At the midway point of the season this matchup between Baylor and West Virginia was thought to be one of the biggest games of the year in the Big 12. However, after losing five straight, the Bears’ 6-0 start seems like a distant memory.
The Mountaineers enter this game ranked 16th in the latest College Football Playoff rankings and a victory Saturday at home would put the finishing touches on a 10-win regular season.
There could be bowl selection implications related to this game, but otherwise there’s not much on the line. Baylor won last year’s meeting between the two teams to even the all-time series at 2-2. The home team has won every matchup.
Baylor at West Virginia
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 3 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: West Virginia -18
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Baylor keep the Mountaineers under 40 points?
The Mountaineers are averaging 35.4 points per game in their wins, including 49 last week at Iowa State. Baylor’s defense has crumbled during its current five-game losing streak, giving up 47.3 points per game during that stretch. To make matters worse, the Bears have managed 27.2 points per game during those five contests.
If Baylor is to have a chance of pulling off the upset, both the defense and the offense are going to have to get back to how they were playing earlier in the season. This figures to be a tough task considering all the injuries the Bears have suffered and the quality of their opponent.
2. The Mountaineers’ rushing attack is deeper than anyone knew
West Virginia’s backfield has featured many faces because of the injuries this group has suffered. Rushel Shell, Justin Crawford, and Kennedy McKoy have all sustained injuries over the last few weeks.
The lack of healthy ball carriers forced head coach Dana Holgorsen to burn freshman Martell Pettaway’s redshirt last week. In his first college game against Iowa State, Pettaway in turn burned Iowa State for 181 rushing yards on 30 carries. His impressive debut was made possible by the steady play of the Mountaineers’ offensive line. From the start of the season this group has showed why it’s considered one of the best in the nation.
Given Baylor’s shortcomings on defense over the past month, there’s a good chance that whoever lines up behind quarterback Skyler Howard on Saturday will be successful running the ball.
3. Baylor will test West Virginia’s secondary
Many felt the season-ending injury to quarterback Seth Russell would turn the Bears to a run-heavy offense with Shock Linwood and Terence Williams leading the way. However, true freshman Zach Smith has more than held his own in his first two career starts against Kansas State and Texas Tech.
For the Mountaineers, their secondary has been a pleasant surprise this season, especially considering the talent and experience this group lost. Cornerback Rasul Douglas leads the nation with eight interceptions and is quickly becoming a household name.
Baylor wide receivers KD Cannon and Ishmael Zamora are definitely legitimate threats and will be targeted plenty in this game. The key though will be can the Bears’ offensive line give Smith enough time to find his receivers?
This also will be Smith’s first experience against West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s unique 3-3-5 alignment and the different blitzes he employs. Don’t be surprised if Smith settles for short and intermediate passes rather than taking multiple shots downfield.
Smith should have some success throwing the ball, but most of the damage may have to come from his receivers getting more yards after the catch. And that’s only if he has enough time to throw in the first place.
In what was once thought to be a de facto Big 12 championship game we are now left with a contest that doesn’t have many implications within the conference; let alone on a national scale.
The Mountaineers have remained steady all season with a balanced offense paired with a pretty solid defense. Freshman tailback Martell Pettaway is the only remaining back healthy for the Mountaineers, but that is all they may need as he has already proven himself as a threat.
Baylor will not be able to rebound from this extended losing streak, especially on the road against a West Virginia team with plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
Prediction: West Virginia 44, Baylor 24
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.