Sunday, February 09, 2014

Even the Losers: West Virginia

Over the past three seasons, 210 teams have participated in bowl games. 47 of those teams had losing records in the years immediately preceding their bowl game. This semi-regular piece will showcase the losers from 2013 who just might find themselves participating in Capital One Bowl Week in 2014. The fourth team we profile is West Virginia.

West Virginia

2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7 Big 12)

Summary: West Virginia began the year rather inauspiciously, narrowly edging IAA William and Mary by a touchdown in the season opener. The competition ratcheted up rather quickly, as the Mountaineers traveled to Norman to challenge Oklahoma in the season's second game. The Mountaineers acquitted themselves rather well as a large underdog, losing by just nine. They followed that up with an expected blowout of IA neophyte Georgia State. Then in their final non-conference game, the Mountaineers were shut out by Maryland 38-0. That marked their first loss to the Terrapins since the 2003 season, when the Terps beat them twice. In their next game, once again facing a team from the state of Oklahoma, the Mountaineers were huge underdogs against the Cowboys from Stillwater. In a result that ranks as one of the season's biggest upsets, West Virginia knocked off Oklahoma State. Standing 3-2 after five games, the Mountaineers appeared at worst to be headed to a twelfth consecutive bowl game. That optimism was destroyed in short order. Baylor shredded their defense for 73 points in the next game, followed by Texas Tech and Kansas State combining for 72 points of their own. Off a three game skid, the Mountaineers pulled another huge upset, winning at TCU. After an overtime home loss to Texas, Kansas and Iowa State were the final two teams remaining on the schedule. A win in both would not guarantee a bowl, but would make West Virginia bowl eligible. First up was a trip to Kansas to face a Jayhawk team reeling from 27 consecutive conference losses. West Virginia allowed Kansas to score 31 unanswered points, and gave the Jayhawks their first Big 12 win since 2010 and their fist double-digit conference win since 2008! Wanting their fans to be even more depressed around the holidays, the Mountaineers proceeded to blow a 24-point lead in the season finale against Iowa State, consigning them to their first losing season since 2001. If you had told Mountaineer fans before the season started that they would beat both Oklahoma State and TCU, many would have probably assumed they were in for a special season. Of course, you probably would have said that with a maniacal laugh (you big jerk), so they would know something was afoot.

What Did the Mountaineers Do Well?
This is a tough one as West Virginia was either mediocre or bad on both sides of the ball in 2013. They did rank thirteenth in punting average with Nick O'Toole averaging over 44 yards per kick. Of course, O'Toole had plenty of practice, as the Mountaineers punted 6.1 times per game after punting just 4.3 and 3.5 times per game in Dana Holgorsen's first two seasons.

What Didn't the Mountaineers Do Well?
The Mountaineers did not do a lot well in 2013, so there a lot of areas to choose from. How about, protect the football? West Virginia committed 32 turnovers in 2013. Only five teams (Texas Tech, Hawaii, Tulsa, Washington State, and Southern Miss) committed more. The Mountaineers committed at least one turnover in each game, and in a third of their games committed at least four. On the bight side, when they did not commit at least four turnovers, they had a 4-4 record.

