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.
Week 4 — Sept. 26 vs. Kansas State (Morgantown, W.Va.)
West Virginia's 24-20 upset win over then-No. 24 Kansas State was arguably the high point of Brown's first season with the Mountaineers. Jarret Doege made his first start for the Mountaineers and provided his first big moment by launching a 50-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that gave WVU the win. The victory kept bowl hopes alive for another week and set up a strong finish to the season that led to increased optimism for 2020.
The Wildcats must replace a lot of experience from last year's eight-win squad, especially on the line of scrimmage. K-State is the only FBS program to lose all five full-time starters from its 2019 offensive line (Auburn has one part-time starter returning). No other FBS team returns fewer career starts (2) up front. Nevertheless, with athletic quarterback Skylar Thompson back, and head coach Chris Klieman and his staff settled in for a second season in Manhattan, the Wildcats will be dangerous opponents.
Week 5 — Oct. 3 at Texas Tech (Lubbock, Texas)
According to CFB Winning Edge Talent Edge matchups, West Virginia has a stronger roster than three of its first five 2020 opponents (EKU, Kansas State and Texas Tech). After the Red Raiders, which would be a 1.82-pount underdog against the Mountaineers before taking home-field advantage and coaching metrics into account, WVU holds a Talent Edge against only one other team on the schedule: Kansas. Therefore, it's vital to the Mountaineers' bowl hopes to win on the road in Lubbock — an already tough task made tougher by the 1,500-mile distance West Virginia must travel for the contest.
As usual, Tech will be difficult to stop on offense — especially if quarterback Alan Bowman is healthy. Bowman has thrown for 300-plus yards in six of his 10 career starts and averaged more than 10.0 yards per pass attempt twice. He also welcomes back eight players who caught 10 or more passes last season. The Red Raiders' defense ranked 119th nationally in yards allowed per play (6.59) last year and lost playmakers Jordyn Brooks and Douglas Coleman III, but returns eight starters, including All-Big 12-caliber lineman Eli Howard.
Week 6 — Oct. 10 vs. TCU (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Most college football analytics outlets agree TCU was the best team that failed to make a bowl game in 2019. The Horned Frogs lost six games by a single possession, including the 20-17 loss to West Virginia in the season finale. That loss kept TCU home for the first time since 2013 and just the third time since Gary Patterson took over as head coach in 2001.
The Frogs also lost receiver and special teams maven Jalen Reagor and defensive lineman Ross Blacklock early to the NFL Draft, as well a host of other contributors, including two running backs, offensive lineman Lucas Niang and three other starters up front, and elite cornerback Jeff Gladney and two fellow starters in the secondary, to graduation. Still, TCU has a great chance to improve its record with a little more luck in 2020. And Patterson welcomes back quarterback Max Duggan, who made 10 starts as a true freshman last season.
Week 7 — Oct. 17 at Texas (Austin, Texas)
There is some debate as to whether Texas or Oklahoma State is the biggest challenger to Oklahoma in the Big 12 in 2020, but there is no question the Longhorns have a talented roster on par with — or potentially better than — the Sooners. In fact, according to CFB Winning Edge, the Horns have a Talent Edge in all 12 regular-season games.
Of course, as Texas has often shown us, the most talented team doesn't always win. The Longhorns struggled mightily on defense last season, allowing 6.11 yards per play, which ranked No. 98 in FBS. Injuries played a major part in the poor performance, but as head coach Tom Herman showed by replacing coordinator Todd Orlando with former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash, so did coaching. Herman also made a change at offensive coordinator, bringing in Mike Yurcich from Ohio State. If the moves work, Texas could contend for a spot in the College Football Playoff team. If they don't and the Longhorns again fall short of expectations, Herman might be the next one fired.
Week 8 — Oct. 24 vs. Kansas (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Longtime Big 12 cellar-dweller Kansas showed signs of life in Les Miles' first season in 2019, which included wins over Boston College and Texas Tech. But it wasn't a smooth transition as Miles fired offensive coordinator Lew Koenning and the Jayhawks turned to Brent Dearmon midway through the season on the way to a 3-9 finish. Now, Kansas ranks among the bottom of the nation in returning production (No. 126 overall, according to Bill Connelly's early measures).
