It's always felt surreal to me that despite all of the the thought and care that teams put into each and every week of each and every season, game outcomes, and by association, people's professional livelihood, often hinge on a lucky bounce here or a missed call there. Take our games against Virginia Tech or TCU last year as an example. Both came down to the final drive, and both were very close to swinging in the direction of West Virginia victories. If Will Grier's last throw was a foot higher against Tech, or if David Sills didn't get called for that phantom pushoff against TCU, is 2018 looked at as something of a make-or-break year for Dana Holgorsen? As they say, a game of inches.
With that in mind, a buddy thought it'd be fun to take a look at a couple possible versions of our 2018 campaign, and considering we're smack in the middle of the content-starved offseason, I was only too happy to write it. So here goes..
Ahhh the "average" season. Has any other major college team so thoroughly embodied the spirit of that idea as we have? The average West Virginia season wraps itself around you like an old blanket on a rainy day - it's cozy in its familiarity even though it might smell a little funky.
If you're looking for an example of the average WVU season, you shouldn't have to look too hard. With the exceptions of 1988, 1993, 2005-2007, 2010, and 2016, when we were good, and 1990, 1999, 2001, and 2013, when we were bad, my 30 years of life have seen almost exclusively average West Virginia football teams.
So how would that look this year? Well, since it's impossible to fully experience a truly soul-crushingly average season without a little bit of hope, I'd almost guarantee that we'd open with a win against Tennessee. We'd probably even look good doing it, and we'd probably handle Youngstown State, as well. No, the first boat-rocking wave probably wouldn't come until we lose to a rebuilding NC State team that, as my esteemed colleague Jake Lantz put it, needs to replace "their entire starting defensive line, their top rusher, all-time leading receiver, two-thirds of their linebacking corp, and the right side of their offensive line."
Now doesn't that sound more like us? Really it'd be an exceptionally average way to close our OOC slate - look impressive for two weeks before taking one sqaurely on the chin and staggering into conference play. I can already hear myself having the "are we good or are we bad" conversation with myself on the drive back from Raleigh. Nothing says average like that conversation.
The good news though, is that the average West Virginia team generally responds well to adversity, and our early conference slate is set up nicely to build up some momentum for the stretch run. I could easily see us bouncing back strong against Kansas State, handling Texas Tech, and then cruising through October to a 7-1 record ahead of our trip to Austin.
And that's when things would get interesting. I'd probably put money on us splitting with Texas and TCU, and specifically on us beating the 'Horns in Austin before losing at home to TCU the following week. I actually think we'd beat Oklahoma State, as well, if for no other reason than that a win will set us up for a bigger let down a week later.
And what a let down it would be. 9-2 West Virginia hosting Oklahoma in the season finale, with a rematch looming in Dallas the following week. Winning the pair and a Big 12 title would cement the season as one of the most successful in school history regardless of what happened in the bowl game, while splitting the two would still secure a 10-win season and a NY6 bowl. Unfortunately, the average WVU season would see us lose both, and then lose the bowl game a month later.
So there you have it. Defying the odds to finish 9-5 when so much more was possible. Perfectly average.
As mentioned above, we've only had four truly bad seasons in the last thirty years, and fortunately there are several factors in play this year that make me think it's unlikely to be the fifth. However, we're going to hypothesize anyways. This is obviously the darkest timeline, so if you're not sure that your heart can handle it, please skip ahead to "The Good" for all our sakes.
The "bad" 2018 season would start with promise. The Mountaineers race out to a 21-10 halftime lead against Tennessee, with the offense hitting on all cylinders and the defense stifling a lackluster Vols offense. The momentum continues on the 2nd half's opening drive, with Will standing in there to deliver a strike down the sideline against Tennessee's two-deep zone. 1st and goal, West Virginia, but what's this?!? Grier is slow to get up, remaining on one knee for nearly half a minute before shakily regaining his feet. He stays in the game, but is clearly not himself as the offense sputters to a FG. Tennessee reels off 10 quick points, causing Mountaineer fans to shift uncomfortably in their seats as the 4th quarter starts. Our worst fears are realized when Tennessee completes the comeback with a 7-minute game-winning drive which sees them repeatedly run the ball right into the teeth of our defense (or at least the spot where our defense's teeth would theoretically be if they had any).
You can imagine where it goes from here. The fan base's meltdown is temporarily postponed when we handle Youngstown State, but kicks into overdrive after an ugly loss to NC State that sees Grier sustain his second obvious concussion in three weeks. With Grier's status now in doubt for Kansas State, stories begin rolling out that "Allison is ready to go" and "This is not, we repeat, NOT, another Chugs situation". And it's not, except that it kind of is (Allison looks decently competent in a hard-fought loss).
There's obviously nothing ideal about a 1-3 start, but the ship is righted somewhat when Grier returns to edge Texas Tech the following week, and for a short time things start to make sense again. The Mountaineers get back to .500 a week later with a blowout win against Kansas, and a strong showing at Iowa State makes the early season woes feel like a bad memory.
Unfortunately, any and all positive vibes are washed away a week later when Baylor waltzes into Morgantown and has its way with us. Without our consent. The NCAA's lack of response to such a glaring behavioral violation throws an already disappointing season into a full-blown tailspin, and when Grier is hurt again a week later in a loss at Texas, fans begin to question everything from their faith to their own existence. Holgorsen shows up inebriated for the TCU game after it's announced that he's being fired, and we don't even sniff a win over the final two weeks with Tony Gibson acting as interim HC.
4-8. I want to puke.
Question: what's the one thing that usually separates bad football teams from average football teams, average football teams from good football teams, and good football teams from great football teams?
Answer: a good quarterback.
Follow-up question: what does WVU have?
Answer: a good quarterback.
There's one reason, and one reason only, that West Virginia fans are looking at 2018 as "The Year", and his name is William F. Grier. Grier has only played 10 games in the Old Gold and Blue, but he's already arguably the best QB we've ever had not named Pat White, and as long as he's on the field we have a puncher’s chance against anybody.
I'm going to preface this next part by saying that we have our share of question marks on defense this year. We don't really know yet if the new guys will pan out along the defensive front, or if we can find a serviceable third linebacker, or if we can find a second competent cornerback, and a failure in any or all of those areas will almost assuredly lead to something more closely resembling the scenarios above. However, if we're able to find answers to those questions then there's no doubt in my mind that we have enough talent elsewhere to make a real run at the playoffs this year. That's how I'd define a good season: run the table or come damn close to it, win our conference title, and go represent the Big 12 in the CFP. If we control the things we can control, there's no reason we can't. Just walk through our schedule with me.
Tennessee is a tough opener, but they'll be playing their first game with a new coach and quarterback.
Youngstown State is a strong FCS team, but realistically shouldn't give us a ton of trouble.
NC State is always a tricky place to go play, but they're replacing almost all of their best players.
The Kansas State curse is broken. Texas Tech looks down. Iowa State only beats you when you beat yourself. Baylor is still playing catch up after narrowly escaping the NCAA with their program intact. Texas lost a ton of high-end talent. TCU's at home. Oklahoma State lost Rudolph and Washington. Oklahoma lost Mayfield.
This is probably the first time in since 2007 when you could realistically walk through our schedule like that and not find a team in a decidedly better situation than we are. We had a great QB back then, as well, and I'm sure you all remember how that season went. That should be the bar this year, too. Let's go.