At the midpoint of the 2013 season for West Virginia, the Big 12 conference picture is as unclear as ever. Just as it has been for the Mountaineers, 2013 has been a year of ups and downs within the conference.
The No. 12 Oklahoma Sooners experienced inconsistency at the quarterback position with Trevor Knight starting the season and Blake Bell taking over after Knight’s injury against West Virginia Sept. 7.
After an impressive win on the road against Notre Dame Sept. 28, the Sooners struggled to put away TCU at home, but held on for a 20-17 victory over the Horned Frogs. Oklahoma can continue to build its resume and stake a firm claim as the conference’s best team with a win against rival Texas Saturday.
The most surprising team in the Big 12 at this point is No. 20 Texas Tech. First-year head coach Kliff Kingsbury led the Red Raiders to a 5-0 record and has done it despite injuries of quarterbacks Michael Brewer and Baker Mayfield.
Having already beat TCU, Texas Tech appears to be a real threat to contend for the Big 12 title this season. Although anything can happen in college football, with a home date against Iowa State Saturday, the Red Raiders appear poised to move their record to 6-0 before coming to Morgantown to take on West Virginia Oct. 19.
The most nationally recognized program in the Big 12 is also the most heavily scrutinized this season. Head coach Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns have had a rough 2013. After falling to 1-2 with a loss to Ole Miss, Texas won its first two Big 12 games against Kansas State and Iowa State.
Although the Longhorns are currently tied for first in the conference, quarterback David Ash’s injury has some questioning whether Texas can continue to compete this season. The hopes of the Longhorns (and perhaps Mack Brown’s job security) now lie in the hands of backup quarterback Case McCoy.
A dark horse pick to win the conference in the offseason, head coach Art Briles and the No. 16 Baylor Bears are firing on all cylinders. Led by quarterback Bryce Petty, the Bears have rattled off three straight 70-point performances on their way to a 4-0 start.
The difference for the Bears this season has been the quality play of the defense and the running game led by Lache Seastrunk. Baylor now has the ability to strike quickly in the passing game with Petty or grind out yardage on the ground with Seastrunk. Complementing the best overall offense in the nation is the No. 16 defense in the nation.
After finishing second to last (No. 119) in total defense, Baylor appears to have turned a corner on defense. Petty, Seastrunk and the Bears travel to Manhattan, Kan., Saturday to continue their quest for a perfect season against Kansas State.
The preseason favorite to win the conference, No. 22 Oklahoma State looked like anything but a BCS caliber team in the last two weeks. The Cowboys’ offense never got on track after a loss to West Virginia in Morgantown Sept. 28 and was just able to hold on for a 33-29 victory over Kansas State at home Saturday.
In terms of total defense, the best team the Cowboys have faced is Kansas State (No. 45). Quarterback J.W. Walsh and the Cowboy offense will have to find their rhythm in a hurry as they prepare to face the No. 33 defense in the nation in the TCU Horned Frogs Saturday. There is no doubt Oklahoma State has the offensive weapons to contend for the Big 12 title and a berth in a BCS game. However, its defense is a cause for concern. Opponents have averaged 245.5 passing yards per game against the Cowboys’ defense, which is No. 10 in the conference against the pass.
After a lackluster win against William & Mary in the season opener, West Virginia held its own against a tough Oklahoma team in Week 2 in Norman, Okla. Junior quarterback Paul Millard was benched after the first two games in favor of redshirt freshman Ford Childress. Childress then led the Mountaineers to a 41-7 win against Georgia State.
Although it was against an inferior opponent, West Virginia’s offense looked as good as it has all season against the Panthers. If the Georgia State game was the peak of productivity for the Mountaineer offense, a deep valley came in the form of a shutout loss to rival Maryland the following week.
Following Childress’ injury, redshirt junior Clint Trickett was given the starting quarterback position. Trickett led West Virginia to an improbable victory over then-No. 11 Oklahoma State in Morgantown in Week 4 but struggled to move the ball against Baylor Saturday as the Mountaineers fell 73-42 in Waco, Texas.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen cited communication problems with Trickett for the inconsistency on offense in the last two games. The quarterback controversy continues to be an issue for West Virginia this season.
At any rate, the Mountaineers have a bye week to figure out their offensive issues before returning to action against No. 20 Texas Tech Oct. 19.
With a record of 2-2, the Kansas Jayhawks may be the most consistent team in the conference. Unfortunately for head coach Charlie Weis, his team has been consistently mediocre. While running back James Sims continues to prove himself as one of the best running backs in the Big 12, running back Tony Pierson has emerged as a big play threat for Kansas. Pierson suffered a head injury against Texas Tech Saturday and could miss time as a result.
With Pierson potentially out of the picture, Sims will have to carry the load for the Kansas offense. The Jayhawks have not won a Big 12 game since 2009. They have eight chances to do so this season, starting with a game against TCU Saturday.
After a crushing 31-30 loss at home to Texas in their first conference game of the season, the Iowa State Cyclones find themselves at No. 8 in the Big 12 standings, with an overall record of 1-3. Head coach Paul Rhoads was justifiably animated in his postgame press conference after the loss, as several borderline calls went the way of the Longhorns.
Ranked No. 5 or lower in the Big 12 in every team statistical category, the Cyclones don’t do anything exceptionally well. That said, Iowa State has a propensity for springing upsets, especially at home. The Cyclones don’t appear to be headed for bowl eligibility, but they can still play spoiler and have a role in deciding the Big 12 champion.
A year after winning the Big 12 title and playing in the Fiesta Bowl, head coach Bill Snyder and the Kansas State Wildcats are experiencing the growing pains of moving on from Heisman candidate quarterback Collin Klein to the inexperience of junior Jake Waters and sophomore Daniel Sams. Back-to-back losses to open Big 12 play have the Wildcats sitting at No. 9 in the conference standings with an overall record of 2-3.
Sams saw his first extensive action of the season against Oklahoma State and nearly led the Wildcats to an upset victory on the road. Sams accounted for 299 total yards and three touchdowns, but turned the ball over four times, which proved to be the difference in the Wildcats’ 33-29 loss. Sams and the Wildcat offense will have to score in bunches Saturday to have a chance to beat No. 15 Baylor at home.
Sitting in the basement of the Big 12 is a team that was picked to finish third in the conference in the preseason media poll, the TCU Horned Frogs. Head coach Gary Patterson and TCU have been snake-bitten by injuries in 2013. What figured to be a prolific 1-2 punch at the quarterback position with Casey Pachall and Trevone Boykin has been cut in half by an injury sustained by Pachall in September.
Boykin struggled to take full control of the offense as the Horned Frogs lost their first two Big 12 games following Pachall’s injury. TCU’s 2-3 record is deceiving, however. With all three losses coming against top-25 teams in LSU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma, TCU has endured a brutal schedule in 2013. With just two games remaining against top-25 teams, the Horned Frogs are far from dead in the water. Boykin and TCU take on Kansas Saturday.
With all this uncertainty, it seems impossible to determine a front-runner for the Big 12 title. After Week 6, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Baylor are the only undefeated teams remaining in the conference. Of those three, Baylor is the lone team yet to really be challenged in 2013.
As the second half of the season unfolds, the Big 12 picture is likely to get cloudier before it clears up when one team separates itself from the pack.