No last place projection to fall back on, but Brown believes incentive isn’t lacking for Mountaineers

At this time last year, West Virginia’s football program was thought to be lacking in several areas.

Motivation wasn’t one.

The Mountaineers’ mantra leading up to and at times during the 2023 season was “14”, as in where West Virginia was projected to finish in the league’s annual preseason poll voted on by media representatives for what was then a 14-team Big 12 Conference.

Instead, WVU proved naysayers wrong in a big way, finishing in a three-way tie for fourth in the league by winning six of nine Big 12 games. The Mountaineers finished 9-4 overall, punctuating the better-than-expected season with a 20-point victory against North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and recording their most wins in Neal Brown’s five seasons as head coach.

“There’s no question, we rallied around that,” Brown said Wednesday inside Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders and host venue for Big 12 Media Days for the first time. “I stood up here a year ago, and we were picked 14th and I said we wouldn’t be there. And our team proved me right.

“I said that a year ago because I knew what we had on both fronts. To win at college football, you’ve got to be really talented at skill positions and you have to have difference-makers there, but you’ve got to win the trenches, and you’ve got to win on your offensive and defensive line, and I knew we had those type of guys and they were experienced and had been productive.”

The Mountaineers relied heavily on one of college football’s more potent rushing attacks throughout 2023 and won five of their last six games to finish on a strong note.

With Texas and Oklahoma having left the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference since, West Virginia is now part of a 16-team league that has welcomed Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Big 12 preseason favorite Utah.

The Mountaineers are projected seventh in the league’s preseason poll this year, meaning they can’t fall back on a last-place projection for motivation this time around.

Yet Brown believes his team doesn’t have to look hard for incentive.

“I look at most of the preseason Top 25, we’re not in it,” he said. “With a team that finished strong last year that returns a lot of production, that has one of the most dynamic players in all of college football in Garrett Greene. We were the number one Power Four rushing offense in the country last year, and we’re picked seventh in the league, and we’re not in most of these preseason Top 25s. So there’s a similar dynamic that works with this team, too. 

“And, more importantly, to me on a personal level, I believe some of our players are undervalued. Garrett Greene’s not getting talked about as much as some others, and his production speaks for itself. Wyatt Milum, we feel he’s as good or better than any offensive lineman in the country. I could go on. I think some of our players are being undervalued as well.”

In his first season as a full-time starter, Greene passed for 2,406 yards and 16 touchdowns with only four interceptions, while rushing for 772 yards and 13 additional scores on 120 attempts.

West Virginia’s Wyatt Milum waits for play to resume during a game against Texas Tech at Jones AT&T Stadium and Cody Campbell Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

He benefitted from playing behind one of the Big 12’s most productive offensive lines, a group that featured center Zach Frazier, who since became a second-round selection of the Pittsburgh Steelers in this year’s NFL Draft. The unit still has Milum, a left tackle tasked with protecting Greene’s blindside who enters his senior season with an opportunity to hear his name called even earlier than Frazier in the 2025 NFL Draft. Milum was West Virginia’s lone player on the Preseason All-Big 12 Team.

At times last season, Brown noted the Mountaineers had a tight-knit locker room that didn’t lack character, which he felt played a big role in the program’s resurgence.

To build on the success from 2023, West Virginia’s sixth-year head coach says that must remain consistent.

“For this team, that’s to be determined. The character piece, a lot of that happens through recruiting and making sure you have processes and systems in place to make sure that you’re bringing in the right type of individual and people with character, and then you try to develop that character once they’re on campus,” Brown said. “The identity piece for us is something that we really spent a lot of time on really over the last 19 months of who we need to be to be successful at West Virginia.

“I feel like we found that and our team has bought into it. More importantly, the leadership of our team is we’re going to be a tough unit that is really disciplined. They play smart football, and we do those things with an underdog mentality with a chip on our shoulder.”

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