Big 12: Blaine Gabbert

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has two Big 12 players -- Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson and Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro -- potentially going in the first round of this year’s NFL draft.

Fellow expert Todd McShay has the same two as Kiper and also is optimistic about the chances of West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Tavon Austin.

So let’s split the difference and label the potential Big 12 first-round picks as an optimistic three, with Johnson being the only absolute first-round lock.

Those three would represent the fewest Big 12 players taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 2008. Even if four went, the Big 12 still would have the fewest since 2008.

That year, only Kansas -- yep, the Jayhawks -- managed a first-rounder, Aqib Talib to Tampa Bay with the 20th pick. In the four drafts that followed, the Big 12 has always put at least five players into the first round, including the first four overall picks in 2010.

How well this year’s group of first-round picks will fare might not be known for years. What is known, though, is how well Big 12 players have done when they are selected in the first round. With that in mind, here is a ranking -- from worst to best -- of the Big 12’s best first-round draft classes over the past 10 years.

2008: It’s all about quantity, and a little bit of quality. In 2008, the Big 12 only produced one first-round pick, Talib. He has not produced dramatic returns in the NFL. In the past two years, he has only started nine games. He was somewhat productive for Tampa Bay in the previous three seasons, starting 41 games and playing in 53. But, again, he was the only Big 12 player taken in the first round in 2008.

2006: Vince Young is working out at Texas’ pro day at the end of March. Enough said. Davin Joseph and Michael Huff have been solid producers. But when the No. 3 overall pick is out of the league and having to work out at his alma mater's pro day, it means it was a bad year for the Big 12 in the first round of the NFL draft.

2004: Tommie Harris and Marcus Tubbs, the two defensive tackles taken in the first round, were productive for a few years, with Harris selected to Pro Bowls in 2005, '06 and ’07 before he was beset by injuries. Tubbs lasted four seasons in the NFL. Roy Williams had 5,715 receiving yards but never lived up to the hype he generated coming out of Texas. Rashaun Woods played only two years and had seven career catches.

2005: The lack of numbers might be what hurts this group the most. Cedric Benson, Jammal Brown, Derrick Johnson, Mark Clayton and Fabian Washington all proved they could play at the NFL level. Benson has had three 1,000-yard-plus seasons. Johnson is one of the top linebackers in the game. Brown remains a solid option on the offensive line. Clayton played seven NFL seasons; Washington played six. But there were only five guys selected and that isn't enough to push 2005 to the top of the list.

[+] EnlargeAdrian Peterson
Andy Clayton King/Getty ImagesThe Big 12's 2007 draft class wasn't huge, but did feature 2012 NFL MVP Adrian Peterson.
2009: Every Big 12 player selected in the first round in 2009 has produced and appears to be poised to continue to do so. Only Jason Smith didn’t have a start last year. But the offensive lineman still played in all 16 games for the New York Jets. Michael Crabtree, Brian Orakpo, Josh Freeman, Jeremy Maclin, Brandon Pettigrew and Ziggy Hood are all starters for their respective teams.

2007: It wasn’t the biggest group, but it did include Adrian Peterson, so there could be some quibbling that maybe 2007 should be higher in the rankings. Throw in Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin and the debate could get even more heated. Adam Carriker was also taken this year. He started his career strong but suffered an injury and only played in two games last season.

2003: Kevin Williams has been the standout of this group. The defensive tackle has started every game but four in his 10-year career. Terence Newman has been effective as a defensive back, first in Dallas and last season in Cincinnati. Tyler Brayton played at least 15 games on the defensive line in a nine-year career. Ty Warren played eight solid seasons for New England but tailed off last season with Denver. Andre Woolfolk lasted four seasons, mostly as a reserve.

2011: Von Miller, who was the highest pick among Big 12 players this year, has proved to be the top player so far. Aldon Smith is not far behind. Add in Prince Amukamara, Phillip Taylor, who when healthy is a starter at defensive tackle, a somewhat productive Blaine Gabbert and Nate Solder as well as reliable backups Danny Watkins and Jimmy Smith and this proved to be a successful year for Big 12 first-round selections.

2012: Three quarterbacks, and all were not only starters as rookies but also made huge differences for their respective squads. Clearly, Robert Griffin III made the most dramatic impact, but Ryan Tannehill, with the Dolphins, and Brandon Weeden, with Cleveland, were both solid. Kendall Wright and Justin Blackmon each had 64 catches, for Tennessee and Jacksonville, respectively. Blackmon was targeted more (133 to 104) and had 200 more receiving yards.

2010: This list maybe doesn’t have the star power and is not littered with offensive playmakers, but six of the nine players picked were selected for the 2013 NFL Pro Bowl: Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Thomas, Russell Okung and Jermaine Gresham. And the other three players -- Dez Bryant, Sam Bradford and Sean Weatherspoon -- were vital pieces for their respective teams.
This time last year, we broke down who in the Big 12's would most likely hit the benchmarks for their positions in 2011. The quarterbacks came first.

