Geno Smith hopes this Orange Bowl trophy is not the only trophy he will get to lift above his head
In their first full football season as members of the Big 12, the West Virginia Mountaineers have some résumé building to do before they can call themselves part of the elite of this historically powerful league.
Joining a conference with 10 Heisman Trophy winners after last year’s win by former Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, West Virginia knows the shift from the weaker Big East football schedule may have some bumps in the road.
Luckily for them, the Mountaineers have their best chance at a championship and winning a Heisman Trophy since Pat White and Steve Slaton manned the backfield in 2007. That West Virginia team was explosive, running the Rich Rodriguez spread offense effectively. White and Slaton combined for 2,386 yards on the ground and the team finished sixth in the polls.
With current head coach Dana Holgorsen still in charge after a 10-3 record a year ago and a 70-33 stomping of Clemson in the BCS Orange Bowl, West Virginia is looking for its best finish since 2007.
Strong defensive play, including a 99-yard fumble return to close out the first half, helped pave the way for the Mountaineers. It was their quarterback, however, who stole the show in that game, and really the whole season, for West Virginia.
Senior Geno Smith broke Tom Brady’s 11-year-old record for passing yards in the Orange Bowl with 401 yards through the air. He added six touchdown passes, along with one on the ground.
Smith, one of the regional covers of this year's Sports Illustrated College Football Preview, according to the wvusports.com, will look to carry his team as he did a year ago. He's in his third year as the West Virginia starter.
After breaking Marc Bulger's school record for passing yards in 2011, Smith will look to make school history again in 2012. He hopes to carry preseason No. 11 ranked West Virginia in their first year in the Big 12 to the top of the college football world.
To do that, he will need a lot to go well during one of the toughest schedules in the NCAA. West Virginia has never won a national championship or finished higher than fifth in the end-of-year rankings, but they have also never had a quarterback quite like Smith.
Playing for a program deserving of praise and national recognition, a Heisman Trophy campaign from Smith would be enormous for a historic West Virginia program.
That 2007 season, when West Virginia was as hyped as any team in the nation, seemed to be the beginning of the Mountaineers' ascension to the top of the college football landscape.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez had expressed his desire to stay in Morgantown and make the spread offense a staple of West Virginia football. Even after Pat White and Steve Slaton graduated, similar recruits could be found and plugged into the Rodriguez system for similar success.
Though neither player was able to match the production of Florida sophomore Tim Tebow, who became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Award, this stability at the head coach position led the Mountaineers faithful to believe their first Heisman winner in program history was coming sooner rather than later.
After a 10-1 start in which White, Slaton and fullback Owen Schmidtt effectively ran the triple-option offense, West Virginia had national championship hopes going into the final few weeks of the season.
But these hopes were soon eradicated, thanks in large part to an injury to White in a loss against an unranked Pittsburgh Panthers team, and the distractions soon presented by Rodriguez.
Riding the coattails of White and Slaton, Rich Rodriguez was awarded the vacant job at University of Michigan after Lloyd Carr's retirement. He immediately installed the spread offense that payed dividends during his seven-year West Virginia reign.
Rodriguez attempted to use Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson the way he'd used White, but the team struggled and he was fired in 2010.
Under interim head coach Bill Stewart, West Virginia earned a 48-28 Fiesta Bowl win in 2007 over then No. 3 ranked Oklahoma.
West Virginia experimented with a few different offensive systems after Rodriguez's departure, but nothing stuck until 2011-2012. Stewart brought little identity to the team, though he did a solid job coaching them to a respectable record from 2008-2011.
In 2012, West Virginia fans can forget about the triple-option in favor of the Geno Smith show.
Though Bill Stewart coached the Mountaineers to three straight nine-win seasons, he often looked over-matched when handling the team.
With his only head coaching experience coming at perennial doormat VMI (Virginia Military Institute), Stewart was not the high-profile guy the West Virginia faithful longed for after losing Rodriguez.
Rich Rodriguez was not only a good coach, but the kind of iconic figure the media found interesting and a figure who would make West Virginia football noteworthy year in and year out.
Of course, this perception led Rodriguez to overestimate himself, as his coaching career ended poorly in Michigan.
Stewart did a good job nonetheless, taking over a top-10 team with little preparation. A year ago, however, he was asked to step down, and he took a job with the West Virginia Athletic department.
Dana Holgorsen stepped into one of the best jobs in college football.
Angry with his replacement, Stewart looked to smear the new coach's name. A USA Today report by Erick Smith on Stewart's apparent resentment of Holgorsen proved to be true enough that West Virginia took action and asked Stewart to resign.
Now in complete control after a year under his belt, Holgorsen takes an experienced and prepared team into a far better Big 12 conference, where they will look to make their mark on the college football world.
Utilizing the talents of Geno Smith to create an elite passing offense, Holgorsen has cultivated a much different style of play than his predecessors.
Airing it out for 4,379 yards a year ago, Smith broke the Big East single-season passing yards mark set by former Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm in 2007.
