As Heartland College Sports rolls out its All-HCS Big 12 team for the 2017 season this week, I began thinking about the quarterback position and realized that Baker Mayfield is likely to be named the first-team quarterback. Hell, the guy is going to roll to a Heisman Trophy on Saturday night. Baker Mayfield is the best player in the country.
But was Mayfield the most valuable in the Big 12 conference this season? No. He wasn’t.
Here’s the thing: Baker Mayfield is surrounded by extraordinary talent. He has a stable of running backs that other programs would kill for, one of the best offensive lines in the country and while there was no star wide receiver, there was lots of depth. Kyler Murray, who is still fairly green, stepped in for a few plays at the beginning and the end of the game against West Virginia, and probably looked better than he really is. This is in no way to take anything away from Mayfield’s talents or success, but the word “valuable” has a different meaning to it.
When Will Grier went down against West Virginia, the team completely crumbled.
Maybe Chris Chugunov will end up as a decent quarterback, but in his two games of action he completed 53% of his passes with one touchdown pass. And WVU’s warts were more obvious than ever.
Grier’s final numbers for 2017 included a 64.4% completion percentage, 34 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, with 3,490 passing yards. He helped make Gary Jennings into one of the top receivers in the Big 12 and David Sills became the most lethal red zone threat in the conference. His vision and pocket mobility masked an average offensive line and helped take some of the pressure off the running backs.
But, with Grier leading this high-powered offense, the biggest thing this helped do was allow fans to overlook just how bad this defense was. The Mountaineers had the worst run defense in the Big 12 conference, yes, even worse than Kansas and Baylor. In the final two games, after Grier went down, the Mountaineers allowed 546 rushing yards to Texas and Oklahoma. Their 205 rushing yards per game allowed ranked 104th in the country, below UConn, Ball State and Rice, and one slot above Charlotte.
And guess what? Without Grier, that number would have been even higher.
The fact that the Mountaineers had such a high-flying offense behind the Big 12’s third most efficient passer (trailing only Mayfield and Rudolph), averaging 36 points per game and 324 passing yards per game, meant teams were either playing catch up or just less likely to try and methodically pound way at the WVU run defense.
West Virginia ended the season 7-5 and I firmly believe that this team would have won 4-5 games had they replaced Grier with Chugunov for the entire season. Losses to Iowa State and Kansas State, which were games WVU won by a combined 9 points, could have easily have been losses without Grier. Plus, could the Mountaineers have kept up with Texas Tech early in the season without their quarterback?
By comparison, I think the Sooners would still be a ten-win team without Baker Mayfield. A College Football Playoff team? Probably not. But definitely capable of competing at the top of the Big 12 conference.
The good news is that WVU will have the best quarterback in the conference entering the 2018 season. But these last two games also gave fans a dose of reality: there are lots of weak spots on the roster that were covered up thanks to their quarterback play.
Let’s see if Dana, Jake, Tony & Co. can fix these mistakes over the next eight to nine months. The team, especially the defense, needs it.