Baylor-West Virginia Preview
It's the week West Virginia has been waiting for.
After three double-digit wins in nonconference play, the ninth-ranked Mountaineers now turn to their Big 12 debut against No. 25 Baylor.
"It's a new season, man," said West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. "It's all about the conference."
Next Saturday, it will be all about lighting up the scoreboard. Baylor is averaging 51.3 points a game, the Mountaineers 47.3.
It's been 11 months since West Virginia announced it was leaving the Big East, but the move didn't become official until the school settled a lawsuit with its former conference in February.
Baylor's visit to Morgantown starts a round of introductions. West Virginia (3-0) has never played the Bears (3-0) in football, and not much against other current Big 12 members, either. The Mountaineers are 9-4 against them dating to 1928.
And Big 12 fans will learn a lot more about Smith, a Heisman Trophy hopeful who's surrounded by star receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey and a coaching staff already familiar with the conference.
"I know that I speak for my team and the fans, we're very excited," Bailey said. "We know that we'll be facing a lot of challenges going into the Big 12."
The first time that coach Dana Holgorsen brought up the Big 12 to his players was after West Virginia's 31-21 win over Maryland last Saturday.
Despite some hiccups, Holgorsen likes where his team is at.
"I've got a bunch of guys who like to play football and understand what's at stake," he said. "They like to play, they enjoy each other and I think that we are a real close team and getting tighter by the week. They understand what we have to do to get better and we'll go back to work and get ready for Baylor."
The coaching staff, at least, has some familiarity with the conference. First-year defensive coordinator Joe DeForest was at Oklahoma State for a decade. Holgorsen spent eight seasons as an assistant at Texas Tech - three on the same staff as current Baylor coach Art Briles - and was Mike Gundy's offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State in 2010 before coming to West Virginia.
Holgorsen's quarterbacks have surpassed 4,000 yards passing in every year since his first year as an offensive coordinator in 2005.
If Smith stays healthy, this year could make it eight in a row.
He threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns against Maryland and rewrote another school record, this time for career passing attempts. Through three games, he's thrown for 1,072 yards and 12 TDs with no interceptions.
Austin set a single-game school record with 13 receptions last weekend and broke Jock Sanders' two-year-old career receptions mark. His 179 receiving yards accounted for half of West Virginia's offense.
Doug Rigg was a stalwart for the Mountaineers on defense, taking a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown.
The night before, Rigg noticed something as he watched Baylor win 47-42 at Louisiana-Monroe.
"I thought, man they line up very fast and I didn't like that," Rigg said. "But in a way, we're used to it in practice. We go against our offense and they line up fast."
Baylor's high-powered offense has continued to thrive behind senior quarterback Nick Florence even after losing Heisman winner Robert Griffin III to the NFL, not to mention top rusher Terrance Ganaway and leading receiver Kendall Wright.
Florence has thrown for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in each of the first three games - Tevin Reese and Terrance Williams each hauled in two scores against Louisiana-Monroe - although he has been picked off twice each of the past two weeks.
"That is something that he never does," Briles said about Florence's interceptions. "But we aren't going to panic and stop throwing the ball. Nick is good. He does see the field good, so he responded."
Baylor jumped back into the rankings after its ninth straight win - one more would match the school record set in 1936-37 - but may have some concerns about its defense as it prepares for the high-scoring Mountaineers.
The Bears have allowed 492.7 yards per game, which ranks 116th out of 124 FBS schools and last among major-conference teams.
"We know what we can do," defensive tackle Trevor Clemons-Valdez said. "There's definitely progress from last year and there is still room to grow. (Defensive coordinator Phil) Bennett teaches perfection, he preaches perfection and that is what we are striving for."
That will be a tall task against Smith's explosive offense - in a hostile atmosphere. Despite the program's recent rise, Baylor has still won only four of its last 22 conference road games and is 0-25 all-time on the road against ranked opponents in Big 12 play.
"From what I've been told (Morgantown's) going to be awesome," Florence said. "First Big 12 game, they'll be excited. Their fans will be excited and so will we. They have a lot to prove and so will we. It's going to be a good game."