The West Virginia Mountaineers navigated the difficult circumstances of 2020 quite well, living up to the expectations of improvement in head coach Neal Brown's second season. West Virginia fielded one of the best defenses in the country, and also made noticeable improvements on offense on its way to a winning record (6-4, 4-4 Big 12) and its first bowl game victory since 2015.
Quarterback Jarrett Doege returns for his second season as the starter for the Mountaineers (and fourth in college), and with 1,000-yard running back Leddie Brown, a deep receiving corps, experienced offensive line and seven returning starters on defense, West Virginia has the Top 25 in its sights in 2021.
However, the Mountaineers will be tested often this season. WVU must again play nine conference games, five of them on the road, giving Brown's squad one of the most grueling league travel schedules in the nation. The Mountaineers also are set to renew rivalries with Maryland and Virginia Tech, meaning the team must play 11 Power 5 opponents. Only one FBS program (Stanford) will face more in 2021.
Nevertheless, there's plenty of optimism in Morgantown (and rightfully so).
Bye: Week 7
Week 1 – Sept. 4 at Maryland (College Park, Md.)
West Virginia is set to kick off its season on the road against Maryland, the first game against the Terrapins since 2015. The Mountaineers have won nine of the last 10 games in the series, including the last two, and hold a 28-22-2 all-time lead. The Terps posted a 2-3 record last season that included wins over Minnesota and Penn State, but fell 27-24 in the season finale to Rutgers when starting quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa – who threw for 1,011 yards and seven touchdowns with seven interceptions in four starts – was sidelined.
Week 2 – Sept. 11 vs. LIU (Morgantown, W. Va.)
The LIU football program has been on a roller coaster over the last three years. LIU won 10 games and the Northeast-10 Conference championship in 2018, appearing in the NCAA Division II playoffs in its final season as the Post Pioneers. After merging two campuses of Long Island University in 2019, the LIU Sharks moved to the FCS Northeast Conference and subsequently finished 0-10. The 2020 fall season was canceled, but the program showed progress this spring, posting a 2-2 record.
Week 3 – Sept. 18 vs. Virginia Tech (Morgantown, W. Va.)
As in the series against Maryland, the Mountaineers will play rival Virginia Tech for the 53rd time this season and will be looking for its 29th victory in the series – though the Hokies have won 13 of the last 18 meetings. West Virginia has played Virginia Tech only once since 2005 (a 31-24 Hokies victory in 2017). The 2021 Tech squad must replace quarterback Hendon Hooker (who transferred to Tennessee), running back Khalil Herbert (who left for the NFL draft), left tackle and potential first-round pick Christian Darrisaw, as well as four defensive starters from last year's 5-6 team.
Week 4 – Sept. 25 at Oklahoma (Norman, Okla.)
Early CFB Winning Edge projections expect the Mountaineers to be favorites in all three non-conference games and indicate West Virginia should be an underdog of more than one touchdown in only a single game: The Big 12 opener against Oklahoma, a current 20-point favorite. The Sooners have won six straight conference championships and could be in line for another with quarterback Spencer Rattler, a talented supporting cast of skill position players, and an experienced defense that has improved statistically under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Oklahoma is a legitimate national championship contender, and the toughest opponent West Virginia will face during the regular season.
Week 5 – Oct. 2 vs. Texas Tech (Morgantown, W. Va.)
Speaking of defensive improvement, Texas Tech jumped from 93rd in the CFB Winning Edge Defensive Team Performance ratings in 2019 to 64th last season. However, the usually potent Red Raiders offense has fallen from 37th to 46th to 88th in Matt Wells' three seasons, respectively. Oregon transfer quarterback Tyler Shough was brought in to reverse that trend and potentially lead Tech to its first bowl game since 2017.