Here's what I wrote then.

The clear line designating the best at the position is 3,000 yards. Plenty will top the number, and some from the Big 12 will even hit 4,000 yards.

In 2011, 39 quarterbacks broke the 3,000-yard mark.

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Well, it's time to grade the prediction.

I broke down all 10 teams' prospects at having a 3,000-yard passer, but picked only six to do it.
1. Landry Jones, Oklahoma -- Jones topped 3,000 yards as a freshman filling in for an injured Sam Bradford in 2009 and had 4,718 yards last season, almost 500 yards more than anyone else in the Big 12. He also had the most attempts of any quarterback in college football. It's safe to say he's got this.
Final yardage tally: 4,463 yards

Thoughts: Easy pick here. Not much to say.
2. Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State -- Weeden is probably a good bet to clear 4,000 yards, too. He had 4,277 last season and brings back a Biletnikoff Award winner at receiver in Justin Blackmon. He and Jones should be locked in a season-long battle for a spot as the first-team All-Big 12 quarterback, among other honors.
Final 2011 yardage tally: 4,727 yards

Thoughts: Weeden definitely won that battle with Jones, but RG3 surpassed even the highest expectations for him in 2011, winning the Heisman. Still, no contest on the 3,000-yard mark.
3. Seth Doege, Texas Tech -- Texas Tech has had a 3,000-yard passer for 11 consecutive seasons, the longest streak in college football. Coach Tommy Tuberville wants to run it more, but not that much more. Doege looks likely to slide into a spot as the next in line for two seasons.
Final 2011 yardage tally: 4,004 yards

Thoughts: His offense sort of crumbled around him thanks to injuries -- his top two running backs and receivers both missed significant time, and the offensive line was banged up, too -- but Doege did a great job continuing the quarterback tradition at Tech as a first-year starter.
4. Robert Griffin III, Baylor -- Griffin's 3,501 yards was his first 3,000-yard season, and he showed lots of development as a passer during his sophomore campaign. That should continue as a junior in 2011, and he's got a deep, talented receiving corps.
Final 2011 yardage tally: 4,293 yards

Thoughts: Well, undershot this one. We all knew RG3 had upside, but legitimate Heisman potential? He surprised us all with that one. He also helped Kendall Wright win the Big 12 receiving title, too.
5. Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M -- Tannehill only had 1,638 yards last season, but he did it in just more than six games. With Jeff Fuller and a handful of other capable receivers, he should clear the mark easily in 2010.
Final 2011 yardage tally: 3,744 yards

Thoughts: Tannehill had his problems in 2011, namely throwing a league-high 15 interceptions and stumbling to a 7-6 record, but he was productive. He parlayed his season and a half of experience into a top-10 draft pick. Not bad. Fuller, though, was another story. We'll get to the receivers later.
6. Tyler Gabbert/James Franklin, Missouri -- I don't have much doubt that the pair will combine for at least 3,000 yards, but Missouri has a handful of solid running backs and both look like capable quarterbacks. If one struggles, the other could fill in and leave the Tigers without a 3,000-yard man at the helm.
Final 2011 yardage tally: 2,872 yards

Thoughts: Gabbert transferred just weeks after this was written, but Franklin took a hold of the job and played well as a sophomore. I knew he'd run and change Mizzou's offense a bit, but I'm not sure I expected him to run as much as he did (217 rushes). He handled it well, but it was surprising. He threw the ball 98 fewer times in 2011 (377 attempts) than Blaine Gabbert did in 2010 (475 attempts).

I didn't believe Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State or Kansas would have a 3,000-yard passer. None of them did. In fact, none of them even had a 2,000-yard passer, even though K-State and Kansas started the same quarterback in each game all season.

All things considered, how would you grade my picks?

Thoughts on the NFL draft first round

April, 27, 2012
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Good to see a handful of Big 12 names called in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday night.

