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Big 12 predictions: Texas vs. West Virginia in a roundup of top-10 teams

It is still very early in the season, but this weekend's matchup between Texas and West Virginia is one of the top games of the 2012 season in the Big 12.

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Mark D. Smith-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

West Virginia passed its first Big 12 test against a conference opponent last weekend, outscoring the Baylor Bears in a home game in which the score was more reflective of a basketball game than a score from a football game. And the high point man in that game and the leader of this Mountaineer's team is senior quarterback Geno Smith, who five weeks into the college football season is undeniably the front-runner for this year's Heisman Trophy.

All Smith did last week was light up the stat sheet with a 45 for 51 passing day and eight touchdowns with no interceptions. In fact, Smith has not thrown an interception yet this season in 169 pass attempts heading into the showdown against Texas. Smith not only is the leader in the Big 12, averaging 456 yards of total offense a game, 432 of that through the air, but also is the top-ranked player in the country in that offensive category.

Smith will get an even stiffer challenge this weekend, when the Mountaineers go up against Texas in a prime-time game Saturday night at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Both teams come into the game undefeated at 4-0 and both are ranked in the top-10 nationally, West Virginia at No. 7 and Texas No. 9, in this week's USA Today coaches' poll.

This will be only the second game all-time between these two schools. West Virginia won that first meeting, 7-6, in 1956 in Austin.

The two teams feature different styles of offense, but both have put up plenty of points so far this season. West Virginia likes to throw the ball more than run, and with an All-American candidate at quarterback and two of the best pass receivers in the Big 12, if not the country, in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, it is easy to understand why. Texas will try to slow that passing attack down by putting pressure on Smith with its two exceptionally talented defensive ends, Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor and a very good secondary.

The Longhorns also will bring a lot of confidence into the game, having pulled out a late victory over the Big 12's top offensive team, Oklahoma State, on the road last weekend. Texas quarterback David Ash has come into his own more this season after a rather up-and-down freshman season. Ash is right behind conference-leader Smith in pass efficiency through four games, completing 77 percent of his passes (85-109), with 10 touchdown throws and only one interception.

The Longhorns' passing game, which has gotten much better this season than last, is predicated in large part by their ability to run the football, and they have an exceptionally talented trio of hard-running, fleet-of-foot running backs to call on when they want to keep the ball on the ground.

West Virginia leads the Big in important third-down conversions, converting 60 percent of its third-down attempts, and Texas is right there with the Mountaineers, with a 58 percent conversion ratio. Both offenses are also extremely efficient when they reach the red zone: West Virginia has converted 15 of 16 red-zone opportunities into points, 15 for touchdowns, while Texas has reached the end zone 18 of the 22 times it has been inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

With both teams featuring high-powered offenses that have had little difficulty moving the ball and scoring points this season, this top-10 matchup will probably come down to special teams play (especially when it comes to field position) and which defense is able to make the most stops and keep the other team's offense off the field. West Virginia has the capability of scoring quickly, which could work to the Mountaineers' disadvantage if it keeps their defense on the field for long periods of time in the game.

Three keys to the game

  • Both teams are going to score points in this game, but can the Texas defense, which is better than West Virginia's, slow down the Mountaineer offense enough to keep Texas in the game?
  • West Virginia's defense is vulnerable in the back end, even though it leads the Big 12 in sacks. If the Texas running game gets going, the Longhorns have shown this season that they are very capable of burning defenses with the pass and their receivers have great speed in the open field.
  • Texas has to put pressure on West Virginia QB Geno Smith. If the Horns can't disrupt Smith's passing, he will have a field day and that will not end pretty for Texas.

I don't see West Virginia ringing up 70 points on Texas this weekend, but I believe the Mountaineers' offense is too good not to put up at least 30 points (they're averaging 53 per game). West Virginia is 79-3 since 2000 when scoring 30 points in a game. What it boils down to for me is: Geno Smith and the high-flying WVU offense is more dangerous and difficult to stop, despite Texas having the advantage in the comparison of the two defenses. Game prediction: West Virginia 42, Texas 34

Other Big 12 Games This Weekend (Week 6)

(Projected winner in bold face)

Kansas @ Kansas State

Oklahoma @ Texas Tech

Iowa State @ TCU

Bye: Oklahoma State, Baylor

Last week: 3-1

For the season: 31-4 (.880)

Follow Big 12 football all season long, including news and commentary on all 10 conference teams, at SB Nation Kansas City.

For more news and social commentary on the Texas Longhorns, visit Burntorange.com.