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Notebook: Non-conference slate carries added importance; Bowlsby encourages vaccination for Big 12 athletes

As a result of the pandemic, West Virginia played only one non-conference game last season, opening with a 56-10 victory over Eastern Kentucky in a contest that was well in hand by halftime.

While the Mountaineers never met Big 12 Conference champion Oklahoma in 2020 as the original meeting was postponed and the scheduled makeup contest canceled, they also lost out on a season opener with Florida State in Atlanta and a home game against Maryland.

But one year after WVU’s only non-conference matchups were EKU and Army in the Liberty Bowl, the Mountaineers are slated to play the usual trio of out-of- conference contests in 2021. Two are the season opener at Maryland and a Week 3 home game against Virginia Tech — making West Virginia, which has nine Big 12 games, one of very few teams playing 11 opponents from Power 5 conferences.

“I think we’re one of four schools doing that, so it is a challenge, especially when our league is so balanced like it is,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said Wednesday at Big 12 Media Days.

Not only will the non-league opponents allow Brown and his staff to learn more about the Mountaineers ahead of Big 12 play, but the contests against the Terrapins and Hokies, which are separated by a home game against Long Island, carry added importance.

“Regional rivals are important,” Brown said. “It’s important to our fan base. We play two of them. We kick off in Maryland on the road with a team that (coach) Mike Locksley has that’s improving and recruiting at a high level. That’s going to be a really big test for us right out the gate.

“Then Week 3, we host Virginia Tech, which is one of the rivals. That goes back a long way from the Big East. That’s going to have recruiting implications and the players know each other because of close proximity. It’s going to be a challenge. Our first month of the season is going to be a huge test for us coming out of the gate.”

WVU holds a 28-22-2 advantage in the all-time series with Maryland, with the rivals last meeting in 2015. Since a 2004 loss to the Terps in the Gator Bowl, West Virginia is 9-1 against Maryland. The Mountaineers are also 28-22-2 in the series with the Hokies, though VT has won three straight and 10 of the last 13.

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Prior to Big 12 football coaches and select players meeting with the media at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby shared his thoughts on a number of topics, including covid vaccinations.

Bowlsby encouraged Big 12 athletes to get vaccinated, though it’s highly unlikely it’ll be a requirement.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby is encouraging the league’s athletes to get vaccinated for covid. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

“We don’t have the authority to mandate it,” Bowlsby said. “We only have the authority vested in us by the board or from the ADs. We can ask those questions as to wether or not they want to mandate it. Generally speaking, I don’t think they’re going to. Institutions in large measure are not mandating vaccinations for other students on campus. We’re certainly going to do everything we can to encourage vaccinations.

“It’s very shortsighted to not get vaccinated,” Bowlsby continued. “Even if the Delta variant weren’t around, it makes sense to get vaccinated. I think it’s early in the process, and we have always thought viruses were more prevalent during the late fall through the winter, so if indeed the Delta variant is as virulent and as infectious as it’s been reported to be, not getting vaccinated, you’re rolling the dice in terms of whether you contract the virus. Beyond that for student-athletes, you’re also rolling the dice about whether or not you’re going to be able to participate. You’re going to be in testing protocol if you’re not vaccinated.”

Brown, who has been vaccinated, was later asked about his stance and whether he encourages players to get vaccinated.

“Our team has been well versed. It’s an individual decision,” Brown said. “I can speak from personal experience. I’ve been vaccinated, my wife was vaccinated, my 13-year-old daughter, my parents, my wife’s parents. I can share personal experience, but as far as advice, that comes from our medical community.”

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While West Virginia has what Brown described as “a lot of momentum in recruiting right now,” the Mountaineers are still expected to finish in the middle of the conference this year. WVU, which was sixth in the Big 12 last season, was chosen to finish in that exact spot again in the league’s preseason poll.

Yet Brown thinks the Mountaineers can exceed expectations and the third-year WVU coach was optimistic about what’s ahead.

“Culturally, our buy-in is extremely high right now and we made tremendous progress over the last two years with the culture within our football program,” he said. “I really like our team. Our leadership is better than at any point since I was named head coach in January 2019.”

Tailback Leddie Brown, who along with defensive lineman Dante Stills were the players representing West Virginia at Big 12 Media Days, believes he and his teammates need to provide reliable leadership instead of the coaching staff being expected to do so.

“We need to be more player led,” said Brown, a senior who rushed for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. “Coach Brown shouldn’t be speaking so much at practice and telling people what they’re doing right and what they’re doing wrong. We, as a team, came together and felt like we should be the ones calling each other out and holding each other accountable, so we can grow in that aspect.”

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