What did I think? Glad you asked.
  • No surprises in the top two picks, which have both been essentially in the can for weeks. A nice touch by Robert Griffin III with the Redskins socks, but the slogan seemed a little cheesy. Cheesy or not, it's true. Griffin and 31 other gifted athletes caught their dreams on Thursday night. Congratulations to all. Reaching this point isn't easy, even for the most physically gifted players.
  • Well, it looked like Justin Blackmon would catch passes from one former Big 12 rival quarterback (Sam Bradford, St. Louis), but instead, he may do it for another. Former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert gets a much-needed target, but he'll have to re-earn his job after an awful rookie season. St. Louis seemed like a better fit for Blackmon, rather than the Jaguars, but Blackmon's a true game-changer in my book. I think he'll have an effect wherever he goes.
  • Miami got its man in Ryan Tannehill. For as much talk as his inflated draft stock has gotten in the past few weeks, this looked pretty likely. Now, we'll see him in action. Like most others, I love Tannehill's upside. With some experience, he could be great. But he needs time. He wasn't outstanding in college, and he's obviously inexperienced at the quarterback position. There are zero questions from me about his physical skills, but I like the chances for his decision-making -- which had major, major issues in 2011 -- to improve if he gets lots of practice reps rather than being thrown in the fire immediately.
  • Sheesh, WVU. Y'all got on me for saying you wouldn't have a first-rounder in this post, but it was mostly a throwaway phrase, not a prediction. Most places I'd read had Bruce Irvin as a second- or third-rounder. I obviously didn't see him play much, and don't really have any thoughts on his play. But it's not like I was knocking it, either. I don't exactly keep track of the draft stock of players I never really saw play. Sorry about that. When it's things I'm truly covering, I pay attention. Well, most of the time, anyway. Or something. Either way, my mistake on that one.
  • What a great spot in Tennessee for Kendall Wright. I'm not sure I could ever see him carrying an NFL offense, but Wright's good enough to work underneath and stretch the field. I don't buy him much as a game-breaker against No. 1 corners all season, but in a supporting role? Huge, huge pickup for the Titans. As he matures, he may just prove himself as a true No. 1 receiver. His size is the biggest question for me, but he's got great hands and great speed. I just might draft Wright as a late-round sleeper in my fantasy draft next fall.
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  • Huge congrats to Brandon Weeden, too. The guy deserved it. There's no question in my mind he's a first-round talent and a guy who could be a star at the next level. Not many people gave him a chance to be a first-round pick, but I think the more teams saw of him on and off the field, the more they fell in love with him. It's not hard to see why. The age issue probably would have made me wait until the second round to take him, but if he succeeds, nobody will care. Props to Weeden for handling the age issue so well the past two years. Dude's been asked about it no less than 50,000 times, and he always seemed to handle it with grace. Not sure I could do that. I don't know what his career holds, and it's going to be difficult in Cleveland without many offensive weapons around him, but he's a smart, good decision maker with a humongous arm. That's plenty enough to make an impact.

Gauging what DGB means to Mizzou

February, 3, 2012
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Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation's top receiver (and arguably its top talent), chose Mizzou.

It's a simple statement, but one that's odd to say considering college football's history and the national power-driven state of college football recruiting.

What's that mean? Grantland's Robert Mays tried to put it in perspective.
There have been players in the past who were touted as the ones that would swing the program’s future. Blaine Gabbert was the highly recruited, big-name quarterback that Chase Daniel never was. But it took Bill Callahan getting fired from Nebraska for Gabbert to wind up in Columbia. The Tigers were DGB’s top choice, and it was a choice he made with the world of college football watching. It was an announcement that can reverberate. For the next three seasons (at least), recruits will visit Columbia and ask: “Why should I come to Mizzou?” And the guy who was the best high school football player in the country will be there to answer them.

Good stuff from a guy who knows Mizzou well. Check it out.

Season report card: Missouri

January, 4, 2012
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We're offering up grades for each team in the Big 12 after their seasons conclude, so here's a look at how the 8-5 Missouri Tigers graded out in 2011.

More report cards:
OFFENSE: This season was supposed to be all about James Franklin. Could the sophomore -- used almost exclusively as a runner as a freshman in 2010 -- prove his worth as a passer and become the next in a long line of great Missouri quarterbacks?

That answer proved to be yes. Franklin is no Brad Smith: He is a better passer, though he lacks Smith's speed. He is no Blaine Gabbert: He's a better runner, but he lacks Gabbert's accuracy.

Above all, though, Franklin was productive. Missouri's offense flourished for most of the season. It's easy to get frustrated when you see the Tigers were only able to muster a fifth-place finish in total offense in the conference, but consider that is good for No. 12 nationally.

We haven't even talked about Henry Josey yet. Receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew saw their production take a huge dip this season; a predictable result with Franklin carrying the ball 217 times for 981 yards. He threw for 2,872 yards and 21 touchdowns, too, but Josey was the offense's most valuable player this season. De'Vion Moore and Kendial Lawrence went down with injuries, and Missouri found out the Big 12's best running back was third on their depth chart. He led the league by averaging more than eight yards a carry, and despite suffering a catastrophic knee injury against Texas, he led the Big 12 in rushing for three full weeks after the injury.

The Tigers got it done offensively, but unfortunately for them, offenses are graded on a curve in the Big 12. Other teams in the league set the curve very, very high.

GRADE: B+

DEFENSE: The defensive line was the team's most hyped unit, and even though it didn't perform to the level many expected, the rest of the unit overachieved. A secondary that replaced both corners still ranked fifth in pass defense. Texas and Kansas State were the only Big 12 teams better at defending the big play, and the Tigers were among the league's most physical teams.

They did all of this without a single player approaching the top tier of defensive talent in the Big 12 and put just one player on the first-team All-Big 12 defense (DT Dominique Hamilton). The team's top producer in 2010, DE Brad Madison, played with a painful injury to his inside shoulder all season that limited his effectiveness. But the Tigers' unit was certainly solid enough to help support a prolific offense.

