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Five big questions for West Virginia’s 2019 season

Who’s the most important player on both sides of the ball? Which game can the Mountaineers not afford to lose? We answer that and more.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Oklahoma State Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2019 college football season is fast approaching, so today we’re going to be taking a look at five of the most important questions for the West Virginia Mountaineers as they prepare to enter into a new era under head coach Neal Brown.

Who is the most important player on offense this season?

After yesterday’s announcement, I’ll go ahead and give the nod on this to Austin Kendall. Neal Brown has put his trust and the ball into Kendall’s hands, and now it’s time for him to lead. He’ll have plenty of weapons at his disposal; a loaded stable of running backs, a strong group of wide receivers, and a tough offensive line to protect him. It’ll be on him to get Brown’s offense humming along.

Now, if we want to peg the one guy that I think will be the absolute difference in games this season, that’s Kennedy McKoy. The senior running back was the Mountaineers’ rushing leader in 2018, and I expect this new offense to lean slightly more on the run than we have in recent years. McKoy is going to eat this season, and I’m not afraid to predict he’ll eclipse the 1000 yard mark, even while splitting time with Martell Pettaway, Alec Sinkfield and Leddie Brown.

Who is your most important player on defense this season?

Defensive tackle Dante Stills should be looked upon to wreak havoc on opposing backfields this season. Getting pressure on the quarterback is absolutely necessary in the Big 12 Conference, and that’s something that we haven’t excelled at since Bruce Irvin dominated opposing offensive lines in 2010 and 2011. Dante led the Mountaineers with 3 sacks last season, but I’d like to see that number get up closer to the 8-10 range by the end of the season. If Dante, or anyone along the defensive front, can consistently get pressure on the quarterback, that will take some of the load off of a young secondary.

What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?

Overlooking the obvious changes that come along with breaking in a new head coach, new assistant coaches AND a new quarterback, the biggest change we’ll see is something we’ve already noticed over the past eight months — the culture around the program is completely different than what we saw over the the last eight seasons, perhaps even longer. There seems to be a stronger emphasis on the coaching staff and players coming together as a team that I haven’t seen in the past, and maybe that’s just because Neal Brown brought an upgraded social media and video production along with him when he arrived in Morgantown to document those outings and whatnot.

I know it’s a corny saying, but teamwork does make the dream work. Players being able to depend on one another and depend on their coaches could very realistically mean the difference between a team going 4-8 or 8-4. Games in the Big 12 are won in the margins, and I believe that teamwork and communication could be there to help get some of those lucky bounces to go our way this year.

Beyond the team aspect, the culture around the program, as a whole, has already begun to shift. We’ve seen Neal Brown put a bigger emphasis on being present in the community and interacting with the students and fans. He’s made it more media friendly than the past regime. Donors love what they’ve seen from the new head coach, thus far, and that directly contributes to a program’s success. You get what you put in, and you can tell that Brown and his assistants have committed themselves to making this the best program possible.

What is the most important game on this schedule?

Depending on how you look at this season, there’s a couple different answers. I’ll go with the most basic standpoint, and say that I think N.C. State coming to Morgantown on September 14th will tell us more about this season than one may think. I’m looking at this game as a bellwether, similar to how the Maryland Terrapins filled that role throughout the Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez eras. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ currently has 61% win probability with a projected margin of 4.8 points. Win this game, and suddenly some of those Big 12 tossups later on down the line feel a lot more winnable.

Also, having Tony Gibson return to Morgantown to shut down West Virginia’s offense would be absolutely miserable, and I don’t want to think about it.

What is your prediction for win-loss record and postseason destination?

I’ve wavered on this all summer, and still am not completely comfortable making a prediction — but I will. The Mountaineers are currently listed as having the No. 12 strength of schedule in ESPN’s Football Power Index, so nothing is going to be easy this season. Projections are all over the place, and have us falling anywhere from four wins to eight wins. I’m choosing to believe in Neal Brown’s ability to coach up a team to overcome their shortcomings, and am believing in six wins and a bowl game.

Where those six wins come from, I’m not exactly sure. I feel pretty confident in saying that West Virginia will pick up wins against James Madison, N.C. State, Kansas and Kansas State, so we’re really just looking for two more. Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU all feel winnable, but playing two of those on the road in Waco and Ft. Worth will not be an easy task. Regardless, I think we will find a way to grab two of those four.

As far as postseason destination, it honestly doesn’t matter. Depending on how the rest of the Big 12 shakes out, a 6-6 record could put us anywhere from the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl against an AAC opponent to a berth in the Autozone Liberty Bowl against an SEC foe. What’s important here is the fact that we’d be gaining valuable practice time to help lead into the 2020 season.