Big 12: Auston English
2009 conference record: 5-3
Returning starters: Offense (9), Defense(4) P/K (2)
Top returners: QB Landry Jones, RB DeMarco Murray, LB Travis Lewis, S Quinton Carter, WR Ryan Broyles, DE Jeremy Beal, DE Frank Alexander
Key losses: DT Gerald McCoy, OL Trent Williams, QB Sam Bradford, RB Chris Brown, DE Auston English, OL Brian Simmons, OL Brody Eldridge
2009 statistical leaders (*returners)
Rushing: Chris Brown (774 yards)
Passing: Landry Jones* (3,198 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Broyles* (1,120 yards)
Tackles: Travis Lewis* (108)
Sacks: Jeremy Beal* (11)
Interceptions: Brian Jackson (4)
Three spring answers
1. O-line no longer offensive. Coach Bob Stoops tabbed his offensive and defensive lines as two of the most improved units on the team, a big difference from a year ago when Stoops called out his offensive linemen for not working hard enough. Part of the problem last season was injuries, and right guard Eric Mensik was lost for six weeks with an MCL injury, but even without their three best blockers from a season ago, the line is further ahead as a unit than they were last spring.
2. Young talent rising. Plenty of young players didn’t get on the field in 2009, for various reasons, whether it be injury, more experienced talent, or still being in high school. But linebackers Tom Wort and Ronnell Lewis, along with cornerback Demontre Hurst and receiver Kenny Stills could be big parts of Oklahoma’s 2010 team. Lewis will help replace one of the linebacker positions vacated by Ryan Reynolds and Keenan Clayon, but moved around in the spring. Wort is a likely starter as well after missing all of last season with a torn ACL. Hurst will help replace one of the corner positions vacated by Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson. And Stills could start for a receiving corps that struggled in 2009.
3. Lewis takes the reins. Oklahoma’s defense won’t be short on talent, headlined by defensive ends Jeremy Beal and Frank Alexander. But junior linebacker Travis Lewis, the team’s leading tackler as a sophomore, is ready to take over as the voice of the team, talking plenty of trash before the spring game and backing it up with his play, helping his team pitch a shutout. Gerald McCoy was the heart of the defense last season. This year, it’s Travis Lewis.
Three fall questions
1. Can the Sooners stay healthy? The theme for last season was injuries everywhere for the Sooners. Stoops says confidently he isn’t changing a thing, and it’s the right move. But it won’t stop fans—and maybe a couple of coaches—from cringing every time a player goes down awkwardly. Injuries turned the Sooners from a national title contender into an eight-win team a year ago, and another year of getting beat up could add to the frustration.
2. How much better will Landry Jones be? Jones played well when forced into action early by Sam Bradford’s injured shoulder. He played poorly in games against Texas and Nebraska, but finished the season with a career-high 418 yards and three touchdowns against Stanford. Jones is loaded with potential, and Stoops is optimistic at how Jones will look after a full spring and fall as starter.
3. Do the Sooners have a kicker? Jimmy Stevens lost his job to walk-on Patrick O’Hara late last season, but the two combined were just 1-of-8 from beyond 40 yards last season. A rainy spring game did little to settle the spring debate, and a couple misses on reasonable kicks by whoever wins the job in the fall could lead to another switch.
- LB Joe Pawelek - Seattle
- S Jordan Lake - unsigned
- QB Todd Reesing - unsigned
- WR Danario Alexander - unsigned
Ndamukong Suh, S Larry Asante and LB Phillip Dillard were drafted.
- DE Auston English - Cleveland
- DT DeMarcus Granger - Seattle
- RB Chris Brown - Denver
- RB Keith Toston - St. Louis
- K Hunter Lawrence - Tampa Bay
- TE/FB Jamie McCoy - St. Louis
- DE Brandon Sharpe - New Orleans
- OL Brandon Carter - New Orleans
Happy Tuesday. Here are some of the questions that filled my e-mail earlier this week.
Jack Patterson of Amarillo, Texas, writes: Tim, I am an avid reader of your blogs. I check them at least once a day for new updates on all the Big 12. Lately though, I have had an issue with all the talk of the Big 12 North.
With the exception of Oklahoma’s offensive production against Nebraska this past Saturday night, the South Division has absolutely dominated our Northern rivals. Yet, there has been almost no talk about the fight for a second-place finish in the South. Let's say Texas runs the table, the winner of the Oklahoma State vs. Texas Tech game wins out, and the loser of that game wins their final two games. That would put the first, second and third place teams finishing above the first, second and possibly third place teams from the north.
Granted, the North Division has an exciting race to be played out over the next three weeks, but the South Division is playing solid football week in and week out. How will the bowls play out if this scenario occurs.
