Trying to predict anything in 2020 borders on insanity, and when it comes to college football, perhaps the more poignant prognostication would be guessing how many games will be played.
But this season — no matter how much of it is held — is a crucially important one in Neal Brown’s quest to establish West Virginia as a Big 12 Conference championship contender.
Last season offered the expected growing pains that come with a coaching change and some signs that things are pointed in the right direction, particularly road wins at Kansas State and TCU in two of the last three games. The final result was a 5-7 mark that left most WVU fans eagerly awaiting 2020.
Here we are, so what now? It’s hard to say. There are so many factors that have impacted not only WVU but teams around the country.
But I’ve never been one to shy away from making myself look like an idiot in predicting games, and with that in mind, here’s how I think the chips fall for WVU — assuming the table itself doesn’t collapse and a full schedule is played.
Eastern Kentucky (Sept. 12): I was in Huntington on Saturday as Marshall shredded the Colonels to the tune of a 59-0 win and a 627-166 advantage in total yards. No way around it, it was a whoopin’. Do I think there will be some improvement from week one to week two for EKU? Yes. Do I think Eastern Kentucky has a couple of things going for it, primarily the fact that WVU will be playing its first game and that there will be no crowd noise in Morgantown? Yes. Do I think it will be enough to make this game competitive for very long? Not on your life. WVU 52, Eastern Kentucky 9.
At Oklahoma State (Sept. 26): After a bye week, the schedule ramps up in a hurry. The Cowboys return 19 starters, including the Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in running back Chuba Hubbard. While most focus on WVU’s struggles with Oklahoma since becoming a league member for the 2012 season, the Mountaineers are now riding a five-game losing streak to the Cowboys.
Last year’s game was a 20-13 road win for Oklahoma State that accounted for WVU quarterback Jarret Doege’s only loss as a starter. I think WVU is better in 2020. I think the Mountaineers win some big games this season. But I think Oklahoma State can win the conference outright and they get it started right here. Oklahoma State 34, WVU 21.
Baylor (Oct. 3): Speaking of close calls in 2019, WVU’s 17-14 loss in Waco stands out the most, especially considering the Bears went on to finish 11-3, make an appearance in the Big 12 championship game and play in the Sugar Bowl. Coach Matt Rhule departed for the NFL and Baylor lost nine starters on defense. Quarterback Charlie Brewer has thrown for 7,742 yards in his career, but protecting him has been an issue for the Bears, who have finished last in the Big 12 in sacks allowed in each of the past two seasons.
That could be trouble against a WVU defensive line anchored by the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year Darius Stills. I don’t think Baylor will fall off as much as some. The Bears are still talented on offense, and new coach Dave Aranda won a national championship as a defensive coordinator at LSU just last year. But Baylor is 0-4 all time in Morgantown, and this year it’s the Mountaineers who eke one out. WVU 35, Baylor 31.
Kansas (Oct. 17): Coach Les Miles in his second year made a commitment to the future, taking no juco players in his recruiting class in an effort to stock up on young talent. It may pay dividends later, but it could well lead to some growing pains now. The Jayhawks do return junior running back Pooka Williams Jr., a first-team All-Big 12 selection in each of the last two seasons. And behind Miles, who seems to be willing to sacrifice immediate success for a sustainable future, I think there is plenty to be optimistic about. But as for the 2020 season? It will be chalk and the Mountaineers rock the Jayhawks. WVU 45, Kansas 20.
At Texas Tech (Oct. 24): A 38-17 loss to the Red Raiders in Morgantown was one of the low points for WVU last year and the game wasn’t even that close, with Tech jumping up 28-3 early in the second quarter. It snapped a string of five straight wins in the series for WVU. It also prompted Brown to make a change at quarterback, inserting Doege as the starter for the rest of the season.
