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Submitted by Richie B. Oddsmakers Consensus on Sunday, October 16, 2016 at 10:30 PM

West Virginia is rising in esteem, from the standings to the polls to the betting market. The Mountaineers are 5-0 and up to #12 in the most recent AP poll. They’re now a fairly short 4-1 bet to win the Big 12 title, trailing only preseason favorite Oklahoma and fellow undefeated Baylor. And the reason is improved defense.

Head coach Dana Holgorsen has a background in producing high-powered offenses and he lived up to that reputation in Morgantown. But if his defense didn’t turn it around, Holgorsen was going to be on the unemployment line. This year’s D ranks 28th in the nation in points allowed and has been particularly impressive in two conference victories over Kansas State and Texas Tech .

This continues a pattern of the gradual rise of the West Virginia defense. They bottomed out in 2012, ranking 117th in the country and wasting a spectacular year from quarterback Geno Smith. Since that low point, the national defensive rankings have steadily risen—to 100th in 2013, then to 75th, to 44th last year and finally to the solid #28 spot they currently hold.

Holgorsen’s offense hasn’t exploded in typical fashion, but Skylar Howard is a good quarterback that’s on the rise. Howard played his best game of the year against Texas Tech, going 21/31 for 318 yards, while also rushing for 89 yards. This continues a pattern of production that’s both efficient while not compromising the need for a big plays.

Furthermore, the Mountaineers are getting production out of the conventional running game. Rushell Shell and Justin Crawford have each enjoyed big games. When you put that together with good quarterback play and a good defense, it’s easy to see why West Virginia is gaining respect from everyone, be it mainstream media or savvy college football bettors.

That’s the bright side. There are still some issues that have to be considered before we assume the Mountaineers can play at the level their current betting numbers presume. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, which included games against Missouri, Youngstown State and BYU, the WVA rush defense was vulnerable. BYU in particular, gashed the Mountaineers for 280 yards on the ground. This aspect of West Virginia’s game has made good strides in league play, but it has to continue if they’re to handle prosperity.

The BYU game, a 35-32 win as a (-9) favorite, also illustrates another problem. West Virginia has not been good against the spread so far this year. In fact, they’re 2-3 ATS, an obvious indication of the market getting ahead of the actual quality of the football team.

The coming schedule has a home game with TCU on Saturday, then a trip to Oklahoma State on October 29. Both will provide good test cases of West Virginia’s ability to handle the favorite’s role. They’re a (-4.5) favorite against the Horned Frogs. If the Mountaineers step up with a big win and cover, then they’re on the move. If they scrape out a non-cover win on a late field goal, it’s a reminder to be cautious.  

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