CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Newcomers West Virginia and TCU are fitting in nicely to the pass-crazy Big 12.
The Mountaineers’ Geno Smith and the Horned Frogs’ Casey Pachall have helped elevate the conference’s stock of talented quarterbacks following the departures to the NFL of Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor and Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden.
Smith is among the national leaders in passing yards and is tied for the FBS lead with 12 touchdown passes. Pachall leads the country in passing efficiency with six other Big 12 quarterbacks among the top 20.
Five of the top 10 scoring teams in the country are from the Big 12, so it helps to have a quarterback up to the challenge of a frenetic offensive pace.
Last year the Big 12 had four 4,000-yard passers. Despite the losses of Weeden, Griffin and Ryan Tannehill of now-former Big 12 member Texas A&M, “the Big 12 is just going through the roof again with offensive numbers,” said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. “So, it’s going to be fun to watch this thing.”
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen has prepared his team to fit in to a high-scoring conference yet said each Big 12 opponent will dictate what he does with his offense.
“We’ve got to get out there and put these guys in position to be successful, and hopefully you’ll have more points than they do in the end,” Holgorsen said.
That might be a lot on Saturday, when Smith and Griffin’s successor, Nick Florence, go head-to-head when No. 9 West Virginia (3-0) makes its Big 12 debut at home against No. 25 Baylor (3-0).
Smith thrust himself into the national conversation in West Virginia’s Orange Bowl whipping of Clemson and hasn’t stopped since. He’s thrown for 1,072 yards and 12 TDs with no interceptions this season.
“He’s phenomenal,” Baylor coach Art Briles said. “The guy’s been playing really, really strongly the last couple of years. He’s why they are where they’re at. He’s a great leader, a great football player. He seems really in control of what’s going on on the football field, without question.”
Florence and Smith are 1-2 nationally in total offense at 388 and 380 yards per game, respectively.
Florence has gotten up to speed on the Baylor starting job. Because he was Griffin’s backup a year ago, Florence didn’t throw a pass until late November.
He’s coming off a 351-yard, four-TD performance in a comeback win over Louisiana-Monroe.
“His actions speak louder than my words,” Briles said. “I think he’s been exactly what we thought we’d get out of him. He’s been very, very productive. He’s done exactly what he’s been asked to do in his unselfish manner.”
Pachall, who set school records for passing yards (2,921) and completions (228) as a sophomore last season, has kept up the pace this season and is the first Horned Frogs quarterback in 11 years with consecutive 300-yard passing games.
Despite Pachall’s efficiency for No. 15 TCU, coach Gary Patterson believes he has some improving to do, pointing out his first interception of the season when Pachall tried to force a ball to Josh Boyce inside the Virginia 5 on Saturday.
“I don’t think we’ve come close to reaching our potential in the league that we’re playing in. The guy with the ball last sometimes wins,” Patterson said. “He’s got to do a better of understanding what we’ve got to do. It’s not about yards. It’s not about touchdowns. It’s about finding ways to win ball games, and you’ve got to throw the ball away.”
Let’s not forget about Big 12 veterans like Texas Tech’s Seth Doege, Iowa State’s Steele Jantz, Kansas State’s Collin Klein, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Texas’ David Ash.
Doege, coming off a 4,000-yard season a year ago, threw for six touchdowns in his last game against New Mexico. Both Doege and Jantz are averaging 25 completions per game, which is second in the league to Smith’s 32.
Then there’s the scrappy Klein, who may not have the gaudy numbers of other quarterbacks but has No. 7 Kansas State at its highest ranking in nine years.
And despite No. 16 Oklahoma’s loss to Kansas State last week, Jones moved into ninth place in FBS history with 13,511 passing yards.
Ash is the only other Big 12 starter besides Smith without an interception, and Texas coach Mack Brown boasts of Ash’s smart playing style.
“He works all the time on his playbook,” Brown said. “So far he’s managed our offense very well.”
Ash will be challenged Saturday to match the production of Oklahoma State, which leads the nation at 62 points per game. Ash got his first start as a freshman last year in a loss to the Cowboys.
Gundy must decide whether freshman Wes Lunt will return from injury or backup J.W. Walsh will get his first start. Walsh led the Cowboys to a school-record 742 yards of total offense in a win against Louisiana-Lafayette. Lunt set a Big 12 freshman record with 436 passing yards in an earlier loss at Arizona.
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