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Why Saturday's West Virginia-Oklahoma winner might be the Big 12 favorite

The conference that was supposed to be ruled by Baylor and TCU should have a new co-favorite, at the very least, by the end of Week 5.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

After two buzz-worthy (for very different reasons) Week 4 lead-in games -- TCU over Texas TechOklahoma State over Texas -- Big 12 play begins in earnest on Saturday. The headliners: Texas Tech and Baylor meet in Jerry World, TCU hosts Texas and Oklahoma welcomes West Virginia.

Many of us thought we knew how the Big 12 would be stratified heading into the season, and we've been correct to some degree. TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma are indeed part of the conference's top tier, with Kansas State, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and Texas a few steps behind, Iowa State alone in Tier 3 and Kansas alone and far behind in Tier 4.

If the first month of action is any indication, however, we might have a Tier 1 usurper, one who could make the Big 12 race both fascinating and deeper than expected. With preseason projections almost completely filtered out of the S&P+ rankings, we have been given a picture of a Big 12 in which the best team resides in the Eastern time zone.

Projected S&P+ rank in preseason
Rank after 4 weeks Change
West Virginia 39 3 +36
Iowa State 86 65 +21
Texas Tech 51 44 +7
Oklahoma 11 8 +3
Kansas State 38 35 +3
TCU 15 17 -2
Baylor 13 18 -5
Oklahoma State 47 57 -10
Kansas 102 126 -24
Texas 29 56 -27

Yes, West Virginia

Dana Holgorsen's Mountaineers have been the class of the conference so far. They have twice played at the 98th percentile or higher in their first three games and weren't too far behind that pace in their other game.

WVU is getting a little bit of an artificial bump for beating a Georgia Southern that was without its suspended starting quarterback, but that same Eagles team has run circles around the competition, no matter the quarterback, ever since. And what the Mountaineers did to a QB-troubled Maryland team in a 45-6 win last week -- plus-275 in yardage margin, plus-23 in first downs, six takeaways and a 38-0 halftime lead -- was worthy of attention.

Despite roster turnover and a freshman (Jovon Durante) as the No. 1 target, the WVU offense has clicked. Quarterback Skyler Howard has completed 69 percent of his passes with a 9-to-1 TD-to-INT ratio, and while the run game hasn't been explosive, almost half of Wendell Smallwood's and Rushel Shell's carries are gaining at least five yards.

But WVU's story has been defined by a defense that has allowed just 23 points in three games. The Mountaineers have thus far had the best pass defense in the country, allowing opponents to complete just 45 percent of their passes for two touchdowns, nine picks and a paltry 78.6 passer rating. Without even attempting to get pressure on the QB, WVU is destroying your soul regardless. Meanwhile, the run defense has improved dramatically. This could end up the best defense in the history of air raid teams.

If the Mountaineers can maintain their early form, they could become the favorites in a conference that was supposed to be dominated by those in Fort Worth and Waco. But that's obviously an "if."

Not every team can pull that off, and there are red flags. The pass rush is nonexistent, and if the run game cannot produce big plays, it could put pressure on a receiving corps led by youngsters -- freshman Durante (18 targets, 12 catches, 199 yards) and sophomore Shelton Gibson (17 targets, 12 catches, 329 yards) have led the way thus far.

Projecting the conference race

There's still plenty of time for this crazy conference to normalize a bit. Early-season S&P+ is designed to be predictive, however, with extra weight given to indicators of full-season success. Not every team will maintain its early-season ratings, but a lot will. And that makes for an interesting conference battle.

Here's a look at week-to-week projected win probabilities in the Big 12, based on S&P+ ratings. Apparently the biggest game of the week, by far, is taking place in Norman.

The Big 12 schedule is back-loaded, but because of the volume of quality teams, there are quite a few interesting early matchups. Baylor faces the Tech hurdle. TCU faces a veritable toss-up game at Kansas State next week, and Baylor hosts West Virginia after that.

Even if we are still to consider Baylor and TCU the conference favorites, the numbers are suggesting a viable contender will emerge this weekend: the winner of OU-WVU. Because of West Virginia's ridiculously high current rating, this qualifies as a toss-up game, and the winner will have the best projected conference win total by a significant margin. That perhaps makes this a three-team race. Hell, it might make it a ONE-team race.

A battle between a Bob Stoops team (one that is, thanks to the addition of offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley, more tied to the air raid offense than those in recent years) and a Holgorsen team was guaranteed to be entertaining. It has also become one of the conference's most significant games of the year.

What's holding TCU and Baylor back?

In a word, defense.

Big 12 teams are often stereotyped -- because of the sheer number of plays and max-tempo offenses, defenses have no choice but to give up large numbers of raw yards and points -- but on a per-play basis, they often check out well. TCU has ranked in the top 20 of Def. S&P+ for seven of the last nine seasons and in the top 15 for each of the last three (which coincide with its Big 12 membership). Baylor surged to 26th in 2013 before regressing a bit to 39th a year ago.

Neither is anywhere close to that at the moment. Adjusting for tempo and opponent, TCU ranks 72nd in Def. S&P+ after four weeks; Baylor ranks 94th. The Horned Frogs are being done in by a devastating level of attrition and injury, while opponent adjustments and a small sample of non-garbage time plays (plus a shaky special teams unit that is creating field position disadvantages) have left us with an unclear picture of Baylor's capabilities.

Both are undefeated and have time to round into form. I'm far more worried about TCU because of the absurd number of injuries, but if you can continue to put up wins, you can worry about style points at a later date.

Kansas is really, really bad

When you return almost no starters from a team that was awful, you're going to struggle. It was clear from Day 1 that David Beaty's first team in Lawrence would have little on either side of the ball, especially offense. But while the O has been unimpressive (99th in Off. S&P+), the defense has been dreadful.

The Jayhawks allowed 8.2 yards per play to Memphis, 6.4 to South Dakota State and 6.2 to Rutgers; they are allowing the worst passing success rate in the country (they're preventing big plays, though!) and rank 123rd in Rushing S&P+.

The defense isn't even that inexperienced. Freshman Tyrone Miller Jr. leads in tackles, but the next eight names are either juniors or seniors.

Kansas has fallen to 126th in S&P+ overall. Because Iowa State's defense has been impressive enough to lift the Cyclones up into the 60s, that means the Jayhawks are more than 60 spots behind every other team in the conference. And that makes for some minuscule win probabilities.

Week 5 Big 12 S&P+ projections

  • In Norman: Oklahoma 28.3, West Virginia 28.0 (win probability: 50.5%)
  • In Stillwater: Kansas State 26.7, Oklahoma State 25.9 (win probability: 51.8%)
  • In Arlington: Baylor 47.2, Texas Tech 39.0 (win probability: 68.1%)
  • In Fort Worth: TCU 40.4, Texas 26.5 (win probability: 78.9%)
  • In Ames: Iowa State 44.3, Kansas 15.3 (win probability: 95.3%)

This should be a wonderfully even set of games -- you've got two virtual toss-ups and a third (BU-Tech) that could swing with just a couple of pro-Tech bounces.