I apologize right up top to those readers who were expecting a Big 12 game preview of Texas at Oklahoma State (I think Texas will stampede into Stillwater and ride out with its fourth win of the year in hand, by the way). If you caught the fine print in my “Big 12 Football Rewind” article earlier in the week, I had led you to believe this week’s featured game preview would be the contest taking place in Stillwater this weekend.
Well, upon further review, as they say, I overlooked what I consider to be an even bigger game this weekend in Morgantown, Va. That’s where West Virginia is hosting Baylor in what will be the Mountaineers first official taste of Big 12 league play.
Both teams enter the fray with perfect 3-0 records against nonconference opponents. The Bears had some difficulty in their game last week at Louisiana-Monroe, but who hasn’t had trouble against that cagin’ bunch this season. The Warhawks had already beaten Arkansas at Fayetteville this month and almost pulled off a second upset at Auburn. So you could almost have expected a close game last Friday in Monroe, La.
Coach Art Briles’ Bears got it going when they needed to, however, opening up a 10-point margin late in the fourth quarter over Louisiana-Monroe and holding on for a five-point victory.
The Mountaineers may be new to the Big 12, but their head coach is not. Dana Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State when he resigned after the season in 2010 to take the same position at West Virginia. Before the 2011 season, Holgorsen replaced Bill Stewart as the Mountaineers head coach. This is his second season on the sidelines for West Virginia. Holgorsen also was an assistant for eight years at Texas Tech, so he has a very good familiarity with Big 12 football.
West Virginia breezed through its three nonconference opponents (Marshall, James Madison and Maryland), winning by an average 25-point margin, but things should get much tighter for the Mountaineers against Big 12 competition.
Both teams feature high-powered, pass-centric offenses, with the two senior quarterbacks, Geno Smith of West Virginia and Nick Florence of Baylor, sitting one, two in the conference in total offense and passing yard per game. Both quarterbacks are averaging over 360 passing yards a game. Smith, who came into the season as a Heisman candidate, however, has a higher passing efficiency than Florence, who replaced last year’s Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III. Through three games, the Bears have had very little drop-off in their offensive output from last year’s record season.
When the two teams run the ball, Baylor has been a little more effective than the Mountaineers in the early going of the season, largely behind the legs of senior Jarred Salubi, who averaged 74 yards and nearly five yards a carry in the Bears’ three nonconference wins.
A key factor in this game could be the availability of West Virginia running back Shawne Alston, who leads the Mountaineers in rushing, averaging 62 yards a game and 6.2 yards a carry. Alston was hurt in the Maryland and his playing status has not yet been determined for Saturday’s mountain showdown. The West Virginia coaches have said they will error on the side of protecting their star receiver for the long term instead of risking a more permanent injury.
Neither team is much of a defensive juggernaut. As good as they are when they put the ball in the air on offense, the Bears and the Mountaineers are the two worst teams in the Big 12 in defending the pass. Baylor is giving up 315 yards a game to its opponents through the air, and West Virginia is not far behind at 277 yards a game. The Mountaineers are better defending the run than Baylor, which is probably a good thing given that the Bears may have the better ground game.
Both teams have capitalized on turnovers so far this season. Baylor is plus-six in that department, while the Mountaineers own a plus-five turnover margin. Neither team has lost a fumble this season, and West Virginia’s Smith has thrown just one interception and 12 touchdowns in 118 pass attempts.
This contest has all the makings of a shootout: two high-scoring, fast-paced offenses that move the ball down the field quickly, chewing up sizeable chunks of yardage along the way, and seemingly giving up the same on defense.
Special teams and turnovers could end up being the difference in what most likely will be a high-scoring game between these two top-25-ranked teams. West Virginia, seventh this week in the USA Today coaches’ poll and the defending champions of the Big East Conference, should be able to get it done vs. the 24th-ranked Bears, playing at home in Morgantown in the first ever football game between these two schools.
Game prediction: West Virginia 45, Baylor 31
Other Big 12 Games This Weekend (Week 5)
(Projected winner in bold face)
TCU @ Southern Methodist
Texas Tech @ Iowa State
Texas @ Oklahoma State
Byes: Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas
Last week: 4-1
For the season: 28-3 (.903)