Perpetual Underdogs: Brown’s Mountaineers are built to beat the odds

MORGANTOWN — You already know the story of the 2023 West Virginia football team.

Picked to finish last in the Big 12 preseason poll, the Mountaineers rallied around that underdog status to win nine games and in the program’s best season since 2016.

It also took sixth-year head coach Neal Brown firmly off the hot seat and even earned him a one-year contract extension this offseason.

WVU certainly won’t be projected last in the conference this year, but Brown still believes his Mountaineers are underdogs.

“I still think we’re being undervalued,” Brown said during an interview with the Dominion Post this week. “If you look at some of the (projected) win totals that are out there. If you look at preseason Top 25 (lists), we’re in a couple of them, but most of them we’re not in. How many nine-win teams from a year ago aren’t included in the preseason Top 25? If you look at the early magazines, where do they have us picked in the Big 12? Not near the top, more in the middle. So I don’t know if we’re being valued nationally at the level, maybe that we think we should be.” 

Playing the role of the underdog worked wonders for WVU last season and Brown isn’t ready to change that just because the team might get picked sixth in the preseason poll instead of 14th.

“I think we still are in that underdog mentality,” Brown said. “It’s not necessarily the same as it was. I don’t know if West Virginia ever gets out of the underdog mentality. If we’re doing it the right way, I don’t know if we ever get out of that.” 

Brown isn’t just playing up the idea either, he has legitimate grievances about how his team and players are perceived by the national media.

“Even players like (quarterback) Garrett (Greene), for all he had accomplished last year and what his numbers were, I still think that he’s undervalued in a lot of ways,” Brown said. “Are people talking about him being the best quarterback in the Big 12? Why not? How much publicity is he getting nationally? So I still don’t think that nationally we’re getting the attention, or we’re being valued like we probably should be.”

Greene’s story in 2023 very closely matches the team’s. Just as the Mountaineers were picked last in the Big 12, Clint Brewster of 247Sports ranked Greene as the worst Power 5 starting quarterback before last season.

Greene ended up being one of the highest-rated and most productive quarterbacks in the country and just like the team, he enters this offseason with a lot more expectations than last year.

“I really don’t think it changes too much,” Greene said at the Country Roads Trust youth football camp on Tuesday. “We know the work that we did last year to go from a five-win team to a nine-win team. And really that work has to be even more this year because we’re trying to make that push from a nine-win team to a 10-, 11-win team.”

Greene is comfortable playing the role of an underdog. Listed at 5-11, Greene wasn’t some sort of blue-chip prospect coming out of high school. He was going to play for Brown at Troy until Brown got the job at WVU and brought Greene with him.

So Greene has viewed his path as an uphill climb long before any list came out.

“I’ve always thought that I’m the best quarterback in the country,” Greene said. “I don’t need Joe Schmo from Texas or Bud Elliott to tell me I’m awful. I believe in myself, I believe in the guys protecting me, I believe in the running backs and I believe in the guys catching passes downfield.”

And Greene is far from the only Mountaineer with a story of overcoming the odds. Offensive lineman Nick Malone and receivers Preston Fox and Hudson Clement were in-state walk-ons before carving out starting roles last season. Running back CJ Donaldson was recruited to be a tight end and had never taken a handoff before starting college. Freshman All-American Jahiem White had a single Power 5 offer. Center Brandon Yates has started at almost every position on the offensive line in his career and right guard Ja’Quay Hubbard has lost over 100 pounds since starting college. Receiver Traylon Ray thought he was going to play baseball.

Brown isn’t embracing the underdog role because it’s easy or convenient, he’s doing it because he’s built nearly his entire roster out of guys who are underdogs.

“I appreciate people that have to earn it,” Brown said. “They have overcome odds, overcome setbacks, they’ve had to handle adversity and they’ve really come out on the other side in a positive way. I think that’s why our state is really bought into this team because there’s a lot of those stories that people in our state can relate to.”

It also helps that the Mountaineers are starting their season as literal underdogs. Despite opening 2024 at home in Milan Puskar Stadium, Penn State is currently a 10.5-point favorite over WVU for their game on Aug. 31.

“We’ve got a great opportunity as a team, and (Greene’s) got a great opportunity individually against Penn State week one,” Brown said. “I think he’s ready for it.”

A win over the Nittany Lions to start the season would almost certainly rocket the Mountaineers up the Top 25 rankings, but it still won’t change the fact that the Mountaineers are underdogs at heart.