West Virginia football fans are in for a treat this year. Star quarterback Geno Smith is about to have a season to remember, and take his team on a ride with sights set clearly on earning a bid to the BCS National Championship Game.
Coach Dana Holgorsen's 6'3" quarterback enters his senior season following one of the greatest single-season performances in Mountaineers history.
Last year, Smith lit up the Clemson Tigers in the Orange Bowl for 407 passing yards and six touchdowns through the air, in addition to scoring a record seventh touchdown with his legs. Smith's Mountaineers won 70-33.
It was the perfect ending to Smith's 2011 campaign, during which the junior completed 65.8 percent of his passes for 4385 yards and 31 touchdowns. He threw just seven interceptions.
Now, it has to be acknowledged that Smith's numbers have surely benefited from playing in the weaker Big East division.
However, the Mountaineers quarterback had a solid individual performance last year when WVU hosted LSU. Smith passed for 463 yards and two touchdowns (albeit on 65 attempts). He was intercepted twice as LSU handled the Mountaineers 47-21. Still, Smith orchestrated his offense to 10 more points than LSU had averaged on defense during the 2011 season.
Fortunately for the Mountaineers, they move to the Big 12 this year. 2012 should offer no more of a challenge for Smith than the competition he's already grown accustomed to in Big East play.
An important thing to note about Smith's performance during 2011 is that Coach Holgorsen more confidently handed him the reins to the team. Smith attempted 525 passes in 2011, 153 more than the 372 threw in 2010. Both years he started all 13 of his team's games as the starting quarterback.
The dramatic increase in Geno Smith's control of the WVU offense proves that he has matured as both a leader and a playmaker. Smith has earned the right to fully command the West Virginia offense as a senior in 2012.
And this year, Coach Holgorsen is impressed with the way his top athlete has reported to training camp.
According to Kyle Lovern of the Williamson Daily News, Coach Holgorsen already sees big time improvements in Smith from last year:
He's moving around better, his leadership skills are better, his communication is better, his arm strength is better and his body looks better. He's better.
Lovern also implied that his improvements seem to be the result of a diligent offseason in which Smith boosted his body weight to 225 pounds.
What makes Smith such an effective quarterback?
Well, on the surface, he is a big quarterback with a strong arm. He's also a perfect fit for Dana Holgorsen's "Air Raid" offense, which spreads the field with up to five targets for Smith to fire it to on any given play.
Add in weak divisional competition, and talented wide receiver Tavon Austin (who recorded 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns). Opposite Austin was wideout Stedman Bailey, whom Geno Smith elevated to monster numbers as well (72 receptions for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns).
This year, both 1,000-yard targets are back as seniors.
The biggest factor playing against Geno Smith in 2012 is that his division matchups will not adequately prepare him for the level of competition he could face in a bowl game. He led WVU to a trouncing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl, but could not bring the Mountaineers home a victory against powerhouse LSU of the powerhouse SEC. If his 2012 season goes according to plan, Smith will be showing down against one of the country's greatest defenses yet again.
2012 is a time of opportunity for Geno Smith and the West Virginia Mountaineers. At the very least, Smith should match or even surpass his 2011 individual statistics. He could even have Heisman-worthy numbers at the end of the season.
But for Mountaineers fans who have already witnessed Smith gain personal accolades, individual greatness will not be enough.
As a junior, Geno Smith was imposing on nearly every defense he faced. If he has anything to say about it in 2012, watch out for West Virginia to be in legitimate conversation at the end of the regular season for a BCS championship berth.