Tim Griffin: Victories by Nebraska over Oklahoma and Colorado over Texas A&M last week aside, the strength of the South looks much stronger than the strength of the North. Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech are a combined 7-0 against the North. And if the rest of the season plays out as most would expect, it would be hard not to see those teams going perfect against the North.
I think the South Division will end up claiming three of the top four bowl spots. If Nebraska wins the North, their tradition and fan appeal will get them one of the top three bowls. But the other top two bowls will go to South teams when it’s all over.
Tyler Asche of Columbia, Mo., writes: Tim, this Heisman race is really starting to get on my nerves. First, ESPN takes Ndamukong Suh off as a viable option, and then doesn’t even recognize him as the leader in their weekly text message. Suh is having one of the most dominant season that a defensive tackle has EVER put up in the history of college football helping a struggling offensive team stay in and win games. The list is full of great names and players, but how many of those young men are putting up numbers better than anyone in history at their position? It's a shame how the media is closing the door on such a phenomenal athletes chances to have to win a once in a lifetime award. I'm starting the feel that the Heisman just isn't what it used to be.
Tim Griffin: There’s no debate about Suh’s abilities. But it’s hard to argue for a defensive tackle because their statistics are hard to quantify. But for whatever it’s worth, remember that Jared Crick leads Suh in total tackles, sacks and tackles for losses this season. So I don’t know if I necessarily would say that Suh has the best statistics for a defensive tackle ever.
He’s clearly one of the most valuable players in college football. And his statistics don’t tell his story.
Matt Howard from Virginia writes: Tim, I'm a pretty big Oklahoma fan and all of these injuries are really depressing me. Jermaine Gresham, Sam Bradford, Ryan Broyles, Bradford again, and now Auston English, Brody Eldridge, and Jarvis Jones. Has anyone else been hit as hard in their starting lineup as OU this year?
Tim Griffin: In my recent history, I can’t remember a team that has struggled with injuries like the Sooners this season. And also don’t forget to include Broyles, Brandon Caleb, DeMarco Murray and Brian Simmons have missed a combined eight games with injuries. Freshman linebacker Tom Wort, one of the revelations of early training camp, was lost with a season-ending knee injury. And linebacker Mike Balogun was declared ineligible before the season started.
It shows how good the current Oklahoma defense is, making them historical good for what will likely end up to be an 8-4 or 7-5 season.
This is a season that Bob Stoops will just choose to forget.
Fred Dodge of Annapolis, Md., writes: Tim, I am Husker through and through and while I am really happy about the win over Oklahoma I see it as a different version of Iowa State's win over Nebraska. The gutty underdog getting a bunch of turnovers and beating an error-prone talented team. In truth, this does nothing to change my view that the Big 12 North is a second-tier division. Please compare the Big 12 North to the Mountain West and Western Athletic Conferences. Am I wrong (at least as far as football goes)? Does anybody in the North stack-up to TCU and Utah; and don't you think they would run the table in the North?
Tim Griffin: College football obviously is cyclical, but you have to admire the development in the Mountain West. TCU is 9-0 and Utah is 8-1 with only a loss at Oregon. BYU showed its strength earlier in the season by beating Oklahoma and has lost to only Florida State and TCU. All three of those teams I think are better than the Nebraska/Kansas State/Colorado concentration in the Big 12 North. The South, I’m not so sure about.
As far as the WAC, I’m not so sure if I would rank them with the Big 12 North. Remember that current WAC leader Nevada lost on its home field to Missouri, which is struggling to remain out of the Big 12 North cellar. Nevada has turned things around with a current six-game winning streak and Fresno has a five-game streak. Boise State is better than any Big 12 North team this season, but the rest of the WAC isn’t at that level.
And as far as running the table, I still think that those top Mountain West and WAC teams would have trouble winning consistently in the Big 12. But this season, TCU, Boise State and Utah would likely be at the top.
Eric Owens of Orange, Texas, writes: Here’s a question about a hypothetical bowl scenario. Let’s assume Gator Bowl chooses a 10-2 Pitt over a 7-5 Notre Dame. Is the Sun Bowl obligated to take a Big 12 team, or could they still select Notre Dame and shut the Big 12 out of a bowl slot?
Tim Griffin: This is the final season of the combined Gator/Sun contract with the Big East/Notre Dame and the Big 12. The perimeters provided for two seasons for the bowl from each conference. The Big 12 has filled the Gator Bowl in each of the last two seasons with Texas Tech in 2007 and Nebraska last season. Under terms of the contract, the Gator Bowl is obligated to take a team from the Big East or Notre Dame this season. The Sun Bowl, which had Missouri in 2006, is obligated to take a Big 12 team this season.
The Sun Bowl won't have access to a Big 12 team after this season with its new contract beginning in 2010 when representatives from the Pac-10 and Atlantic Coast conferences meet.