GRADE: B

OVERALL: Eight wins is the same result that Daniel and Gabbert endured in their first years as starter. Ultimately, the mark was about where Missouri belonged with the type of season it had. The Tigers missed a game-winning field goal against what ended up being a six-win Arizona State team, and lost a heartbreaker at Baylor, too. It also erased deficits to beat Texas A&M at home and forced a late turnover to beat Texas Tech in the final minute. All four of those games could have gone either way. Missouri split them.

The Tigers are headed to the SEC East next year, where at least in the immediate future, it looks like a division contender. This year wasn't a dream season, but it could set up something special. The Tigers rallied from a 3-4 start to win five of their final six games and salvage a good season. There wasn't a truly impressive win in the bunch, but all five losses came to teams ranked at the time.

FINAL GRADE: B+

Big 12: Preseason polls vs. final finish

December, 20, 2011
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You hear it every year, but let's take an official look back at the Big 12 preseason media poll, compared to actual finish by season's end.

Each team's finish is compared with its preseason projection in parentheses.

1. Oklahoma (-3): Oklahoma received 41 of 43 first-place votes, but suffered its first loss at home against Texas Tech on Oct. 22, in its fourth conference game. It finished 6-3 in Big 12 play and 9-3 overall, tied for third with Baylor, but Baylor held the tiebreaker over the Sooners via its 45-38 win on Nov. 19. The Sooners had one final chance to win the Big 12, but lost 44-10 to Oklahoma State on Dec. 3.

2. Texas A&M (-5): Texas A&M earned one first-place vote and was just two total points ahead of Oklahoma State. Essentially, if one more voter had placed A&M No. 3 and OSU No. 2, the teams would have tied for second. The Aggies lost the inside track to what they hoped was a Big 12 title when Oklahoma State erased a 17-point halftime deficit to win at Kyle Field. That was just the start of a season-long trend. A&M would lose four more games with a double-digit halftime lead and another (Texas) with a double-digit first-half lead. The Aggies finished 6-6 and 4-5 in the Big 12, good for seventh in the Big 12.

3. Oklahoma State (+2): The Cowboys were a contender in the preseason, but Texas A&M and Oklahoma looked like more complete teams. Nope. OSU ascended to an outright Big 12 title, beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the process. The lone loss to Iowa State (on the road in double overtime) kept them out of the BCS National Championship Game, but didn't keep them from making history.

4. Missouri (-1): Missouri's defense was good, but perhaps not as good as expected in the preseason. Offensively, the passing game missed Blaine Gabbert's arm, but James Franklin's legs filled in nicely. Kansas State and Baylor overachieved, and kept the Tigers from landing right where most expected. The Tigers' 4-1 finish put them fifth in the conference at 7-5 and 5-4.

5. Texas (-1): This was no 5-7 campaign, but Texas slid to a 1-3 finish in part due to offensive injuries. The defense was solid once again, leading the Big 12 in total defense for a fifth consecutive season, and by a wide margin (67 yards per game) this year. Texas got a win against A&M, but finished sixth in the Big 12 with its 7-5 record and 4-5 mark in conference play.

6. Baylor (+3): Robert Griffin III and the Bears did things few thought possible. I was one of a few who had the Bears fifth (Texas was 71 points ahead of Baylor in the preseason poll) and thought they'd finish above the Longhorns, but a third-place finish in the Big 12 surprised just about everyone. That's what happens when you have a Heisman winner at quarterback, and the Big 12's leading receiver and rusher.

7. Texas Tech (-2): The Red Raiders looked like a seven-win team to me in preseason, but injuries knocked them down to a 5-7 team, the first losing season since 1992. Texas Tech amazingly finished just three total points below Baylor in the preseason poll, but then again, Tech had never lost to Baylor in Big 12 play. The Red Raiders bring back a lot next season, but this season was just short of a disaster.

8. Kansas State (+6): Here is your big overachiever this season. The Wildcats lost a heartbreaker in Stillwater to OSU and were blown out at home by Oklahoma. They won the other 10 games for the first double-digit win season since 2003 and an outright second-place finish in the Big 12. They nearly won a share of the Big 12 title, but Oklahoma's Bedlam loss stuck Kansas State in second. The Wildcats will be Big 12 title contenders next season, but will try and shake off a BCS snub to beat Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

9. Iowa State (+1): Iowa State is the big testament to the Big 12's depth. The Cyclones knocked off No. 2 Oklahoma State in the biggest win in school history, storming the field to celebrate bowl eligibility along with the nationally televised upset. Three seasons under Paul Rhoads could have equaled three bowl trips if not for one failed fake extra point that was this close to working. Unbelievable run for the Cyclones, who once again, were given no shot to go 6-6 this season.

10. Kansas (0): The Jayhawks were amazingly the only team in the Big 12 that finished where it was picked in the preseason, though they did underachieve by a bit. Kansas started 2-0 before losing its final 10 games, including six losses by at least 30 points. Not pretty. New coach Charlie Weis' first task is simple: Get the Jayhawks out of the basement. Right now, they're buried way, way down there.
Henry Josey and Malcolm BrownUS PresswireTexas' Malcolm Brown and Missouri's Henry Josey have revitalized rushing attacks.
Missouri and Texas made their living with NFL quarterbacks behind center over the last half decade. Vince Young and Colt McCoy at Texas and Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert at Missouri took the program to new heights and did so with thousands of pass attempts.

