Without question, WVU's October run of at Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, at Baylor and at TCU will go a long way in determining where the Mountaineers land in the Big 12 conference standings. A split of those four games will put them in a very strong position in the league, while a negative sweep would put them in a hole from which escape may be difficult. However, assuming that WVU can avoid the latter, it sets up a "second season" that will determine not only league results, but bowl positioning and potential national ranking as well.
That closing stretch, which runs over five consecutive weeks,includes three home games (Texas Tech, Texas and Iowa State) along with interspersed road trips to the Sunflower State for games against Kansas and K-State. It is in that period that WVU's 2015 football fortunes will ultimately be decided.
Let's assume, for a moment, that the Mountaineers finish up October with at 5-2, or even 4-3. While that might put them out of the running for the Big 12 Championship, it would also leave many attainable goals, such as a very good bowl game or national ranking. That's assuming WVU can navigate those final five games without major mishap.
Those looking at West Virginia's record in November over the past couple of years will see a big hurdle in this regard, as Dana Holgorsen's teams have struggled down the stretch. Some of that can be attributed to tough competition, but there has also been a definite flameout against teams of lesser strength, including Iowa State and Kansas. In order for this year's team to achieve its goals, it can't have losses like that, and it must also muster winning efforts against teams that it hasn't had much success against in its Big 12 history. The good news? There's not a team among the final five that West Virginia can't beat, and despite the views of some oddsmakers, the Mountaineers shouldn't be prohibitive underdogs to any of them.The run begins with a home game against Texas Tech, and while the Red Raiders should be better defensively, West Virginia should have the ability to control the game in front of its partisan fans. The biggest challenge here might be in recovering from the October schedule, and if WVU has suffered ugly losses in that stretch, mental and emotional outlook might loom as large as the physical. Still, if WVU's experience and maturity remains in play, this should be a win.
Next comes a visit from Texas, which is drawing fawning praise in year two of the Charlie Strong era. While Strong is a very good coach, the feeling here is that UT is still a recruiting class or two (as well as a reliable quarterback) away from even approaching the Longhorn squads of yore. West Virginia easily could have had three consecutive victories in this series, and the feeling is the memories of last year's egg-laying in Austin will resonate with the Mountaineers this year.
Next comes a road trip to Kansas and a home date against Iowa State, and there's not much to say about these games other than that they should be wins. If they aren't, WVU isn't the team we thought it would be.
That leaves a road trip to Kansas State in what shapes up to be a huge game for the WVU program, provided that things have played out in a manner close to what we've outlined here. Bill Snyder's Wildcats are always fundamentally sound, and while their skill position talent levels may be down a bit, they won't roll over. They, like WVU, are likely to be playing for bowl positioning, so this could be a dogfight, made tougher by the presence of K-State's loud and passionate fans. This game will be a measuring stick for the progression of Holgorsen and WVU -- have they advanced to the level where they can knock off always-tough foes and advance a rung on the league ladder?
However this game plays out, if West Virginia can put together at least a 4-1 record over its final five games, it will have achieved several goals. It will have put to bed the "failure down the stretch" theme that has hovered over past seasons and it will have built momentum toward an attractive bowl game -- both keys in attracting more national attention and generating fan enthusiasm.
At this point, it can be tough to avoid optimism. Following media days, every school has a positive outlook, there's aren't any nagging injuries, and no negative game results to cloud forecasts. With that in mind, it's still not unreasonable to think WVU could sweep those final five contests. The usual caveats of "no catastrophic runs of injuries or off-field incidents" comes into play in that analysis, but it does look as if the time is ripe for the Mountaineers to shed the season-ending woes of years past.