Thanks again for all of the good questions. We’ll catch up again on Friday afternoon.
Seriously, I wonder if Bob Stoops thinks that he angered the football gods somewhere.
Oklahoma announced today that three more starters are out with season-ending injuries.
Offensive lineman Brody Eldridge is out with a neck injury that was initially diagnosed by Stoops as a shoulder injury.
Stoops announced that defensive end Auston English was scheduled to have surgery on an injured ankle tendon. And starting tackle Jarvis Jones sustained a fractured heel in the Sooners' 10-3 loss at Nebraska.
That's five starters who are out after including tight end Jermaine Gresham and quarterback Sam Bradford.
Despite those injuries, Stoops told reporters Tuesday that he doesn't plan any major changes in his offense for the rest of the season.
"In four days of practice, how much can you truly retool, ten games into it, with inexperienced guys?" Stoops told reporters. “Everybody was writing two weeks ago they were finally coming of age, guys were making plays and getting comfortable in the system. So, now, all of a sudden to scrap the system, I don’t believe that is the answer.”
The Sooners produced 325 yards in the Nebraska, were held without a touchdown for the first time in Stoops' coaching tenure. A struggling performance featured five interceptions thrown by Landry Jones and three missed field goals by Tress Way.
Oklahoma (5-4) still needs one victory to earn bowl eligibility. Their remaining schedule features home games against Texas A&M on Saturday and Oklahoma State, sandwiched around a road trip to Texas Tech.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said Monday that versatile offensive lineman Brody Eldridge will miss Saturday's game against Texas A&M because of a shoulder injury sustained in the Sooners' 10-3 loss at Nebraska on Saturday.
His absence is another obstacle for Oklahoma's injury-riddled offense. The Sooners already are missing Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford (shoulder) and preseason All-America tight end Jermaine Gresham (knee) with season-ending injuries.
Eldridge's absence will be particularly bad for an inexperienced Oklahoma offensive front struggling with penalties and productivity.
Both Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson have said that Eldridge has been the Sooners' highest-graded lineman since moving from tight end to guard before the Sooners' Oct. 17 game against Texas.
The Sooners could move right guard Stephen Good to left guard and move right tackle Jarvis Jones into Good's spot. Or they could insert freshman Tyler Evans, who has been struggling with an ankle injury since he claimed the starting job earlier in the season.
Or Tavaris Jeffries could be inserted back into the lineup. Jeffries started three games earlier this season before he was suspended before the Sooners' Oct. 24 victory at Kansas. Jeffries suited up the following week against Kansas State but missed the Nebraska game with a family emergency, team officials said.
Stoops also said that defensive end Auston English is questionable for the A&M game after injuring his ankle early in the Sooners' loss at Nebraska.
One of the biggest mysteries in college football this season has been the slow start of Texas quarterback Colt McCoy, who was expected to challenge for the Heisman Trophy after finishing second behind Sam Bradford last season.
But with his statistics down, McCoy has tumbled down the list of challengers after the first half of the season even as the Longhorns have kept winning.
For his part, McCoy said he’s not disillusioned in how the season has transpired to this point.
“It’s not been a disappointment at all,” McCoy said. “Before the season I set the goal we would like to be 6-0 at this point of the season. And now that were there, I can’t be happier.”
But the statistics tell a different story. McCoy has completed and thrown more passes, but his passing yardage is down. His touchdown-to-interception ratio, which was at 17-to-3 last season after six games, has skidded to 11-to-7 this season. His NCAA quarterback efficiency rating is down from 189.02 at this point last season to 137.85.
“I know there’s a lot of room for improvement,” McCoy said. “I’ve got to have help and have guys step up and make plays. I can do things better. There are a lot of things we can be better at. We’ve still got a long way to go.”
|Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE|
|Texas continues to win despite Colt McCoy's slow start.|
It’s been a frustrating season in one sense for McCoy, who has been stricken with a rash of minor injuries and illnesses over the last few weeks.
Most recently, McCoy smashed his right thumb into the helmet of Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The contact left him with a bruise that will likely result in him losing his nail. McCoy joked to reporters earlier this week that he couldn’t show them the injury because he needed to keep his hands in his pocket under doctor’s orders.
“It’s been frustrating more than anything else,” McCoy said. “I had the flu against Tech and then I was a little sick on Wednesday and Thursday and it nagged at me. And then I messed up my thumb in the first quarter. Those things are frustrating, but I’m a believer and a faithful guy. I think my luck will be better from here on.”
As much of an imposition as his cold was a determined Oklahoma defense that flummoxed him and repeatedly battered him in the game. McCoy was knocked to the ground 14 times in the first half alone.
And Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables’ intricate combination of blitzes didn’t allow him much as he produced 127 passing yards – his lowest single-game total since his freshman season.
“I watched every game of Oklahoma’s before we played them and half of the blitzes they threw, I had never seen,” McCoy said. “You’re going to see different things every week. But you’ve got to give those guys some credit. Half of those guys (on Oklahoma’s defense) will be playing on Sundays (in future NFL careers) and they are really good.”
Another reason for McCoy’s perception being down is that he hasn’t been as much a running threat this season. After producing 348 rushing yards and four touchdowns after six games last season, McCoy has rushed for 91 yards on 48 carries in 2009.
Texas coach Mack Brown has tried to lessen the pressure on McCoy by telling him not to be perfect.
“We’ve all gotten used to Colt over the years,” Brown said. “Some of us go cold on him just because he is so good.”
Those expectations don’t detract from how much McCoy is enjoying his current season. The Longhorns appear to have a clear path to the BCS national championship game that eluded them last season if they can win out.
“If you watch the emotion of Colt after the game, he’s so excited he’s beaten Oklahoma,” Brown said. “Then, he broke up a little bit with Lisa Salters after the game. That shows you that it’s not about him. He’s not worried about how many times he’s thrown the ball or how many times he completed it.”
Even as McCoy’s numbers are down, Brown thinks that his senior quarterback remains exactly the kind of candidate Heisman voters should be considering. His most impressive statistic may be his 38-7 career record as a starter. He will tie Peyton Manning with a victory over Missouri on Saturday with David Greene’s 42-10 mark still ahead.
Opposing teams have shown uncommon respect to McCoy after games this season. Texas Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill waited on the field for several minutes after McCoy’s television interviews to offer his congratulations. And Auston English, Gerald McCoy and Trent Williams of Oklahoma did the same after last week’s game at the Cotton Bowl.
"Colt wants to win football games -- that was the only thing that matters.” Brown said. “When people are looking at Heisman numbers, to me that’s the key. It’s not always about gaudy numbers, it’s about who wins. That kid is five away from becoming the winningest ever and that’s cool.”
DALLAS -- The wildest three minutes in the recent history of the Texas-Oklahoma rivalry helped finish off an unexpected defensive first half.
There were fumbles in the Texas end zone and a critical special-team error by the Sooners that accounted for all of Texas’ scoring as the Sooners claimed a 6-3 lead.
Weren't we supposed to be seeing a barrage of points in this game?
Here’s a quick look at how the first half transpired.
Turning point: Sam Bradford’s shoulder injury four minutes into the game knocked the Sooners’ Heisman Trophy winner out. Bradford re-injured his right shoulder and was replaced by Landry Jones. The Sooners’ offense sputtered after that point. Bradford accounted for a 77-yard scoring drive on his first possession. Oklahoma gained 115 yards on their other seven possessions of the half.
Stat of the half: Oklahoma has outgained Texas, 192-59. The Sooners’ defense pushed its intensity after Bradford’s injury as they kept Texas off balance for most of the rest of the half.
Best player of the half: It’s hard to differentiate among Oklahoma’s defensive players, but defensive end Auston English has accounted for two of Oklahoma's four sacks. The Sooners’ front four has attacked Texas quarterback Colt McCoy most of the game. And English has been one of the biggest reasons for Texas’ major offensive struggles.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Eight Big 12 players, including Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing, are among the semifinalists announced today for the William V. Campbell Award presented by the National Football Foundation.
The award was previously known as the Draddy Award and has been considered the "academic Heisman Trophy."
Big 12 nominees include:
- Baylor linebacker Joe Pawelek
- Colorado fullback Jake Behrens
- Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing
- Kansas State tight end Jeron Mastrud
- Missouri guard Kurtis Gregory
- Nebraska wide receiver Wes Cammack
- Oklahoma defensive end Auston English
- Texas quarterback Colt McCoy
The 15 finalists will be announced on Oct. 29 and will receive an $18,000 post-graduate scholarship. The winner of the Campbell Award will be announced at the National Football Foundation's annual awards dinner in New York City on Dec. 8.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma’s defense already had supreme confidence long before the Sooners lost starting quarterback Sam Bradford and were forced to insert redshirt freshman Landry Jones into the starting lineup.
That quarterback switch didn’t prompt an attitude change from the Sooners’ single-minded defensive purpose. It was already there.
|Boyd Ivey/Icon SMI|
|Gerald McCoy and the Sooners are looking forward to facing Miami on Saturday.|
“Regardless of who is playing quarterback, we’ve wanted to be pretty good as a defense and we know our mindset,” Oklahoma sophomore linebacker Travis Lewis said. “If they can give us a field goal, we think we can win any game.”
That assurance would have been expected to be tested by Bradford’s injury. But it didn’t heighten an existing attitude from a group returning nine starters from last season.
