It's difficult to imagine now, but the West Virginia Mountaineers finished the 2019 season with some positive momentum. Sure, the team fell from 8-4 in 2018 to 5-7 last year and didn't go to a bowl game for the first time since 2013. It also ranked last in the Big 12 and among the nation's worst in scoring, rushing, and total offense. But last season ended on a high note.
After suffering through a five-game losing streak, first-year head coach Neal Brown and grad transfer quarterback Jarret Doege helped lead the Mountaineers to two wins over the final three games of the season, including a 20-17 upset over TCU in the finale. Brown and his coaching staff also improved the Mountaineers' recruiting ranking from No. 48 in the 247Sports Composite in his first class in 2019 to No. 37 in his first full season at the helm.
That seems like a long time ago. After just two spring practices, West Virginia — like the rest of the sports world — was forced off the field due to COVID-19. In June, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was placed on administrative leave as part of an internal investigation into allegations of mistreatment made by safety Kerry Martin Jr. This month, the Big Ten announced its members would play a conference-only schedule, which meant the Mountaineers wouldn't be able to renew their rivalry with Maryland on Sept. 19 as scheduled. Reports that the ACC would consider a similar setup could cost West Virginia its chance to face Florida State in the season opener.
Nevertheless, we'll keep West Virginia's one-time optimism in mind. That includes the return of Doege, who is expected to compete with Austin Kendall for snaps, as well as six returning starters on a defense that was the bright spot of the team in 2019, plus the healthy return of three projected major contributors who missed large portions of last year due to injury and arguably the best player on the team, Dante Stills, who wasn't technically a starter. Throw in a handful of transfers and the potential of a Year Two bounce for Brown, and hopes are high in Morgantown.
If and when West Virginia takes the field this season, here's how the toughest games on the Mountaineers' current schedule stack up:
11. Sept. 12 vs. Eastern Kentucky
The lone FCS opponent on the schedule, Eastern Kentucky is coming off a 7-5 season which included a 5-3 record in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Colonels, who lost 42-0 to Louisville in their only game against FBS competition last season, will be led by first-year head coach and former Kentucky and Tennessee assistant Walt Wells.
10. Oct. 24 vs. Kansas
Kansas showed promise at times in Les Miles' first season as head coach, and the Jayhawks welcome back top offensive playmakers Pooka Williams Jr., Andrew Parchment, and Stephon Robinson Jr. However, the rest of the roster (which is already at a talent disadvantage compared to its conference rivals) is in flux. Miles must find a new starting quarterback, replace 48-game starter Hakeem Adeniji at left tackle, and rebuild a defense that lost 49.65 percent of its total tackling production from 2019 — second-most in the conference and more than 114 FBS programs. West Virginia gained a season-high 192 rushing yards in last year's 29-24 win over KU.
9. Sept. 26 vs. Kansas State
If the Big 12 follows the path set by the Big Ten and Pac-12 and cancels its non-conference schedule, this could be the opener for the Mountaineers. Though quarterback Skylar Thompson and All-Big 12 caliber defensive lineman Wyatt Hubert return to anchor the squad, no FBS team returns fewer starts (2) along the offensive line than Kansas State, and the Wildcats must also replace their top two running backs and leading receiver from last season. Defensively, K-State is set to welcome back just 52.08 percent of last year's total tackling production.
8. Nov. 21 vs. Baylor
No team in the country must replace as much tackling production as Baylor, which returns just 36.13 percent from the unit that finished 11-3 and appeared in the 2019 Big 12 Championship Game. Three defensive starters were drafted, and three others signed as free agents. Only two FBS units return a lower percentage of tackles for loss (24.02 percent) or sacks (19.57 percent). But on the bright side, linebacker Terrel Bernard is one of the best in the Big 12, and new head coach Dave Aranda was able to land former All-Sun Belt pass rusher William Bradley-King as a grad transfer from Arkansas State. And, if quarterback Charlie Brewer stays healthy, he has the talent to become one of the best signal-callers in the conference — especially if rising star Tyquan Thornton can replace the production of departed wideout Denzel Mims.
7. Oct. 3 at Texas Tech
West Virginia has won three in a row in Lubbock, but the nearly 1,500-mile trip from Morgantown is never easy. Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman threw for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns and led the Red Raiders to two wins in three starts before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3. Tech would go on to win just twice more in Matt Wells' first season as head coach, but a healthy Bowman should make the Red Raiders a bowl contender in 2020. Of course, Bowman doesn't play defense, and Texas Tech allowed an average of 6.59 yards per play last year, which was the worst mark in the conference and ranked No. 119 nationally. Tech also lost first-round linebacker Jordyn Brooks and fifth-rounder Broderick Washington.
