West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 10 – Opponent Strength
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season, and then we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
10. Opponent strength – A football season ultimately is graded on a curve, as its success or failure is determined not only by that particular team’s ability but also how it matches up to its opponent’s talent level.
In theory, a team could be the 13th best in the country, but if it plays the 12 others who are better, it might finish 0-12.
I’m not saying West Virginia is in that situation, but there’s no doubt it has a tough schedule.
It is one of just five teams in all of college football this year who will play 11 of its 12 regular season games against Power 5 opponents (a criteria that includes not only the 64 P5 schools but also Notre Dame and BYU). Boston College (8 ACC games + Richmond, Kansas, at Rutgers and at Notre Dame), Purdue (9 Big Ten games + at Nevada, Vanderbilt and TCU), Stanford (9 Pac-12 games + Northwestern, at UCF and Notre Dame) and USC (9 Pac-12 games + Fresno State, at BYU and at Notre Dame) are the only other ones, who like WVU, face more than 10 P5 foes in the 2019 regular season.
In the Big 12, West Virginia is the only team that takes on such a challenge this year. Every other league school has just one non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent, other than WVU, which has two, and Baylor, which has none.
The Big Ten likes to brag that its teams don’t play many FCS opponents (just three among its 14 member schools this year), but five of them also don’t play a single non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent – Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin. That quintet, plus Baylor, is among 11 Power 5 teams that this year doesn’t face another P5 opponent outside its league.
Athlon rates the Mountaineers’ 2019 non-conference schedule as the ninth toughest in the country among the Power 5 teams. There is reason to argue WVU should be even higher, but that’s a fight to make another day.
Phil Steele’s College Football Preview rates the Mountaineers’ complete 2019 schedule as the 14th most difficult nationally and the toughest in the Big 12.
West Virginia does play one FCS opponent this year, but its Aug. 31 opener against James Madison certainly can’t be chalked up as an easy win. The Dukes will enter the season ranked No. 2 in the country in the FCS and return 20 starters from last season’s 9-4 club.
After the 2019 lid-lifter against JMU, West Virginia travels to Missouri (8-5 in ’18) and then returns to Mountaineer Field to host North Carolina State (9-4). The Tigers’ enter the season with 13 starters returning, plus Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant taking over at quarterback, and hold a No. 23 national preseason ranking. The Wolfpack has more rebuilding to do than UM, as it returns 12 starters and must replace most of its offensive skill players. Athlon rates the ‘Pack at No. 38 nationally heading into the season.
West Virginia’s non-conference games, especially those against Mizzou and N.C. State, are similar to most of the Mountaineers’ Big 12 showdowns – very difficult but also not without hope.
Oklahoma (No. 6) and Texas (No. 11) are probably the toughest, and are the only Big 12 teams rated in the top 20 by Athlon. After that it’s a jumble of seven squads from No. 24 Iowa State to No. 64 Kansas State. Then, of course, there is Kansas (No. 108).
The Sooners (10-2 in ’18) are the one Big 12 opponent WVU hasn’t defeated since joining the league in 2012, and the Mountaineers must travel to Norman this year. The Longhorns (10-4) come to Morgantown on Oct. 5, where they are 2-1 all-time.
Most view OU and UT as again the Big 12’s top contenders, but West Virginia also found out about the danger of Iowa State (8-5) last year after the Cyclones throttled WVU 30-14 in Ames. Texas, ISU and Oklahoma all lay in the midst of a tough October stretch for the Mountaineers.
After that trio and then an open date, West Virginia closes the regular season with five straight games against Big 12 foes who all enter the 2019 season with some questions but also reason for optimism. Trips to Baylor (7-6 in ’18, predicted No. 36 nationally in ’19), Kansas State (5-7, No. 64) and TCU (7-6, No. 37) bracket home affairs against Texas Tech (5-7, No. 59) and Oklahoma State (7-6, No. 31) for the Mountaineers.
There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot that separates any of those final five opponents from WVU. Like most of West Virginia’s contests this season, the margin between victory and defeat for each figures to be very close. That appears to be the case basically every time the Mountaineers take the field this fall.