“We believe in our offense and whoever plays, we think they will play well,” Oklahoma junior defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “But even though we believe that, we still have to hold our own and do what we have to do. And as of late, we’ve been able to do that.”
The Sooners come into Saturday’s game at No. 17 Miami (ABC, 8 p.m. ET) after notching back-to-back shutouts for the first time since 1987. They have a current scoreless streak of 123 minutes, 3 seconds that ranks as the longest in the nation since allowing a late touchdown against BYU.
The defense’s recent surge coincided when Jones took over. They started it with a strong performance in a 64-0 conquest of Idaho State, as the Bengals did not advance inside the Oklahoma 49 and produced only 44 total yards.
The Sooners continued against Tulsa, which led the nation in total offense the past two seasons and was averaging 41 points a game before meeting Oklahoma. The Sooners notched six sacks and forced three turnovers in a 45-0 statement.
Those efforts have enabled the Sooners to lead the nation in rushing defense (40.7 yards per game), scoring defense (4.7 points per game) and tackles for losses (11.3 per game).
It’s a big turnaround from last year's struggling Oklahoma defense. The Sooners finished 68th in total defense and 58th in scoring defense, which were the worst ratings in Bob Stoops’ coaching tenure. Particularly galling were late collapses in the Sooners’ two losses against Florida and Texas that marked bitter disappointment that carried into this season.
“We didn’t come up with key stops against Texas and Florida when we needed them,” Lewis said. “After last year, we decided we’ve got to be more consistent. Last year we were content to hold them to a couple of touchdowns. That’s totally changed now. We don’t want to give anything up.”
Miami’s athleticism will be the biggest test for the Sooners. And the Hurricanes' struggles at Virginia Tech were an anomaly caused by the wet conditions that helped negate their speed edge.
“It’s going to be a major challenge to go up against a team that in the first couple of games was very explosive and productive,” Stoops said. “I think it’s fair to say that their situation and the circumstances in the Virginia Tech game were difficult to handle. They played in a monsoon, basically, and that changes things.”
The wet conditions caused Miami quarterback Jacory Harris to have trouble with Virginia Tech coordinator Bud Foster’s defensive packages. Harris was sacked three times last week by the Hokies after he was sacked only once in Miami’s first two games.
They will face similar pressure from a balanced Oklahoma defense that has featured eight different players responsible for its 12 sacks so far this season.
"Our goal every week as a defensive line is to be disruptive, get in the backfield, and make quarterbacks feel uncomfortable,” senior defensive end Auston English said. “Those goals won't change this week. We need to continue to build on what we've started this year and hopefully do the same thing this week."
And while Stoops has hinted this season that his current group can become special, the Sooners are focused on more immediate task.
“We want to be a physical defense,” junior free safety Quinton Carter said. “But as far as being compared to defenses from in the past, I guess we have to wait until we get to the end of the season and see what our final legacy is going to be."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
So much for half-stepping its way into the 2009 season.
Oklahoma’s defense will be facing an immediate challenge in their opener Saturday night when the Sooners face BYU’s vaunted passing attack.
Even as some teams choose to start the season against directional schools and other FCS fodder, Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy couldn’t be more excited about the Sooners’ first game.
“I love the fact that we are playing these guys,” McCoy said. “It gives us a challenge at the beginning of the year that’s good for us. I’m licking my chops to be playing BYU, because as a defense, you want those challenges.”
The Sooners will be tested by a typically strong BYU passing game keyed by tight end Dennis Pitta and quarterback Max Hall, who led the Cougars to the 2007 Mountain West Conference title.
But Hall’s stature has diminished after his struggling 2008 finish when he threw six interceptions and one touchdown in his final two games. Not coincidentally, the Cougars lost both games to finish a 10-3 season with a Las Vegas Bowl loss to Arizona.
“There were games last year that I was really good in, and there were games last year that I wasn't so good in," Hall told the Salt Lake City Deseret News. "I take that as a learning experience. Hopefully this year, for the most part, I feel very comfortable back there and I can lead the offense in the right direction."
The Sooners’ success against BYU will hinge on making Hall uncomfortable. With three-deep talent at every defensive line position, the quick and athletic Sooners should be ready for a BYU offensive line that has struggled with injuries throughout summer camp.
If the Sooners’ linemen can make plays and reduce the reliance on blitzes in Saturday’s game, Oklahoma should be in good shape.
McCoy is a preseason All-Big 12 pick, but he is ably supported by a strong cast both at defensive tackle and defensive end.
“When you consider Auston English, Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal, those are as good a group as any we’ve had at defensive end,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “And then with Gerald and (defensive tackle Adrian) Taylor and DeMarcus Granger inside, all those guys have played really, really well. I think we’ve got a chance to be a special group in there.”
