The West Virginia Mountaineers are one of just 11 undefeated FBS teams left, and the only one that hails from the Big 12 Conference. Ranked No. 6 in the Associated Press Top 25, West Virginia is a legitimate College Football Playoff candidate and arguably the team to beat in the Big 12 through the first half of the season.
However, there is much work yet to be done. The Mountaineers haven’t beaten a team currently ranked in the AP Poll, and WVU lost an opportunity for a marquee win when the game against fellow unbeaten NC State was canceled in September. But there will be plenty of opportunities for a resume boost in the second half with games against No. 9 Texas and No. 11 Oklahoma (and potentially a rematch with either in the Big 12 Championship Game), as well as TCU and Oklahoma State, still to come.
Offensive MVP: QB Will Grier
Grier is a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate, and not just because he is the signal-caller for an undefeated team. The senior has completed a Big 12-leading 71.2 percent of his passes for 1,819 yards and is tied for the league lead with 21 touchdowns (though his six interceptions also are tied for most in the conference). Grier leads the conference in passing yards per game (363.8), which ranks second nationally, and he ranks No. 2 in the conference and No. 7 among qualified FBS quarterbacks in yards per pass attempt (10.3).
Defensive MVP: LB David Long, Jr.
Long holds a big lead among the Mountaineers with 56 total tackles, which ranks fourth among all Big 12 defenders, and has posted double-digit stops in four of five games. The junior linebacker ranks second in the conference with both 38 solo tackles and 9.5 tackles for a loss, and his two sacks are tied for the team lead. Long also has come up big in WVU’s biggest games: he recorded 3.0 TFLs against both Kansas State (against whom he also recorded both sacks) and Texas Tech.
Best Moment of the First Half: Keith Washington's Pick-Six vs. Texas Tech
Hopeless romantics might point toward defensive lineman Reese Donahue proposing to his girlfriend after last week’s win over Kansas, but from a football standpoint, the best moment of the first half was probably Washington’s 51-yard pick-six to stop Texas Tech’s comeback attempt and secure a 42-34 win over the Red Raiders. Tech was ranked No. 25 at the time, giving West Virginia its only win over a ranked team to date.
Best Newcomer: RB Leddie Brown
Washington, a junior college signee, and graduate transfer Kenny Bigelow, who was arguably the defensive MVP of the Tennessee win, are worthy contenders for top newcomer. However, Brown leads the team in rushing attempts (51), yards (296) and touchdowns (3). The true freshman has surpassed 100 yards on the ground in two of his five games this season despite not carrying the ball more than 15 times in any outing. He ran for 107 yards and a TD and also scored on a 15-yard reception in the victory over Kansas.
Biggest Surprise: Grier’s 3 INTs vs. Kansas
Seeing Marcus Simms ahead of All-American wideout David Sills and 1,000-yard receiver Gary Jennings at the top of the team leaderboard in receiving yardage is surprising, but more shocking was Grier’s three interceptions in one half against Kansas. Worse, all three came with the Mountaineers knocking on the door to the end zone. Grier tossed the picks when the offense had the ball on the KU 13-, six-, and four-yard line, respectively. What could have been a 42-7 halftime lead was instead 21-7.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Can the defense stay among the best in the Big 12?
Often lost because of its high-powered offense, the West Virginia defense has been one of the best in the Big 12, statistically speaking. The Mountaineers lead the conference in scoring defense (18.6 points allowed per game) and rank second in the league, and among the top 25 nationally, in total defense (332.2 yards allowed per game), thanks to a solid average of 4.93 yards allowed per play. With a balanced unit, West Virginia ranks No. 2 in the league in both rushing defense (120.8) and passing defense (211.4).
2. Can Grier close the Heisman gap?
Grier is the face of the team. He’ll need a huge second half to overtake the likes of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa in the Heisman race, but with one of the best receiving corps in the nation, he has a shot. Grier is well on his way to posting Heisman-worthy statistics, and will certainly have plenty of high-profile opportunities for a Heisman moment given the Mountaineers’ tough schedule down the stretch.
3. Can WVU win its first Big 12 Title?
West Virginia has a very difficult road in its quest for a conference championship, which would be its first since leaving the Big East. The Mountaineers survived the trip to Lubbock, and disposed of upset-minded Kansas State easily, but the best teams in the conference await. Speaking of...
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Nov. 3 at Texas
The Longhorns’ victory over Oklahoma last week means only Texas and West Virginia remain undefeated in Big 12 play. The Mountaineers will have a few extra days to prepare for the Horns because they play on a Thursday the previous week, but the trip to Austin is definitely the toughest of the season for West Virginia.
2. Nov. 23 vs. Oklahoma
The Sooners’ loss to Texas means Oklahoma has zero margin for error if it hopes to make it back to the Big 12 title game. Quarterback Kyler Murray is one of the most exciting players in all of college football, and he makes the OU offense one of the most explosive in the nation. Fortunately, the Sooners must travel to Morgantown for the regular-season finale.
3. Nov. 17 at Oklahoma State
A few weeks ago, this looked like the toughest road trip of the season for West Virginia, but Oklahoma State was upset by both Texas Tech and Iowa State at home. Nevertheless, it’s never easy to win in Stillwater, and the Cowboys have one of the most disruptive pass-rush units in the nation and the top run defense in the Big 12. Plus, Oklahoma State can still light up the scoreboard with Taylor Cornelius and Justice Hill leading the way offensively.
4. Nov. 10 vs. TCU
Despite two losses already, TCU is still a major obstacle for any team hoping to challenge for the Big 12 title. Gary Patterson’s defense leads the league in multiple statistical categories, including total defense (303.6 ypg), yards allowed per play (4.5) and pass defense (178.0). Led by quarterback Shawn Robinson, the offense isn’t too shabby either.
5. Oct. 13 at Iowa State
Ames has one of the most underrated road atmospheres in the nation, and the Cyclones have proven capable of upsetting anyone under head coach Matt Campbell. Whether or not Campbell is forced to start a backup or even a third-stringer at quarterback, Iowa State has two of the top offensive weapons in the conference in running back David Montgomery and receiver Hakeem Butler.
6. Oct. 25 vs. Baylor
This might not be the Baylor of the early decade, but it’s also not the 2017 Bears squad that posted double-digit losses. Matt Rhule has led Baylor to a 4-2 overall record and 2-1 mark in conference play and has his team poised for a bowl berth in his second season. Quarterback Charlie Brewer has emerged as a productive quarterback, and receivers Jalen Hurd and Denzel Mims are two of the most talented targets in the Big 12.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.