Dearmon has playmakers to work with. Running back Pooka Williams surpassed 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first two seasons and receivers Andrew Parchment and Stephon Robinson Jr. combined for more than 100 catches, more than 1,500 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019. However, the defense — which surrendered 6.15 yards per play last year — must be rebuilt.
Week 10 — Nov. 7 vs. Oklahoma (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Will Spencer Rattler be the next great Oklahoma quarterback? Recent history shows Lincoln Riley is capable of turning a first-year starter into a Heisman contender (or winner), and though he's not quite as athletic as Kyler Murray or Jalen Hurts (though he's plenty capable of beating defenses on the ground), Rattler is a more polished passer than either was entering their second college seasons. Rattler also has the benefit of five returning starters on the offensive line, as well as running back Kennedy Brooks, to ease the transition. The receiving corps is young as a whole and will miss CeeDee Lamb, but there are plenty of weapons available.
As always, the question for Oklahoma is on the defensive side of the ball. Like Lamb, tackling machine Kenneth Murray opted to enter the NFL Draft. However, nine starters return (though pass rusher Ronnie Perkins is likely to be suspended for the first five games of the season) from a unit that showed growth last year under coordinator Alex Grinch. West Virginia will host the Sooners, but Oklahoma is likely to be a heavy favorite — both in Morgantown and to repeat as conference champions.
Week 11 — Nov. 14 at Oklahoma State (Stillwater, Okla.)
No wonder Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy is in such a hurry to get back to campus. Given the unexpected return of both running back Chuba Hubbard and receiver Tylan Wallace for 2020, along with a veteran offensive line and second-year starting quarterback Spencer Sanders, Gundy should have one of the best offenses in the country. It's the biggest reason the Cowboys are expected to compete for a Big 12 title.
But don't sleep on the Pokes defense, which ranks among the nation's best in returning production (No. 8 overall, according to Connelly). Oklahoma State ranks in the top 10 nationally in the percentage of its returning total tackles (87.73 percent, No. 5), tackles for a loss (94.81 percent, No. 3), sacks (94.64 percent, No. 7), pass breakups (88.89 percent, No. 9), QB hurries (93.62 percent, No. 8), and havoc plays (91.9 percent, No. 4). Those numbers don't even include cornerback Christian Holmes, who transferred from Missouri, or linebacker Calvin Bundage, who missed 2019 due to injury.
Week 12 — Nov. 21 vs. Baylor (Morgantown, W.Va.)
Matt Rhule did an incredible job at Baylor, improving from 1-11 in his first season as head coach in 2017 to 11-3 a year ago. But Rhule and many of his best players are off to the NFL, leaving former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda with a difficult task in his first head coaching opportunity.
Aranda is one of the best defensive minds in the game, but Baylor returns just two starters from last year's Big 12 runner-up. The defensive line was hit particularly hard when James Lynch opted to turn pro, but all three levels lost impact players. Aranda picked up a key addition in Arkansas State transfer and former All-Sun Belt defensive lineman William Bradley-King, but otherwise the Bears rank No. 127 in overall returning production on defense (per Connelly), and No. 130 in the percentage of returning total tackles (36.13 percent) from last year.
Aranda's record will likely be better than Rhule's first season in Waco. But it's unlikely Baylor comes close to matching last year's success.
Week 13 — Nov. 27 at Iowa State (Ames, Iowa)
There's been a lot of talk this offseason about the race between Texas and Oklahoma State to challenge Oklahoma for Big 12 supremacy. But by the time West Virginia travels to Ames for the regular-season finale against Iowa State, the Cyclones might have already wrapped up a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game.
Junior quarterback Brock Purdy already has 22 career starts under his belt, and he could be poised for his best season yet with All-Big 12 tight ends Charlie Kolar, sophomore running back Breece Hall, and explosive receiver Tarique Milton all back for 2020. The Clones also boast an experienced defense, including arguably the best front seven in the league, which received an unexpected boost with the return of defensive lineman JaQuan Bailey after an injury-shortened redshirt season.
If Iowa State wasn't forced to play both the Longhorns and Cowboys on the road, the Cyclones would likely be firmly entrenched in the conversation surrounding the Big 12 contenders. Of course, with a win in Stillwater over a ranked Oklahoma State squad in 2018, and even a win over Oklahoma on the road in '17, head coach Matt Campbell has proven he can lead a team to victory away from home. And the 2020 squad could be his best yet.
(Top photo courtesy of @WVUfootball)