How High Can the Mountaineers Climb?
As the capstone to our 2021 West Virginia football pre-season coverage, we ask a simple question. How high can the Mountaineers climb this season? To answer that question, we take a game-by-game look at WVU’s schedule and provide our range of predictions.
Game 1: Maryland Terrapins
We will cover this more in depth in our full game preview, but we place this game firmly in the win column. This is, of course, football, and the “any given Saturday” rule applies. That said, this looks like a favorable matchup for Head Coach Neal Brown‘s 2021 squad. The offensive line should be much improved, and Tony Mathis looks like he has carved out a role as a capable second running back. Jarret Doege looks more poised, and the defense shouldn’t take much, (if any), of a step back. The Mountaineers’ strengths match well against Maryland’s weaknesses. They gave up over 200 rushing yards per game and held the ball 10 fewer minutes than their opponents last season. Barring significant improvement, the game script favors WVU.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 90%
Game 2: Long Island University Sharks
LIU faced a strange season last year, as it played just four games, all in the Spring. They finished 2-2 after going 0-10 in 2019, their first Division I season. They represent a low-end FCS team that should give West Virginia plenty of opportunity to get reps to its younger players. This pick is a no-brainer.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 99.99%
Game 3: Virginia Tech Hokies
The Battle for the Black Diamond Trophy comes back to Morgantown this year. The Hokies enter the season with Head Coach Justin Fuente fighting for his job. Virginia Tech started strong with two straight wins, but they stumbled down the stretch, losing four of their last five and finishing with just five wins and six losses. They lost a lot of production to the transfer portal, and received less in return. We would not call this an easy win, as the Hokies do have some pieces there. But we do think the Mountaineers start the season 3-0.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 75%
Game 4: Oklahoma Sooners
After a strong start, the Mountaineers travel to Norman to start conference play. While it would be great to see West Virginia put up a win against Oklahoma before they (likely) flee to the SEC (the question is simply “when” at this point), we have a hard time seeing that. Oklahoma simply looks good on all three sides of the ball. If there are weaknesses, they are buried pretty well.
Prediction: L / Confidence: 95%
Game 5: Texas Tech Red Raiders
Answering the question “How high can the Mountaineers climb” really begins with their home game against Texas Tech. The Red Raiders stole a victory last season on a fourth-quarter scoop-and-score. Simply, though, the Mountaineers should have won that game. If WVU expects to take the next step forward, this game is a must-win. We think they will do just that.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 80%
Game 6: Baylor Bears
This game represents one of four question marks for us this season. West Virginia nabbed a closely-fought defensive battle over Baylor at home last year. It was an exciting game, but Baylor was not very good. The Bears should be improved in some facets this year. Their defense was solid, and it should improve. But they have question marks on the offensive line, at running back, and at quarterback. How well can they answer those questions? Regardless, we think this will be another defensive battle. But we simply do not know how much the Bears, who, based on the teams’ known strengths and weaknesses, match up well against WVU. The outcome will come down, as it often does, to the respective teams’ play in the trenches. Looking at the schedule, though, this also has the weird feel of a “trap” game.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 55%
Game 7: TCU Horned Frogs
West Virginia faces TCU on the Horned Frogs’ fifth straight game after an early-season bye. The Mountaineers have their bye week in the preceding week. WVU will certainly be more fresh. TCU will also return home after a date with the Sooners in Norman. TCU will be licking their wounds looking to get back on track. The Mountaineers managed a convincing win last season, and, while we think the game should be closer in 2021, we anticipate the same outcome.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 65%
Game 8: Iowa State Cyclones
This game offers the second question mark for this season. On paper, Iowa State will be a heavy favorite. They comfortably won their last three against the Mountaineers, and they should be even better this season. But sometimes the chip on the shoulder factors into the outcome. If West Virginia enters the game with just one loss, the Mountaineers will also be playing with momentum. Will momentum plus the revenge narrative be enough? Unfortunately, we do not think so. That said, we do not expect a lopsided affair here, and we would not be surprised if the outcome favors WVU.
Prediction: L / Confidence: 60%
Game 9: Oklahoma State Cowboys
Simply, WVU has not fared well against the Cowboys of late. Oklahoma State has won six straight. Two of the last four games, however, have been decided by a single score. The Cowboys sealed the teams’ 2020 matchup with a late takeaway capped by a touchdown run by Chuba Hubbard. LD Brown, Hubbard’s replacement this season, gashed West Virginia for over 100 yards last season. That said, the Cowboys lost a lot on their offensive line, and Hubbard is now gone. Brown has a few rangy linebackers and some versatile looks in store to limit the dual-threat ability of Spencer Sanders. This game should be a closely-fought contest, as we think that the Mountaineers added more than the Cowboys lost this offseason. It is the third question mark on the schedule for that reason. We are not terribly confident about it, but we will call this one a win, as the Mountaineers finally halt the losing streak against teams from Oklahoma.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 55%
Game 10: Kansas State Wildcats
The Bill Snyder era is definitely over in Manhattan. Head Coach Chris Klieman started his team strong with an 8-5 season in 2019, but the Wildcats regressed to 4-6 last season. After struggling to overcome Kansas State in their first several years of Big 12 play, West Virginia has won five straight. We do not have any reason to believe the outcome will be different this year, so we pencil this in as a win.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 80%
Game 11: Texas Longhorns
Entering its Week 11 home tilt with the Longhorns, West Virginia should have anywhere between six and eight wins. For us, this is the final question mark of the Mountaineers’ 2021 season. Per usual, the Longhorns enter the season with a top-25 ranking. The Longhorns ride plenty of optimism into this season after the hire of Head Coach Steve Sarkisian. Former Alabama assistants, however, have a very mixed track record once they have moved on, and Sarkisian hasn’t exactly been stellar as a head coach (his lifetime record is just 46-35). That said, Texas has talent, as they usually do, across the board. If Sarkisian makes it work, this team could be dangerous. Running back Bijan Robinson certainly torched the Mountaineers for nearly ten yards a carry last season. That said, WVU barely lost on the road, coming up just fifteen yards shy of tying the game in the waning seconds. We can see this going either way, truly.
Prediction: L / Confidence: 50%
Game 12: Kansas Jayhawks
WVU saves its easiest conference opponent for last. They should make quick work of the Jayhawks to close out the regular season on a high note. And we certainly do not need to torture this point with much editorial.
Prediction: W / Confidence: 99%
How High Can The Mountaineers Climb?
The way we see it, West Virginia has a reasonable floor of seven wins this season. We highlight its out-of-conference games plus Kansas, Kansas State, TCU, and Texas Tech as games that should represent very winnable matchups. We look at Oklahoma as a loss (though we certainly would welcome being wrong here).
This leaves dates with Baylor, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and Texas as the question marks. Ultimately, we think Baylor is winnable, but it will likely be closer than it should be on paper. Counting that as a win, though, gives West Virginia an eight-win season, and we doubt fans would be terribly upset with that outcome. And they could easily find their way to an additional one or two wins out of the remaining three games.
So we answer the question, “How high can the Mountaineers climb” with a relatively firm ceiling of 10 regular season wins. If they can manage that, we expect that remaining doubters will also start to “trust the climb” that Coach Brown is always talking about.