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Big 12 Dark Horse: West Virginia Ready to Build Off Momentum

A West Virginia player celebrates

The West Virginia Mountaineers finished 9-4 with a victory in the Duke's Mayo Bowl this past year, which surprised many Big 12 Conference pundits. After finishing 5-7 the year before in , not much was expected out of this Mountaineer program. Coach Neal Brown brought a team into 2023 that got picked apart in the transfer portal, had a very young roster, and that had seemed to have made little progress since that disappointing 2022 campaign. Brown was on the hot seat and knew there was little room for error.

Many said they'd be lucky even to be bowl-eligible, but they surpassed those expectations with flying colors. With a new year though comes new expectations and now many expect this Mountaineer team to build off last year's success and potentially make a dark horse run at the Big 12 title.

Youth, Development Have Flourished on Offense

Garrett Greene was one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the conference last year, but he could not have done it without a young receiving corps that showed the lights weren't too bright and gave Greene players to throw to. There is a lot to look forward to with the passing game for West Virginia, and while the numbers may not say that, the tape does.

West Virginia has promise in the passing game, which after the departure of many receivers and quarterback J.T. Daniels, was more than welcomed last year. Top that with a backfield that averaged 228 yards per game and was the best unit according to the numbers in a loaded Big 12, and the West Virginia offense was perhaps the biggest surprise on this Mountaineer team that was full of surprises.

Those units will only be better this year. Greene looks to be among the best Big 12 quarterbacks, the young core got a lot of experience last year and has the talent and poise to be dangerous. Overall, Brown has developed players such as RB Jaheim White, WR Hudson Clement, WR Rodney Gallagher III, and WR Traylon Ray into guys with very bright futures. Gallagher III—who is just a sophomore—is set to be a two-way player this year as a nickel back, which shows just how much young talent this team has.

If the Brown can continue to build around young talent, this could be good for not just this year, but for the next few years. This West Virginia team has youth and that's perhaps the scariest thing about them.

West Virginia's Portal Success on Defense

The Mountaineers showed they could hang with the best of backfields last year, finishing top 50 in the NCAA in rushing yards allowed and fourth in the conference. That says a ton considering just how much was lost on the defensive side of the ball due to graduations, transfers and the NFL Draft, but also during the season where the Mountaineers lost two starting linebackers and safety Aubrey Burks due to injury for a decent portion of the season.

Depth though will need to be added this season and the Mountaineer coaching staff is already on the case, adding DL T.J. Jackson from Troy, CB T.J. Crandall from Colorado State, LB Reid Carrico from Ohio State, and other players that were very successful at the FCS level.

The Mountaineers also return eight defensive starters this season, so adding one or two more players from the portal could make this defense into a formidable force. Adding to the secondary would probably work the most in their favor, as West Virginia finished in the bottom echelon among teams in passing yards allowed at 89th. With the success they've had in the portal already though, it doesn't seem like a too farfetched idea. This Mountaineer defense could very well be one of the better units in the Big 12 should they play their cards right and put people in the right spots.

How Far Can This West Virginia Team Go?

West Virginia has a very friendly schedule this year on top of all else they have going for them. Seven home games against plenty of beatable opponents with no bad travel aside from the cross-country trek to Arizona. The only thing that stops them from making a great run at a Big 12 title is if the Mountaineers get complacent and allow other teams like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Arizona—teams that have also shown a lot of promise and potential—to surpass them.

The Mountaineers have to win and win early. Having one of the younger teams in the Big 12 could spell trouble if West Virginia gets off to a slow start in 2024. The lack of experience was not a problem last year though, so as long as this team is on par or better offensively, gives the defense some depth, fills holes in the secondary, the Mountaineers should be able to ride the momentum from last year going into this year.

The Mountaineers will have a great shot at pursuing a Big 12 title, much better than a lot of people realize. It is shaping up to be an extremely competitive Big 12 this year, but the Mountaineers can come out as a dark horse contender if they gain momentum and keep it and hold their water against the elite offenses of the Big 12.

Neal Brown holding the Duke's Mayo Bowl trophy

West Virginia will have their Gold-Blue Spring Game at noon EST on April 27 at Milan Puskar Stadium. Get a sneak peek into what the Mountaineers will look like heading into the 2024 season and stay tuned here for further Mountaineer updates. Catch West Virginia and other Big 12 headlines at College Football Dawgs.

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