Associated Press Photo
By Scott Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - Geno Smith has set the college world ablaze in the first month of the season, going from being just another name on a long list of Heisman Trophy hopefuls to the man to beat.
It isn't like the 6-foot-3, 220-pound senior is breaking new ground. The last two Heisman winners, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, took eerily similar paths to the podium in New York City in 2010 and 2011, respectively.
Two year ago, it was Auburn's signal-caller who was simply unstoppable. Newton burst on the scene as a one-year starter after transferring from Florida to Blinn College (Texas) and finally landing at Auburn. His final collegiate stop would prove to be his best, as his numbers were staggering, while his team ran the table and won the national title. The ultimate weapon, Newton rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2010, while completing 66.1 percent of his passes for 2,854 yards and 30 TDs.
Relying more on his passing exploits than his rushing, RGIII evolved into 2011's poster child for gaudy numbers, completing an impressive 72.4 percent of his passes for 4,293 yards, 37 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Griffin also possessed the ability to run the ball, amassing just under 700 yards on the ground (699), with 10 more scores.
Coach Dana Holgorsen was brought into Morgantown to produce eye-popping offensive numbers and his system is tailor-made for Smith, who in year two of the offense seems to be doing everything right.
Although certainly athletic enough to put up solid numbers on the ground, Smith's forte is throwing the football and no one in the country is doing it like he is at this time. Smith leads the nation with an eye-popping 208.37 pass efficiency rating, having completed 83.4 percent of his throws for 1,728 yards. He already has 20 touchdowns and hasn't thrown an interception this year.
A great deal of that production came in last weekend's win over Baylor as Smith made West Virginia's Big 12 debut a memorable one, completing an unthinkable 45-of-51 passes for 656 yards (a school record) and eight touchdowns (a Big 12 record) in a 70-63 shootout. Smith actually finished the game with two more touchdown passes (eight) than he did incompletions (six).
When asked at the post-game press conference about what impressed him the most about Smith's play, Holgorsen had this to say.
"Probably everything. We haven't turned the ball over in three games. You're gonna win if you do that," Holgorsen said. "His completion percentage is between 80 and 90 percent. He's getting us in the right play. What's there not to like?"
Smith hasn't just burst on the scene, however, as his 2011 campaign could be favorably compared to that of Griffin's in terms of passing. Smith completed 65.8 percent of his passes last year for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. The year before that -- a 64.8 completion percentage, with 2,763 passing yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
It certainly helps to have continuity with his receiving corps, especially the talented duo of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. Rivaling any pair of receivers in the country, including USC's dynamic duo of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods, Austin and Bailey are getting it done at a record pace as well. Austin has 48 receptions for 560 yards and seven TDs, with Bailey posting 41 catches for 635 yards and 10 scores. Bailey is second in the nation in receiving yards, while Austin ranks third.
Bailey had a school-record 303 yards receiving and five touchdowns in the win over Baylor, dwarfing Austin's 215 yards and two touchdowns, as crazy as that sounds.
Holgorsen credits the success of the passing game to the trio's comfort level with one another.
"The rapport they have with Geno. They've been hanging out together for four years now and been playing a whole lot of football, and with Geno and Stedman it goes back even farther than that," Holgorsen said in his weekly teleconference. "Just the rapport they have makes it kind of easy to coach them and then year two doing the system helps as well."
While the Heisman has not always gone to the nation's most prolific passer (just ask guys like Case Keenum, Graham Harrell and Colt Brennan), Smith is on a team that is vying for a Big 12 crown and perhaps much more when all is said and done. If the team falters in its run, it will be because of a porous defense. If it succeeds, it will be because Smith has overcome the team's defensive deficiencies.
Taking the FBS ranks by storm in their respective Heisman years, both Newton and Griffin have carried it over to the NFL. Newton was named the 2011 Rookie of the Year and while it's a little early to hand Griffin the award this season, he's off to a really good start.
Whether or not Smith joins his gun-slinging brethren in terms of immediate NFL impact remains to be seen, but not veering from the course that has been laid out for him by his predecessors should be goal No. 1 - a goal which if achieved, will earn him a trip to the Big Apple and a big piece of hardware for his trophy case.