Four Bold Predictions for Mountaineers’ 2020 Season
We previously offered our predictions for the five biggest offensive surprises and five biggest defensive surprises for the West Virginia Mountaineers. Now, we continue our 2020 pre-season coverage by offering four bold predictions for the Mountaineers’ 2020 season.
First Bold Prediction – Mountaineers Run for Over 110 Yards Per Game
The first of our four bold predictions is the one fans probably clamor for the most. Last season, the Mountaineers ran the ball historically poorly. That is certainly no secret. The running backs rushed for just over two-and-a-half yards per carry. The unit rushed for 73.4 yards per game. Only two units fared worse. Washington State and Akron. Akron finished the season 0-12. And Washington State does not run the ball. They still averaged over four yards per carry. Going back to 1950, the Mountaineers had only one season (1968) where they rushed for under 100 yards per game (99.3 yards per game).
Head Coach Neal Brown clearly wants to run the football. He said as much during his first Big XII Media Days remarks. Brown wants to establish a blue-collar offense the runs the ball at will. Last year was a historic regression in that department. But there are certainly reasons for that. As we discussed in our offensive line preview, the Mountaineers saw a cascade of unexpected attrition at the group that already lacked depth. The 2019 offensive line returned less than 1,500 snaps. This year, they return over 2,300, and the players competing for spots have, for the most part, been in the program for at least two seasons.
Now, Brown warns against the belief that the offensive line and running game will become world-beaters overnight. But Brown also expresses optimism that both units will make incremental improvements over the next several seasons. Our biggest offensive surprise prediction, Leddie Brown, will be a large part of the reason why. Brown has improved not only his patience (while certainly helps when waiting for holes to develop) but also in his ability to break through contact (something the running backs struggle tremendously with last season). As a result, we predict the unit will average over 110 yards per game this season, which would mark a substantial 50% improvement over 2019.
Second Bold Prediction – Mountaineers Finish with a Consensus All American
The word “consensus” matters here. To be a consensus All-American, a player has to receive first-team All-American selection by at least three of the five major associations. Those five are the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America, Sporting News, and Walter Camp. Selection by all five results in a unanimous All American selection.
This season, because of the pandemic and the decisions by the Big Ten and PAC-12 not to play (or at least delay until late Fall if recent rumors prove true), we cannot predict whether all five sources will declare All American teams and what the criteria will be. But for this uncertainty, we might predict a unanimous selection.
Either way, consensus or unanimous, the prediction is significant. West Virginia claims 11 consensus All Americans. On the other hand, it has only had four unanimous All Americans. The most recent consensus All Americans came in the same season. In 2006, both Steve Slaton and Dan Mozes earned the designation. (In 2012, Tavon Austin fell one source short of the consensus designation.) Slaton was the most recent unanimous All American as well. (Mozes fell one source short for that designation.)
We say that simply to say how rare it is for a Mountaineer to earn a first-team All American selection. This season, however, a Mountaineer–and native West Virginian–will likely add his name to that list. Darius Stills enters the season with various pre-season nods, but he will have to prove the billing during the season. Instead of proving others wrong, Coach Brown admits that the mindset must shift to proving them right. The latter is harder to do than the former. But we think Stills has it in him. And if their prior years of brotherly competition say anything, we might see Dante Stills challenge for a selection, too.
Third Bold Prediction – Mountaineers’ Defense Finishes Top Three in the Big 12
Last Season’s Numbers
Last season, the Mountaineers finished the season eighth in the Big 12 surrendering 28.8 points per game. The top three surrendered far less: Baylor (19.8), Kansas State (21.4), and Iowa State (25.9). As a result, that’s not an insubstantial climb to reach the top three this season. This proves especially true since the Mountaineer defense lost Vic Koenning after allegations raised by Kerry Martin.
West Virginia flipped a switch in the last five games last season. Over that course, they gave up only 22.4 points a game. Outside of the Texas Tech game, where they surrendered 38 points, the defense gave up 20 points or less in all games. Given the turnover on the defensive side and the adjustments that had to be made to a new defensive scheme, it is no surprise that it took them half a season to adjust. That they did adjust, however, proves encouraging. More, the Mountaineers return the vast majority of their production from 2019.
The Stills brothers anchor the unit up front, as both are competing for All American honors and high draft selections. Darius is, in our view, the best returning defensive lineman in the Big 12, and Dante might well be the close second, especially if he tracks the way Darius did (making his biggest leap his junior season). They find support from Jordan Jefferson, Jeffery Pooler, Quay Mays, Sean Martin, and Akheem Mesidor, all of whom will find plenty of room to maneuver in this defense.
West Virginia also features an All-Conference caliber safety in Tykee Smith. Dreshun Miller joins him in the secondary, and he enters the fray with a lot of potential to realize. Should he come anywhere close to that potential (think Rasul Douglas), that makes two All-Conference types in the secondary, supported by several good players in Nicktroy Fortune, Sean Mahone, Jake Long, Daryl Porter, Jr., and several others.
At linebacker, the Mountaineers added Arizona standout linebacker Tony Fields II, who averaged over 95 tackles a season in his three seasons for the Wildcats. Fields has a high motor and will offer veteran leadership at a position of need. Fields is joined by Dylan Tonkery and Josh Chandler, the latter of whom proved disruptive last season. Finally, Vandarius Cowan, the four-star transfer from Alabama, will finally introduce himself properly to Mountaineer nation. Cowan made plenty of noise in the limited time he saw last season after his suspension and prior to injury.
Based on the latter half of the 2019 season, the West Virginia defense enters 2020 with momentum. Based on their returning personnel and some critical additions to the unit in the offseason, the Mountaineers have every reason to believe they can carry that momentum forward. We predict that they will, finishing in the top three of the Big 12 this season.
Fourth Bold Prediction – Mountaineers Win Seven Games
Now, for the last of our four bold predictions. We thought about setting our over/under here at six wins given the shortened season. There are certainly a few “gimmes” on the conference schedule. Six wins out of ten would certainly be an accomplishment. These are bold predictions, not safe predictions. Since we are not sure what bowl season will look like for this pandemic-ridden season, we cannot simply predict “the Mountaineers will win a bowl game,” which is, honestly, what we would have otherwise predicted. Instead, we are hedging just a bit. Seven wins would include a bowl win if there are as many bowl games this season as there usually are. If not, seven is far bolder, but we will stand by it, especially if our other predictions hold true.
Should West Virginia surrender under 25 points per game–which they would have to do to finish top three in the Big 12–that reduces the burden their offense needs to carry. Further, if the running game improves by 45 yards a game, that will open up the passing game and allow a solid returning receiving corps more room to make plays. Is that enough to beat one of the top three (Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma State, in no particular order)? That remains to be seen. However, we think they will grab at least one win from that trio, and possibly two. They will still lose one they maybe should not. Wins against one of the top three, a win against Eastern Kentucky, and wins against Kansas, Texas Tech, and Kansas State definitely form a solid foundation for a seven-win season.