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The West Virginia Mountaineers are one of the most intriguing teams in the Big 12. Neal Brown enters his third season looking to improve on a 6-4 record with plenty of new faces in Morgantown. While Brown appears to be steering the ship in the right direction, the turnover in the program has been significant. The Mountaineers saw several players hit the transfer portal, including key components to their top-five defense.
Winning with defense
West Virginia's defense was downright nasty in 2020. Anchored by a secondary that allowed the fewest passing first downs per game in the nation, the defense ranked sixth overall in yards per play at 4.6.
To put in perspective how important the defense was to West Virginia's winning season, let's look at these two key stats. The Mountaineers ranked 80th in offensive efficiency and the team still had the third-best yardage differential per game in the Big 12.
Brown lost significant production from every level of his defense to the transfer portal. Their best defender, CB Tykee Smith, left for Georgia while fellow cornerback Dreshun Miller is now at Auburn. Smith was ranked by PFF as top five in the country at his position and 24th in the Top 100 players overall. To Brown's credit, they were aggressive in replacing the production, but it's fair to expect a decline on the defensive side of the ball.
— Keenan Cummings (@rivalskeenan) August 9, 2021
Continuity for a football team is a longstanding secret of success. Considering 2021 is a year where teams will have more returning production than usual, Brown is up against his biggest challenge yet. Managing this level of turnover reduces the margin for error and the schedule brings its own set of challenges.
Key situation spots and road games
The first three games will be critical for the Mountaineers to set the tone for a winning season.
While we can comfortably mark the home opener against the Long Island Sharks a win, the other two are closer to coin flips. They are currently -3 favorites at BetMGM to open the season at Maryland against an offense that has the explosive firepower to put scoreboard pressure on a conservative Mountaineer offense. WVU was 0-4 on the road in 2020 and needs to either win the opener or follow it up with consecutive wins.
The struggles away from Morgantown are something that Brown has to figure out with five conference road games on the schedule. There are three games (Baylor, Kansas State, KU) where West Virginia will have the talent edge, but a road letdown against an inferior conference opponent would spoil its chances at a winning season.
Betting on Neal Brown in Year 3
WVU has a history of maintaining its defensive production, but the impact of the players lost seems like a lot to overcome. It's too much for me to comfortably recommend betting the over on West Virginia's win total. I don't have enough confidence the offense added the necessary playmakers to improve with QB Jarret Doege. Last season, they ranked outside of the Top 90 in both EPA per rush and pass. You can bet the Mountaineers to go over 6.5 wins currently at -120, but I do believe there is better value on the under at +100.
If you believe Brown can keep the momentum rolling in Morgantown, the better bet is West Virginia -3 at Maryland in the opener. It should be a good barometer for the revamped roster and will give us a better idea of what to expect in an exciting season for the Mountaineers.
Stats provided by PFF.com, The Tailgate Tent, teamrankings.com
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