One area of concern for Oklahoma is at middle linebacker where two backups to starter Ryan Reynolds are out of the lineup. Freshman Tom Wort was challenging for playing time before he sustained a season-ending knee injury midway through training camp. And backup Mike Balogun will not play against BYU while the details of his lawsuit against the NCAA are being settled.
Reynolds missed the last eight games of last season after sustaining a season-ending knee injury against Texas. His recovery has gone nicely and he feels ready to pick up where he left off before his injury occurred.
“We feel good about what we’ve got,” Reynolds said. “The chemistry is there like before. This can be a special defense if we keep growing and working. I’m excited to play a game and see what we’ve got.”
Despite Wort’s injury and Balogun’s iffy status, Stoops remains excited about his defensive talent.
The Sooners return nine defensive starters and should have one of the nation’s premier defenses. Depth in the trenches is the foundation on which the unit’s growth will be built.
“To me, your best defenses always start up front,” Stoops said. “I really love our front four guys and our linebackers. I’m very hopeful that we have a really special defense. And with this group, we have a chance to be one.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Big 12 defenses are nearly as proficient as their offensive counterparts. But the best teams in terms of defense will likely end up as the conference’s best teams because stopping the high-powered offenses in the conference is so rare.
Here’s a look at how I rank them:
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners return nine starters and are among the nation’s very best defenses. It starts with three-deep talent along the defensive line keyed by Gerald McCoy and Auston English, who was the conference’s preseason player of the year last season before spraining his knee. They might be a little lacking in depth at middle linebacker behind Ryan Reynolds with the injury to freshman standout Tom Wort and Mike Balogun’s iffy status. The only new starters are strong safety Sam Proctor and free safety Quinton Carter, who have both been impressive in fall camp. The Sooners’ substitutes might be better collectively than most Big 12 units.
2. Texas: The Longhorns have arguably the conference’s best back seven, particularly a developing secondary led by Earl Thomas and corners Chykie Brown and Aaron Williams. Sergio Kindle and Alex Okafor are poised to become the primary pass-rushing specialists. Lamarr Houston has developed into an anchor at defensive tackle, but the Longhorns need to find another player at the other defensive tackle position to juice production for their biggest defensive weakness. Will Muschamp’s unit must do a better job after producing only 16 turnovers last season to rank tied for 104th nationally.
3. Nebraska: It all starts with the defensive line, which is among the best in the nation with Outland Candidate Ndamukong Suh and defensive ends Pierre Allen and Barry Turner. The Cornhuskers are young at linebacker where they might start two linebackers, although coaches really like 6-foot-6, 230-pound buck linebacker Sean Fisher and Will Compton. Coaches say the secondary is playing with more confidence, but the group produced only 12 interceptions last season. Boosting that turnover production will be critical in the Cornhuskers’ division title hopes.
4. Texas Tech: This is where the big drop-off starts from the top three teams. The Red Raiders will miss pass-rushing threats McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams from last season, but have an experienced unit back. Rajon Henley and Brandon Sharpe are set to fill in as the pass-rushing threats and Colby Whitlock can be a terror at times -- particularly against Texas. Brian Duncan is a producer and the team’s leading tackler at middle linebacker. Jamar Wall is one of the better cover corners in the league. But the unit will depend on the improvement of two projected starters: redshirt freshman free safety Cody Davis and strong safety Franklin Mitchem.
5. Oklahoma State: The development by veteran defensive coordinator Bill Young will determine whether this unit has the goods to lead the Cowboys to their first South title and a potential maiden BCS bowl appearance. The biggest key will be producing more sacks from a defensive front that notched only 15 last season. Young has been concentrating on push from his defensive tackles and thinks he has an underrated pair in seniors Swanson Miller and Derek Burton. The loss of Orie Lemon at middle linebacker will hurt, although Donald Booker has been a producer in limited playing time. The secondary will be playing new starters with only Perrish Cox returning. But keep an eye out for senior free safety Lucien “The Punisher” Antoine who was turning heads last season before blowing out his ACL in the second game last season.
6. Colorado: The Buffaloes are faster this season and that should help them cope with the high-powered offenses in the Big 12. The linebackers are deep with Shaun Mohler and Jeff Smart as the prime producers. And I really like the secondary, with Jimmy Smith and Cha’pelle Brown among the best pair of cornerbacks in the conference. The biggest concern is along the defensive line, particularly after the injury of heralded freshman Nick Kasa that may idle him for the season. One area to note will be at right defensive end, where sophomore Lagrone Shields and freshman Forrest West are in the two-deep. Shields has played four snaps in his career.
