount. The Mountaineers rely heavily on transfers, both of the junior college variety and graduates from other FBS programs. West Virginia also has an unenviable task involving two non-conference matchups with Power 5 programs away from home, and then a daunting Big 12 travel schedule that includes four road games that require more than 800 miles of travel.
As we look ahead to the challenge that awaits the Mountaineers in 2018, here is their schedule ranked from easiest to toughest game.
12. Sept. 8 vs. Youngstown State
It’s natural to list an FCS opponent as the weakest on the schedule by default, but this spot is a tossup between Youngstown State and Kansas. Former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini has a 23-15 record since taking over at Youngstown State prior to the 2015 campaign and guided the Penguins to the FCS title game in '16. Last year, his team regressed to 6-5 overall, but took Pitt to overtime before losing 28-21 in the season opener.
11. Oct. 6 vs. Kansas
The Jayhawks took a step back in 2017 and head coach David Beaty has one of the hottest seats in the Big 12. However, there is reason to be optimistic for 2018. Beaty, who is 3-33 at KU, welcomes back 15 returning starters, 81.3 percent of last year’s letterwinners, 91.1 percent of the team’s offensive output and 86.6 percent of the tackles from last year. He also brought in several junior college transfers expected to contribute immediately, as well as four-star cornerback Corione Harris, who could be one of true freshmen to have the biggest impact this fall.
10. Oct. 25 vs. Baylor
The 2017 season was a disaster for Baylor as the Bears slumped to 1-11 overall and have now lost 17 of 19 games. But, like Kansas, the Bears welcome back an experienced squad that should be much more competitive in head coach Matt Rhule’s second season. Quarterback Charlie Brewer showed promise in four starts, receiver Denzel Mims is an All-Big 12 candidate, and four starters return on the offensive line. There is huge room for improvement defensively, but Rhule has a strong track record on that side of the football and Ira Lewis, Clay Johnston and Grayland Arnold are solid building blocks.
9. Sept. 15 at NC State
West Virginia is one of only two Big 12 teams (with Texas being the other) to play multiple Power 5 opponents in non-conference action this season. The Mountaineers will certainly have their hands full in both trips to North Carolina, the second of which is a date with NC State in Raleigh. The Wolfpack must rebuild on defense, but quarterback Ryan Finley is one of the top pro prospects at his position. The duel between Finley and Grier could be one of the best of the season between signal-callers. NC State was 5-1 at home last year with the lone loss a 38-31 heartbreaker against Clemson.
8. Sept. 1 vs. Tennessee (in Charlotte, N.C.)
Despite last year’s 4-8 record, which included a dreadful 0-8 mark in SEC play, the Volunteers should provide a tough neutral site test for West Virginia in Week 1. Tennessee might not be annual national championship contenders anymore, but Jeremy Pruitt inherited a talented roster -- especially on defense -- and added some key graduate transfers. Pruitt should make an early impact improving a run defense that ranked 126thnationally (251.3 ypg). He also has the benefit of two returning starters from a secondary that led the SEC and ranked third in the FBS against the pass (161.7 ypg).
7. Sept. 22 vs. Kansas State
West Virginia opens its Big 12 slate at home against Kansas State in a matchup sandwiched between trips to Raleigh and Lubbock. The Wildcats are always dangerous, but the Mountaineers have won the last two games in the series, including last year’s 28-23 victory in Manhattan. Head coach Bill Snyder will have a veteran offensive line and a strong rushing attack with running back Alex Barnes and two capable quarterbacks. The defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked No. 13 nationally against the run (117.7 ypg), and though the Wildcats allowed a Big 12-worst 209.1 passing yards per game, the secondary is talented and experienced.