This season? Both programs are grounded.

"There’s a little bit of a contrast there with all the wide-open offenses and the quarterbacks and the passing yards we’ve had this year and traditionally in this league the last few years," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. "Both of us run the ball here pretty good."

A bit of an understatement, perhaps.

While a pair of wide-eyed, first-year starters in David Ash and James Franklin take snaps, Missouri and Texas have developed the Big 12's top two running games.

"We can throw it well, but we’d like to be at least 50-50 or 60-40 run to pass," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "And if you can run the ball and and stop the run in college football, you’ve got a chance."

Texas has averaged better than 246 yards a game on the ground this year, enjoying the fruits of consecutive 400-yard weeks on the ground for the first time since 1977.

Missouri, meanwhile, averages just fewer than 245 yards a game this year. The Big 12's next best, Kansas State, averages just 217 yards a game.

Both teams, best known for slinging it this decade, rank outside the Big 12's top half in passing offense.

"We didn’t need the passing game much the last two weeks. We threw it some and threw it downfield," Brown said. "But we do feel like over the next four weeks here, we’re going to have to be more balanced. We’ll still be physical. We’ll still run the ball, because that’s what we’re doing best right now, but we also feel like when people are stacking the box, it’ll alleviate some of the pressure in the passing game."

Both have the advantage of running quarterbacks. Ash ripped off runs of 47 and 18 yards against Texas Tech and Missouri's Franklin is 11th in the Big 12 with 599 rushing yards, second among quarterbacks behind Kansas State's Collin Klein.

Franklin also leads the team with 10 touchdowns, third in the Big 12. The Tigers' Henry Josey leads the Big 12 in rushing with 1,149 yards, fifth nationally and 234 more yards than any Big 12 back.

The Longhorns are led by freshman Malcolm Brown and his 635 yards, but even though he was sidelined in Saturday's game, fellow freshman Joe Bergeron exploded for 191 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.

"We’re doing a pretty consistent job of running the football, but I don’t think our offense is very consistent," Pinkel said of his 4-5 team. "We’re very hot and cold. We’re having to work through that, and we’re not working through it fast enough."

For both coaches, the aim is balance. Brown cited his Rose Bowl champion team in 2004 that was outside the top 100 in passing and second nationally in rushing. With McCoy at the helm, those numbers were reversed.

Texas has shown the ability to do both with its offense, just rarely in the same season.

"We’d like to get back to where we do both really well," Brown said.

The Longhorns finally have the physical running game they looked for last year, but outside of handing it over to offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and offensive line coach Stacy Searels, Brown couldn't venture a guess as to why it's worked this year and didn't in 2010, when the Longhorns won just five games.

But expect this game to look markedly different than the Big 12 matchups the league has become known for.

"It will be a great test," Brown said, "a real physical game and a fun game to watch."

Who are the rising stars at quarterback?

November, 2, 2011
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ESPN's Brock Huard named his five quarterbacks in the "next wave" of stars, and topping the list?

None other than Missouri's James Franklin.

Writes Huard:
Sturdy, strong and athletic, Franklin is the most powerfully built of the quarterbacks mentioned here. He's been thrown right into the fire this season with road tests against the Arizona State Sun Devils, Oklahoma Sooners, Kansas State Wildcats and Texas A&M Aggies in his first eight games as a starter.

Franklin had his first signature win in College Station last weekend, and the early adversity he has faced in his career will pay dividends for him and the program in the future. Franklin has weathered the brutal schedule with 13 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 61 percent completion percentage, plus an additional 542 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He is calm, oblivious at times in the pocket, and his unwavering poise has won over head coach Gary Pinkel.

"This guy has a chance to be special," Pinkel said. "He is further ahead at this time in his career than the three quarterbacks who preceded him."

In case you didn't know, Pinkel's last three quarterbacks (Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert) are all making a nice living in the NFL.

I'd agree with Huard. Franklin's been outstanding, one of a handful of great young quarterbacks in the league. Franklin's unorthodox passing mechanics present obvious questions, but he's hung tough in some really difficult situations. The 20-yard touchdown run against Texas A&M last week was arguably his best highlight of the seasons, with apologies to a clutch touchdown pass to Marcus Lucas against Arizona State.

Consider, also, that Franklin lacks an elite target at receiver or tight end like Danario Alexander in Gabbert's first year as starter or Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman or Martin Rucker in Daniel's first season.

Franklin's unusual calm in the pocket can look uncomfortably serene at times, but I see it working to his advantage in the future as his experience and accuracy grows.

His future looks promising, but he's not the only one in the Big 12. Which first-year starter has impressed you most this season? Vote in our poll.
Kansas State gave up 12 plays of longer than 10 yards to Baylor. It gave up five touchdown passes, including four that were longer than 34 yards.

