After thumping Maryland, 45-6, West Virginia can safely be considered one of the surprises of college football's first month. The Mountaineers began the season by shutting out an impressive Georgia Southern team, 44-0, and although they haven't played a top 25 opponent yet, they're winning games by an average score of 43-8, on the way to a No. 23 ranking in the AP Poll.
The latest S&P+ ratings have the Mountaineers ranked as the third best team in the country, with the 14th-ranked offense and the ninth-ranked defense, all of which is adjusted for opponent quality. That last number particularly stands out.
Dana Holgorsen is an air raid disciple known almost exclusively as a wide-open, passing-heavy offensive coach. But over the past two seasons, coordinator Tony Gibson's defense has quietly been improving. Gibson returned to WVU in 2013 after his previous stint included three 11-win seasons.
The Mountaineers have been boosted by quarterback Skyler Howard, who ranks No. 5 nationally in passer rating against FBS teams, No. 3 in yards per attempt. A competent quarterback is necessary in the air raid, and it looks like West Virginia has that, but it now has a luxury on defense that few air raid teams enjoy.
What's the air raid, anyway?
The air raid, like any other offensive style, has branched and merged over the years. Holgorsen, for one, has added option runs and other elements to Mike Leach's original system, while teams like Baylor use plenty of air raid elements in their unique offenses.
Based on common definitions of the air raid, though, WVU projects to be one of the best overall teams to use the family of offenses. And so far this season, WVU has the best defense of any air raid team since 2005, according to S&P+:
|Top air raid-ish team||Year||Defensive S&P+ rank||Team S&P+ rank|
The only other defenses that would come close to West Virginia's, if these ratings were to hold up with elite performances against better offenses? 2014's outstanding TCU team and a 2012 Texas A&M squad that upset Alabama and won 10 games with Johnny Manziel.
Furthermore, it could be the first time a team's defense has been this good when its roster was largely recruited to the air raid. Both Texas A&M and TCU's good defenses came in the first years of air raid systems, similar to top pre-S&P+ air raid teams like 1999 Oklahoma and its No. 20 scoring defense.
An air raid team combined with a good defense is deadly, and even though West Virginia came into the year without much hype, the ratings might be on to something. The first major test comes on the road against Oklahoma this week, and the Sooners, who've themselves transitioned back toward their air raid roots, must prepare for a well-rounded team.