It often takes a while for various truths about a college football season to emerge.
As for Baylor (3-0) and West Virginia (3-0, No. 11 in the latest Don Best Linemakers Poll), we’re about to find out a lot more about both of them as they prepare to do battle. And for those who will be watching, we advise buckling your seatbelts.
The Bears and Mountaineers will be throwing expected haymakers on Saturday at Morgantown in the Big 12 opener for each. A quick check of the Don Best Pro Odds screen notes that host West Virginia is a solid 12-12½ point favorite at the majority of Las Vegas sports books, with the total in the stratosphere at 80.
Kickoff time at Milan Puskar Stadium/Mountaineer Field has been moved forward to noon (ET) with TV coverage provided by the FX Network.
The contest has taken on added meaning for West Virginia as this will be the Mountaineers’ debut conference game in their new Big 12 affiliation. As such, many regional observers are curious how West Virginia will fare against what is generally considered to be an upgraded league slate from its recent campaigns as a member of the Big East.
As for Baylor, this will be the first of many serious upcoming tests for the Bears as we get a better grip on just how much they might be missing last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III. Or if they are going to miss RG III very much at all.
Indeed, there is a school of thought in the southwest that acknowledges Griffin’s rare skills but also gives most of the credit for the recent Baylor resurgence to fifth-year head coach Art Briles, whose aggressive offensive system has posted big numbers at all of his previous career stops. After producing some record-breaking numbers with the Houston Cougars, Briles has done much the same since his switch to Baylor in 2008.
Those suggesting the “Briles touch” should not be overlooked cite the early-season offensive numbers being posted by the Bears, which include a whopping 51.3 ppg (good for fifth-best in the country) and 569 yards of total offense per outing (sixth in the nation). Moreover, dating back to last season, Baylor has scored 45 or more points in seven straight games, and has hit 30 or more nine times in a row.
These pyrotechnics have been recently detonated by Griffin’s successor, senior QB Nick Florence, who three years ago was thrown into the fire after RG III went down with injury but is much better able to handle the QB chores these days. So much so that Baylor ranks fifth nationally in passing offense at 362 and with Florence (335 ypg) also among the national pass leaders, completing better than 64 percent of his passes with 11 TDs already.
Florence also happens to lead the nation in total offense at almost 388 yards per game.
An experienced receiving corps with track-team relay speed led by wideouts Terrance Williams, Lanear Sampson and Tevin Reese are all 1,000-yard career receivers, as is Darryl Stonum, who gained most of his yards at Michigan before transferring to Waco.
Another senior weapon making the most of his chance to play, RB Jarred Salubi, leads the Bears with 221 rushing yards, while Florence’s ability to run from the pocket (already 159 YR) is another dimension for opponents to defend.
In the Bears’ most-severe test of the season last week at UL-Monroe, however, the offense got a bit sloppy in the first half when Baylor was guilty of a couple of turnovers which set up Warhawk scores and put ULM in front at halftime.
Turnovers, however, have been mostly a positive development for the Bears, especially under defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, forcing at least one TO in 16 straight games and standing 11-0 in games where Bernnett’s stop unit forces at least two. The “D” owns several playmakers led by soph LB Bryce Hager, who ranks second nationally with 13.0 tackles per game.
Slowing the Mountaineers, however, could be a different matter.
West Virginia’s offense has been producing yards and points at a nonstop clip since head coach Dana Holgorsen took over the reins a year ago. Holgorsen also knows his way around the Big 12 track after serving as offensive coordinator at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma State over the past decade.
Triggering the Mounties’ devastating spread is senior QB Geno Smith, who might have thrust himself into the lead for the Heisman Trophy while posting some astounding stats in the first three weeks of the season. Those would include better than 81 percent pass completions, 12 TD passes and a second rank nationally in pass efficiency. (By the way, a pair of other Big 12 QBs, TCU’s Casey Pachall and Texas’ David Ash, bookend Geno in the national rankings in that category.)
Like Baylor, West Virginia also ranks highly in scoring (10th at 47.33 ppg) and total offense (14th at 529 yards per game). But Holgorsen enters this week with a few concerns after Maryland was able to somewhat disrupt the Mountaineers offense last week at Morgantown with excessive blitzing tactics that somewhat neutralized Geno Smith (though he still passed for 338 yards). Baylor's Bennett, a blitz devotee, certainly took notice.
For West Virginia, however, a key will be to balance the offense, and perhaps the absence of top rusher Shawne Alston (thigh bruise) had something to do with the rather choppy effort vs. the Terps. Alston is expected to return to active duty this week.
Baylor is also going to have to deal with highlight-reel WR Tavon Austin, who made Maryland pay for trying to cover him with linebackers and safeties by catching 13 passes last week. Austin leads the nation’s receivers with 10.33 catches per game.
As is often the case in these expected shootouts, however, the key to the outcome will likely rest with which defense delivers best. In that regard, perhaps a slight edge to the Mounties, considering the Bears’ early 113th rank in total defense.
Technically-speaking, note that Baylor has mostly had its problems against the number on the road, covering just two of its last nine away from Waco. The most eye-opening angles – and the reason for the high total this week – are the startling ‘over’ numbers posted by each team, with the Bears ‘over’ 13-1 in their last 14 games and West Virginia ‘over’ 11-3 in its last 14 outings.
Coaches Briles and Holgorsen are also branches of the Mike Leach coaching tree (they were together on Leach’s Texas Tech staff in 2000), although they have rarely run into each other on the sidelines. The last time they did so was two years ago when Holgorsen was serving as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, and his Cowboys beat Briles’ Baylor, 55-28.