6. Sept. 29 at Texas Tech
Texas Tech might not be a better team than NC State, Tennessee or Kansas State, but the 1,500-mile trip from Morgantown to Lubbock is one of the longest for any FBS conference matchup in 2018. The Red Raiders also have one of the most experienced, and dare we say best, defenses in the Big 12. Nine starters return from a unit that improved across the board, statistically speaking, compared to its 2016 statistics. Linebacker Dakota Allen was a second team All-Big 12 selection, Eli Howard recorded 5.5 sacks and six hurries as a freshman, and Justus Parker picked off four passes. Oh, and despite personnel losses offensively, Tech is surely capable of matching last year’s averages of 34.3 points and 474.6 yards per game on offense. Even though those were the worst benchmarks in Kliff Kingsbury's tenure, they were still good enough to rank 23rdand 16th nationally, respectively.
5. Oct. 13 at Iowa State
Two weeks later, West Virginia takes one of its shortest road trips of the season -- the nearly 900-mile trek to Ames to face up-and-coming Iowa State. The Cyclones gave Holgorsen and Co. a scare in Morgantown in 2017, but lost 20-16 to snap a four-game winning streak that included two wins over teams ranked in the top five. The Cyclones must replace several key players from last year’s surprising 8-5 campaign, and won’t sneak up on anyone this year. However, head coach Matt Campbell welcomes back All-Big 12-caliber players such as running back David Montgomery, center Julian Good-Jones, defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey and defensive back Brian Peavy, in addition to senior quarterback Kyle Kempt, who beat TCU and Oklahoma and was granted another year of eligibility.
4. Nov. 17 at Oklahoma State
Expectations aren’t especially high in Stillwater heading into the 2018 season, but Oklahoma State is one of the most consistent programs in the Big 12 and the Cowboys are always dangerous opponents. Head coach Mike Gundy has led the Pokes to three straight 10-win seasons, each of which included a victory over West Virginia. Of course, Gundy must replace a pair of record-setters in quarterback Mason Rudolph and receiver James Washington, who spearheaded many of those 30 victories, as well as playmaker Marcell Ateman. But running back Justice Hill is one of the best players in the conference and Hill’s likely increased workload should help break in six new starters on offense. Seven starters return from a unit that finished a respectable fifth in the league in total defense (409.3 ypg), including five of a front six that held opponents to 140.7 rushing yards per contest, which ranked in the top 40 nationally.
3. Nov. 10 vs. TCU
Speaking of consistency, TCU has posted double-digit wins in three of its last four seasons, including last year’s 11-3, Big 12 runner-up campaign. Gary Patterson is one of the most respected head coaches in college football, which is a major reason expectations remain high for the Horned Frogs despite losing a total of 12 starters from last year’s squad. Patterson is still the mastermind behind the TCU defense -- a unit that led the Big 12 in every major statistical category in 2017 -- and Ben Banogu, Ty Summers and Niko Small offer all-conference potential at each level. Assuming a new quarterback emerges, and electric playmaker KaVontae Turpin and running back Darius Anderson both step up, TCU should challenge for the Big 12 title again.
2. Nov. 3 at Texas
There are a lot of parallels between the 2018 Texas Longhorns and the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs, including a second-year head coach and a super-talented, though often underachieving, roster. It’s far too early to tell whether the Longhorns will win the conference title and challenge for a spot in the College Football Playoff, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Texas played solid defense in 2017 and welcomes multiple players with All-Big 12 potential on that side of the football, including defensive lineman Breckyn Hager, linebacker Gary Johnson and cornerback Kris Boyd. Questions remain offensively, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the unit take a big step forward. The Longhorns have a good offensive line, two veteran quarterbacks and a slew of potential in the receiving corps.
1. Nov. 23 vs. Oklahoma
Fans and analysts high on West Virginia’s 2018 prospects believe the Big 12 regular season title could be on the line in Morgantown on the Friday after Thanksgiving. At the very least, a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game should hang in the balance. Despite losing a generational player like Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma is still the favorite to win the conference crown for the fourth straight season.
The dynamic Kyler Murray is expected to start behind center before embarking on a professional baseball career, and he’ll have a wealth of playmaking options, including running back Rodney Anderson and receivers Marquise Brown and CeeDee Lamb. With Lincoln Riley calling the plays, OU should be just as dangerous offensively, even after losing the Heisman winner and No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The Sooners are still vulnerable defensively, but the unit has the potential to improve.
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-- Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.