May and June are sometimes the happiest months of the year for college football fans. Your team has concluded spring practices, you just saw that standout senior who had a successful college career get drafted in the NFL Draft so he could continue his dream of playing football and that impact freshman you got in the latest recruiting cycle has you tantalized.
For the West Virginia Mountaineers, 2018 holds the promise of what could be a truly spectacularly special season. Former Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier is set to return after a tantalizing 10-game performance in 2017 and he will be throwing to David Sills, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms. The trio combined for 186 receptions, 2,640 yards, and 24 touchdowns. They will be joined by former Alabama Crimson Tide receiver TJ Simmons. The Mountaineers should once again feature a quartet of receivers to give defensive coordinators nightmares.
With all of this firepower, why in the world in Vegas setting the bar at 7 games? Some of it has to do with the defense. The Mountaineers lost Freshman All-American Lamonte McDougle to the notion of better stats in a different scheme. They lost former starter at defensive end Adam Shuler to the promise of a track and field career. They’ve lost former 4-star linebacker Brendan Ferns for a third time, putting his career in jeopardy at this point.
The defense has suffered major attrition affecting both the starting lineup and the quality of depth behind it. The offense has suffered losses as well, watching Reggie Roberson transfer just this past week. All in all, the team which once bragged to have finally gotten to a full scholarship limit, looks to be back at where it started when it first joined the Big 12, with low depth numbers.
So how do I see this season playing out? Let’s take a look.
September 1, 2018 - vs. Tennessee Volunteers (Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC)
The season opener, against a Southeastern Conference opponent in an NFL stadium. This will be the deciding factor for the Mountaineers early. They win this game and the season could get really special. Lose this game and all of that goodwill and fortune talk will quickly grow into disdain, hatred and out-right betrayal by the fans.
Tennessee fired former coach Butch Jones following another lackluster season. They were set to hire Greg Schiano but a social media story backfired and set ablaze the city of Knoxville. Eventually the Volunteers settled for the 19th choice in Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Pruitt is likely looking to start either redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano or freshman Will McBride. Either way, it will be the first either sees Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense. I have a theory that quarterbacks perform poorly the first time against Gibson’s defense. I think that holds here.
Grier and company get started early, bog down in the middle and turn it on late. David Sills finishes with 120 yards receiving, two touchdowns. Marcus Simms burns the Volunteer defense for a long touchdown and Kennedy McKoy breaks 100 and two touchdowns.
Prediction: WVU 42, Tennessee 24
Record: 1-0 (0-0)
September 8, 2018 - vs. Youngstown State (Morgantown, WV)
I’m not going to spend a lot of time writing about YSU. Bo Pelini and company are good but they are coming off a disappointing 6-5 season in 2017. When West Virginia faced the Penguins in 2016, the Penguins lost 38-21 but made it all the way to the FCS Championship game that season.
Grier throws for 350 yards and five touchdowns. Kennedy McKoy breaks 100 yards, Martell Pettaway scores twice and the Mountaineers cruise to an easy victory.
Prediction: WVU 49, YSU 24
Record: 2-0 (0-0)
September 15, 2018 at N.C. State Wolfpack (Raleigh, NC)
The Wolfpack surprised many last year when they stormed through the ACC. NCSU finished 9-4 last season, two games better than Bill Connelly predicted. They stumbled out of the gate, losing to South Carolina Gamecocks but then reeled off six straight wins, including wins over #12 Florida State and #17 Louisville.
Junior quarterback Ryan Finley leads the Wolfpack after throwing for 3200 yards as a junior. He completed 64% of his passes last season, a 4-point jump from his initial season with the Wolfpack. Finley is a tall, strong quarterback and a strong 2018 campaign could see him become a first-round draft pick.
NC State did in 2017 what West Virginia is hoping to do in 2018. They capitalized on great seasons from upperclassmen. The problem with that is what happens the following year. The Wolfpack will need 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.
That is a lot to ask for a team, especially when they will face JMU and Georgia State in their first two games. Good warmup games but not exactly enough to get you ready for playing a team like West Virginia. I think the experience of West Virginia keeps the ship rolling.
