Sunday October 23rd, 2016

The biggest game in the Big 12 this weekend took place in Morgantown, W. Va. West Virginia faced a formidable test from the team that, in our estimation, ranked below only Oklahoma in its conference entering this season. The Mountaineers passed the test with flying colors, dominating TCU, 34–10, to move to 6–0 and further its case as a College Football Playoff contender.

Here are three thoughts on what unfolded in Milan Puskar Stadium: 

1. West Virginia is for real

West Virginia’s win at Texas Tech last week was a decisive confirmation of the Mountaineers’ win-loss record. West Virginia didn’t just beat Texas Tech in Lubbock, it held an offense that had scored at least 50 points in nine consecutive home games to just 17 in a 48–17 rout. For as much as the Red Raiders’ attack was blunted by quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ injured shoulder, shutting down that team on its home turf was no small thing. The result prompted a simple question: How good is West Virginia, really? Saturday’s victory over TCU brought us one step closer to a definitive answer.

The Mountaineers delivered another smothering defensive performance against an opponent with a high-powered offense: The Horned Frogs came to Morgantown ranked behind only Oklahoma and the Red Raiders among Big 12 teams in yards per play and 13th nationally in Football Outsiders S&P+ ratings. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s 3–3–5 scheme flummoxed TCU quarterback Kenny Hill, limiting the Horned Frogs to only 148 passing yards (Hill had been averaging 357 yards per game) and one touchdown. TCU tailback Kyle Hicks was a legitimate threat out of the backfield (103 yards, 15 carries), but West Virginia’s combination of pressure and sound coverage short-circuited the Horned Frogs’ attack. It was another astonishingly strong effort on the side of the ball that most Big 12 teams seem to dismiss in favor of scoreboard-rattling shootouts on a weekly basis. West Virginia has a defense, and it’s really good.

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The Mountaineers’ flashed some nice stuff on offense, too. Quarterback Skyler Howard is an instinctive playmaker who can pick up yards with his legs when forced to leave the pocket. On Saturday, he completed 16 of his 23 passes for 231 yards and four touchdowns, including one late in the third quarter in which he scrambled to his right and threw across his body while on the run to hit wide receiver Ka’Raun White in the back of the end zone. This isn’t a vintage TCU defense, but the Horned Frogs couldn’t focus on shutting down West Virginia’s passing game because the Mountaineers were able to balance Howard’s work through the air with solid production from running back Rushel Shell (117 yards, 24 carries).

In this iteration of the Big 12, West Virginia’s calling card is its defense. It’s the only team that entered Saturday ranked in the top 50 of Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P+ ratings. Yet the Mountaineers’ offense won’t hold them back; they actually rank higher (14th) in offensive S&P. That sort of two-way quality can carry them a long way.

2. TCU started poorly, and things didn’t get better

In the Alamo Bowl against Oregon on Jan. 2, Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson decided to change his shirt and visor after TCU went into halftime trailing 31–0. The switch worked, as TCU stormed back to win 47–41 in triple overtime. Maybe Patterson thought a similar wardrobe change would have a similar effect on Saturday. After his team went into the break down 11, Patterson swapped his black top for a purple one. Yet whatever magic the black-to-purple substitution produced against the Ducks failed to materialize against the Mountaineers. TCU did not score in the second half, and West Virginia cruised to a comfortable win.

It’s a shame that Patterson’s attire alteration didn’t pan out, but he probably wouldn’t have felt compelled to do it in the first place if his team hadn’t committed such costly mistakes so early. The Mountaineers went up 7–0 a minute into the game after Horned Frogs wide receiver Deanté Gray fumbled the opening kickoff, and they recovered possession less than two minutes later when Hill threw an interception. West Virginia added two more scores in the half, a yawning gap for any team trying to put up points against the Mountaineers’ defense, let alone for a turnover-prone quarterback in an environment as hostile as Morgantown.

TCU dug itself a huge hole against a team geared to stifle comebacks. Patterson hoped something simpler would change the outcome of the game, something that worked spectacularly not so long ago. Unfortunately for the Horned Frogs, it failed this time.

3. Let’s talk about the playoff

The Big 12 may have set a record for media-decreed unofficial playoff disqualifications this season. The combination of Oklahoma’s losses to Houston and Ohio State in Weeks 1 and 3, respectively, and TCU’s double-overtime loss to Arkansas in Week 2 seemingly left the conference on shaky ground. With the Horned Frogs unlikely to run the table in conference play and no previous instances of a two-loss team making the national semifinals, the Big 12 looked finished. Yet as nonconference play receded into the rearview mirror, it became clear that opinion was an overreaction. With wins over the Horned Frogs, Texas and Kansas State, the Sooners began to show why they were widely considered the conference’s best team in the preseason. Win out, and Oklahoma may have a case for inclusion. More importantly, the Big 12 still counted two undefeated teams among its members in West Virginia and Baylor. Surely either would be in the conversation for a final four bid if they navigated their league slates with no or minimal damage. The problem was that no one took either of those teams seriously.

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But at this point of the season, they can’t be ignored. The Mountaineers and Bears have benefited from easy competition, but the former’s win at Texas Tech last week and this week’s win over TCU were clear signs that their hot start is more than merely the product of a favorable schedule. Baylor, meanwhile, has been pushed to the periphery in large part because of things that took place off the field under its previous head coach.

Yet both outfits will enter Week 9 with worthy playoff profiles. Whether they remain that way heading into selection Sunday is another matter entirely. In the next round of annual Backloaded Big 12 Schedule Drama, the Mountaineers and Bears face their toughest opponents in November and December. West Virginia plays at Texas on Nov. 12, Oklahoma on Nov. 19 and Baylor on Dec. 3; Baylor plays TCU Nov. 5, at Oklahoma Nov. 12 and at West Virginia Dec. 3. If West Virginia and Baylor can avoid a loss heading into their season finale in Morgantown, that game will decide the conference title and could serve as a playoff play-in game. This scenario is the Big 12’s best bet for placing a team in the CFP. If Oklahoma were to pick off the Mountaineers or Bears and subsequently claim the league crown, there’s a stronger chance the conference would suffer the same fate it did two years ago.

Whatever happens, it’s obvious the Big 12’s chances of making the playoff are better than they looked in September. It’s too early to bury this league. But it’s also fair to be skeptical over whether the sequence of events needed for the Big 12 to send a team to the CFP will take place.

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