ORLANDO, Fla. — These bowl games, packed with buildup and bluster and plenty of Letters from Coach commercials, always leave us with seared-in final impressions. They prove and disprove, elevate and deflate.
Yet they’re not always prescient.
Remember the giddiness radiating from Arizona last January over West Virginia’s offense to come? Turns out the Cactus misled us. The impressive array of returning components from that night didn’t materialize into a superior offense in 2016, did it? (Here we differentiate between good and really good — neither of which, mind you, accurately described the Mountaineers’ latest bowl performance in Orlando.)
This fall’s Mountaineers racked up plenty of yards, to be expected when facing a lineup of defenses ranked 88th (OU), 93rd (Texas), 100th (Iowa State), 107th (Kansas), 108th (Oklahoma State), 118th (Mizzou) and rock-bottom last (Texas Tech at 128th). From the heavy stockpile of yards, however, came too few points.
Situated with a returning quarterback, a deep well of receivers, four offensive line starters and a fresh batch of versatile runners, coach Dana Holgorsen hoped West Virginia could climb from 34 points per game in 2015 to more than 40 in this one. Instead, the output waned to 31.
More surprising still, Tony Gibson’s defense — absent all those NFL draft picks and multiyear starters — actually reduced its scoring allowance from 24.6 to 24.
All this to offer a reminder: What happens during the postseason doesn’t necessarily impact next season.
The bruises from a 31-14 thumping against Miami won’t last past New Year’s Day. Instead, Holgorsen can fixate his team’s offseason around another ACC opponent, Virginia Tech, which awaits next Sept. 2.
Toyous Avery, his first two career interceptions erased by pass interference calls, can work on marrying his ballhawking skills with cleaner technique.
Receiving yardage leader Shelton Gibson, after quite a string of bowl penalties himself, can continue developing from his status as a complete nonfactor in WVU’s final two games.
Tony Gibson can follow his template for another rapid-rebuild on defense, and Holgorsen will construct the offense he desires around savior-in-waiting Will Grier.
Those are projects for 2017, and not so much linked to 2016’s unappealing conclusion.
Mark Richt had barely clutched Miami’s first bowl trophy since 2006 when the outcome became selection-bias fodder for the argument that WVU amassed its 10 wins against a soft schedule. (Yet somehow, the Mountaineers’ regular-season opponents are now 6-0 in the postseason when you factor in Youngstown State’s FCS playoff wins.)
Far outstretching expectations, West Virginia produced one of the nine winningest seasons in program history. No sense downplaying that merely because the finale couldn’t extend the fun.