MORGANTOWN-If, by some chance, West Virginia University's football team escapes the opening third of its Big 12 slate of games with a winning mark, the Mountaineers definitely will have their work cut out during the middle trio of games that could go a long way to determining where, or if, the old gold and blue will be playing during the bowl season.
BAYLOR: Saturday, Oct. 18: First up is a defending conference champion Baylor Bears team that will be without the services of Big 12 rushing leader Lache Seastrunk, but returns senior Bryce Petty back at quarterback.
"I tell our guys, 'I think we're the best offense in the country. And, if you can get to where you can defend our offense reasonably well, then you're going to do some great things,'" defensive coordinator Phil Bennett said following spring drills.
Petty made his first year as the Bears' starter a memorable one, completing 250-of-403 attempts for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with only three interceptions. Numbers like those again in 2014 will not only make the loss of Seastrunk, who rushed for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns on 158 carries, easier to take, but will allow the Waco-based program to push preseason favorite Oklahoma for the league crown.
Baylor's first trip to Morgantown, however, would be one veteran head coach Art Briles would much rather forget. The two teams combined to score a Big 12 record 133 points.
The Bears' offense continued to click in WVU's first trip to Waco, scoring 72 points, while the Mountaineers would tally their second-most points of the season (42), but lose in a rout.
"What we've got to do is understand people view us different now that they did eight months ago," said Briles. "So, it's a phase we're going through and it's something we're working on. We want to be the team that if you're going to win the Big 12, it's got to go through Waco. We like having one title, but we would like to have a lot more."
Other top players returning for the Bears include wide receivers Antwan Goodley (71 catches, 1,339 yards, 13 TD) and Levi Norwood (47-733, 8 TD), right tackle Troy Baker, running back Shock Linwood (128-881, 8 TD), defensive end Shawn Oakman and linebacker Bryce Hager.
OKLAHOMA STATE: Saturday, Oct. 25: It's back on the road again for game number five in conference play as WVU heads to Stillwater, Okla., to face an Oklahoma State team that will be looking for some payback after last year's 30-21 setback in Morgantown.
The Cowboys' first loss in 2013 put a huge damper on OSU's chances of winning the conference crown and eventually kept the Cowboys out of the BCS-they lost to Missouri by a 41-31 score in the Cotton Bowl. Conversely, the victory over a highly-ranked opponent fueled hope in Morgantown that head coach Dana Holgorsen and his staff had effectively righted the ship and hopes were high that WVU would be dancing into the upcoming bowl season.
That did not happen, however, as WVU closed out the season with a 1-6 mark.
Veteran head coach Mike Gundy and his staff have their work cut out for them this past spring as the Cowboys lost quarterback Clint Chelf, wide receiver/kick returner Josh Stewart, running back Jeremy Smith, offensive lineman Parker Graham, wide outs Tracy Moore and Charlie Moore, linebackers Shaun Lewis and Caleb Lowery, cornerback Justin Gilbert and safety Daytwaion Lowe from a unit that posted a 10-3 mark.
Making that task more difficult was Gundy's decision to opt out of a spring game.
"We would all like to have a spring game, but I also have to look at what's best for our team and best for our fans," said Gundy. "For example, we only ended up with one linebacker at two positions. It would have been hard having an Orange team and a White team. We would have been limited to a couple of formations on offense and sub-packages wouldn't have happened on defense because there's not enough bodies. So, I think it's better the way we did it."
The cupboard is far from empty, however, as junior J.W. Walsh takes over for Chelf (164-of-291, 2,173, 17 TD) at quarterback while senior Desmond Roland will look to add to the numbers (176-811, 13 TD) he posted a year ago at running back.
Other top returnees include wide receiver Jhajuan Seales, offensive lineman Daniel Koenig, defensive tackle James Castleman, defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons, cornerback Kevin Peterson and placekicker Ben Grogan.
Seales finished with 39 receptions for 571 yards, tops among any freshman receivers in the Big 12, and will be the Cowboys' top pass-catching threat in 2014.
TCU: Saturday, Nov. 1: WVU and Texas Christian University (TCU) have met twice in Big 12 play and both games needed extra time to finish. The Mountaineers went on the road a year ago and eked out a 30-27 overtime victory.
The Horned Frogs needed two extra periods of play to accomplish the same feat at Milan Puskar Stadium (39-38) in 2013.
Both teams are coming off of 4-8 seasons and both head coaches are filling the hot seat as they attempt to get their programs on the same playing level as the other teams in the Big 12.
"For us, it's giving ourselves an opportunity," head coach Gary Patterson said. "We have to go score more points, and we have to keep stopping people. It's not going to change. This league comes at you. I'll be open to whatever helps us win."
TCU will have to accomplish that feat, however, without the services of quarterback Casey Pachall, who closed out his on-again, off-again relationship with the Horned Frogs last season. Also gone are cornerback Jason Verrett, wide receiver LaDarius Brown, safety Elisha Olabode and defensive end Jon Koontz.
Patterson does return six players on offense, led by junior quarterback Trevone Boykin-a name known by many Mountaineer fans for his late touchdown throw against WVU in 2012 which pushed the game into overtime. Boykin put up decent numbers in 2013, completing 105-of-176 attempts for 1,198 yards and seven touchdowns, but also tossed seven interceptions.
Also returning is leading rusher B.J. Catalon, who led the team with 569 yards and six touchdowns, running back Aaron Green, wide receiver Josh Docston (36-440, 4 TD), placekicker Jaden Oberkrom, defensive end Devonte Fields, safety Sam Carter, cornerback Kevin White and defensive tackle Chucky Hunter.
In an attempt to keep up with the vast number of teams in the Big 12 that run a spread attack, Patterson brought in Texas Tech's Sonny Cumbie and Houston's Dough Meacham as co-offensive coordinators to give the Horned Frogs' attack a kick start.
"We've got a long way to go before we can be where it's pure reaction," said Patterson. "We've got (teams) that have been running it for 15 years, and we've been running it for (15) practices. We're not running the ball as well as we need to and we need to be more efficient. Everything about this offense is about execution."
Prediction: Some may think it is crazy to think, but facing Baylor in Morgantown gives the old gold and blue a chance for a victory. It might be a track meet, but WVU does possess enough offensive weapons to make the game interesting.
It's just as crazy to think that the Mountaineers can go into Stillwater and 'steal' a game from the Cowboys. This team has not proven that it can overcome the woes of travel to win against a quality opponent.
That leaves TCU as the 'make-or-break' game for WVU in this trio of games. A victory over the Horned Frogs should give the Mountaineers a 2-1 mark and set up a couple of different bowl scenarios as they move into the final three games of 2014.