But the Wildcats won, and bulled their way into the Top 25. Despite the struggles, they did it with defense.

"We played really well when we had to play really well," said coach Bill Snyder, "and you’d like to think that’s the entirety of the ballgame, but you know, when our defense had their backs to the wall, they responded extremely well."

[+] EnlargeTysyn Hartman
Scott Sewell/US PresswireTysyn Hartman and the defense have been a big reason for Kansas State's 4-0 start.
Trailing by two, it forced the first interception of the season by the Big 12's most prolific passer, Robert Griffin III. With a one-point lead, it shut down the Bears' offense to win the game.

"The key was getting stops when we need them," said safety Tysyn Hartman.

How'd that happen? The Wildcats had experience under pressure. A late goal-line stand preserved a shutout against Kent State. The Wildcats beat Miami a week later with a goal-line stand.

A bigger, badder opponent on a bigger stage? Same result.

"When the game’s on the line, when the shutout was on the line, we were getting stops," Hartman said. "Whether it be on the goal line or in a key situation, we’re playing well."

The Wildcats are still just 12 total yards behind the Big 12's leader in total defense (Texas), and give up an average of 56 fewer yards per game than the Big 12's No. 3 defense, Oklahoma.

This week, a new challenge: Missouri, whose quarterback racked up almost 400 yards against the Sooners.

"He’s a good quarterback. I know he had a lot of pressure and big shoes to fill behind Blaine Gabbert, and he’s done a great job so far," Hartman said. "Griffin has a lot of speed -- he’s a track guy -- but I think they’re going to use Franklin to run the ball more. He’s a big guy and he can take those hits."

Franklin already has 260 yards rushing and four touchdowns, which ranks 12th in the Big 12.

Last week's win wasn't enough. The defense still enters Saturday's game angry. The Wildcats are ranked and at home, but are 2.5-point underdogs.

"I told our coaches [Sunday] night, these people spend a lot of money and make a lot of money, and they don’t just do it off the cuff. They have ample information to make those decisions," Snyder said. "I told the team I was quite certain we would be the underdog in this ballgame."

If Kansas State hasn't been fully validated by wins over Baylor and Miami, Missouri would be a nice next step to assuming the Tigers' previous status as Big 12 title dark horse.

"We felt like we had a lot to prove last week, but it’s kind of still the same way," Hartman said. "People picked us to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 and we don’t finish there. We’ve had to get used to that underdog role and it’s no different this week."

The road to shedding that role is driven by the Wildcats' defense.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 2

September, 11, 2011
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A look back on the week that was.

Iowa State is once again the Big 12's most endearing program. The Cyclones trailed five times against in-state rival Iowa at Jake Trice Stadium on Saturday. But with a handful of brand-new faces on offense and some of the league's most underrated defensive talents, it rallied to beat the Hawkeyes in triple overtime. The second-biggest crowd ever at Iowa State showed up, and the Cyclones put on a heck of a show for the brand-new scoreboard towering above the Jacobson Building. Did we see Steele Jantz write the first chapter of what could be a legendary legacy at Iowa State? If so, you couldn't ask for a better start, giving coach Paul Rhoads his third landmark victory in three years at Iowa State. Shades of Seneca, no doubt. I had Iowa State last in my power rankings last week. Expect upward movement this week.

[+] EnlargeIowa State's Steele Jantz
Reese Strickland/US PRESSWIREIowa State quarterback Steele Jantz completed 25 of 37 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa.
Oklahoma State is all kinds of legit. Brandon Weeden was even better than he was last year, Justin Blackmon was his usual self and Joseph Randle emerged as a big time running back, nearly notching 100 yards rushing and receiving in a single game. The defense, too, looked great. Arizona isn't a great team, and yes, it was missing Juron Criner, but the Cowboys are looking the part of Big 12 contender. We'll see how they measure up to Tulsa next week (Oklahoma was up on the Golden Hurricane 44-7 entering the fourth quarter) before a huge game in College Station in Sept. 24 that is easily one of the most important games of the year in the Big 12.

Missouri might be a victim of its own success. The stars just haven't quite aligned for the Tigers. Blaine Gabbert absolutely should have left for the NFL, and he'll have success there. But Missouri's most experienced team in a long time is being led by a first-year quarterback in James Franklin. Franklin was big time more often than not in Friday night's OT loss to Arizona State, but Missouri is a top 10 team with Gabbert. Without Gabbert, it may tumble out of or toward the bottom of the top 25. Franklin's going to be very good, but Gabbert was already very good. Franklin took huge steps on Friday night, and showed lots of promise, but Missouri has to wonder what could have been. This isn't a rebuilding year. It could have been "The Year" for Missouri, despite obvious struggles at cornerback throughout the night. Missouri's going to be a very good team, but after Friday? It's pretty clear the Tigers are going to have to wait at least another year before being a major factor in the Big 12 title race. As the only Big 12 team with a loss two weeks into the season, I'll leave it up to you all to crack a "You are the weakest link" joke. There's nothing wrong with a flashback to 2003.