Coincidentally, I think it’s here that Doege will have to fully come into his own. The Red Raiders are going to score, especially if quarterback Alan Bowman can stay healthy after missing nine games a year ago. Tech has seven players back who caught at least 20 passes, but the Red Raiders also sported a defense that ranked 127th in total defense. If the Mountaineers are to have a successful season, this may be the most important game on the schedule, and it may be up to Doege, an improved running game and the rest of the offense to get them there. WVU 38, Texas Tech 36.
Kansas State (Oct. 31): A year after graduating 15 senior starters, losing their entire offensive line and their defensive coordinator Scottie Hazelton to Michigan State, the Wildcats would seem on paper to have plenty of holes to fill. And while that’s true, Kansas State also has plenty coming back, most notably senior quarterback Skylar Thompson. Chris Klieman is an excellent coach as the Wildcats quietly put together an 8-5 campaign in his first season. This group of Mountaineers is still young and isn’t used to prosperity yet.
A week after an emotional win in Lubbock, standing at 4-1, in front of who knows how many (if any) fans in Morgantown and against a team that WVU upset at home late last season, this one just gives me the creeps and it has nothing to do with a Halloween kickoff. Kansas State 24, WVU 19.
At Texas (Nov. 7): With 16 starters back led by an experienced quarterback in Sam Ehlinger, the time to win seems to be now for Texas coach Tom Herman after an 8-5 season last year. On paper, the Longhorns look every bit a Big 12 title contender and are just two seasons removed from a 10-win campaign. The Mountaineers hung around with Texas until late in a 42-31 loss in Morgantown a year ago. WVU has won the last two games it has played in Austin, but experience, talent and urgent expectations are on the side of Texas right now even with seven new assistant coaches into the fold. If there is a three-team breakaway in the Big 12, and I believe that there is, the Longhorns are squarely in the middle of it. Texas 34, WVU 24.
TCU (Nov. 14): The Horned Frogs missed a bowl game for only the third time in 19 seasons under Gary Patterson last year, and it was WVU that drove the final nail into the coffin with a 20-17 season-closing win in Fort Worth. Sophomore quarterback Max Duggan will be surrounded with some talented yet relatively inexperienced weapons, and how fast they mature will likely determine how far the Horned Frogs can go this season.
TCU will be better and no Big 12 team, with the exception of maybe Kansas State, will be more fired up to play the Mountaineers. But at home, on the heels of consecutive losses, I think it will be gut-check time for the Mountaineers and that Brown’s young squad will show some maturity and answer the bell. WVU 30, TCU 20.
Oklahoma (Nov. 28): The mark in league play is now 0-8 for WVU against the Sooners. There have been a couple of close calls, primarily in 2012 (50-49) and 2018 (59-56), but several others just haven’t been competitive, including last year’s 52-14 Oklahoma win in Norman. The Sooners figure to be thin at running back after junior Kennedy Brooks opted out after leading the team in rushing in each of the past two seasons. Trey Sermon also transferred to Ohio State after his production declined a year ago.
OU’s defense has already been ravaged by injuries with linebacker Caleb Kelly, lineman Marcus Hicks and juco safety transfer Justin Harrington going down this offseason. Spencer Rattler will take over at quarterback for the graduated Jalen Hurts, and with all of that, and with the Mountaineers coming off a bye week, it would seem to be the perfect storm for WVU to get over the hump. But this is still Oklahoma, coach Lincoln Riley is still there and until I see it, I can’t pick it. Oklahoma 42, WVU 27.
At Iowa State (Dec. 5): If there is a team that can break the three-team party at the top I think it’s Iowa State, which returns nine starters on defense and one of the best quarterbacks in the conference and beyond in Brock Purdy. The Cyclones have won two straight in the series, and Ames is not an easy place to play, specifically in December. Weather will likely be a factor, as will an Iowa State program that has made significant strides under coach Matt Campbell and is getting closer and closer to becoming a championship contender in the league. Expect bitter cold in Ames and a bitter end to a growing season with a lot of positives for the Mountaineers. Iowa State 26, WVU 17.
Final record: 5-5 (4-5 Big 12).