Such was the case for West Virginia’s 2014 football team, a group many hoped would simply reach six wins and a bowl game. That same group, hot out of the gates at 6-2 with a top 20 national ranking, did indeed reach the six-win mark. It in fact bettered it by one, and got to a solid bowl game in the Liberty against a mid-level SEC foe. But three losses in the final four games – two to top 15 teams – and a bowl defeat has left an empty feel to the close of a once quite promising season. So the question being bandied about is obvious: Was WVU’s football season a success?
Perhaps its most insightful to ask, is West Virginia better off than it was at this time last year? And the answer is definitely. It has greater depth across the board, a better handle on its defensive identity, and it has been able to manufacture a run game that has been solid, if not explosive. It shored up its placekicking issues, added another decent recruiting class (and is on the cusp of a Scout.com top 20 class in 2015) and was able to develop an All-American receiver and arguably the nation’s best kickoff returner, both of whom were major factors in the majority of wins.
For much of the season, it had a quarterback ranked among the top five in multiple passing statistics, and was still rated in the top 10 in passing yardage before the bowl games despite missing potions of many games and all of the season finale’ and Liberty Bowl. Heck, the Mountaineers actually outscored the top three Big 12 finishers in Baylor, TCU and Kansas State, and frankly could have won all three games. But they also suffered another late-season swoon, losing four of its last five, along with another discouraging postseason defeat. It failed to run the ball in some key situations, didn’t execute as consistently well on special teams – the plays foes made were momentum and game changers, at times – and lacked crisp tackling on defense paired with the occasion, but glaring, coverage breakdown.
The Texas A&M game was thought to be a sort of swing by some supporters. Win it, finish 8-5, and the offseason appears bright. Lose, continue the late-season slide, and fail to reach an eighth win for the third straight season since joining the Big 12 and the year dips into the failure zone. The viewpoint from here is this: A Liberty Bowl win would have secured the needle in the solidly successful area. The loss slid it to only a mildly successful campaign, one that earned the team additional respect, and kept it from being considered vastly underachieving.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, this idea that what one considers fulfillment is all relative. Before the season, 7-6 and a traditional, historic bowl in a drivable location against an SEC foe would have been relished. Now, it’s being viewed by some as less than adequate, despite just the fifth win in program history over an Associated Press-rated top four team and a slate that included, at the time the games were played, a school-record five foes in the top 12 – inarguably the most difficult schedule in school history. There are two overwhelming things West Virginia is guilty of that influenced the current success-fail decision: Playing too well too early, and again failing to close in a remotely satisfactory manner.
The Mountaineers, as they have many times in school history, set themselves up for a special season and then jerked the proverbial rug out, causing harsh memories and harsher feelings for some fans. And the fact that it happened for a second time in three seasons, and was the third consecutive late-season collapse has raised the question of if West Virginia can rebound after a difficult psychological defeat, such as those against Texas Tech in 2012, Texas in 2013 and TCU in 2014. WVU is just 4-11 after October over the last three years, with eight losses against unranked teams, and it has lost 16 of 20 games down the stretch since the Orange Bowl season, the wins coming against Iowa State (twice), Kansas and TCU. Those aren’t sufficient numbers, no matter which way one dices it. But it doesn’t make the season a failure.
West Virginia finished above where it was selected in the Big 12 preseason poll, finished with a winning record in arguably the nation’s toughest RPI conference at the end of the regular season, defeated a top five team, performed considerably better on special teams and on the defensive side than it had in recent seasons and won more games than all but the most positive of pundits had predicted.
The positives are that the Mountaineers return the vast majority of their defense – including the entire secondary (Karl Joseph isn't going to the NFL) and nine of the top 10 tacklers – three of five starting offensive lineman, the top backs in Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood and the blocking backs in Cody Clay (who can also be flexed out and used as a tight end)and Elijah Wellman. And WVU seems to have finally found a sure-handed punt returner – or, at least catcher – in Vernon Davis, Jr. Lou Groza award finalist Josh Lambert, who set an NCAA record for most tries in a season and a school record for makes with a 30 for 39 performance, and punter Nick O’Toole are back, along with snapper John DePalma. That leaves only a defensive end slot, a linebacker position, the holder and kicker for kickoffs, a pair of line slots and the quarterback position to be filled.
The Mountaineers have a four-star signal caller in development in William Crest, and another with whom it can win with a bit of honing in Skyler Howard. Its line play is getting better each season under Ron Crook, and it possesses a stable of backs of quite high pedigree. It has finally settled on a defensive scheme, and will be able to work with the same coordinator on the same defense for two full spring camp sessions and one full season before entering 2015 play. That’s a first for the program in four years. One figures that, much like last year, some receivers will emerge as playmakers, though maybe more in the mold of Alford than White. Odds are also favorable that WVU keeps its staff very much intact, despite the departure of offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson.
It might be difficult to retain both Lonnie Galloway and JaJuan Seider if both desire the coordinator position and Holgorsen names one to the slot, but that’s the nature of the business. Even if one is named, and a quarterback coach brought in from outside the program, the other might bolt if a solid opportunity arises. But other than that, most of the staff should return with perhaps the exception of a Tom Bradley if there’s a head coaching position. There also will need to be a negotiation of a new contract for Joe DeForest if Holgorsen desires to bring him back, and the monetary compensation would figure to be decreased from the $500,000 annual salary of the last three seasons.
All of the above, when taken into consideration as a whole, would point to a more secure future than West Virginia has had at any time over perhaps the last seven seasons. And it makes this year a success, albeit a milder one than many would desire. The turmoil and shuffling have subsided significantly, the overall numbers, team depth and talent are increasing, and another solid recruiting class is on tap. West Virginia, wealthier than at any time in program history, is ever increasing its share in the Big 12 monies, and its refurbishing Mountaineer Field – and Milan Puskar Stadium.
Future schedules are set against major level competition, and next year’s seems well-suited to eight-plus wins. Perhaps that becomes the de facto new low water mark for success. And it reads here that barring injuries or other major unforeseen circumstances, that it should be. It’s time to push past the seven-win barrier, to again finish with a winning Big 12 record and to reach another solid bowl with an eight-to-nine win season. Just like this year the ideal was to get to better than .500, both overall and in the Big 12, to get back to a bowl and to show improvements. All those have happened, and the ball, now with some momentum, is rolling downhill. It’s time to keep it that way.