There probably isn't anyone who thought that No. 7 TCU would surge in 2014 on the back of a brilliant offense led by Trevone Boykin, although we at least tried to prepare you for the possibility. No. 20 West Virginia's feistiness against Alabama and strong performances against Oklahoma and Baylor were also fairly surprising, as everyone realized Kevin White might be the most dominant receiver in the Big 12.
But only one of these dark horse Big 12 contenders will emerge from their contest in Morgantown on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC or ESPN2) as a viable league champion.
Both teams rank in S&P's top 20 in both offense and defense. Generally, when two teams of comparable quality face off, the contest comes down to home-field advantage and specific matchups. The game's in Morgantown, which has often proved to be a difficult place to get a win, but as for how these teams match up ...
When West Virginia has the ball
Ever since Dana Holgorsen went to Oklahoma State in 2010, his take on the air raid has evolved toward a spread-I offense. It emphasizes the run game in order to use pop plays to help the quick passing game, and play-action to land kill shots.
It was in Stillwater when Holgorsen noted that the best way to make use of Justin Blackmon and all the running backs on campus was with the diamond formation. This could alternately attack every part of a defensive front with extra blockers and thus set up Blackmon to face single coverage on deep routes when defenses responded by bringing extra defenders.
Those principles guide the current West Virginia attack, and White is now the featured home run threat, with 72 catches for 1,047 yards.
He's the primary challenge for TCU and any other quarters-based team trying to hang with this style of offense. The cover safety for Baylor has run-force responsibilities on the edge and can't help Baylor's No. 1 CB, Xavien Howard, stay on top of White. There's a reason that Baylor drew endless pass interference flags in that game, and it wasn't just that the refs were calling it close.
The nature of quarters coverage demands that corners play the sideline without help, and Baylor also likes to press its corners. Despite playing less press, TCU has been vulnerable to these concepts as well, in particular free safety Derrick Kindred and redshirt freshman corner Ranthony Texada.
Kindred's vulnerability will sometimes lead TCU to play safety Sam Carter away from the line of scrimmage, in order to prevent a free vertical stem for the slot receiver:
This is a solid solution and allows Kindred to play more aggressively against the run, since Carter can protect him from a deep route by the slot receiver. But it moves back the extra run defender and prevents Carter from being as involved. This is more of a solution against tight end formations than against spread-I formations that can hit that edge with a lead blocker or with a motioning back.
All of West Virginia's offensive concepts are designed to isolate specific defenders or create matchups for specific offensive players. Meanwhile, TCU's defense is designed to get as many hats to the ball as quickly as possible at all times.
The problem for TCU is that they generally achieve this result by trusting their corners to hold up without safety help on early downs. This isn't a reasonable expectation against the Mountaineers. There's nowhere to hide a weak second corner in Morgantown.
You'd guess that TCU will match Kevin White with its own Kevin White, a very solid three-year veteran, but one who's only 5'10, 174 versus a 6'3, 210-pound frame. Not an ideal matchup for the Frogs. That also leaves Texada to handle West Virginia's other outside receiver, Mario Alford.
Alford is a very good player in his own right, with 45 catches on the year for 600 yards and six touchdowns. In many other offenses he'd be the guy that an opponent game plans its coverages around.
Ultimately, the West Virginia offense is using play-action and pop schemes to ask offensive football's toughest question: how do you outnumber the run and still stay sound against the deep pass? They'll move running back Wendell Smallwood around and throw underneath some, but they are going to pound the middle of the field with the run and toss it deep to White or Alford.
For TCU's part, it's been unable to find solutions that don't involve having better, more experienced players at cornerback. Its best bet will be to play soft coverage on the outside and force West Virginia to maintain drives.
When TCU has the ball
As challenging as it is to handle West Virginia's formations and spread-option tactics, Boykin operating this air raid offense is a dilemma that has yet to be solved.
On a given play, a defense needs to disguise coverage, take away Boykin's easy throws, stop the Frog run game, and keep Boykin from scrambling for yardage. That's a tall order for one defense.
The best strategy for handling an air raid passing game has generally been to pattern-match the routes and take away the quick throws that constitute a running game for some teams. But of course, TCU has its own spread-I formations with mega-back Cliff Murphy in the game, and can run the ball if you don't honor them.
So you have to be sound against the run? Okay, continue to use aggressive pattern-matching to take away the easy passes while keeping two athletic linebackers on the field who can run with routes but still present sound run fronts. But then, if the QB can scramble ...
Boykin, a former temporary wide receiver, averages 53 yards on the ground per game.
Any kind of pattern-matching or man coverage runs the risk of getting players to turn their backs and be in poor position if the QB pulls it down and takes off. Hopefully your defensive line can contain scrambles, but maybe you blitz and keep wide contain while still playing man coverage to take away the easy throws that air raid teams use to punish the blitz.
Now we are venturing into RG3 territory. The dual threat QB who can master the reads and throws of an air raid and then beat the blitz by dancing around in the backfield before uncorking a deep ball is not a fun player to face. At a certain point, a defense runs out of answers, save for "have much better players."
While the system is perfectly set up for Boykin to run wild and do tremendous damage, he's not friendless in this attack. His greatest ally is Kolby Listenbee, who ran a 10.12 in the 100m at the college level and is consequently pretty good at running go routes.
WIth Listenbee and the deep passing game, TCU forces defenses to be very cautious about where and how they bring up defenders on the line of scrimmage.
So how does West Virginia begin to account for all of this?
The Mountaineers have a new staff led by longtime Penn State coach Tom Bradley and former safeties coach Tony Gibson. They have a few fresh answers for the some of these spread attacks plaguing defensive coordinators across the conference.
One is to double down when bringing pressure. As above, when quarters teams face play-action, their coverage basically becomes "cover zero," as the safeties end up playing man coverage on slot receivers without help underneath. The only difference between quarters and cover zero in that instance is that the linebackers in quarters aren't really helping anything. So West Virginia embraced the reality and put those players to work with six- or seven-man pressures coming at the Bears.
This is risky against TCU, unless the Mountaineers have someone they trust to stay with Listenbee. And they have to bring down Boykin when they get to him. It wrecked Baylor, as Bryce Petty was entirely unused to being pressured when sitting behind max protection and throwing off play-action.
West Virginia also mixed this with some three-man-rush zone defenses that put defenders on top and underneath of all of Petty's favorite receivers. Spread teams' option routes can't get open if there's no open grass to run to.
Save for the Mountaineers' cover zero blitzes, they don't use quarters. Instead, they'll play true cover 2 and cover 3 like the aggressive Utah Utes. In these coverages, deep defenders are never asked to play primary roles in stopping the run and can be sure to stay on top of deep routes against play-action or pop concepts. Take away the deep pass, and you always have a chance to force third down and stop drives.
Schematically, West Virginia has a lot of good weapons, a worthy triggerman in Clint Trickett, and some bold, effective strategies for dealing with spread offenses. They also have a very real home field advantage.
However, the best laid plans can still be thwarted by a dual-threat QB who can make things happen when the play breaks down. Boykin is playing at a very high level these days, and while the TCU defense has cracks that a top offense can pry open, it is still a strong unit.
How Boykin handles West Virginia's pressure and atmosphere will determine the football game, and a positive result could very well put him in New York in December.