7. Kansas: The Jayhawks need defensive improvement if they are going to fulfill their hopes of making their first championship game. The Jayhawks were crippled last season without a consistent pass rush. They hope junior-college transfer Quintin Woods, Caleb Blakesley and 304-pound Jamal Greene up front along with sack leader Jake Laptad. After losing three starting linebackers from last season, the Jayhawks will retool. I look for them to play two linebackers and a nickel look in many cases. Look for freshman Huldon Tharp to become a producer at linebacker. The secondary is the strength of the defense with All-Big 12 candidate Darrell Stuckey at strong safety and Phillip Strozier poised to continue his late-season development.
8. Baylor: Up the middle, the Bears might be among the strongest defenses in the conference with heralded transfer defensive tackle Phil Taylor, linebacker Joe Pawelek and hard-hitting safety Jordan Lake. Baylor coordinator Brian Norwood knows he needs more production from a defensive line that collected only 21 sacks and allowed opponents to complete 67 percent of passes for 3,063 yards. Antonio Jones and Antonio Johnson sometimes get overshadowed by Pawelek at linebacker. Junior cornerbacks Tim Atchison, Clifton Odom and Antareis Bryan need to improve or it could be a long season for the secondary.
9. Missouri: Any defense that starts with All-American candidate Sean Weatherspoon won’t be too bad. The Tigers could be a surprise considering that Gary Pinkel has been raving about the speed his unit possesses -- particularly at defensive end and at cornerback. Look for a three-man rotation at defensive end with Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith to boost production in the pass rush. The secondary was a huge liability last season ranking 118th in pass defense. Kevin Rutland has shown a physical style at cornerback and Kenji Jackson and Hardy Ricks might be ready to help at safety.
10. Kansas State: New coordinators Chris Cosh and Vic Koenning plan to run a 4-2-5 defense. Their first concern is developing a rush with 2008 first-team freshman All-America pick Brandon Harold out with an injury. While he’s gone, the Wildcats need Eric Childs and Jeffrey Fitzgerald to emerge up front. John Houlik and Alex Hrebec apparently have earned the starting jobs at linebacker. Three junior college players -- David Garrett, Troy Butler and Emmanuel Lamur -- have apparently earned starting jobs for a secondary that desperately needs to improve after ranking 106th nationally in pass defense. The defense ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 117th in total defense, so the new coordinators better boost improvement or it will be another long season.
11. Texas A&M: Whatever happened to the Wrecking Crew defenses from the past? The best indication of the concern that Mike Sherman has for his defensive unit came when he transferred projected starting left tackle Lucas Patterson move back to defensive tackle late in preseason practice to boost production inside. Von Miller was impressive at the “jack” position, but he’ll need some good fortune to hold up consistently rushing against the huge offensive lines in the conference. The Aggies need to improve after yielding 461 yards and 37 points per game and earning the ignominy of being one of three FBS teams to allow opponents to average 200 yards rushing and passing last season. Coaches say the unit is faster and more athletic, but they have to play much better to get the Aggies back into bowl contention.
12. Iowa State: Veteran defensive Wally Burnham has a great reputation and most recently flummoxed the spread defenses of the Big East while at South Florida. The Big 12, however, will be a different story. The Cyclones ranked tied for 110th in scoring defense and 112th in total defense. Coach Paul Rhoads says he’s been frustrated by his team’s lack of tackling techniques. They have a building block in cornerback Leonard Johnson. Burnham and Rhoads know what they are talking about defensively as both were coordinators for top 30 defenses last year. But it will take a lot of patience to help rebuild this unit that needs so much improvement.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- Extreme competition at defensive end is keeping Oklahoma players on their toes throughout practice.
Senior Auston English, junior Jeremy Beal, redshirt freshman R.J. Washington and sophomore Frank Alexander all are involved in a close battle for playing time that has raged since the Sooners' first fall preseason practice.
Oklahoma defensive ends coach Jackie Shipp said that Beal is the only player who assured himself of a starting position after the first week of preseason practice.
"It's still really a battle for the first three guys," Shipp said. "Frank is coming on and playing well and R.J. is stepping out. But Jeremy Beal is standing out well."
English was an All-Big 12 defensive end in 2007 before he was hampered with injuries last season. Beal played well on the other side in 2008, leading the team with 8½ sacks.
"Austin and Frank are still competing for the starting job," Shipp said. "The competition is really stiff for us."
The Sooners racked up 42 sacks last season to tie for third among FBS teams last season. The additional depth should give Oklahoma an edge against offensive lines that will have to match perhaps the nation's deepest rotation of potential pass-rushing treats.
"It's good for us because we keep each other going every day,"Alexander said. "We know if we don't compete, we won't play. That makes us approach every play like we have something to prove."
The deep collection of defensive ends might be one of the Sooners' biggest strengths. And it's also making for some spirited work throughout the drudgery of two-a-day practices.
