Eight touchdowns. That's the total number today for West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. It's the sort of astounding number that West Virginia fans and Big 12 admirers are getting used to, yet still find themselves unable to wrap their minds around. In short, marvelous efforts like this one today against the Baylor Bears for Geno Smith are becoming par for the course in a season that's just difficult to believe.
Interestingly enough, the performance came against Baylor -- the very school that knows exactly what it is like to have such a quarterback. The Big 12 is only one year removed from another near superhuman season in which another athletic quarterback took the Big 12 by storm: Robert Griffin III. RG3 ended up winning the Heisman Trophy and became the NFL Draft darling and was snatched up at No. 2 by the Washington Redskins, who seem quite happy with their choice only three games into his rookie season.
Two years, two game-changing talents. One has received the love from the national media, and one is well on his way. And they both are bringing a spotlight onto a conference known for being competitive top to bottom yet one that also clearly stands in the shadow of its neighbor, the SEC. Perhaps not for long.
As long as the Big 12 can continue to churn out NFL caliber quarterbacks -- the game's most important position -- it will also become the center of media attention. The SEC became the SEC because teams began to win at an incredible level and largely on the shoulders of some of the greatest quarterbacks in recent college football history. Just ask the Florida Gators what Tim Tebow meant to the program, or the same of Auburn about Cam Newton. While recent SEC leaders have been built on suffocating defenses, the strength of these incredible quarterbacks cannot be overstated.
Now the Big 12 is standing tall -- not yet in the rankings, but the season is just beginning. As the league begins to turn the corner and position itself among the best -- if not the best -- in college football, it will attempt to do so on the strength of its quarterbacks. And it has some incredible ones to build with in 2012 with Smith and Collin Klein of Kansas State among others.
Last year, Griffin did the same for the Big 12 and brought national attention to Baylor. RG3's incredible season last year pales in comparison to the one Smith is currently enjoying now. Through the first four games, Smith's has 350 more passing yards (1,826 to 1,481), a higher completion percentage (83.4 to 82.1) , more touchdowns (20 to 18) and less interceptions (0 to 1). In other words, as amazing as RG3 was, Smith is an even better quarterback -- at least statistically.
Of course the gauntlet of the Big 12 season has yet fully begun and it's going to be a long run ahead for Smith and the Mountaineers to continue this kind of success. However, Smith has clearly made his mark as the top contender for the Heisman Trophy to this point. Following right behind him is Klein from Kansas State, meaning a large portion of the conversation about the best player in college football will center upon the Big 12. That's good news for all teams in the program.
Recruits will want to play the best and play against the best. Defenders will want the chance to shine in the spotlight against the best competition possible. The Big 12 is beginning to earn a lot of talking points with recruits in its ability to lay claim to some of the greatest stars of the last two years at the most high profile position in the game.
While Jarvis Jones will gain scouts' attention at Georgia, there's no quarterback in the SEC that has anyone talking near the levels that Geno Smith or even Collin Klein. Other conferences can boast prospects of their own, but the SEC lacks a significant presence here. Tyler Bray of Tennessee or Tyler Wilson of Arkansas will warrant their own buzz prior to next year's NFL Draft, but none of that will supplant the conversation currently going on now.
While the shift is not something we'll see for a bit, it might come sooner than you think. If the Big 12 is reaping serious recruiting rewards and warranting more respect in national polls over the next few seasons, the shift in the quarterback conversation will be a major reason.