The Mountaineers start out slow, taking a 7-0 lead in the first behind a Jovani Haskins touchdown. NC State and Finley answer in the second. The Mountaineers take a 13-7 lead into halftime. West Virginia slowly begins to work on the Wolfpack as Grier finds Sills for a touchdown pushing the lead 20-7. In the fourth, the teams trade touchdowns but the Mountaineers prove to be too much.
Prediction: WVU 31, NC State 20
Record: 3-0 (0-0)
September 22, 2018 vs Kansas State Wildcats (Morgantown, WV)
The Mountaineers come back to Morgantown surviving their non-conference slate and begin Big 12 play. Dana Holgorsen finally solved Bill Snyder in 2016 and the margin of victory has steadily grown. This year, with Jesse Ertz out of eligibility, the Wildcats will have to turn to Alex Delton or Skylar Thompson. The Mountaineers faced Thompson last year in his first career start. Thompson is the better passer of the two but Delton is the typical Bill Snyder quarterback. Tough, physical, run first guy who can execute the offense and hit just enough passes to make you pay.
Snyder does a good job of getting the most out of his players but the Wildcats are finding it harder and harder to do. This year they’ll have to somehow generate a pass rush with newcomers like Rashaan York.
I like that Will Grier has faced the Wildcats before and the weather was miserable. It was damp, it was cold and it was in Manhattan. This time, the weather should be better, warmer and it will be in Morgantown. I like for Grier to put up 30 or more points on the Snydercats and don’t be surprised if this is a game that showcases a little bit of Leddie Brown or maybe Alec Sinkfield.
Prediction: WVU 33, Kansas State 24
Record: 4-0 (1-0)
September 29, 2018 at Texas Tech Red Raiders (Lubbock, TX)
Ok Mountaineer fans here we go. The ‘eers are flying high after a 4-0 start. The team is living up to their preseason billing as darkhorse Big 12 title contenders and nothing has been shown to make that prediction look false at the moment. By this point in the season, West Virginia should find itself in the top 10 if not the top 5.
And now they have to travel to Lubbock, Texas. This was the house of horrors for the Mountaineers in 2012 when they were 5-0 and had thoughts of a Big 12 title. They left Lubbock licking their wounds and spiraled to a 5-game losing streak. The good news is that Tommy Tuberville isn’t coaching the Red Raiders, Ryan Gosling lookalike Kliff Kingsbury is. Tony Gibson has had major success against Kingsbury high flying Air Raid offense. Gibson has twice held the Red Raiders under 400 yards and is currently 4-0 against the team from Lubbock.
The Raiders are replacing senior Nic Shimonek with McClane Carter. Carter made a surprising starter against the Longhorns last season and threw for 237 yards in a 27-23 victory. Don’t be surprised if Carter is a Big 12 leader in passing yards and touchdowns this season given Kingsbury’s natural ability to extract the most out of his quarterbacks.
The defense, while improved in 2017, likely was close to its ceiling. Going from awful to not-the-worst was a victory for TTU but it still resulted in them finishing 6-7, their 3rd losing season in four.
This game gives the Mountaineers a scare for a half as Carter gets out hot but Gibson successfully generates a couple of turnovers and Will Grier puts on a show. David Sills and Gary Jennings both break 100 yards and a touchdown. Grier throws 5 touchdowns and takes the national lead in touchdowns.
Prediction: WVU 48, TTU 37
Record: 5-0 (2-0)
October 6, 2018 vs Kansas Jayhawks (Morgantown, WV)
Not much to say here. It will be a noon game because you are playing the Kansas Jayhawks. After taking the Jayhawks for granted in 2017, the Mountaineers don’t in 2018. They put their foot on the throat of the Jayhawks and cruise to their sixth victory of the season.
Prediction: WVU 49, Kansas 14
Record: 6-0 (3-0)
October 13, 2018 at Iowa St. Cyclones (Ames, IA)
Gotta admit fans, I came into this looking at each game as I began writing about it. I had no agenda prior to starting this, putting my efforts into researching about the opponent as I cam across them.
