Season finale serves as a dress rehearsal for 2020

A losing season clinched and a chance at a bowl gone, West Virginia’s finale at TCU Friday doesn’t have a lot in the way of consequence on the 2019 campaign.

The meaning of the final score for the game is mostly window dressing. A victory assures the Mountaineers (4-7, 2-6 Big 12) of avoiding their first-ever last-place finish in the Big 12. But Kansas (3-8, 1-7), who is a game behind WVU and Texas Tech in the conference standings, ends the season Saturday against Baylor so the Jayhawks should clinch the basement spot themselves.

WVU also could leapfrog Texas Tech (4-7, 2-6) for sole possession of seventh place with a victory over TCU and a Texas win over Texas Tech. “We’re number 7” isn’t much a rallying cry, though.

So team goals are pretty set. But for individual players, and varying units, Friday’s finale will serve as an audition towards 2020.

One unit that needs to show it can do something in the way of contribution is the WVU running backs. It’s impossible to overstate how bad West Virginia’s running game is. The Mountaineers rank 129th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards, ahead only of winless Akron.

Coming into the season, running back was considered the position of strength of an inexperienced offense. Obviously that didn’t work out. Kennedy McKoy departs after this season, but Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield are expected to return next year. A strong effort by either would be a nice positive to take into the spring.

The running backs aren’t solely responsible for the grounded ground game. The offensive line has been inadequate and hasn’t improved. The Mountaineers unfathomable 26 yards on 22 carries in last week’s 20-13 loss to Oklahoma State was a microcosm of their season-long struggle. Only tackle Colton McKivitz departs after this season. So while the line will be more experienced in 2020, it remains to be seen if more experience results in better play.

In just two games, Jarret Doege appears to have solidified the starting quarterback role next year. Another strong effort against TCU could further cement that status. However, a poor outing could make coach Neal Brown open a quarterback competition between Doege and Austin Kendall in the spring. WVU would be better if Doege locks down the spot.

In a season of more lows than highs, the defense provide more than its share of encouragement. The steadily rising play of defensive linemen Darius Stills and Dante Stills has been a the highlight of a better-than-expected defensive effort most weeks. The return of the Stills brothers are one of the biggest reasons for 2020 optimism.

There have been defensive lapses this season – being boat-raced by Oklahoma is understandable if not preferable. But giving up touchdowns on the first four drives in a home in a rout to struggling Texas Tech will sting this defense into the off season.

But the defense gave the team more positives than the offense. The effort in a 17-14 Halloween day loss to Baylor was the Mountaineers best performance. Even an average offensive contribution (it scored one touchdown, the other was a kickoff return) and West Virginia would have the signature victory of Brown’s early tenure. Maybe that signature can come Friday by upsetting TCU.

The idea that WVU has “nothing to play for” is simplistic and mistaken. The result might not matter much, record wise, on the 2019 campaign. But the performance of the players involved can matter quite a bit.