Kansas will be able to scare -- if not beat -- some Big 12 teams this year. Northern Illinois isn't a juggernaut, but last year's Kansas team doesn't win this game. The improvement is there for Turner Gill in Year 2, and it starts at quarterback. Jordan Webb had a big night (281 yards, 3 TD), but it doesn't end there. The Jayhawks are much more athletic everywhere, but especially at the skill positions. Darrian Miller and James Sims combined for 167 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Eight receivers caught passes, led by D.J. Beshears with seven catches for 70 yards and two scores, including the game-winner. Kansas is putting together the nuts and bolts of a team that has what it takes to win the Big 12. They've got a long way to go, but the Jayhawks are headed in the right direction.

Texas is ready to slop for wins. On the field, Texas looked pretty similar to what it had last year. Outside of a freed D.J. Monroe, Malcolm Brown doing a good job of living up to hype and Jaxon Shipley making Big 12 fans groan by catching passes from Case McCoy, Texas is a team with a strong defense and unremarkable offense. But something was obviously different on Saturday night, and it's toughness. Mack Brown drew on his team's experience last year against UCLA in a halftime speech players raved about after the game. Early in the season, it trailed 13-3 to a mediocre team. It was blown out, 34-12. Brown doesn't have to wonder if last year's team would have won Saturday's game. He knows it wouldn't. Why the difference? I'm chalking it up to humility from an awful 2010, and new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie. "If you can get everybody to run up those bleachers at the very top, and everybody on the team finishes? That's how it is, man," said running back D.J. Monroe. Monroe compared losing at home last year -- which Texas did five times -- to having somebody take out his mother. Texas wants to "protect this house," which they spent the summer gaining an intimate knowledge of with a souped-up conditioning regimen from Wylie. "That's a shoutout to Coach Wylie," Monroe said of his comments. "After A&M, it was the worst feeling ever, and we don't want to experience that ever again. If we go out and play our hearts out every single night, I feel like that can be a result."

The Big 12 is the home for drama. And I'm not even talking about the realignment rumpus that dominated the week's headlines. OK, yeah I am. But when Baylor isn't spearheading a litigious standoff that may force Texas A&M's route to the SEC to take a detour through a courtroom, these teams make for some pretty outstanding theater on the field. Texas rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat BYU, 17-16, on a late touchdown. Missouri erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and missed a game-winning field goal with seconds remaining before losing in overtime to Arizona State. Kansas beat Northern Illinois on a six-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left that had to be reviewed--and was upheld. But Iowa State topped them all, knocking off rival Iowa in triple overtime, despite trailing on five different occasions throughout the day. Let's do it again next week. College football, we missed you this summer. Never leave us again.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 1

September, 4, 2011
9/04/11
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[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiLandry Jones and Oklahoma opened the season with a strong performance against Tulsa.
1. Oklahoma is clicking, and deserves the No. 1 spot for now. Oklahoma was good everywhere and great in a few spots before racing to a 44-7 lead entering the fourth quarter against a 10-win team from a year ago. Bob Stoops is happy with all three phases of his team. Outside of Travis Lewis, the Sooners are pretty healthy and have two weeks to prepare for a showdown in Tallahassee with Florida State on Sept. 17. Life is good in Norman.

2. Baylor is going to be tough to beat. Much tougher than in 2010. What part do you want to be most impressed by? Baylor's rapid-fire offense that racked up a 47-23 lead in the fourth quarter against TCU? Or the gutsiness it showed after a pair of three-and-outs and a fumble cost them that lead, and the Bears rallied? Harp on that rough fourth quarter if y0u must, but the real Baylor is a lot closer to what we saw the rest of the game, and the Bears answered a huge test. Impressive. I picked the Bears to finish fifth in the Big 12 and called them a sleeper to win 10 games. I'm still feeling good about that, and Baylor is on my top 25 ballot for Week 2.

3. James Franklin is a work in progress. Franklin doesn't have the raw skill that Chase Daniel or Blaine Gabbert had, but he's a smart player that will have to figure out what works for him as he goes along. His mechanics aren't pretty, which is a bit jarring at Missouri after watching Blaine Gabbert for two seasons, but he's got the ability to win a lot of games. For now, his decision-making and accuracy need a lot of work, but as long as he can avoid big mistakes, Missouri is good enough to go a long way with him running the show.

4. The bottom of the Big 12? Well, it's not very good. At least not yet. Goodness, Big 12 North. For facing an uncertain conference future, you're sure not playing like it. Kansas took care of business and looked good, but the Jayhawks have a historic hoops program that should keep them afloat if the Big 12 breaks up. But Iowa State and Kansas State both needed late-game heroics to beat FCS opponents. I don't know if anyone's told them yet, but it's going to get a lot tougher very quickly. All three have to be better.

