Neal Brown's first season as head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers was the program's first without a bowl bid since 2013. WVU finished 5-7 overall, including a 3-6 mark in Big 12 play. And though the results were disappointing, they weren't disastrous. The Mountaineers played a difficult schedule and finished strong by winning two of their final three games on the road. And diving deeper, according to the second-order wins calculated by ESPN's Bill Connelly, West Virginia was expected to win only 3.6 games given its on-field performance last season. The 1.4-win difference was 16th best in FBS.
As we look ahead to Brown's second season, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the Mountaineers in 2020. Quarterback Jarret Doege provided a spark when he took over as the starter for the final three games, and he'll work with a solid set of experienced receivers. The defense welcomes back six full-time starters, as well as a trio of potential impact players who missed significant time with injuries — good news for a unit that already showed improvement under defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
But will that optimism translate to more wins and a bowl bid this year? West Virginia again faces a difficult non-conference schedule with two Power 5 opponents in non-conference play and nine conference games (four of which are far from home). Here we explore how the Mountaineers stack up in each contest:
Bye: Week 9
Week 1 — Sept. 5 vs. Florida State (Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta)
West Virginia has not shied away from challenging non-conference opponents recently, and the Mountaineers are scheduled to open the 2020 campaign against Florida State and its new head coach Mike Norvell in the season opener in Atlanta. The Seminoles have underachieved in recent seasons but return a talented and veteran defense that ranked in the top 20 nationally in total tackles (79.88 percent of 2019 production, No. 18 in FBS), tackles for a loss (89.86 percent, No. 5), and sacks (93.75 percent, No. 9). The unit, which received a huge boost when defensive lineman Marvin Wilson opted to return to school instead of entering the NFL Draft, should also be healthier than it was most of last season when multiple starters (including Wilson) were sidelined for chunks of the season by injury.
The offense returns seven starters, including star receiver Tamorrion Terry, who like Wilson, could have tested the professional waters. However, questions remain for a unit that ranked No. 61 in the country in yards per play (5.84) last season. Khalan Laborn and Texas A&M transfer Jashaun Corbin will attempt to fill the shoes of Cam Akers at running back. Quarterback James Blackman will be challenged by incoming freshman Chubba Purdy and speedy 2019 backup Jordan Travis, and the offensive line is still a work in progress.
Week 2 — Sept. 12 vs. Eastern Kentucky (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Thankfully for West Virginia fans, Eastern Kentucky should provide a less stressful test in the home opener. The Mountaineers, who survived a scare against FCS powerhouse James Madison before winning 20-13 to open last season, host first-time head coach Walt Wells and the Colonels in Week 2. EKU posted a 7-5 record in 2019, which includes a 5-3 mark in the Ohio Valley Conference but lost 42-0 to Louisville in its only matchup with an FBS opponent.
Week 3 — Sept. 19 vs. Maryland (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Maryland began the 2019 season strong under first-year head coach Mike Locksley and entered the AP Top 25 after a 2-0 start in which it outscored FCS opponent Howard and Syracuse by a combined score of 142-20. However, the Terrapins lost each of their last seven games to finish 3-9 overall and 1-8 in Big Ten play. West Virginia is set to meet to the Terps for the 53rd time overall, but the first time since 2015. The Mountaineers have won nine of the last 10 meetings and appear likely to be slight favorites at home this year as well.
Locksley is now 6-40 in four-plus seasons as a head coach, and the 2020 Terps enter the season with modest expectations following last year's disappointing finish as well as the loss of running backs Anthony McFarland and Javon Leake early to the NFL and a remarkable 16 players to the transfer portal. However, Maryland has consistently posted recruiting rankings in the top half of the conference, and Locksley is well respected as an offensive coach after his stint as Alabama's coordinator. Maryland could be on the rise and will be a tough matchup for the Mountaineers.