- Jake Trotter, ESPN Staff Writer
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Texas was on its deathbed; now it’s a contender. The Oklahoma schools, once bastions of quarterbacking, suddenly have issues there. West Virginia’s defense is better than its offense. TCU can’t score. Kansas State can’t buy a win. And the teams picked to finish fifth and seventh in the conference are the only ones without a loss.
If the second half of the Big 12 season is anything like the first, who knows what might happen? Good luck guessing which game will ultimately decide the conference race, too.
Before the season, Bedlam looked most likely to be that game. Now, another showdown the very same day could end up overshadowing it.
Bedlam decided the Big 12 in 2011. It decided the Big 12 South in 2010. But will anything more than bragging rights be on the line this time? That will depend on whether either team can solve quarterback problems that plagued both in their losses.
After Trevor Knight was ineffective in two lackluster wins to begin the season, the Sooners turned to Blake Bell. The Belldozer took care of the ball and made plays in the fourth quarter in wins over Notre Dame and TCU. But he did neither in a 36-20 loss to Texas that shook up the league race. According to QBR, Bell’s Texas performance was the worst by a Big 12 quarterback this year, raising questions about whether he’s the answer for the Sooners after all.
Oklahoma State is in a similar raft. J.W. Walsh took the starting job from Clint Chelf two series into the opener against Mississippi State. But the past two games, including a loss at West Virginia, have seen the Cowboys flatline offensively. Oklahoma State, in fact, failed to get a single first down the second half against Kansas State until a late game-winning drive. Like the Sooners, the Cowboys can’t run the ball lately, because they can’t get anyone to take their downfield passing game seriously.
That hasn’t been a problem in Waco, which is one of the reasons why Baylor has ascended to conference favorite status. Every one of Tevin Reese’s six touchdown receptions has gone for more than 40 yards. Five of Antwan Goodley’s six touchdown catches have gone for at least 60. As a result, 32 of Baylor’s 40 touchdown drives have taken less than two minutes.
While Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could still turn things around, Texas and Texas Tech could wind up being the biggest roadblocks to Baylor’s first Big 12 title.
Despite playing two true freshmen quarterbacks, the Red Raiders have spread the ball around as well as anyone in the league, claiming four of the Big 12’s top eight receivers. Tech also leads the conference in third-down defense. Back-to-back road trips to West Virginia and Oklahoma the next two weeks will shed more light on whether the Red Raiders are ready to contend.
A week ago, virtually everyone had written the Longhorns off as possible Big 12 contenders. Then they pulled off the biggest Red River upset in 17 years to move to 3-0 in the league standings. Texas’ rushing attack looked formidable, and quarterback Case McCoy looked poised. If that continues, who knows? Maybe Texas will be playing for the conference title at Baylor in the season finale.
The season’s first half is done. Much is yet to be decided.
But as we gear up for the second half, below is a breakdown of the Big 12 at midseason:
Offensive MVP: Baylor junior quarterback Bryce Petty has picked up where Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence left off, posting an Adjusted QBR of 95.1. That’s second only to Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Thanks in large part to Petty’s precision passing, the Bears led the nation with a scoring average of 63.4 points per game.
Defensive MVP: The Horned Frogs haven’t had the kind of the season they’d hoped for so far. But that’s to no fault of cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been lights out. Even with opposing quarterbacks leery about throwing his direction, Verrett leads the Big 12 in passes defended. And even with a tender shoulder, he has continued to be one of the surest tackling cornerbacks in the league.
Biggest Surprise: The Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. But seven weeks into the season, they join Baylor as the league’s only teams still without a loss. Amazingly, Texas Tech has gotten to 6-0 rotating true freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, who, despite some rocky moments, have been solid.
Biggest Disappointment: In ESPN.com’s preseason player poll, the league’s players tabbed TCU as the team to beat. The Horned Frogs, however, have already been defeated three times. TCU has faced a difficult schedule, and the injuries to quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Devonte Fields have really hurt. But at the season’s midway point, the Frogs are already just one loss away from falling completely out of the conference title hunt.
Newcomers Of The Year: West Virginia running back Charles Sims was the Big 12’s preseason pick for newcomer of the year, and for good reason. But the impact of Texas Tech true freshmen quarterbacks Mayfield and Webb has been greater. Mayfield is 5-0 as a starter. Webb, who quarterbacked Tech to a win over Iowa State over the weekend, also threw the game-winning touchdown pass to beat TCU.
Coach Of The Year: In his first year as its coach, former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury has resurrected his alma mater. The Red Raiders have already taken on the personality of their cool, confident coach, who has Tech at 6-0 for the first time since 2008.
Best Game: Most of the intriguing matchups in the Big 12 will come later in the season. But so far, the most entertaining game in the league has been Texas’ 31-30 victory at Iowa State. Yes, the game had some questionable officiating. And some questionable low blocking. But it was also wonderfully compelling, from Texas coach Mack Brown staving off disaster to Paul Rhoads rallying his team during a fiery postgame news conference.