The Mountaineers must navigate a rugged October slate in Neal Brown's first season as head coach
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.
The bad news for WVU is that Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell and quarterback Brock Purdy return, along with seven defensive starters from a unit that ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in scoring (22.9 ppg) and rushing defense (115.0 ypg), and No. 2 in passing defense (234.2 ypg) and total defense (349.2 ypg). It also doesn't help that the pivotal conference clash falls between a home game against Texas and a trip to Norman.
6. Nov. 23 vs. Oklahoma State
West Virginia's 30-14 loss to Iowa State in Ames was a major disappointment last season, but it was the 45-41 loss at Oklahoma State — a game WVU appeared to have well in hand at halftime, leading 31-14 — that knocked the Mountaineers out of the College Football Playoff picture. The loss in Stillwater was also the fourth consecutive for WVU in the series.
Like West Virginia, Oklahoma State must settle on a new quarterback, but the Cowboys also have excellent weapons for Spencer Sanders (and potentially Dru Brown) to work with in All-American wideout Tylan Wallace and speedy running back Chuba Hubbard. In short, the Pokes will be as dangerous as always.
5. Sept. 7 at Missouri
Though the Tigers are currently banned from bowl qualification, Missouri is capable of piling up a lot of wins in 2019 (and should be considered a dark horse in the SEC East should the NCAA change its mind). New quarterback Kelly Bryant has a strong set of skill position players to work with, including running back Larry Rountree III, receivers Johnathon Johnson and Jalen Knox, and one of the best tight ends in the nation, Albert Okwuegbunam.
Like several of its former conference rivals in the Big 12, Mizzou's on-field fate will depend on how well its defense improves. The Tigers were solid against the run in 2018 (126.5 ypg, No. 22 nationally), but finished last in the SEC and ranked No. 112 nationally defending the pass (262 ypg).
4. Oct. 31 at Baylor
Most would agree Oklahoma and Texas enter 2019 as the favorites in the Big 12, but there is a large middle class in the conference competing for a spot in the top tier. Like West Virginia, Baylor is one of those squads capable of taking a step forward this year, especially on the heels of the 7-6 rebound under second-year head coach Matt Rhule.
The timing of West Virginia's trip to Waco isn't ideal for the Mountaineers. Though WVU will have an extra few days to prepare following a Week 9 bye, the Thursday night kickoff limits the advantage because the Bears are also off the previous weekend. And, while Baylor will be coming off a stretch of three conference games against fellow members of the Big 12 middle class, West Virginia will have navigated a treacherous patch against the top tier Horns, plucky Iowa State, and most recently a trip to face the defending champion Sooners.
3. Oct. 5 vs. Texas
Just like the Baylor contest later in the month, West Virginia has a bye week ahead of its matchup with the Longhorns. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, (and also like the game against the Bears), Texas has an extra week to prepare. The Horns should also be properly motivated given WVU's dramatic 42-41 victory in Austin last season.
Texas won 10 games last year for the first time since 2009, and if we're to believe returning starting quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender Sam Ehlinger, the Longhorns are back to their rightful place as annual contenders in the Big 12. Ehlinger and the Horns should be one of the most exciting units in the league, but head coach Tom Herman must rebuild a defense lost nine starters from last year's above-average group — including every member of the starting front seven and both starting cornerbacks.
2. Nov 29 at TCU
It might be surprising to see TCU ranked ahead of Texas on this list, but according to Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections, West Virginia has just a 43 percent chance of winning in Fort Worth — third lowest behind only Oklahoma (14 percent) and Missouri (26 percent). CFB Winning Edge projects the Mountaineers to have a 32 percent chance of winning against the Horned Frogs, second only to the Sooners (12 percent) at this point in the preseason.
TCU enters 2019 as a fringe Top 25 team, but Gary Patterson has a track record of elevating TCU's performance when his squad faces modest expectations. Most important for the regular season finale between the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs is that TCU's biggest concern — stability at quarterback — should be answered by late November.
1. Oct. 19 at Oklahoma
The easiest decision in this set of rankings was penciling the Sooners into the No. 1 spot. Though Oklahoma's recent run of dominance in the conference doesn't guarantee another Big 12 title, OU should still be considered the favorite, and playing the Sooners in Norman is never easy.
New quarterback Jalen Hurts has some of the most exciting weapons in the league at his disposal, and new defensive coordinator Alex Grinch hopes to turn around a unit that has disappointed. If both fulfill their potential, the Sooners should defend their conference crown and contend for yet another playoff spot.
(Top photo courtesy of @WVUfootball)