At the conclusion of West Virginia’s 2020 football regular season, I received a quick question from one of our social media followers: was this a successful season for the Mountaineers?
There are a number of different ways to evaluate a year’s play, ranging from strict statistical analysis to a subjective “look and feel” approach. Our Greg Hunter leaned toward the former in his look at the team a few days ago, so to balance things out a bit I’m going to try to take a more holistic view, and rely on thoughts and evaluations that played out during the course of the year.
My first thought on getting the question was to throw the brakes on a premature evaluation, because the season was not yet complete. I understand that a number of fans believe that bowls are worthless or carry little meaning, but I’m not in that group. I understand that the results of a mid-level bowl often don’t have a lot of carryover to performance the following year (as Greg’s analysis so excellently demonstrates), but we’re not looking at futures here. That bowl game was part of the season as a whole, and it often provides a capstone that shows how a team improved, or faltered, during the year. That matters.
With that thought in play, the bowl game was a significant factor in my final call. Had West Virginia laid an egg in Memphis, or played without intensity or effort, it would have cast a damper on the entire year. And to be honest, when Army went up 21-10 in the middle of the third quarter, I was having a couple of negative thoughts. However, WVU’s rally quelled those, reinforcing the importance of not allowing the most recent result to unduly influence analysis.
Looking at the overall play all year, there’s no doubt that West Virginia’s defense improved. No matter the angle, from stats to the feel when other teams had the ball to the confidence one felt when the Mountaineer D took the field, this was a successful year. Did you ever have doubt that WVU’s defense could come up with a play to halt a drive? That didn’t always happen of course, but it did a lot of the time. I’ll take WVU’s 2020 defense any year.
Offensively, the answer wasn’t as definitive. There was clearly better play in the run game, but coming from where it was in 2019, there was bound to be at least an uptick. Still, WVU was reasonably successful in running the ball, and the passing game also saw some additional productivity – enough to win at a certain level, at least.
The third side of the ball (can we come up with a better phrase for special teams?) was also solid, if not spectacular. After a shaky first week, there wasn’t a holding of breath on kick coverage, and WVU managed to weather the loss of its starting placekicker adequately. That’s another passing grade.
It’s here that we really get into the “feel” aspect, and that requires looking at where the Mountaineers stand in the Big 12, and how competitive they were this year. That feeds into the Trust The Climb mantra, which can lead one down the rabbit hole of comparative analysis.
Looking at the 2020 season compared to 2019, the call of success is yes. The win total went up, even though three games of the schedule were lost. (WVU’s record in those games would likely have been 2-1, as the Mountaineers would have, in my view, beaten Florida State and Maryland.) West Virginia would have also gotten the perceived boost of beating Florida State even though the Seminoles turned out to be below average. Had that occurred, there would have been zero debate as to whether or not this was a good year.
Looking at the year on its own, it’s also next to impossible to separate the battle against COVID-19 from play on the field. I tried to look at just the product between the lines, but the pandemic intruded in too many ways to do so. Being able to complete the vast majority of the schedule was a win.
You can probably guess where this is going. No matter the criteria used, this was a successful season for the Mountaineer football program. I understand that there wasn’t a big bowl. WVU still had a clear separation between it and the top three teams in the Big 12, although it did have a shot at a win Oklahoma State. The positives, though, outweighed the negatives, especially with that bowl championship plaque to hang in the Puskar Center.
Stamp it a success, and give us at least a few days before we start looking at 2021 – preparations for which begin next week as the team returns to campus.