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How long can West Virginia stay in the national title race this time?

Until the injury bug bites, hell yes they can.

NCAA Football: Kansas State at West Virginia Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

On January 2, 1989, in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, West Virginia gave itself a chance.

The Mountaineers found themselves down late to top-ranked Notre Dame when a window opened. Heisman finalist Major Harris and Grantis Bell connected to make it 26-13, then Willie Edwards picked off a Tony Rice pass to give WVU the ball inside the Irish 30.

In this moment, the Mountaineers were closer to college football’s national title than they had been since about 1925 and closer than they have gotten since.

The window closed. Notre Dame’s Stan Smagala broke up a pass in the end zone, then Arnold Ale and Frank Stams sacked Harris, knocking the Mountaineers out of field goal range. Notre Dame scored again and secured the 1988 national title.

You can forever chase the moments you’ve lost. Don Nehlen engineered another 11-0 start in 1993, but the Mountaineers were obliterated by Florida in the Sugar Bowl. Rich Rodriguez got WVU to within a single touchdown of the BCS championship game in 2007, but, well, you remember that one.

WVU has been solid and finished ranked 14 times in the last 40 years, but that true national breakthrough has been somewhere between elusive and short-lived.

The Mountaineers have not lacked for QBs who capture the imagination, though.

Harris twice finished in the top five in the Heisman race, led an 11-1 campaign, and nearly became college football’s first 2,000/1,000 quarterback.

Pat White led WVU to 42 wins and three top-10 finishes in the 2000s while throwing for 6,049 career yards and rushing for 4,480.

Oliver Luck. Jeff Hostetler. Marc Bulger. Geno Smith. There’s quite the lineage.

And now there’s Will Grier.

In not even a season and a half since transferring from Florida, he’s eclipsed White’s career passing yardage. Hell, he’s got an outside chance at exceeding Harris’ career passing yardage (5,119 yards) just this season, especially if WVU adds the Big 12 title game to its schedule.

(WVU’s game at NC State was canceled because of Hurricane Florence. Give Grier 14 games, and his odds of throwing for 5,000-plus yards would have gone from “outside chance” to “pretty likely.” NC State is quite good — 24th in S&P+ — so WVU’s odds of finishing unbeaten would’ve been lower, too. Fair trade, I guess.)

Grier is currently your No. 4 Heisman favorite. If WVU keeps winning, this could end up a fascinating race.

So ... can WVU keep winning? Can the Mountaineers threaten to reel in the national title that Harris and White couldn’t?

Probably, but probably not.

West Virginia survived Lubbock on Saturday, surging to a 28-7 lead and then holding on for dear life. Kliff Kingsbury’s Red Raiders crawled to within eight points, but the Mountaineers held on. Grier went 27-for-41 for 370 yards and three touchdowns. WVU moved into the AP top 10 and remained in the S&P+ top 15.

The win showed WVU isn’t necessarily built to suffocate opponents. Dana Holgorsen’s run game has been underrated, and in previous years he’s leaned on it more than his reputation would suggest. But let’s just say Grier will keep racking up stats.

Despite holding leads for almost the entire season so far, WVU ranks 111th in standard-downs run rate (51 percent, 8 percentage points below the national average) and 109th in passing-downs run rate (25 percent, 9 percentage points below the average). Despite a 25-point halftime lead, the running back trio of Leddie Brown, Kennedy McKoy, and Martell Pettway combined for just nine carries and 27 yards in the second half against Tech.

The passing game makes the Mountaineers endlessly dangerous; the inefficient run game (64th in rushing marginal efficiency) also might make them ill-equipped to run out the clock when needed.

What about the Big 12 race?

Per this week’s statistical profiles, S&P+ gives the Mountaineers a 21 percent chance of finishing the season with zero or one conference losses. Though a 7-2 conference record could get you in the Big 12 title game, let’s check out where WVU’s 21 percent falls right now:

Odds of finishing 8-1 or better in the Big 12 (7-2 or better in parentheses):

  1. Oklahoma 49% (81%)
  2. WVU 21% (53%)
  3. Texas 6% (24%)
  4. Oklahoma State 4% (23%)
  5. TCU 1% (7%)
  6. Texas Tech 1% (11%)
  7. Baylor 0% (1%)

It’s clear who’s in the driver’s seat, especially with Oklahoma State (No. 12 in S&P+) having already dropped a conference game at home to Tech. Texas could muddy the waters with a win over Oklahoma this weekend, but until then, the Sooners are a clear No. 1, and the Mountaineers are an obvious No. 2.

West Virginia v Texas Tech
Marcus Simms leads WVU with 433 receiving yards
Photo by John Weast/Getty Images

WVU’s goal for October is simply to remain geared up. November is a bear, but with visits from Kansas and Baylor and a trip to Iowa State, the Mountaineers have, per S&P+ win probabilities, a 51 percent chance of reaching the end of October still unbeaten. Iowa State is top-50-level solid, but the Mountaineers just survived a tougher trip unscathed.

