As expected, the West Virginia Mountaineers took a step forward in head coach Neal Brown's second season in 2020. Brown led the Mountaineers to a 5-7 finish in 2019, including momentum-building victories in two of the last three games, which served as momentum headed into this past season. WVU posted a winning record in 2020, as a 24-21 victory over Army West Point in the Liberty Bowl capped off a 6-4 record, including 4-4 in Big 12 play.
Looking ahead to Year 3 of the Brown era, there is a lot of optimism in Morgantown. We explore three reasons why West Virginia is poised to take another step in 2021.
1. Experience on defense
Diving deeper than the traditional number of returning starters, ESPN's Bill Connelly tracks the amount of returning passing, rushing and receiving yardage as well as various defensive statistics for years, boiling everything into a percentage of overall returning production. Since 2017, the average FBS program has returned 63.6 percent or less of its overall production, including 62.3 percent in 2020, according to Connelly's research. Early expectations are that average will jump at least five percentage points compared to last season, and once the dust settles in terms of the seniors accepting the extra year of eligibility offered for 2021, might top 70 percent across college football.
We're likely to hear a lot about the high amount of experience returning for most FBS teams in 2021, West Virginia fans are understandably excited about the experience on hand for the Mountaineers. The defense, which should return eight starters and 16 of the 19 players who saw the field for 200 snaps or more last season, is especially deep. Led by seniors Alonzo Addae and Sean Mahone, who have both announced plans to return for an extra year of eligibility, every defensive back who saw significant playing time last year is expected to return. The unit also should receive a boost from Arizona transfer Scottie Young Jr., who appeared in the Liberty Bowl and should compete for a starting spot.
Defensive lineman Darius Stills and linebackers Tony Fields II and Dylan Tonkery are off to the NFL, but the WVU defense is expected to return 80 percent of its tackling production, 79.2 percent of its tackles for a loss, 79.5 percent of its sacks, 72.7 percent of its interceptions, and 93.8 percent of its pass breakups. Given the Mountaineers led the Big 12 in scoring defense (20.5 ppg), total defense (291.4 ypg), and yards allowed per play (4.65), West Virginia could field the top defense in the conference again in 2021.
2. Quarterback Jarret Doege
The Mountaineers will have plenty of experience on offense as well, including leading rusher Leddie Brown, who ranked second in the conference with 1,010 yards on the ground last season. Receivers Winston Wright Jr., Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Sam James and Sean Ryan — all of whom ranked among the top 25 in the league in receiving yards per game in 2020 — are also set to return, along with three of five full-time offensive line starters (and five who started multiple games last year) as well as their backups. But the most important piece of the puzzle is quarterback.
Doege's 2020 campaign ended on a bittersweet note. After he was benched earlier in the Liberty Bowl, Doege watched as Austin Kendall led the Mountaineers to a 24-21 come-from-behind victory over Army West Point. However, Kendall has since entered the transfer portal, leaving Doege without an experienced challenger for his starting job.
Doege has 31 career starts, including 14 in a row for the Mountaineers, making him one of the most experienced signal-callers in the country. He finished second in the Big 12 with 258.7 passing yards per game and posted an excellent 14:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Doege enters his fifth collegiate season with 7,446 career passing yards and 50 touchdown passes split between West Virginia and Bowling Green. He has also scored six times on the ground, including twice last year.
3. A manageable schedule
Simply put, every game on the 2021 West Virginia football schedule is winnable. The Mountaineers certainly won't be favorites in each contest, and the odds of making a run at the conference title aren't great, but there is a path to victory every week.
WVU could be favored in all three non-conference games, including both Power 5 rivalry revivals — the trip to Maryland and home game against Virginia Tech. Though the Mountaineers will play five Big 12 road games, West Virginia should be favored at Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor. Playing Oklahoma in Norman and TCU in Fort Worth is no easy task, but the Sooners were upset at home by K-State last season. There could also be some advantage to the fact the Mountaineers didn't play OU in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns. And though the Horned Frogs could be a Top 25 team next season, West Virginia has won three straight games in the series, so there is no reason to be intimidated.
The Mountaineers will host Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech. At this point in the early offseason, it's reasonable to expect WVU to be underdogs in three of the four games. However, Oklahoma State and Texas are likely to be among the least experienced teams in the country entering 2021. Depending on the scheduled date for each matchup, the Mountaineers could be in a coin-flip situation, if not better. After all, West Virginia was 5-0 at home last year.
(Top photo courtesy of @WVUfootball)