Entering 2017, expectations were somewhat high for the Mountaineers despite significant losses on both sides of the ball. There was a lot of hype around transfer Will Grier, who some thought could be one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He didn’t disappoint, throwing for almost 3,500 yards over the course of ten games.
The Mountaineer defense took a definite step back in 2017, however, and when Grier was hurt late in the season, West Virginia couldn’t match scores with opposing offenses. After looking like they had a shot at a nine win season, the Mountaineers fell to 7-6 by the end of the year.
Now, Grier and much of the offense are back, including two All-Big 12 caliber receivers. That collection of returning talent has some prognosticators thinking that West Virginia could be a Big 12 dark horse this year.
There’s a lot of skepticism about West Virginia heading into 2018, though, specifically because of their defense. The offensive weaponry is there, and given Holgorsen’s history on that side of the ball, it’s entirely reasonable to think that the Mountaineers could have the best offense in the league. Additionally, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has shown that his defenses can be above-average – one need only look back to his 2016 squad.
Is this the year for the Mountaineers, Big 12 newcomers, to make it to Arlington? And how much will their schedule affect a potential title run? Below we try to answer those questions by taking a look at West Virginia’s 2018 schedule.
Here wins and losses are broken down into “Highly Likely” Wins/Losses – games in which the projected winner should be favored by more than two possessions – and “Likely” Wins/Losses – games in which the projected winner will probably be favored by about two possessions. A “Toss Up” is any game that has a good chance of being decided by one possession.
2018 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE
SEP 1 – Tennessee*
SEP 8 – Youngstown State
SEP 15 – at NC State
SEP 22 – Kansas State
SEP 29 – at Texas Tech
OCT 6 – Kansas
OCT 13 – at Iowa State
OCT 25 – Baylor
NOV 3 – at Texas
NOV 10 – TCU
NOV 17 – at Oklahoma State
NOV 23 – Oklahoma
*Neutral Site Game
Highly Likely Wins: Youngstown State, Kansas, Baylor
There are three games on West Virginia’s schedule that they should win, each of which is at home. Youngstown State is an FCS team, and even though they were in a close contest against ACC foe Pitt last year, they will still enter Morgantown as a likely double digit underdog.
Even though the Jayhawks might be improved this year, Kansas has routinely been a multi-touchdown underdog in their games against West Virginia. There’s little reason to think the same won’t be true in 2018.
The last time the Bears made the road trip to Morgantown, the Mountaineers were 17 point favorites. Most likely, the Bears will enter Milan Puskar Stadium in late October looking to get closer to six wins. The West Virginia faithful should be ready for this Thursday night matchup, though, so this could very well not be seen as a close one.
Likely Wins: Tennessee
The only game in which the Mountaineers look to be about a two score favorite is their opener against the Volunteers. Most betting sites have West Virginia as a ten or eleven point favorite headed into that neutral site contest. That’s not exactly a surprise – West Virginia is a Top 25-caliber team, whereas Tennessee has been a below-average football team for a little while now.
Toss-Ups: North Carolina State, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma
The overwhelming majority of West Virginia’s games look to be Toss-Ups, which will probably make for a lot of tight matchups in the fall. It’s more than reasonable to project a close game when West Virginia takes on the Wildcats at home – on average, the Mountaineers’ game against Kansas State has been decided by 3.25 points the last four years.
North Carolina State and Texas Tech represent two of the tougher road games for the Mountaineers. The Red Raiders seem to always upset someone in Lubbock, and if they’re taking on a ranked West Virginia team, there will be plenty of excitement around that game.
The Wolfpack could be a deceptively strong opponent – they were 9-4 last year and have one of the better quarterbacks in the country coming back. The early afternoon kickoff for West Virginia should give Holgorsen and his staff pause, and the line could well reflect that.
Maybe the team most likely to upset the Mountaineers is the one in Ames, Iowa. Matt Campbell’s program seems to be steadily building momentum, and Jack Trice Stadium has hosted its share of big games.
On the face of it, the month of November looks to be a daunting one for a Mountaineer football team that has some depth concerns. Going to Austin and Stillwater will be challenging for West Virginia, a team that always has to travel further than any of their Big 12 foes. Even if the Mountaineers are a Top 10 team at the time, these games will still be a challenge.
According to the recent Coaches Poll, next year’s Big 12 championship will feature TCU and Oklahoma, two teams the Mountaineers face off against in Morgantown. Both of those games could turn out to be the biggest of the season for West Virginia, and if the Mountaineers enter November undefeated, they might actually be favored in one of those contests.
Likely Losses: None
It’s difficult to project West Virginia as more than a one score underdog in any of the games they play this upcoming season. A lot of that depends on the health of this team, and one player in particular. With a healthy Grier, this is a Mountaineer team that could probably trade scores with almost any team in the country. Without their Heisman hopeful quarterback, however, West Virginia is probably a much different squad.
Highly Likely Losses: None
Dana Holgorsen has managed to get the Mountaineers to a level of play in the Big 12 where they rarely are more than a two score underdog. West Virginia has yet to achieve championship-level success since he’s been there, but Holgorsen has also shown that the floor for his teams will never be too low any given year.
Predicted Wins: 7-8
Anyone looking to put their faith in a West Virginia title run should probably think twice after they look at the Mountaineers’ schedule. While West Virginia doesn’t have the toughest road to a conference championship appearance, they play a number of road games that should concern any fan. The Mountaineers frequently go on the road against opponents who would like nothing more than to knock off a ranked squad in 2018. How will West Virginia handle that pressure?
It’s also important to remember that the Mountaineers could be very streaky at times last season, where they might look as different as night and day from one quarter to the next. Were the defense deeper and more experienced, it would be easier to have more confidence in this team.
If they win about half of their Toss-Ups and win the other games they’re supposed to, however, the Mountaineers will have a solid season with an outside shot at making it to AT&T Stadium in early December. To think that West Virginia can get to ten or more wins, though, is banking on the team’s ability to stay consistent (and healthy) over the course of the whole season.
Still, if West Virginia comes out of October undefeated, they’ll have built a lot of momentum headed into a pretty tough November slate. The project of exceeding expectations starts in less than a month, though, so these questions will all be answered soon enough.