In November come the tests. WVU heads to Texas on November 3; the Longhorns are 30th in S&P+, and WVU’s win probability is 58 percent. Survive that and a visit from TCU (34th in S&P+, 71 percent win probability for WVU), and you’ve got a hell of a closer: at OSU (43 percent) and home against Oklahoma (42 percent).

Odds of the No. 14 team in S&P+ winning all four of these games: 7.4 percent, only marginally higher than the odds of losing all four (4 percent).

Still, the Mountaineers can remain a contender — as long as their clear preseason issue doesn’t emerge.

My biggest concern heading in was depth: it didn’t appear WVU had much.

WVU is going to start with a pretty awesome starting 22. There is star power at QB (Grier), WR (Gary Jennings, David Sills V), OL (Yodny Cajuste), LB (David Long Jr.), and safety (Dravon Askew-Henry, Kenny Robinson Jr.), and another batch of exciting transfers is arriving, too.

You don’t usually keep your intended 22 on the field the entire year, though, and where the injury bug bites will determine much of WVU’s success.

Thus far, the stars have produced.

  • Sills, Jennings, and Marcus Simms are on pace for 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Simms, last year’s No. 4 option, has emerged as one of the nation’s better deep threats.
  • Long is 10th in the country in tackles for loss (8.5) and third in run stuffs (11).
  • Dylan Tonkery, Long’s battery mate at LB (the duo combined for 22.5 TFLs last year), has six TFLs and six run stuffs.
  • Askew-Henry and Robinson have combined for 33.5 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and three interceptions.
  • Transfers are making an impression: former Alabama receiver T.J. Simmons has eight catches for 174 yards, JUCO cornerback Keith Washington leads the team with four passes defensed, and defensive linemen Jabril Robinson (Clemson) and Kenny Bigelow Jr. (USC) have combined for 18.5 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and five run stuffs.

Most importantly, WVU’s injured list has remained small. Backup linebacker Charlie Benton was lost for the season, but that’s pretty much it.

That won’t last. The receiving corps is wonderful and deep, and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has deployed a deep rotation of safeties, but what happens if a star or two goes down? Given opportunities, players like Simms have thrived, but does WVU have the depth at linebacker, defensive tackle, etc.?

Maybe the injury gods owe WVU a favor for having White hobble through that Pitt game in 2007. Maybe WVU can skate through mostly unscathed. It rarely works out that way.

Still, it’s worked out that way so far. And we’ve got pretty good odds of heading into November with WVU in the thick of the title race. That’s fun for pretty much everybody, so here’s to hoping it continues.

Some other odds and ends involving WVU from this week’s stat profiles:

All the stuffs

Your national run stuffs leader (run stops at or behind the line): UMass’ Bryton Barr, and it isn’t close.

  • 18 run stuffs: Barr
  • 12.5: Colin Schooler (Arizona)
  • 11: Long (WVU)
  • 10.5: Jeffery Simmons (Mississippi State)
  • 10: Chase Winovich (Michigan)
  • 9.5: Gerald Willis III (Miami)
  • 9: Jonathan Garvin (Miami)
  • 8.5: E.J. Ejiya (North Texas), Nate Landman (Colorado), Jahlani Tavai (Hawaii)

Fifty-four players have made between six and 12.5 run stuffs. None have made between 13 and 17.5. Barr has 18.

Winovich, by the way, doesn’t only make run stuffs. He’s all over the damn field.

Some gaudy receiving stats

There are nine players with at least 25 targets, a 75-percent catch rate, and 14 yards per catch. WVU has two of them.

  • Blake Banham (EMU): 34 targets, 76% catch rate, 14.9 yards per catch
  • Ja’Deion High (Texas Tech): 36 targets, 78% catch rate, 14.5 yards per catch
  • Gary Jennings Jr. (WVU): 28 targets, 79% catch rate, 14.1 yards per catch
  • Dezmon Patmon (Washington State): 30 targets, 80% catch rate, 14.5 yards per catch
  • Laviska Shenault Jr. (Colorado): 44 targets, 86% catch rate, 15.3 yards per catch
  • Marcus Simms (WVU): 30 targets, 80% catch rate, 18.0 yards per catch
  • Jack Sorenson (Miami (Ohio)): 28 targets, 79% catch rate, 16.4 yards per catch
  • Amon-Ra St. Brown (USC): 33 targets, 76% catch rate, 15.8 yards per catch
  • Cody White (Michigan State): 26 targets, 77% catch rate, 15.0 yards per catch

Shenault would get my Biletnikoff Award vote if I had one and it had to be submitted today. But Jennings and Simms have been your most dangerous duo, and that’s not even mentioning Sills (35 targets, 66% catch rate, 12.8 yards per catch), who led the nation in receiving touchdowns last year and has five more so far in 2018.