By now, you don’t need me to tell you that it has been an odd year, both in life and especially in college football.
The Big 12 Conference is playing defense and the SEC isn’t. Rutgers has more Big Ten wins through three weeks than Penn State, Nebraska and Illinois combined. Cincinnati, BYU and Indiana are all in the AP top 10. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are in the back half of their schedules while the Pac-12 just started this week.
Most of these things don’t come with feasible explanations. But how about West Virginia’s road woes in 2020? Is it just one of those things, or are there reasons and supporting statistical evidence to be found?
It’s about like anything else in America these days: an argument can be made from either perspective.
The facts are this — the Mountaineers are 4-0 at home and 0-3 on the road so far this season, and that 0-3 mark is an anomaly among Big 12 teams.
A seven-team breakaway has occurred in the 10-team league, with WVU and TCU tied at sixth at 3-3 in the conference and Baylor at 1-4 in eighth. The other six teams in the league’s top seven are a combined 12-3 on the road and 14-9 at home.
But it’s not just where you play, it’s who you play. Two of WVU’s home opponents — Baylor and Kansas — are a combined 1-11 this season and a third — Eastern Kentucky — was an FCS opponent. Meanwhile, two of the Mountaineers’ three road losses have come at the hands of ranked teams — No. 14 Oklahoma State and No. 21 Texas.
On one hand, all three of those losses were close games. WVU’s losses to Texas Tech and Texas came by a combined 11 points and the 27-13 loss at Oklahoma State was skewed a bit by a Cowboys touchdown with 1:17 left in the game.
That competition level and the competitiveness West Virginia has shown in all three of those losses are enough for coach Neal Brown to say that there’s nothing to see in terms of his team’s home/road splits.
“They’ve all come down to the last four minutes of the game, so I don’t necessarily think it’s on the road and at home because they’ve all been one-possession games under four minutes,” Brown said. “We’ve been in position to win the games. I think a lot of it are Oklahoma State and Texas are pretty good and really talented.
“But I think we’re handling the travel well. I think if we weren’t it show up in a bigger way than it is because we’ve been right there.”
Though Brown points to how close road games have been, they all have one thing in common — WVU was unable to come up with key plays to win the game. And though Brown continues to point out how improved this team is compared to last year’s — and he’s right, it is — consider that last year’s team registered all three conference wins on the road, and all by state-of-Georgia 2020-election thin margins. In victories at Kansas, Kansas State and TCU in 2019, WVU’s combined margin of victory was 12 points.
Two of those wins were over good teams. Kansas State was ranked No. 24 when the teams met a year ago and, TCU was 5-6 playing for a berth into a bowl game. A vast majority of that young WVU team is back this year.
So what’s the difference? How can a team that found ways to win games in a rebuilding season against quality opponents a year ago come up empty in the same endeavor a year later and a year older and more mature? Also, in a season in which crowds are limited at all stadiums because of the COVID-19 pandemic, shouldn’t it theoretically be easier to win on the road? The road records by most of the rest of the Big 12 teams say it is.
Statistically, the Mountaineers have been slightly worse in several categories on the road, but by margins that can likely be dismissed by the overall difference in competition level. However, one area sticks out like a sore, lowered shoulder — the run game.
In home games, West Virginia has averaged 218.25 rushing yards per game. On the road? Just 67.33. And though WVU’s opponents away from home have been better overall, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech rank fourth, fifth and eighth, respectively, against the run among Big 12 teams.
So has the WVU coaching staff noticed any differences in that area?
“It’s certainly something that’s gotten brought up through seven games where four have been at home and three have been on the road,” WVU offensive coordinator Gerad Parker said. “We’ve got to keep on finding ways to keep pushing buttons to finish games on the road the way we have at home, but I don’t think it’s something where you look at the schedule or how we’ve prepared.”
In other words, the only differences have been that WVU has made the plays to win home games and hasn’t made those plays on the road.
Whether or not any of that is due to geography, that’s up to interpretation.