There’s no doubt that Neal Brown’s West Virginia football team took some positive steps in 2020, and the head coach is looking to keep that trend going into 2021.
The Mountaineers were selected sixth in the 2021 Big 12 Preseason Poll this summer, marking the highest such ranking for WVU since Brown’s hiring in 2019. Since the Mountaineers finished fifth last season, though, the pundits don’t seem to think WVU will keep its positive trajectory this year — a notion that doesn’t bother Brown.
“You can’t control where you’re at in preseason. I’m sure there are reasons why we’re there,” Brown said. “I’ll tell you like I tell my players, you either prove them right or you prove them wrong. And our goal this season is to prove them wrong.”
Brown spent much of this spring and offseason emphasizing leadership and accountability from his players. This player-led philosophy has helped foster a motivated culture within his team, which he believes will help them get better in 2021.
In other words, his players have bought in.
“I think our buy-in is extremely high right now, and we’ve made tremendous progress over the last two years with the culture within our football program,” he said.
West Virginia proved in 2020 that it was ready to compete in the Big 12. In fact, three of its four losses were decided by two scores or fewer — and they lost two of those by a touchdown or less. If they managed to pull off wins in those one-score games, the Mountaineers would have finished third in the Big 12 standings.
For Brown, the key to overcoming this hump is clear.
“Third downs and red zone are the most important pieces for us offensively to take advantage of,” he said. “We’ve gotta score touchdowns rather than kick field goals in the red zone, and on third down we’ve got to be able to convert, especially in the middle.”
While WVU didn’t exactly excel in these areas, they didn’t struggle either. The Mountaineers finished 35th nationally in red zone offense, notching 25 touchdowns and 11 field goals in 41 attempts for an 88.3-percent rate. They did pretty well on third down, too, getting the conversion 41.6 percent of the time — the third-highest in the Big 12.
Of course, those marks have little to do with the success or failure of 2021, which is why Brown has made it an emphasis this preseason.
College football is back in full this season, and the Mountaineers likewise have a full 12-game schedule again. This year, WVU is one of just a handful of schools in the country that will play 11 Power Five opponents in 2021 as they face all nine Big 12 teams plus rivals Virginia Tech and Maryland.
Brown was blunt about the slate, calling it “very challenging.”
“We’re looking forward to the challenge,” he said.