West Virginia’s Geno Smith is validating his preseason Big 12 Player of the Year designation, and is emerging as possibly the best player in the country.
Heading into Week 4, Smith is the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, unseating USC’s Matt Barkley after Stanford’s upset of the Trojans.
Through two games, Smith has amassed 734 yards for nine touchdown passes (plus one rushing score) with only nine incompletions, resulting in an 88 percent completion rate. Granted this was facing the not-so-competitive teams of Marshall and James Madison, but this type of efficiency is special.
It compels a comparison to last year’s Heisman winner, Robert Griffin III. Through his first two games, the Baylor quarterback threw for 624 yards with eight touchdowns and just 8 incompletions against an eventual 11-2 TCU team and Stephen F. Austin.
Yet unlike Griffin III, Smith will not make many “did-you-see-that” type plays, toward which Heisman voters seem to gravitate. Fellow top candidates at this point in the season are Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas and Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, who specialize in creating these highlight reel plays.
Nevertheless, Smith will surely continue to make great throws and rack up stats in coach Dana Holgorsen’s air-raid system, especially given the dynamic playmakers who surround him.
Smith’s incredible efficiency can be partly attributed to Tavon Austin, who routinely turns one-yard screens into 10+ yard gains. Also helping Smith is Stedman Bailey, who is the quarterback’s go-to-guy downfield with five touchdown catches through two games.
Aside from Smith’s video game-like numbers thus far, a number of other factors will effect his Heisman candidacy.
A senior quarterback with name recognition, Smith leads a top-10 Mountaineer team that is now competing in the Big 12, a vast improvement in prestige and opponent strength compared to the Big East. Simply being at the quarterback position improves his chances.
Since 2000, only one player who wasn’t a quarterback has won the Heisman—Alabama running back Mark Ingram in 2009. This discounts USC’s Reggie Bush’s 2005 vacated trophy.
If and when a loss occurs for the Mountaineers, expect Smith to drop in the minds of voters just as Barkley did. But that’s not to say WVU must go undefeated in order for Smith to win or that Barkley is completely out of the picture.
Only four Heisman winners since 2000 were on undefeated teams when the trophy presentation took place, i.e., before bowl games. Yet in the same timeframe, nine of the 12 teams to produce the Heisman winner went on to play in the national championship game. Surprisingly, only Ingram and Auburn’s Cam Newton won a championship, with USC’s 2004 title having since been vacated the year Matt Leinart won the award.
Just last year, Griffin III and Baylor lost three games, including two blowout losses at Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. Similarly, 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow and Florida lost four games.
What does this all mean? Given Smith is not the inordinately captivating player that Griffin III or Tebow were, his stock likely cannot afford losing that many games. And while he doesn’t necessarily have to produce a championship game birth to win the Heisman, Smith and the Mountaineers will certainly have to be a legitimate contender and keep the offense churning at a record-setting pace.
Seeing how Smith and the team perform in conference play will be a real indicator of his Heisman chances. Stiffer defenses than last year’s conference schedule await, but Smith torched a highly regarded LSU defense—albeit in a loss—passing for 463 yards on 38 completions, both school records.
As always, there will be plenty of shootouts in the Big 12, which bodes well for the statistical component of the award race. Smith’s ridiculous completion percentage and low interception total will need to continue to mirror Griffin III of last year. The outcomes of these conference games will be the true determinant in Smith’s Heisman hopes.
The Mountaineers face Maryland this Saturday in Morgantown before entering their inaugural game inside the Big 12 schedule. Smith went 36 of 49 for 388 yards with a touchdown and an interception in last year’s 37-31 win over the Terrapins.