Many conversations were probably had around dinner tables across Mountaineer Nation over Christmas that comprised of commiserating in what was a disappointing football season.
“The bowl game is going to be a glorified spring game,” you probably heard. “At least we have the Texas game to hang our hats on,” you may have responded, searching for some silver lining.
When 5 p.m. rolls around today and when the broadcast crew begins discussing David Sills V and the rest of the senior class’s finale and fans see the Old Gold and Blue faithful that made the trip to Orlando, the intensity will be back. Winning this game will feel as important as beating Oklahoma, despite the factors that make the 2018 Camping World Bowl less appealing, namely, Will Grier not playing.
Before you fall back under West Virginia football’s Medusa-like control at kickoff one final time for the 2018 campaign, keep in mind the bigger picture. The goal for the team in this game, collectively, should be improvement and confidence development for the underclassmen slated for starting positions come this spring.
Take into consideration that by Oct. 20 of next season, West Virginia will have played an FCS national contender in James Madison, two non-conference Power Five teams in Missouri and NC State, Texas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma, who will all probably be ranked, and a Les Miles-led Kansas team.
The 2019 schedule is front-loaded. The Mountaineers will have to be ready from the jump. There will be no time for acclimation, and if West Virginia comes out flat like the 2013 team did against FCS William and Mary, then the 2019 team could be destined for a similar result. Therefore, think of the Camping World Bowl as a dress rehearsal for the start of 2019 with nothing to lose, despite the need for a win.
Here are a few things to watch in the game:
Jack Allison’s control of the offense
While it was disappointing to hear that gunslinger Will Grier wasn’t going to play his final collegiate game, it was a blessing in disguise for the 2019 Mountaineers. It gives Jack Allison and Trey Lowe III the opportunity for valuable in-game reps against a respectable defense. Allison transferred from Miami to West Virginia for this. It’s Captain Jack’s time to lead the brigade.
Be mindful of his overall command of the offense. Does he move the ball in chunks with quick, accurate passes to his talented receiving corps and stable of backs, or is he the second coming of Chris Chugunov? There’s very little in-game film to go off, but, in the Baylor game, his motion was a little more elongated than Grier’s. Can he shorten that up while still packing a punch behind his throws? Also, watch for his mobility in the face of pressure. He’s a skinnier version of Oklahoma State’s Taylor Cornelius. Can he move like him?
Larger roles for T.J. Simmons and Jovani Haskins
Bringing back a trophy to Morgantown means less than what finishing Sills and Trevon Wesco’s collegiate careers in style would mean. Those two guys embody what it means to be a Mountaineer and have been dedicated assets to the program. Albeit, Simmons and Haskins will vault in the 2019 receiving pecking order and will be counted on more next season than this season, especially Simmons. It has seemed like an eon ago that he ripped off that long, catch-and-run down the sidelines against Tennessee for a touchdown. If he is going to complement Marcus Simms next season like Gary Jennings paired with Sills over the last two, Simmons has to make some plays. A solid showing tomorrow would lead one to believe he’s on the right path.
Kwantel Raines becoming the next No. 8
Kyzir White, Karl Joseph, Keith Tandy, Quinton Andrews… wearing No. 8 means something in the West Virginia defense. Therefore, heightened expectations have already been put on Raines who was a four-star prospect from last year’s recruiting class. Behind seniors Dravon Askew-Henry and Toyous Avery and veteran sophomore Kenny Robinson on the depth chart, Raines has been able to redshirt this season, but he can play in the bowl game thanks to the NCAA’s new four-game rule. Raines is in line to be a week-one starter next season, and we know how important solid play from safeties is in Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5. Can Raines provide a Joseph-like tackle that has fans experiencing deja-vu of the former hitman?
Trey Lowe III more than a capable back-up
Dana Holgorsen has already said that he intends on playing both Allison and Lowe in the game, but it is yet to be determined how the reps will be distributed. Lowe was a highly-touted quarterback prospect out of high school, who was considered to be a dual-threat. Fans saw first-hand how lethal a dual-threat quarterback like Kyler Murray can be in the Big 12 Conference. Fans should also remember the last quarterback to pass the “assumed starter” on the depth chart—Pat White. Like Lowe, White also played baseball. The Adam Bednarik-Pat White legend isn’t ancient history. It’s Allison’s position for the taking, but can Lowe show fans some traits that make the spring and summer quarterback battle that much juicier?
Qualls and Ferns’ effectiveness
Outside of David Long this year, the linebacking corps has been a rendition of musical chairs due to injuries. Holgorsen said earlier this week that only seven traveled, and he could see only four playing. It’s unknown whether Long will depart for the NFL Draft after this game. Assuming he does, three positions will need to be filled by a glut of average-performing or injured players and Alabama transfer Vandarius Cowan. Will there be one or two backers who show flashes of brilliance? Brendan Ferns and Quondarius Qualls were primed for big years, but injuries derailed their 2018 seasons. According to Holgorsen, both are ready to give it a go.