Now that I have the Mountaineers at 6-0, I am nervous. They will face their second test of the season when they travel to Ames. Kyle Kempt will look to avenge last season’s loss in Morgan but will have to do it without Allen Lazard. The good news for the Cyclones is that they appear to have replacements on board with Hakeem Butler, Deshaunte Jones and Matthew Eaton.
Helping to take the pressure off Kempt is junior running back David Montgomery. He rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. With a young defense and depth concerns, this game has me thinking that the Cyclones could come out victorious.
It won’t be blowout, look for the Cyclones to avenge the loss last season to Mountaineers.
Prediction: Iowa State 29, WVU 24
Record: 6-1 (3-1)
October 25, 2018 vs. Baylor Bears (Morgantown, WV)
Matt Rhule, who took on the task of replacing Art Briles at Baylor, has stumbled out of the block. Rhule followed 2-10 season at Temple with a 6-6 season. His next two seasons he won 10 games. I doubt Rhule finds that much success in the Big 12 but they won’t be 1-11 like the Bears were last season.
Charlie Brewer played one quarter of football when he played against the Mountaineers last season. In that game he generated 23 points in one quarter and brought the Bears back from a 38-13 deficit to put his team a two-point conversion away from a tie.
This year, the Mountaineers don’t need to rely on Xavier Preston sacking Brewer on the last play of the game to seal a win. The team has a bye week prior to this game, so they get two weeks at home with their families/girlfriends. Grier will throw for four touchdowns and Sinkfield becomes a folk hero when he scampers 69 yards for a touchdown.
Prediction: WVU 42, Baylor 28
Record: 7-1 (4-1)
November 3, 2018 at Texas Longhorns (Austin, TX)
As the fall air turns cold, the Mountaineers find themselves in the hunt for a Big 12 title. It is exactly as everyone has predicted. Dana Holgorsen has the team ranked near the top 10 but now they have a four-game stretch that will define their season. Up first are the Texas Longhorns.
Eventually, Tom Herman, or some other coach is going to capitalize on all of the talent in Texas and Texas will be back. Despite all of its advantages, Texas managed the same record as West Virginia last season. This year, they should be better but will it be enough?
Quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger and Shane Buechele struggled last season with both starting games. As the saying goes, if you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have a starting quarterback. To further the struggles Texas experienced in 2017, Ehlinger was their leading rusher with 368 yards.
For Texas to be successful, they need a strong running game that makes you commit your undersized defense to stopping their run. The fact that Texas has been unable to make this work is appalling and has led to quick hooks for coaches. We will know who Texas is by the time this game comes around. Texas will have played all of the big boys in conference and will have TTU, ISU and KU remaining. Either Texas will be in play for a title or they will be fighting for bowl eligibility.
I think the Texas defense will be tough and I’m really disappointed that Grier did not get a chance to face the Texas defense. I think that experience would have been valuable this season. I still don’t trust Texas and think we are more talented on offense than they are on defense. The question will be how good will our defense be?
Despite -taking a major step back last season, the Mountaineer defense only allowed 28 , points to Texas. Can they do it again? I think the defense gets just enough stops but this one is scary from the start until the final whistle.
Prediction: WVU 35, Texas 31
Record: 8-1 (5-1)
November 10 vs TCU Horned Frogs (Morgantown, WV)
The Mountaineers and Horned Frogs have played some classic games since both joined the conference in 2012. West Virginia has lost heartbreakers in 2012, 2014 and 2017. Each team owns a decisive victory (TCU in 2014, WVU in 2016). Last year Will Grier commented that TCU threw the kitchen sink at WVU. Grier handled the Gary Patterson chess match by throwing for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns to one interception, but with the seconds closing down on the game, TCU got away with bad throw when an Elijah Battle interception was overturned, then TCU got away with defensive interference on the final plays of the game.
