MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Trust the climb.
It’s hard to think of a better-crafted motto than the one chosen to represent Neal Brown’s first West Virginia team.
Mountaineering is a precarious business. You’re supposed to wear a helmet in case of falling rocks, and attach a rope to slow a fall. From a wide-angle lens, it’s clear the mountaineer is moving up. Up close, though, it probably isn’t always easy to see progress.
It will be important for fans to keep that in mind. Brown has re-energized the fan base and will get the program moving upward in short order. But there will be plenty of rocks to dodge in the early going.
Though it’s a darn-near impossible season to predict, I’m paid to try. So here goes.
Game 1: James Madison, Aug. 31
James Madison 24, West Virginia 23
It won’t take long for Brown’s nearly unanimous approval rating to take a dip, though it shouldn’t. The Dukes are good. Real good. When it comes to upperclassmen, James Madison has more draft prospects than WVU.
Having covered the biggest blowout win by an FCS school over an FBS school (McNeese State 53, South Florida 21) and a 31-24 Nebraska win over McNeese that was decided on a miracle play in the final minute, I’ve gained a good sense of how these upsets happen.
James Madison wouldn’t beat West Virginia in November, but the dynamic of this opener is ripe for trouble. There’s also an added element of kismet with Curt Cignetti – a former Mountaineer player and the son of former WVU coach Frank Cignetti – on the other sideline. Somehow, he’s been put in perfect position to get the big win that always eluded his father.
In every way, this is the perfect storm. I’m not even sure it should be considered an upset.
Game 2: At Missouri, Sept. 7
Mizzou 31, West Virginia 21
Humbled by the loss to James Madison, the Mountaineers will come out strong early. This one should be tight going into the third quarter, but the Tigers simply have too much talent. Quarterback Kelly Bryant has seen enough to eventually diagnose the tricks Vic Koenning’s defense has for him.
Game 3: N.C. State, Sept. 14
N.C. State 16, West Virginia 14
There may not be a harder game to pick in college football this year. According to Phil Steele, West Virginia ranks 127th out of 130 teams nationally in returning offensive production. The team in dead last? N.C. State.
Which brings me to the Gibby Factor. The Wolfpack hired Tony Gibson as co-defensive coordinator in the offseason, and one can’t help but think this game was among the factors in that decision. Gibson lobbied for the job that instead went to Brown, and will have something to prove.
Regardless of how people felt about his defensive alignment, Gibson’s guys always played with emotion. They’ll be ready to bring it for him. They also won’t be married to the 3-3-5 thanks to co-DC Dave Huxtable’s scheme. Much like James Madison, this is a very winnable game, but there is a strange confluence of events favoring the road team.
Game 4: At Kansas, Sept. 21
West Virginia 49, Kansas 15
There’s nothing a trip to Kansas can’t ail – save for boredom, perhaps.
Les Miles faces the same problem that bedeviled him in his final six seasons at LSU – he doesn’t have a quarterback. Worse still, he doesn’t exactly have the type of talent the Tigers used to bail him out of that bind over and over again.
WVU bottled up Pooka Williams last year, and will be able to take out its frustrations in a major way against the Jayhawks.
Game 5: Texas, Oct. 5
West Virginia 31, Texas 30
The Longhorns will be in Morgantown, but their minds will be in Dallas, where Oklahoma awaits in a week. The 1-3 Mountaineers will seem like a pushover when there’s a real game to worry about.
Here’s the secret about Texas, though – the Horns are probably the most overrated team in the country this year. Sam Ehlinger has a ton of buzz, but Texas is beat up at running back. Most of last year’s defense graduated. This team isn’t winning a Big 12 title.
Part of the reason why? A talented but young team is ripe for random upsets. West Virginia’s homecoming game fits that bill. It might not be as wild as last year’s win, but there’s a chance 70,000 people will head home gleefully flashing the “Horns Down.”
Game 6: Iowa State, Oct. 12
Iowa State 30, West Virginia 3
If people paid attention to players rather than helmets when voting in polls, the Cyclones would be the popular pick to face Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. But when your program hasn’t won a conference title since 1912 – that’s a real statistic, folks – perhaps a lack of respect is understandable.
This was the team West Virginia matched up the worst against last season, and Iowa State should be better than it was then despite losing its two best offensive players.
Game 7: At Oklahoma, Oct. 19
Oklahoma 54, West Virginia 28
A big game for Austin Kendall, who returns to the campus he once called home. A big game for every Mountaineer, actually, as West Virginia tries to beat Oklahoma for the first time since moving to the Big 12.
Though I expect WVU’s young secondary to improve over the course of the season, Lincoln Riley is going to find a way to exploit this decided disadvantage. The Sooners will crack the 50-point barrier against the Mountaineers for the fourth-straight year.
Game 8: At Baylor, Oct. 31
Baylor 35, West Virginia 17
It’s hard to know if schedule-makers thought Waco, Texas was the scariest possible place to schedule a Halloween game or if the nation’s largest Baptist university was the funniest possible place to schedule a Halloween game.
Either way, the Bears will have more tricks than treats for the Mountaineers. Baylor is a potential dark horse in the Big 12 race, and will no doubt be thinking of its Thursday-night beatdown at the hands of WVU last season.
Game 9: Texas Tech, Nov. 9
West Virginia 45, Texas Tech 31
Outside of Miles, no new coach in the Big 12 has a greater challenge than Matt Wells as he tries to mold a team in his own image with pieces befitting a completely different style. He certainly sounded like a man up to the task at Big 12 media days, but it likely won’t be until Year 3 that the Red Raiders make progress. This is a welcome respite from a brutal October stretch for WVU.
Game 10: At Kansas State, Nov. 16
West Virginia 27, K-State 23
Last season, Kansas State was the team that looked the most deprived of talent in the entire Big 12. They were certainly coached better than their in-state rivals, but even the Jayhawks had better players.
Chris Klieman will continue Bill Snyder’s tradition of quality fundamentals, but the Wildcats need some recruiting wins. That won’t be happening midseason.
Game 11: Oklahoma State, Nov. 23
West Virginia 34, Oklahoma State 17
Mike Gundy won’t own the Mountaineers anymore.
As much as fans rightfully focused on Dana Holgorsen’s record against Oklahoma, it’s his record against Oklahoma State that was far more disturbing. The Mountaineers will only have talent to match the Sooners once in a blue moon. They should be comparable to the Cowboys in that department every year. And that’s what makes four consecutive losses unacceptable.
WVU was the better team a year ago, but squandered a 17-point halftime lead. Neal Brown isn’t letting that happen.
Game 12: At TCU, Nov. 29
TCU 23, West Virginia 17
Before you go back and count, let me do it for you. Yes, I have the Mountaineers at five wins going into the season finale despite predicting an 0-3 start. The climb is hard, but moving up. And despite the adversity, bowl-eligibility will be on the line.
With that being the case, this game will be a battle. But after getting hammered by an unusual rash of injuries last season, this TCU team should be the most improved in the Big 12. The Horned Frogs will eke one out to keep West Virginia at home in December.
Despite missing out on a bowl, WVU’s late surge will have fans eager to see what Brown’s second season brings.
Predicted record: 5-7, 5-4 in Big 12