Having to replace nine starters on offense and six on defense from 2018, West Virginia’s 2019 football season was going to be a rebuilding one. Add in the learning curve that goes with a completely new coaching staff and the midseason struggles WVU suffered last year were not unexpected en route to a 5-7 finish.
The Mountaineers have big shoes to fill again in 2020, but there is much more experience this time around. Their offense features 16 players who started at least one game last year, and there are 11 returning players available for the defense who started at least one contest for WVU in ‘19. And that doesn’t several incoming transfers who started games at other schools.
Neal Brown enjoys a different roster in his second-year as West Virginia’s head coach, and in turn the players also know the head coach and his system much better.
WVU hasn’t suffered through back-to-back losing seasons in over 40 years (1976-79, all 5-6 or worse), so history would indicate the Mountaineers are likely to return to their winning ways after a 5-7 campaign in 2019.
Then again, 2020 has already been an incredibly bizarre year, and the college football season will almost certainly be bizarre as well. But at this moment, who knows what bizarre will actually bring?
How will WVU fare this season? It’s never easy to make a preseason prediction for a football team, even under normal circumstances. Obviously with the global pandemic, almost nothing in the world is normal.
Certainly college football is in for an incredibly unique year, with some trying to play a fall schedule and others opting out, hoping to return to the field for games at a later time.
Instead of 12 games, West Virginia and its fellow Big 12 Conference brethren have condensed their season down to 10. That number maybe even change, as coronavirus breakouts potentially could force postponements or outright cancellations.
Figuring out how many games the Mountaineers play this season must be the first part of any prediction, followed then by the win-loss record.
Both are huge unknowns on the cusp of the 2020 campaign, which for WVU begins on Sept. 12 against Eastern Kentucky, the lone non-conference opponent of the season for the Mountaineers.
Best-case scenario – In a normal year, you usually can get a pretty good bead on the talent a program has on hand. Mix it in with the returning experience, coaching continuity and compare those same qualities to the opponents, and you can formulate an educated guess on a regular season record. It can obviously fluctuate, but you can typically come pretty close.
The one variable you can never factor in during the regular season, though, is injuries and other forms of attrition. If a team can keep the same starting unit on the field for every game, the odds for your preseason prediction being close increase greatly. But no one can figure to what degree lineup losses will impact a team.
Last year WVU used a different starting offensive lineup in each of its 12 games, and the defense, after featuring the same starting 11 in the first two games, began a shuffle that would last the rest of the season. Not all the changes were caused by injuries, but most were.
That brings us to 2020, and even in the midst of the pandemic, football remains a contact sport where injuries are definitely going to happen.
Now add to that injury variable the possibility of positive coronavirus test results and the contact tracing that goes with them. Suddenly large swaths of football teams could become unavailable, be it to a sprained ankle, injured knee, a bum shoulder or a postive COVID test.
If the Mountaineers can minimize injuries and avoid issues with the virus, they have enough talent to be a good football team this year – not great, but certainly good.
If this were a normal year, you would look at WVU’s opponents and admit that two were significantly better than Brown’s club – Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Texas and Iowa State also are favored over West Virginia, though not by as much as OU and OSU. The Mountaineers are on the road for three of those four – to Stillwater, Austin and Ames, while hosting the Sooners – but in a year of reduced or absent crowds, who knows what home-field advantage is going to be?
In the eyes of Vegas, WVU is right in the mix with Kansas State, Baylor and Texas Tech, while a notch ahead of TCU (which has huge quarterback issues since returning starter Max Duggan is out for an unknown amount of time with a heart issue) and Kansas.
If West Virginia keeps its main corps of players on the field, it’s got a chance most every time out, though admittedly wins over the Sooners and Cowboys would have to be regarded as significant upsets right now.
But this year so many things are in question, especially because of the virus. Who will be forced to use an offensive line consisting of entirely backups, because the starting unit all contact traced? Who will have to play a third-string quarterback, a walk-on running back, a true freshman cornerback? It could be injuries or it could be the virus, but depth, which is always important, will be an even bigger part – potentially much, much bigger part – of 2020.
Certainly this is such a crazy year that almost anything can happen. Not Kansas winning the Big 12 championship crazy, but most anything else is possible.
For the Mountaineers, I could see a realistic best-case scenario leading them to an 8-2 regular season. They definitely have more experience than a year ago and appear to have more talent as well. And maybe even more important, they seem to have significantly better depth, and thus they can weather a few injury/COVID bumps along the way. Nobody can handle too many of those bumps, but West Virginia seems built to survive them better than others.
So in a year where depth could be a huge factor, that could be the strength that carries WVU to not only a winning record but potentially as many as eight wins.
Worst-case scenario – While West Virginia appears to have the depth to weather an injury/virus storm that isn’t too major, no one is constructed to survive a significant hurricane.
Now if things swell to Cat 4 or 5 Hurricane, the games are almost certainly going to get shut down, and they’ll be postponed or cancelled. But if a team can field a reasonable unit, it is likely going to be asked to get out there and give it a try. That may mean back-up quarterbacks, second-string linemen, true freshmen all over the place. But those trying to play football this fall have come too far to let a few bumps stop an opportunity for games to be played. Now it won’t entail having to start an offensive guard at tailback, but a smart coach better be ready for some unusual crosstraining – a wide receiver having to take some snaps at cornerback, a defensive end seeing some action at tight end.
Obviously who is available to play and how far down the depth chart a team has to go always impacts wins and losses, and that will be especially true this year.
If WVU keeps a majority of its top players on the field for games this season, it could be pretty good.
But the opposite is true as well.
In my eyes, West Virginia is better heading into the season than just three of its 10 opponents this year – Eastern Kentucky, Kansas and a QB-questionable TCU – equal to three others and a step behind for more.
The Mountaineers could fall to the top seven even if this were a normal year. Since this isn’t a normal year, WVU could perform significantly better than expectations, but the reverse is possible as well.
If things go sideways for West Virginia in the health department, it could potentially slide as far down as 2-8. I don’t foresee that happening right now, but this is a season it’s impossible to foresee all that will eventually happen.
Previously in Best Case\Worst Case