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Like its mascot, West Virginia out to make a splash in Big 12 debut

What, you were thinking Geno Smith? West Virginia's senior quarterback is the league's preseason offensive player of the year; his team has been picked to finish second, behind Oklahoma. There's plenty of anticipation for the Mountaineers' debut.

But it's the actual Mountaineer -- a 24-year-old graduate student clad all in buckskin, with a working musket, an impressive red beard and a permanent grin beneath a coonskin cap -- who stole the show.

For the second consecutive year, Big 12 media days included cheerleaders and mascots. In 2011, their presence was of an effort to pump up enthusiasm for a league that was promoted as strong and stable. In what seemed like only a few minutes later, Texas A&M and Missouri were bolting for the SEC. In came TCU and West Virginia, and back came the cheerleaders and the mascots. The general effect was something like living inside a College GameDay commercial.

Only this time around, the enthusiasm seemed less saccharine. After almost imploding twice in the last two years, the Big 12 is solid and perhaps even stronger than it has been. There's a new commissioner in Bob Bowlsby, and a formal alliance with the SEC in the Champions Bowl. If there's more realignment ahead, the league appears positioned to add teams rather than lose them.

During two days at the Westin Galleria, there wasn't much talk -- OK, none -- of the departures of Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. Meanwhile, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops noted the newcomers were "two ranked football teams. You put them with the rest of what we've been doing here in the Big 12 ... our league is every bit as strong as it's ever been, if not stronger." Others pointed out the league boasts three defending conference champions (along with Oklahoma State, TCU won the Mountain West and West Virginia the Big East). For both newcomers it's a step up. "The key is, can they do it on a day-to-day basis," TCU coach Gary Patterson said. "We're gonna find out."

For their part, the Mountaineers can hardly wait. Just ask their talkative mascot: "One hundred sixteen days 'til the Oklahoma game," Kimble said, and didn't stop there. "I like us by 10," he added.

You won't get that from Smith or his teammates, who have been coached in the fine art of carefully saying not much. But they didn't mind if Kimble said it.

"That's what we need him to do," said Smith, laughing. "He's doing some really good things here. He's making our program look good."

Kimble posed for photographs, answered reporters' questions and led cheerleaders from other Big 12 schools in a spirited chorus of Country Roads. Here's a quick primer: a native of Franklin, W. Va., Kimble has a degree in sports management and is working on a master's in human relations. He tried out three times before landing the coveted gig as the Mountaineer. Before arriving in Dallas, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and Kimble were together in Los Angeles shooting promos for ESPN. The coach said the mascot was a hit there, too. "He's got some acting in his future," Holgorsen said. Occasionally, as when his enthusiastic yells from the lobby -- "Let's go Mountaineers!" -- caused Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy to pause for a moment during interviews, unsure about the ruckus, Kimble became a disruptive force.

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It's what West Virginia hopes to be, too, in its new league. The nucleus of last season's Orange Bowl champion squad returns; the glow from that stunning 70-33 rout of Clemson has fueled higher expectations, even with the transition from the Big East to a better league. The schedule appears favorable -- Oklahoma, Kansas State and TCU come to Morgantown; West Virginia's most significant road game is at Texas. The coach and four West Virginia players weren't quite as outspoken as their mascot, but they wore their role as one of the preseason favorites as comfortably as Kimble did the buckskin.

"With this move comes a lot of new challenges," Smith said. "At the same time, it's everything that we wanted. I'm ready to get the season rolling to see what it's all about." And junior defensive lineman Will Clarke added: "I feel like we bring an equal amount of talent and speed as the Big 12 has to offer."

Holgorsen, a former assistant at Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, is familiar with the Big 12. During the offseason, he reshaped his staff, adding defensive coordinator Joe DeForest and running backs coach Robert Gillespie from Oklahoma State in part because they "understand what it's like -- and then you've got to get that message across to your players.

"You're going to score points," Holgorsen continued. "You're going to give up big plays. It doesn't mean the game's over. You've just got to keep playing. I think we've got some guys in place that understand that."

They've also got guys in place to keep pace in the high-scoring Big 12. Most of the enthusiasm begins with the offense, which returns nine players who have started. And mostly with Smith, whose selection as the league's preseason offensive player of the year -- apparently edging out Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones -- was mildly surprising, because most of the media covering the league probably haven't watched much of Smith and the Mountaineers. Holgorsen said Smith's performance in the Orange Bowl, when he threw for 407 yards and six TDs, probably had a lot to do with the selection.

Smith threw for 4,385 yards, with 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions last season, and completed almost 66 percent of his passes, but said "I left about 2,000 yards on the field" because of inaccuracy throwing downfield. He spent a few days during the offseason working on his deep passing with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. As a senior, and in his second year in Holgorsen's prolific spread offense, more is expected.

"He's got a chance to be pretty good. He stacks up with a lot of the other guys I've had in the past," said Holgorsen, who then compared Smith to Graham Harrell, former Case Keenum and Brandon Weeden. Each of those quarterbacks turned in spectacular senior seasons; the coach expects something similar from Smith.

"Ultimately, he's going to be remembered for how many games he can win," Holgorsen said, "and Geno's got the ability to make everybody else around him better."

The same is being said of the Big 12's newcomers. If you doubt, ask the mascot.