It's easy to forget because the West Virginia Mountaineers finished the 2018 season with three straight losses, but WVU flirted with a spot in the Big 12 Championship Game all year. West Virginia also kept itself in the College Football Playoff conversation through the first 10 weeks of the season, rising to No. 9 in the CFP committee rankings (and as high as No. 6 in the AP poll) before losing a late lead to Oklahoma State in late November.
But that seems like a long time ago now. Following the 34-18 loss to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl, several top players graduated or left for the NFL. Head coach Dana Holgorsen also left for Houston, and Neal Brown arrived from Troy to succeed him. Several transfers (including a pair of quarterbacks and a former five-star receiver) joined the team alongside Brown's first recruiting class, though just as many — including a quartet of likely starters — opted to test the transfer portal themselves. At this point in the offseason, only eight combined starters return between the offense and defense.
Spring practice has come and gone, and as Brown's new-look Mountaineers turn their attention to the 2019 college football season, West Virginia finds itself in a very different position: outside the Top 25 looking in. With a difficult schedule on the horizon, and an increasingly competitive Big 12 around it, WVU must fight to simply qualify for a bowl game.
With an eye towards tallying the potential wins and losses, we rank the toughest games on the 2019 West Virginia football schedule:
12. Sept. 1 vs. James Madison
Though the Dukes play at the FCS level, and despite the ranking here, James Madison should still pose a tough challenge for the Mountaineers in the season opener. JMU has a strong track record of success, including a national title in 2016 and wins over FBS opponents SMU and East Carolina in '15 and '17, respectively. Last year, the Dukes lost 24-13 to NC State in the opener and won nine games before bowing out in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
11. Sept. 21 at Kansas
Kansas finished 3-9 last season, including a 1-7 mark in conference play. Though that tied the most wins in a season for the Jayhawks in a decade, it wasn't enough to save David Beaty's job. As the Jayhawks start over once again, there is cautious optimism new head coach Les Miles — the gregarious former national championship coach at LSU — can get the Kansas football program headed in the right direction. But expectations for 2019 are very low, and KU is the overwhelming choice to finish last in the Big 12.
10. Sept. 14 vs. NC State
West Virginia has taken the unique step of adding multiple Power 5 conference programs to the non-conference schedule, and the return date with NC State (last year's scheduled game in Raleigh was canceled due to weather) comes one week after a trip to Missouri. It's a tough slate for the rebuilding Mountaineers, but fortunately for WVU, the Wolfpack is one of the youngest and most inexperienced teams in the country, at least on offense. In fact, NC State returns just 24.84 percent of its total offensive yardage (combined passing, rushing and receiving) from 2018, the lowest among all FBS teams.
9. Nov. 9 vs. Texas Tech
Like the Mountaineers, Texas Tech enters 2019 as a program in transition. The Red Raiders replaced Kliff Kingsbury with former Utah State head coach Matt Wells in hopes the new coaching staff will help Tech shake off its recent stretch of inconsistency. Texas Tech should still be explosive on offense with quarterback Alan Bowman back and (hopefully) fully healthy, in addition to a deep receiving corps that includes a pair of high-ceiling graduate transfers and big returning target T.J. Vasher.
As usual, defense is the biggest concern in Lubbock. How well the new staff meshes with the defensive talent on hand will likely be the difference between bowl eligibility and sitting at home once again. The trip to Morgantown will be the second consecutive road game for the Red Raiders, but Tech benefits from a bye week in between.
8. Nov. 16 at Kansas State
Much like the game with Texas Tech in Week 11, West Virginia's trip to Manhattan in Week 12 is likely to play a huge role in the Big 12 bowl picture. And, like the Red Raiders, the Kansas State Wildcats are implementing a new coaching staff.
Former North Dakota State head coach Chris Klieman takes over for the legendary Bill Snyder in what should be a smooth transition, from both a schematic and culture standpoint. With a veteran QB, two graduate transfer running backs, and four senior starters on the offensive line, Klieman and Co. should have K-State up to speed by mid-November, making this a dangerous matchup for the Mountaineers.
7. Oct. 12 vs. Iowa State
The good news for West Virginia is that the Mountaineers host Iowa State in mid-October. Home-field advantage is always important, but the timing is also key since it is early enough that the Cyclones may still be working out their evolving depth charts at running back, receiver and the secondary.