MORGANTOWN - The Big 12 Conference has a reputation for outstanding offenses, quarterbacks and receivers that is as earned as it is impressive.
The teams combined for the country's highest scoring average last season. Since beginning play in 1996, five Big 12 players have won the Heisman Trophy. The Biletnikoff Award has been won four times by Big 12 receivers. Half the league's 10 starting quarterbacks are up for the 2012 Davey O'Brien Award.
West Virginia's healthy reputation in the same areas is as good a reason as there is to explain why the Mountaineers are expected to do so well in their first year in the conference.
Yet in a league with such prolific offenses, a defense can make the difference and one person, or a few of them, can make it happen. When the Walter Camp Award preseason watch list came out and listed nominees for college football's player of the year, four of the Big 12's 11 candidates were defenders. Only the Southeastern Conference, steeped in a defensive tradition, could match that number.
"My first year in the league back in 2009 there was a lot of negative talk about how the Big 12 doesn't play defense and the Big 12 has poor defensive talent," said Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. "But let me tell you what, in 2008, the year before I got into the league, you want to talk about offensive firepower?"
Oklahoma led the country in scoring at 51.1 points per game in 2008. Texas Tech (No. 3), Texas (No. 5), Missouri (No. 6) and Oklahoma State (No. 9) were in the top 10. Rankings for Nebraska (No. 17), Kansas State (No. 20) and Kansas (No. 22) meant half the offenses were comfortably inside the top 25.
The conference's quarterbacks provided the explanation. Texas Tech's Graham Harrell led the nation with 393 passing yards per game. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy, threw an NCAA-best 50 touchdown passes and was the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. Colt McCoy set a NCAA record by completing 76.7 percent of his passes at Texas, won the Walter Camp Award and was second to Bradford in the Heisman voting.
It could also be explained by the receivers: Dez Bryant at Oklahoma State, Jeremy Maclin at Missouri, Jordan Shipley at Texas and two-time Biletnikoff winner Michael Crabtree at Texas Tech.
"It hasn't diminished since," Rhoads said. "You look at the Heisman Trophy winners and the Biletnikoff winners recently and there is all kinds of offensive talent in this league, but I think that connotation carries over.
"Because of that, people think the Big 12 doesn't have good defensive players or good defenses overall and I don't think that's accurate."
Since 1996, the Big 12 has had five defensive backs win the Jim Thorpe Award, five linebackers win the Butkus Award and five players win the Nagurski Award for the defensive player of the year. No league has won more. Only the Big Ten's six Bednarik Awards, for the country's best defensive player, eclipses the Big 12's three during that span.