Even at the end of the most unusual regular season in college football history, wrapping up the year in a bowl game had somewhat of a normal feel.
West Virginia’s 2020 season came to a conclusion with a 24-21 victory over Army in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The win put a nice bow on WVU’s 6-4 campaign.
With eight offensive and seven defensive starters expected back next season, the hope is that the Mountaineers will take yet another step forward in year three of the Neal Brown era.
The perception is that the outcome in a bowl game plays a factor in how a team performs the next season. A win leads to an enthusiastic offseason that is a springboard to a successful regular season. And the opposite would seemingly hold true, where a postseason lost leads to doldrums that are hard to turn around the following fall.
Surprisingly I’ve found that winning or losing has had very little impact on the following season, at least in Mountaineer history.
In the season after a bowl triumph, WVU has averaged 7.53 wins per year. After a bowl loss, that average changes only slightly – 7.36 wins per year. I had assumed there would be a much larger difference, but the numbers don’t lie.
Thus West Virginia 2021 record isn’t dependent on how the Mountaineers did in Memphis last week.
What will matter is the improvement of those players who will return next season.
WVU does have some big holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball, the most glaring of which are left by the departure of All-American defensive lineman Darius Stills and all-Big 12 linebacker Tony Fields, both of whom will likely be NFL draft picks this spring.
That pair led a defense that was very good this year, outside of a 42-6 shellacking at Iowa State. Statistically, WVU improved in almost every category from last season. In 2019, it was 69th nationally in rushing defense (159.4 yards per game), 88th in passing defense (239.9 ypg), 69th in total defense (399.3 ypg) and 73rd in scoring defense (28.8 points per game). It was significantly better in every one of those categories in 2020 – 28th in rushing defense (131.8 ypg), 1st in passing defense (159.6 ypg), 4th in total defense (291.4 ypg) and 21st in scoring defense (20.5 ppg).
While West Virginia’s defense was better from year one of the Brown era to year two, its offense also made strides but wasn’t among the nation’s best as was its D.
After fielding one of the worst rushing attacks in all the FBS ranks in 2019 (128th, 73.2 ypg), WVU improved to 135.1 ypg on the ground in ’20, though that was still only good enough for 92nd nationally. It was a big leap from one season to the next, but it’s a progression that still must continue. Statistically the Mountaineers were also better in terms of passing yards (54th in 2019 with 248.7 ypg to 28th in 2020 with 277.5 ypg) and total yards (119th in 2019 with 321.9 ypg to 50th in 2020 with 412.6 ypg) and scoring offense (119th in 2019 with 20.6 ppg to 82nd in 2020 with 26.5 ppg).
Certainly West Virginia’s offense had plenty of room to climb after it was pretty bad in 2019, but with eight starters and a total of 28 players who saw game action on that side of the ball expected back in 2021, continued improvement should be expected.
The defense has bigger questions heading into next season because it likely has bigger personnel losses. While the NCAA did not count the 2020 season against anyone’s eligibility, it will appears that 12 or 13 of WVU’s 18 seniors will move on and thus not return for ’21. If that’s the case, the Mountaineers have to replace not only Fields and Darius Stills, but also probably defensive end Jeffery Pooler and safety Sean Mahone. Still, West Virginia has a solid core coming back. Dante Stills, Tykee Smith, Josh Chandler-Semedo, Alonzo Addae and Akheem Mesidor are among the 28 expected defensive returnees who saw game action this past season.
As they say, past performance doesn’t guarantee future results, but history often is an indicator about what is to come.