The Mountaineers Over the Past Four Years:
The following table lists West Virginia's performance (in conference play only) in a few key categories and their respective conference rank in those categories. To help you read the table here is a handy translator.
Conf: The Conference West Virginia played in. With the ever-changing college football landscape, this is helpful.
Coach: Who was leading these yahoos into battle?
Rec: Conference Record
YPP: Yards per play. The number of yards per play the Mountaineers averaged in conference play.
YPA: Yards per play allowed. The number of yards per play the Mountaineers allowed in conference play.
Net: Yards per play net. The difference in YPP and YPA. Higher is better.
OTD: Offensive touchdowns. Touchdowns scored by the offense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
DTD: Defensive touchdowns. Touchdowns allowed by the defense (no kick, punt, interception, or other returns are counted) in conference play.
Pythag: Adjusted Pythagorean Record. Take offensive touchdowns and defensive touchdowns and plug them into a handy formula to estimate the number of conference wins. For a full rundown of the APR, continue reading here.
Did you forget how dominant the 2010 West Virginia defense was? Under the late Bill Stewart, the Mountaineers defense featured seven players that would be drafted over the next two years including first round pick Bruce Irvin. Current coach Dana Holgorsen was hired to be the offensive coordinator and coach in waiting for the 2011 season, but wound up getting the big job one season early after Stewart resigned. His debut was superb. The offensive guru led the Mountaineers to the best offense in the Big East, and perhaps more importantly, the conference championship. In the Orange Bowl, the Mountaineers obliterated Clemson and set up expectations for an even better encore in the Big 12. The Mountaineers reeled off five consecutive victories to begin the 2012 campaign, and rose as to number five in the AP Poll. However, even during the hot start, the defense was an obvious liability, giving up 63 and 45 points in wins, yes I wrote wins, over Baylor and Texas. The offense, led by future high draft picks Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey managed to hold serve early, but could not compensate for the defensive ineptitude as the season wore on. The Mountaineers lost five of their last seven regular season games, allowing over 43 points per game to their Big 12 conference mates! Then, in a bowl clash with former conference rival Syracuse, the Mountaineers completed their collapse with a 24-point loss in New York City. Smith, Austin, and Bailey were all drafted in the fist three rounds of the 2013 NFL Draft, and the Mountaineers struggled to replace them. Unfortunately, the defense remained one of the worst in the Big 12, and the Mountaineers endured the indignity of a losing season. 

The 2014 Schedule:
The Mountaineers have an unenviable first game as they take on Alabama in the Georgia Dome. Following that almost assured loss, the Mountaineers should have a chance to lick their wounds as they host IAA Towson the following week. The Tigers are certainly a formidable foe, beating Connecticut in their opener last season and playing for the IAA Championship just six weeks ago. However, West Virginia can reasonably expect to win that game. What follows, is perhaps the most important game of the season for West Virginia, a rematch with Maryland in College Park. If they can beat the Terrapins, they will need just four conference wins to attain bowl eligibility. Lose here, and a bowl game may be out of reach. In league play, the Mountaineers do benefit from five home games. For the most part however, they should be very challenging with Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU all coming to Morgantown. Its not unthinkable for the Mountaineers to be favored in only one of those games (Kansas). Meanwhile, their four road trips come against Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas, and Texas Tech. Again, the Mountaineers may well be favored in only one of those games (Iowa State) and depending on how the season turns out (the Iowa State game is once again the finale), they could be underdogs in all four.

Reasons for Optimism:
Holgorsen's reputation as an offensive guru. In stints at Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State (from 2007 through 2010) as an offensive coordinator before coming to Morgantown, Holgorsen's teams all averaged at least 40 points per game each season. In his first two seasons at Morgantown, his teams averaged 37.6 and 39.5 points per game respectively. The Mountaineers lost three great offensive skill position players from the 2012 team. We'll give Holgorsen a mulligan. In 2013, no quarterback emerged as a star. Obviously, Holgorsen must shoulder a great deal of that blame since he determines who to recruit and then who to play. However, based on his track record, its clear he can coax points out of an offense. Barring some unforeseen defensive reinforcements, the offense will once again be forced to carry West Virginia on their sojourn through the Big 12. Remember, despite their lack of explosiveness, the Mountaineers still ranked sixth in the Big 12 in yards per play. With improved quarterback play, it wouldn't be a shock to see them move a little closer towards the top of the conference in that department.

Final Prognosis:
Playing nine conference games, especially in a ten team league is commendable and results in a true league champion. However, it is not a recipe for getting a middling team to bowl eligibility. The Big 12 is deep, and outside of Kansas, their are no gimmes on the conference schedule. With Alabama on the schedule, the best a West Virginia fan can hope for is a 2-1 mark in non-conference action. With that in mind, I think the Mountaineers will beat Kansas at home, and pull off one home upset from the quartet of Baylor, Kansas State, Oklahoma, and TCU. I also think they win one of their road conference games, though it may not be against Iowa State. Add it all up, and the Mountaineers will top out at five wins in 2014, and have Dana Holgorsen squarely on the hot seat as the offseason arrives.

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