The good news for WVU is that Kenny Hill is no longer at TCU. In fact not a lot is back in 2018 for TCU. They return less than 50% of their offensive production and 60% of their defensive production. This lack of production will probably keep TCU out of the Big 12 title hunt but I wouldn’t expect them to be a tire-fire come November. Gary Patterson is too good a coach to allow that.
Yet, once again the Mountaineers defense will get to confuse a first time QB with their unique defense. Expect Gibson to dial up some extra blitzes for TCU to confuse their young offensive line and quarterback. With Will Grier and his receivers having already faced Gary’s defense last year, I think they will have some experience to draw on. If Grier could throw for 366 yards last year, I expect he’ll be close to those numbers again. The young West Virginia defense will be put to the test but I like the Mountaineers at home.
Prediction: WVU 24, TCU 23
Record: 9-1 (6-1)
November 17 at Oklahoma State Cowboys (Stillwater, OK)
Late in the season, if the Mountaineers really are sitting at 9-1, 6-1 in conference, they are going to be a top 10 team. Last year, the Georgia Bulldogs were the lowest rated one-loss team and they sat at #7 when they were 9-1. This is where the rubber meets the road.
A late season trip to Stillwater would normally scare the bejesus out of me. This year however figures to be a transition year for Mike Gundy. He fired his defensive coordinator, Glenn Spencer, after the defense allowed 149 points in three games during a 1-2 stretch that cost the Cowboys a shot at the Big 12 Conference Championship Game. Gundy replaced Spencer with former Cornell head coach Jim Knowles. Knowles will transition the Cowboys to a 4-2-5 set.
The good news is that Spencer ran a 4-3 while Knowles removes a linebacker and adds a defensive back. The transition should be pretty smooth for the Cowboys. The bigger question is do they have the players for the scheme? First year changes are often rocky for defenses if the players don’t fit.
A bigger question is how to do you replace third-round NFL Draft pick Mason Rudolph. Rudolph set or broke nearly every passing record at OSU. Along with Rudolph, Gundy needs to replace James Washington and Marcell Ateman. The pair combined for over 2,700 yards and 21 touchdowns.
I hate to keep sounding like a broken record, especially one who is a homer, but this is exactly the type of year West Virginia has to take advantage of if it wants to be a contender. West Virginia has the senior signal caller along with an extremely talented corp of skill players. The defense will be hurting by this time but I like Tony Gibson’s defensive scheme when it faces a QB for the first time. West Virginia leaves Stillwater dreaming big with a Sooner showdown looming.
Prediction: WVU 38, OSU 28
Record: 10-1 (7-1)
November 23, 2018 vs Oklahoma Sooners (Morgantown, WV)
Y’all are going to hate me. Let’s just say that now. The Mountaineers are riding high at 10-1 and here they come, the god damn Oklahoma Sooners. Forget everything because the Sooners are still the team to beat in the Big 12 and that doesn’t change until you beat them. I hate this game. This is the Friday after Thanksgiving. I know the true fans will be there but the students will be long gone from the game. This game could also be played at noon because of the time slot. Every single factor to work against the Mountaineers.
At 10-1, 7-1 in conference the Mountaineers will likely have wrapped up their spot to the Big 12 CCG. Who they play could be up in the air. Let’s throw out an even worse scenario. Assume Oklahoma is in the game regardless of the outcome of this game. Assume the Mountaineers need to win to get in. What do you do? You have to play every trick play you can because you have to win, but if you win you face the Oklahoma Sooners the following week.
The Sooners have to replace Heisman trophy winning and #1 overall NFL Draft pick Baker Mayfield. Lucky for the Sooners they just replace him with another stud in Kyler Murray. Oklahoma will return running back Rodney Anderson who rushed for over 1,100 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. They will pair him with receivers CeeDee Lamb and Marquise Brown who combined for over 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns. The biggest question for the Sooners is who starts at safety. Seriously, they have safety questions. UGH.
The Mountaineers will eventually beat the Oklahoma Sooners, but it won’t be in 2018. Not with this young defense. I also dislike that Grier didn’t face the Sooners last year.
Prediction: OU 41, WVU 35
Record: 10-2 (7-2)