I’ll admit it — I was one of the seven people who picked West Virginia to win the Big 12 this year.
Thirty-two of the 41 people who submitted ballots for this year’s preseason Big 12 poll predicted that Oklahoma would win the conference, with fifth-place TCU and sixth-place Kansas State each receiving one first-place vote. The other seven went to West Virginia, which, like TCU, is entering its first year in the Big 12. Texas is expected to finish third in the conference this upcoming season.
“It seems like everyone in the room thinks we’re pretty good,” Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen said at Big 12 Media Days this week. “Our team is used to winning, and that exists at the other nine universities in the Big 12 as well. So the best way I can describe it to the people of West Virginia and the best way I can describe it to the Big 12, everybody else, is what exists in the Big 12 exists in Morgantown, W. Va., as well.”
Led by quarterback Geno Smith, now a senior, West Virginia won 10 games last year, the last of which was the most memorable. The Mountaineers dropped 70 points in an Orange Bowl win over Clemson. Smith, who was chosen by the media as the Big 12 preseason Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 407 yards and six touchdowns while running for a seventh.
“It was the perfect game,” Smith said. “The only negative is that people are going to expect us to score 70 points every game. I don’t know if we made it look easy or not but that’s extremely hard.”
Most people believe West Virginia won’t capture the conference crown in their first year as a member of the Big 12, a league much tougher than the Big East that the Mountaineers have won each of the past two years. Besides their recent success over the past decade, West Virginia’s last triumph should provide them plenty of momentum heading into this season.
“If you actually go back and watch the game, you’ll see that I made a lot of bad throws,” Smith recalled. “Four touchdowns were tipped passes. The team did a great job but, Geno Smith as a quarterback, I’d probably grade myself as a little bit above average.”
One need only look at Texas’ recent history to realize how important bowl victories can be for a team. A 52-34 win over Arizona State in the 2007 Holiday Bowl sparked Texas to a 2008 season that ended in a dramatic 24-21 Fiesta Bowl triumph over Ohio State. Before the Longhorns captured a national championship (their thrilling 41-38 win over USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl), they took down Michigan in Pasadena the previous year.
“If you go back to 2004, we were second in rushing ... going into the Michigan game and were able to win the Rose Bowl,” Texas head coach Mack Brown said. “The next year is when we were really balanced, and that’s when Vince stepped up and we were throwing the ball much better.”
Unlike Oklahoma, West Virginia brings back Smith’s top two weapons from a year ago in wide receivers Tavon Austin, who joined Smith on the preseason All-Big 12 squad, and Stedman Bailey. Austin and Bailey combined for 2,465 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns in 2011.
The Sooners will have a formidable one-two punch at wideout in Kenny Stills, the other preseason All-Big 12 receiver, and Jaz Reynolds but will be without their leading pass catcher from last season, Ryan Broyles. After Broyles tore his ACL against Texas A&M, OU quarterback Landry Jones struggled, throwing just one touchdown pass and six interceptions in the last four games of the year.
“I think Landry Jones is also very deserving of that [preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year] honor as I am,” Smith said. “I appreciate the guys selecting me. It doesn’t please me in any type of way. I’m going to be the same guy I’ve always been. I’ve been receiving a lot of awards my whole life. It doesn’t really faze me that much.”
Another thing the Mountaineers have going for them is the fact that they host Oklahoma in their first meeting with the Sooners as members of the Big 12. OU will travel to Morgantown to face West Virginia Nov. 17. The Sooners beat Florida State and Kansas State on the road last season but struggled in losses to Baylor in Waco and to Oklahoma State in Stillwater. Their road trip to West Virginia will be their toughest next year.
Where most think the Sooners’ advantage over the Mountaineers is their defense, last year’s numbers show that West Virginia’s might have been better than most believe. The Mountaineers are known for their offense but they allowed 203.5 passing yards per game last year, the second fewest in the Big East and less than any team in the Big 12, six fewer yards per game than Texas allowed in 2011. The 348.2 total yards per game West Virginia surrendered was good for third in the Big East and would have been the second best mark in the Big 12, behind only Texas (306.1).
West Virginia understands winning the Big 12 is a much more difficult task than capturing the Big East title. But their expectations are high, and for good reason.
“As long as we win games, people will understand we belong,” Smith said. “I expect to win every game. I expect to complete every pass. I expect to make perfect reads. Is that going to happen? No. I figured if you hold yourself to that standard, you know what they say, if you shoot for the moon, you’ll land amongst the stars.”
When it comes to stars in the Big 12, Smith could prove to be the brightest. Don’t be surprised if he leads the Mountaineers to their third straight conference title.