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Maybe West Virginia’s 2017 Season Was Really A Success?

Based on how little production West Virginia returned, maybe winning 7 games was tougher than predicted

West Virginia v TCU Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Everyone is going to begin to review the 2017 West Virginia Mountaineers football season. Some will do the basic review by going game by game. Some will paint pictures with their words regarding the what-could-have-been had Will Grier not been injured. Others will review the offensive and defensive numbers. I will get to that in time, though I suspect many fans don’t really want to review this season. We just finished another season with one more win than loss, another season with a lousy bowl game and a worse bowl performance. There are not too many words I want to spend remembering this season and I can’t imagine you, the fans, want to read them.

However, as I look back on this season, maybe, just maybe, this season should be viewed as a success. We all knew coming in that Tony Gibson was going to replace 7 starters on defense. We all knew that on offense we were replacing nearly the entire receiving corp. Here is what Bill Connelly wrote back in May about the Mountaineers

Aside from a disappointing bowl against Miami, this was the year that fans wanted to see. Holgorsen bought a reserve of goodwill, and he heads into his seventh season renewed. Florida transfer and former blue-chip quarterback Will Grier takes over alongside 1,100-yard rusher Justin Crawford.

All is well. Right?

Well, Holgo might have to spend a little bit more of that goodwill than he’d prefer. Grier helps to mitigate the loss of Skyler Howard, sure, but two of the top three receivers and five of the top seven offensive linemen are gone, and the defense must replace its top three linemen, its best linebacker, and five of last year’s top six defensive backs. The Mountaineers are going to be reliant on youth and newcomers, and the offense is putting a lot of stock in a quarterback who had about two good games before losing his redshirt freshman season to a performance-enhancing drug suspension.

WVU ranks second-to-last in my returning production measure, bringing back just 28 percent of its production, a level that virtually assures regression. Combine that with top-50 recruiting and solid-not-great recent performance, and you’ve got a drastic projected fall.

28 percent of production from a ten-win team in 2016 returned in 2017. That is a significant drop is production.

Returning Production

Bill mentions that West Virginia was second-to-last in his returning production measure. That means nothing without context. Where do the other teams rank and more importantly how did those other teams do?

Seventeen teams returned less than 50% of their total production from 2016.

Team Record vs Returning Production

Team Returning Production Record
Team Returning Production Record
Air Force 25% 5-7
West Virginia 28% 7-6
Michigan 34% 8-4
North Carolina 41% 3-9
Louisiana Tech 43% 7-6
Pittsburgh 44% 5-7
Michigan State 44% 10-3
Western Michigan 46% 6-6
Miami 46% 10-2
Georgia Southern 46% 2-10
Nebraska 46% 4-8
Clemson 47% 12-1
Iowa 47% 8-5
Utah 48% 7-6
Coastal Carolina 48% 3-9
East Carolina 49% 3-9
New Mexico 49% 3-9
Teams record compared to their returning production BillC - SBN, Jake Lantz

Only three teams returned less than 40% (9 of 22 starters) of their 2016 production. West Virginia returned the fewest amount of production of any Power 5 school. For West Virginia, it returned such little production on both sides of the ball. Offensively, it was the seventh worst returning production of any team and defensively it was the third-worst returning production. West Virginia was the only Power 5 team to return 30% or less of both offense and defensive production.

Despite this enormous lack of production, West Virginia stood 7-3 at the 10 game mark on the season. A season-turning injury ultimately led the Mountaineers to a 3-game losing streak, where the Mountaineers finished in line with the S&P+ projections (69 preseason vs. 62).

If Dana Holgorsen, Jake Spavital and Tony Gibson were able to have the team at 7-3 before the injury with such little returning production, just how much can we do in 2018 when the largest portion of the team returns in years? Maybe, just maybe the 2017 West Virginia season wasn’t as much of an abject failure as it appears to be at first glance.