West Virginia head coach Neal Brown speaks during Big 12 NCAA college football media days in Las Vegas, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

There is a reality that comes with this new “here today, gone tomorrow” age of college football, where players come and go from year to year; a new reality that didn’t exist before and that reality is that quite often it takes a while to learn who you are and what you can do.

In a way, this dynamic has made West Virginia and Oklahoma State, two of the Big 12s better teams, no matter that WVU continues to be mostly overlooked, quite similar while the world expects big things from the Cowboys.

Last season, the Mountaineers were written off before the season and picked to finish last in the Big 12. While they insisted that was pure balderdash, it took them a while to prove it, finally finishing with 9 wins and a season that returned the program to relevancy.

For Oklahoma State it was a bit different as they came into the season not really knowing just what their strengths were. They got off to a dismal start after which they were written off three weeks in but used an off-week to regroup, to learn that running back Ollie Gordon would be their driving force and came on to contend as the season wore on.

“After the first three games, we changed the concepts of what we were doing up front. We changed the alignment of our tailback, particularly, what we thought Ollie Gordon would be best at. And we shoved all of our poker chips on the table, and we hit,” Coach Mike Gundy explained.

The Mountaineers offense was similar in the fact that they entered the year figuring the offense would go through quarterback Garrett Greene, who would suffer an early injury, and that they had a budding star running back in freshman Jahiem White, who was not really ready to show his stuff when the season opened, and another potential star running back in CJ Donaldson, who was banged up much of the season.

When Greene healed, when the coaching staff felt comfortable turning White loose and when they were able to commit to what they do best, the Mountaineers became an offensive force.

In turning things around, Brown concentrated on character and identity.

“I think the character piece is 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 explained when it was his time to take the stage at Big 12 Media Day

“The identity piece for us is something that we really spent a lot of time on over the last 19 months. We had to know who we needed to be in order to be successful in West Virginia.”

West Virginia, you see, is a state, yes, but it is also a state of mind.

“We feel like we found that,” Brown continued. “And our team has bought into it. And more importantly the leadership of our team is that 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.”

A lot of that flows through Greene, who Brown believes is an underrated quarterback who is “one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country.”

Brown played off that mentality last year and this year, with his team picked in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and with Greene not really being mentioned among the conference’s top quarterbacks he expects the underdog mentality will ring loudly.

“There’s no question, we rallied around that. 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,” Brown said. “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.”

He believes the same is true this year, despite losing two offensive linemen in Zach Frazier and Doug Nester.

“And now it’s similar. We’re coming off 9 and 4, I look at most of the preseason Top 25, we’re not in it. 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, I think 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.”

Certainly, the hunger is there and considering that there is no standout, Top 5 type of team in the Big 12, much is there for the taking.

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