6. Oct. 10 vs. TCU
The season-ending victory over TCU cost the Horned Frogs bowl eligibility, and five TCU players were drafted, including three among the top 40 picks. That combination wouldn't look too promising on paper, but Gary Patterson has a proven track record of bouncing back from disappointment. Patterson welcomes back sophomore quarterback Max Duggan, who made 10 starts and flashed dual-threat ability last season, as the focal point of the offense. The Frogs also added a surprising five-star running back in Zach Evans late in the 2020 recruiting cycle. On defense, All-Big 12 linebacker Garret Wallow and All-American safety candidate Trevon Moehrig headline a defensive unit coming off a conference-best performance in both passing defense and total defense.
5. Sept. 5 vs. Florida State (in Atlanta)
West Virginia fans have been eagerly awaiting the Mountaineers' date with the Seminoles; a previously scheduled series between the teams was canceled earlier in the decade as a result of WVU's move to the Big 12. The neutral-site meeting — expected to be the first game of the Mike Norvell era at Florida State — would be a tough test given the talent on hand, especially on defense where 10 starters return. Marvin Wilson unexpectedly passed up the 2020 NFL Draft to return to Tallahassee and lead one what could be one of the best defensive lines in college football if everyone stays healthy. The same could be said of a secondary that added Meiko Dotson from FAU, where he tied for the FBS lead with nine interceptions in 2019.
4. Nov. 27 at Iowa State
Iowa State finished 7-6 last season, but four of those losses (as well as two wins) were decided by a single possession. Three of those losses came against top-15 opponents by a combined four points. With quarterback Brock Purdy, running back Breece Hall, receiver Tarique Milton, and tight end Charlie Kolar all set to return, Iowa State could have one of the best offenses in the Big 12. The defense has similar potential with JaQuan Bailey joining eight returning starters — including potential All-Conference linebackers Mike Rose and O'Rien Vance, and safety Greg Eisworth — after missing most of last season due to injury.
3. Nov. 14 at Oklahoma State
West Virginia wasn't the only Big 12 team to launch an offseason investigation into the culture of its program: Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy found himself at the center of controversy and player unrest last month. However, if running back Chuba Hubbard and his Cowboys teammates are comfortable with the progress the program has made off the field since, the Pokes are talented enough to make a run at the Big 12 Championship Game.
Hubbard, whose 2,094 rushing yards led the nation in 2019, made a surprise return to Stillwater, as did former All-American receiver Tylan Wallace, who was the nation's leading receiver before suffering a season-ending knee injury last year. The two rejoined quarterback Spencer Sanders, who should take a step forward in his second season as a starter, to headline a total of 18 combined starters returning on offense and defense (19 before left tackle Dylan Galloway retired).
2. Oct. 17 at Texas
Consider this a virtual tie with the trip to Stillwater, given the likelihood both Texas and Oklahoma State compete with Oklahoma for the Big 12 title — especially if the Longhorns stay healthier in 2020 than they did last year. The Horns rank among the national leaders in returning production and feature one of the best and most experienced quarterbacks in the country in Sam Ehlinger, who enters the season as the active FBS leader in career total yardage. Replacing top receivers Devin Duvernay and Collin Johnson is a priority, and Michigan transfer Tarik Black should help. The program hired former Rutgers head coach Chris Ash to replace Todd Orlando as defensive coordinator, and he was tasked with turning around a defense that surrendered 6.11 yards per play. Edge rusher Joseph Ossai, one of nine returning starters, is an excellent building block.
1. Nov. 7 vs. Oklahoma
Oklahoma is still the team to beat in the Big 12, and though Lincoln Riley's track record of replacing one Heisman finalist with another is sure to end sometime, Spencer Rattler has all the tools to provide a smooth transition for the Sooners. Rattler will work behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, and he can hand off to Kennedy Brooks, who has been underappreciated nationally during his back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. CeeDee Lamb is gone, but plenty of talent returns with Charleston Rambo, Theo Wease, a talented crop of freshmen, and transfers Obi Obialo and Theo Howard (if he's able to work back from an Achilles injury). The defense took a big step forward statistically in Alex Grinch's first season, and fewer injuries in 2020 could help the unit improve even more. The path will be tougher with Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas all capable of improving, but the Sooners are a legitimate threat to return to the College Football Playoff.
(Top photo courtesy of wvusports.com)