Week 6 – Oct. 9 at Baylor (Waco, Texas)
The first season for Baylor head coach Dave Aranda was a difficult one, as the Bears fell from 11-3 under Matt Rhule to 2-7. Quarterback Charlie Brewer, who started 39 games, transferred to Utah, but there's still hope the Bears will bounce back from a dreadful offensive performance with either Gerry Bohanon or Jacob Zeno behind center and a new play-caller. The defense, a pleasant surprise last year that is set to return 10 of 11 starters, also added LSU transfer Siaki Ika – a mountain of a nose tackle. Ika seems to tailor-made for Aranda's preferred scheme (he was LSU's defensive coordinator before getting the Baylor job) so he could be one of the most impactful newcomers in the Big 12.
Week 8 – Oct. 23 at TCU (Fort Worth, Texas)
It's a real possibility West Virginia could be 5-1 overall with its Big 12 championship destiny in its hands when the Mountaineers travel to Fort Worth. The date with TCU, a Big 12 sleeper because of its rising talent on offense and always challenging defense, is just the beginning of a difficult second-half stretch for the Mountaineers. However, they have a well-timed bye week while the Horned Frogs will have just played Oklahoma in Norman the previous Saturday.
Week 9 – Oct. 30 vs. Iowa State (Morgantown, W. Va.)
All signs point to 2021 being Iowa State's best shot at a Big 12 title and the Cyclones have the coaching prowess, star power and experience to make a College Football Playoff run. If Iowa State can avoid its traditional slow start and beat archrival Iowa in Week 2 (in what could be the biggest game in series history), it's possible Matt Campbell's team will be 7-0 when it arrives in Morgantown the day before Halloween. That's the key: The Cyclones must travel the 866 miles to face a West Virginia squad out for revenge for last year's 42-6 loss.
Week 10 – Nov. 6 vs. Oklahoma State (Morgantown, W. Va.)
Expectations are modest for Oklahoma State in 2021 following the departures of former 2,000-yard rusher Chuba Hubbard and dynamic wide receiver Tylan Wallace, in addition to talented left tackle Teven Jenkins and four key defensive contributors from last year's solid unit. But head coach Mike Gundy always fields a competitive team, having appeared in 15 straight bowl games. The Pokes also welcome back quarterback Spencer Sanders for his third year as the starter, as well as one of the best safety tandems in the country with Trey Sterling and Kolby Harvell-Peel.
Week 11 – Nov. 13 at Kansas State (Manhattan, Kan.)
The Mountaineers might be underdogs in three straight games before making the trip to Manhattan, but all three contests are also winnable. Therefore, West Virginia may have already punched its ticket to bowl eligibility ahead of the matchup against Kansas State. Despite heavy turnover on defense, the Wildcats should be a dangerous team again in 2021 – especially with super senior quarterback Skyler Thompson back and healthy following an injury-shortened 2020 campaign. With Texas on the horizon, the date with K-State has "trap game" written all over it.
Week 12 – Nov. 20 vs. Texas (Morgantown, W. Va.)
As usual, the Longhorns are one of the most interesting teams in America ahead of the 2021 season. Texas has the talent to compete for the Big 12 championship, but also a history of falling short of lofty expectations. New head coach Steve Sarkisian was the architect of two of the greatest offenses in college football history at Alabama, but he also has a spotty record as the man in charge of his own program. By Nov. 20 we'll have a good read on the Horns, who will have already faced TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Iowa State. The Mountaineers have played Texas tough, including last year's 17-13 heartbreaking loss in Austin, so West Virginia should be confident regardless of Texas' standing in the title hunt.
Week 13 – Nov. 27 at Kansas (Lawrence, Kan.)
There's no reason to sugarcoat it: Kansas will likely be the worst Power 5 conference team in the country this season. With the exception of LIU, the regular-season finale against the Jayhawks is the closest thing to an automatic victory on the 2021 West Virginia football schedule. KU was 0-9 in 2020, and has lost 13 in a row and 17 of 18.
(Top photo courtesy of wvusports.com)