On November 23rd Dana Holgerson's West Virginia Mountaineers will run onto the field at Iowa State 5-5 overall, 2-5 in the Big 12, unranked, with no Heisman candidates...and needing only one win to become bowl eligible.
How the heck did this happen? Pop quiz:
a. The Mountaineers high flying offense came crashing down to earth.
b. The Mountaineers terrible defense finally got exposed.
c. The Mountaineers schedule got a lot tougher.
d. The Mountaineers grueling Big 12 travel schedule got to them.
e. Geno Smith was playing at a completely unsustainable pace and cooled off.
f. All the above.
If you selected F, congratulations, you're correct. The Mountaineers haven't suffered anything catastrophic, they've just been completely exposed by regressing to the mean against a tougher schedule. Let's look at A thru E:
The offense was scoring 52 points per game as they ran their record to 5-0. In their five losses they've scored 29 points per game, and that's counting Saturday's 49 point explosion against Oklahoma and a 2OT game against TCU.
The defense was giving up 35 points per game in the five wins and having a hard time stopping anybody who could throw deep. That number ballooned to 50 points allowed per game on the current losing streak.
The Mountaineers schedule got markedly tougher at the season's halfway point. The first five games featured one FCS team and four FBS opponents with a current combined record of 22-20. The last five games, all against Big 12 competition, came against teams with a combined 38-15 record. West Virginia had plenty of problems lurking below the surface against .500 teams. The tougher teams in the Big 12 found lots of ways to take advantage of them. We can't forget that the Mountaineers are used to traveling to places like Pittsburgh and Louisville for road games. The losing streak began when West Virginia had to make back to back trips to Austin and Lubbock, TX, and they've thrown another trip to Stillwater, OK into the middle of it. We've always had concerns about the Mountaineers adjusting to the depth and travel requirements of the Big 12...it just turned out they were more severe than anybody expected.
Finally, let's look at Geno Smith. Two months ago I declared the Heisman race over in a moronically early post that will live in internet infamy next to the "Boom, goes the dynamite" kid. At that point Smith had thrown for 24 TDs and zero interceptions, and was throwing the ball with such sickening accuracy that his lowest passer rating in a game was 159. Since then his highest passer rating was 160 (last week against Oklahoma). Smith has thrown for 11 more TDs, but he's also tossed 5 interceptions. These numbers aren't bad at all, but they pale in comparison to the blistering pace Smith started the season on. Sure, Smith has leveled off, but there's no way anybody could have played an entire season at the level he played the first five games at. The five game losing streak rightfully ended his Heisman campaign, but Smith is taking far more heat for his personal performance than he should be.
So that's it. These aren't fun or groundbreaking explanations, but sometimes it's just that easy. Let's call this what it is. West Virginia is an average Big 12 team with a great offense that relies too heavily on precision passing routes and speed on the edge to overcome the deficits their terrible defense inevitably puts them in. They're struggling in a new conference with tougher competition and a tougher travel schedule. Finally, they became too dependent on their quarterback playing like a Marvel superhero and took too long to adjust when his play leveled off. There's cause for concern in Morgantown, but there's not cause for panic. The Mountaineers need to focus this offseason on recruiting more defensive talent, using Geno Smith and Tavon Austin to convince offensive stars to play in Holgerson's system, and building enough talent and depth to survive a Big 12 schedule.
And they need to focus this week on getting that elusive sixth win and making sure signs like this stop popping up on Gameday:
The future of the program depends on it.
(Photos: AP, Twitter)