"All of us know we're capable of playing," Alexander said. "We've got to approach every practice and do what we can do because we know that anybody can take our spot if we don't come out and play hard."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma defensive ends Jeremy Beal and Auston English are among the 30 players on the first watch list for the Hendricks Award.
Beal and English were joined by Sergio Kindle of Texas among Big 12 nominees for the award, which is presented by the Ted Hendricks Foundation.
There will be a midseason watch list that will narrow the field to several finalists. The winner will be announced on Dec. 9.
Defensive ends are considered a weakness in the Big 12 this season, particularly with the strength of inside pass rushers by Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
Still, I might have considered either of Kansas State's defensive ends Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Eric Childs and maybe even Nebraska defensive end Pierre Allen for inclusion on the initial list.
The award has been presented since 2002. Brian Orakpo of Texas won the Hendricks Award last season, becoming the first Big 12 player in history to claim it.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma (Big 12 No. 2) vs. Mississippi (SEC No. 2)
Oklahoma's record against the SEC: 3-3
Mississippi's record against the Big 12: 5-4
Previous series: Mississippi leads the series, 1-0
Most recent game: Mississippi won, 27-25, in the 1999 Independence Bowl
Distance between them (as the crow flies according to How Far Is It): 448 miles.
Where they should play: Shreveport, La. (279 miles from Oxford, 279 miles from Norman)
Who wins: Oklahoma.
Why: The Sooners won't be playing in the featured matchup of the mythical tournament. Maybe that would work in their favor against Mississippi, which is approaching the season with more national hype than any in recent memory.
Oklahoma's nine returning starters on defense would dictate this game, particularly in the trenches. A big concern would be at left tackle, where the Rebels will miss All-American Michael Oher. His likely replacement Bradley Sowell would be facing waves of Oklahoma pass rushers intent on pressuring Jevan Snead.
The Rebels' lack of depth along the offensive line is another big question mark I have. Oklahoma would be able to take advantage of that weakness with one of the nation's deepest and most talented defensive fronts, keyed by playmakers like Gerald McCoy, Auston English and Jeremy Beal.
Coach Houston Nutt has most of his skill-position players back and one of the nation's most talented quarterbacks in Snead. It would be interesting to see how Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables would try to counteract Mississippi wide receiver Dexter McCluster, particularly in the "Wild Rebel" formation.
I'd look for Sam Bradford and his collection of playmaking wide receivers to be able to exploit Mississippi's secondary. The Rebels have three starters back, but they still ranked 81st nationally in pass defense and would struggle to keep Oklahoma from dictating the game with their no-huddle passing attack.
The Rebels have the better kicker in Joshua Shene, who would be vitally important in a close game. But this one wouldn't be, as I would look for the Sooners to prevail by at least 10 points.
Friday: Texas (Big 12 No. 1) vs. Florida (SEC No. 1).
The count: SEC, 6-5.
Note: Matchups are determined by the most recent rankings of Big 12 blogger Tim Griffin and SEC blogger Chris Low. All cumulative records go back to the 1996 season -- the first of competition in the Big 12.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Being in the middle of Oklahoma's biggest question mark isn't something that Ben Habern shies away from.
In fact, the Sooners' freshman center is excited about the opportunity to prove something to the doubters who are wondering about Oklahoma's young offensive line heading into the upcoming season with four new starters.
|J.P. Wilson/Icon SMI|
|Oklahoma's Ben Habern has some big shoes to fill as he replaces Jon Cooper at center.|
It's made Habern wish his team's Sept. 5 opener against BYU was only a couple of weeks away.
"There are a lot of people who don't think we have enough talent to make it through the Big 12 or to a big bowl game," Habern said. "But a lot of people aren't here during our practices. We've seen how athletic we are."
Some of the doubt started earlier when Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops called out the unit before spring practice even began. Stoops was disappointed in the group's lack of dedication during preseason conditioning drills and didn't hesitate to make his comments known.
The words stung, particularly for a group that was looking to build some confidence before heading into practice. But Stoops' point got across and helped the group coalesce.
"We lost a lot of senior leadership and have a lot of guys to replace," Habern said. "It was a big step and a challenge to get everything settled. But I feel like we handled it pretty well."
One of the biggest reasons for the group's fast growth has been the development of Habern, who has claimed the starting job after strong work during the spring to replace Jon Cooper.
Jason Hannan, who was once considered the nation's No. 1 center prospect and Cooper's eventual replacement, couldn't beat out Habern for the job, leading Hannan to transfer earlier this spring.
"Habern has been doing a wonderful job," Oklahoma offensive line coach James Patton told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "He's got a chance to be a really good one. Jon was a great leader and Ben" is from "that same kind of mold."