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Can West Virginia win national title in 2012?

5/29/2012

Our ESPN.com series marched on this week, looking at the 20 teams who could win the national title this season.

Next on the list: West Virginia.

The Mountaineers are moving into a brand-new world of the Big 12, but have a coaching staff well-versed in the league.

Why could WVU win it all in Year 1? Football Outsiders' K.C. Joyner took a look this week. Part of the reason will be Year 2 for Geno Smith in a new offense that isn't so new anymore.

As good as Smith was in Year 1 under [coach Dana] Holgorsen, history provides evidence that Year 2 could be even better. Graham Harrell, a two-year Holgorsen protégé at Texas Tech, jumped from 4,555 passing yards and 38 passing touchdowns in Year 1 to 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns in Year 2. A similar situation occurred with Case Keenum, as he went from 5,241 total yards in his first year under Holgorsen to 5,829 total yards in Year 2.

No doubt about this one. Brandon Weeden never got a chance to have a second year under Holgorsen, but he grew tremendously with the same offense, even though Holgorsen was gone. When I visited Morgantown this year, I spoke with Holgorsen about the idea of Year 2, and it's pretty simple: Everything's easier. Smith knows what Holgorsen wants and the purpose of everything in the offense. He knows what checks will work and the reads come faster and easier. That means more production, and if WVU is going to win a Big 12 title or more this year, Smith is going to lead it there.

The reasons why WVU may not make it happen?

Advance statistics suggest Smith may not be as good as expected.

Smith posted a 2.1 percent bad decision rate (BDR), which is a good total for a college quarterback in a dink-and-dunk offense (2.5 to 3 percent is about average in this scenario), but he also had only 8 out of 22 potential interceptions (36.4 percent) turn into actual picked off passes.

Studies I've done over the years have shown that a 36 percent interception conversion is rather low, so if either luck is not on Smith's side or he regresses in the BDR metric, his interception total could increase. (Note: BDR gauges how often a quarterback makes a mental error that leads either to a turnover or near turnover.)

Very interesting stuff there. That's new information for me, and I'm sure it is for you, too.

There are lots of questions about the defense, which come up in the piece, too. I'd suggest you check it out. Joyner also breaks down the most likely record, which was much lower than I had anticipated.

As for the interception rate, that's fair, but part of the reason for the low percentage may be Smith's confidence in his receivers, especially Stedman Bailey, who plays a lot bigger than his frame. If Bailey's going to go up and get it, and he does, why not throw it at him? Weeden did that a lot to Justin Blackmon the past two years.

Bailey is no Blackmon, but he's pretty good. I'm sure Smith doesn't need anybody to tell him that.