At a school long known for its ability to ground-and-pound with the option, Holgorsen now has a Heisman candidate at quarterback throwing to a tremendously talented Tavon Austin on the outside.
This identity should fit in nicely in the Big 12, a conference which boasts some of the best quarterbacks in the nation year in and year out, including a few other Heisman hopefuls this upcoming season.
Landry Jones is a threat to Smith's All-Big 12 first team chances
One of the knocks on West Virginia for the past few years has been their weak overall schedule facing Big East opponents.
The Big East seemingly loses schools every year. Miami (FL), Virginia Tech and Boston College all made the switch to the ACC within the last 10 years, and Syracuse and Pittsburgh left this past summer. They'll also be joining the ACC as early as 2013.
No school has ever been as bold leaving the Big East as West Virginia, who will embark on their first year in the ultra-competitive Big 12 conference. The conference boasts five other teams in the USA Today Top 25: No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 15 Texas, No. 17 TCU (also in their first year in the conference), No. 19 Oklahoma State and No. 21 Kansas State.
West Virginia is the second highest ranked of all those teams at No. 11, but it will still be a difficult road for the Mountaineers to succeed and for Geno Smith to establish himself as far and away the best quarterback in the conference.
Though Texas and Oklahoma State have some uncertainty at the quarterback position, the other three ranked teams have established players who are Heisman hopefuls in their own right.
Geno Smith comes in at third on the shortlist of Heisman candidates made by the experts at ESPN.com, followed by a battle-tested Sooner starter entering his fourth year at the helm.
Oklahoma's Landry Jones is the most likely to compete with Smith for first-team All-Big 12. Jones took a step back in his junior year, when he recorded 4,302 yards and threw for 28 touchdowns, considering how dominant his sophomore season was.
In 2010, Jones threw for 3,000 more yards and nine more TDs, while also posting a better completion percentage. Whether he puts up numbers closer to his junior year or his sophomore year, Jones remains one of the best field generals in the nation and presents a thrilling quarterback duel when Oklahoma comes to Morgantown on Nov. 17.
Behind Jones in the Big 12 quarterback rankings comes Collin Klein, who threw for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago, but ran for 1,141 yards and a staggering 27 touchdowns.
Had Wisconsin running back Montee Ball not broken the record for rushing touchdowns a season ago, many more would be talking about Klein as the player with the best nose for the end zone.
Klein should have another successful season leading a strong Kansas State squad that surprised many in 2011.
Finally, TCU's Casey Pachall rounds out the elite group of quarterbacks in the Big 12, as his 2,715 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first year replacing current Cincinnati Bengal Andy Dalton were impressive, to say the least.
With former Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis taking control of the Kansas Jayhawks, and the historically pass-happy Texas Tech Red Raiders still in the conference, the Big 12 will be all about airing it out in 2012.
West Virginia will fit in fine with these run-and-shoot offenses. They have the best of this bunch in Geno Smith, who fared well against strong competition a year ago.
Last year, in Week 4 against No. 2 LSU, he threw for an astounding 468 yards over the likes of Morris Claiborne, Brandon Taylor and Tyrann Mathieu.
Steve Slaton's once promising NFL career fizzled after his rookie season
West Virginia has a chance to become a national powerhouse in 2012.
The strength of schedule is there, and they are now in a major conference that produces big-time NFL talent year after year.
Despite their program's success, West Virginia has not particularly excelled in churning out NFL players recently.
Bruce Irvin, the Seattle Seahawks' first-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, went higher than expected and could change this trend all together. The pass rush specialist has tremendous speed off the edge, but like other former Mountaineer talents, comes with some baggage.
Irvin has had issues with the law. Though his problems haven't been particularly serious, they certainly caused many teams to stay away from Irvin come draft day.
Adam "Pacman" Jones has had his share of difficulties, including multiple league suspensions and character discussions with commissioner Roger Goodell. Jones' actions have often jeopardized his career, as he continues to struggle to stay with teams because he is considered a liability.
Chris Henry was a talented Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver during the days when Chad Ochocinco and TJ Houshmandzadeh were a great tandem for Carson Palmer. Sadly, Henry died after a truck incident involving a domestic dispute.
The most successful Mountaineer of late was Slaton, but after a magical rookie season where he ran for 1,282 yards, fumbling issues began to mount. Slaton was buried on the Houston Texans' depth chart before spending the rest of 2011 as a Miami Dolphin.
Pat White also played for the Dolphins before a head-on collision versus Pittsburgh ended his career.
This string of tragedy and unfortunate NFL careers for West Virginia graduates adds pressure on Geno Smith to succeed, but the veteran starter is certainly up to the task.
Smith, at 6'3'' and 215 pounds, certainly has the body for the NFL, as well as the ability to play quarterback at the next level.
Look for Smith to help West Virginia make a statement in the new conference and surprise the NCAA by surging ahead of the usual Big 12 conference powers, Texas and Oklahoma, on his way to a Heisman Trophy win.