5. There is hope for Texas' offense. The Longhorns racked up 506 yards of offense, including 277 through the air and 239 on the ground. Here's guessing Texas leans on more of a running identity this season, but I loved what Malcolm Brown was able to do. He might never win a Heisman, but he's heading for a solid career in Austin. Additionally, Jaxon Shipley is the real deal. The best news, though? This offense looks like it at least has a direction and knows what it wants to be, which last season's team couldn't claim at any point.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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Here are ten things I'm keeping an eye on in Week 1 of Big 12 football.

1. Garrett Gilbert. Everything else aside, Gilbert is ultimately the one guy who will decide how far Texas gets this season. Or, at least whoever Texas' quarterback is by midseason. Gilbert needs to play well to a) make sure he's that guy and b) help Texas rebound from last year's debacle.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireThe success of Texas' season likely rides on the shoulders of Garrett Gilbert ... or his replacement.
2. Does Baylor have a second go-to receiver? Josh Gordon is a huge loss. Everything pointed to a breakout year for the big receiver, but who's going to emerge as Robert Griffin III's other top target. Baylor has talent at the position, but it's going to help if one receiver makes his presence clear. Terrance Williams? Tevin Reese? Lanear Sampson? Bueller?

3. Oklahoma's safeties. Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin have a ton of potential, but they've got a tough test in Week 1. Last year, Oklahoma broke in two brand new corners against Utah State and nearly was upset on its home field. G.J. Kinne is a stud, and with both of last year's safeties in the NFL, are Harris and Colvin up for the task?

4. Weeden2Blackmon. Here's the deal: This game won't be close. But I love watching these two play. And they're going to be putting up some big highlights for the first time in eight months. Football! Finally!

5. James Franklin's arm. We've seen Franklin run plenty as a freshman playing behind Blaine Gabbert. But Missouri will go about as far as Franklin's arm will take them. His teammates have been impressed with what he's down through the air in the offseason. Will he validate them in the opener?

6. Steele Jantz's legs. Nobody outside Ames has really seen Jantz, a transfer from a California junior college, do much. But he won the starting job over the more experienced Jerome Tiller (before he was ruled academically ineligible for the season) and has Cyclones fans excited. Is he the dynamic playmaker Iowa State's offense has been missing?

7. Kansas State's running backs. Bill Snyder called it the closest competition on the team. The WIldcats have three co-starters, and third on the list is the Big 12 transfer with the most hype: Bryce Brown. Will he establish himself as the clear replacement for Daniel Thomas, who led the Big 12 in rushing the past two seasons?

8. Kansas' point total. Kansas simply needs to show it can execute. It did it against New Mexico State last year and briefly against Colorado, but this is largely the same team from last year, with a handful of new faces added. How much better is the offense? Good enough to compete in the Big 12? Because the Jayhawks weren't close in 2010.

9. Texas A&M's linebackers. Most of the attention is paid to quarterback Kyle Padron, but the Mustangs' 230-pound, rumbling running back Zach Line is no joke, either. He had at least 94 yards rushing in six of the past seven games in 2010, and the Aggies have a big hole at middle linebacker that Jonathan Stewart will try to fill.

10. Texas Tech's playcalling. Tommy Tuberville wants a new commitment to the running game, but where will that show up? The Red Raiders have what I think will be a good QB, but lots of unanswered questions at receiver next to a deep stable of running backs and a good offensive line. I'm also excited to see what freshman tight end Jace Amaro can do.
We're taking a look around at the biggest debuts in college football today, and although Missouri's Week 1 opponent doesn't jump off the marquee, James Franklin's debut will have a profound impact on the Big 12 race.

Miami (Ohio) will be our first long look at the Tigers quarterback charged with replacing NFL first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert.

Since taking over as the starter after Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer, his teammates have lauded the sophomore's touch passing, ability to pick up the offense and growing leadership.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAll eyes will be on James Franklin when the Tigers open their season on Saturday.
"I feel really prepared," Franklin told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I know the offense a lot better; now it’s just learning the other team’s defense and adjusting to what they run and the things they do so we can execute."

Franklin has the advantage of more talent around him than any other new quarterback in the league, which means more responsibility.

"Quarterback transitions are always the focal point, it always has been and it always will be," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told reporters on Monday. "Especially at our level with the quality of quarterbacks we've had here."

Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith didn't have the luxury of a more complete team, offensively and defensively, waiting for them when it was their turn to lead the Tigers.

Missouri will open the season in the top 25 but with the potential for a whole lot more.

How much more? That's ultimately up to Franklin. Helping him along are his two top pass-catchers, juniors T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew.

Miss a throw?

"Don't worry about it, James," they tell him.

Make a bad read or have a pass picked off?

"Forget about it," they tell him.

The real message is getting through.

"It meant a lot, because I know they’re trusting in me and encouraging me. They want me to get to greater heights," Franklin said. "We have a really good squad this year, and I think we can go far. That’s something they see that as well and they want it to happen and they want to move along faster so we can get there."

The ride starts Saturday.
James Franklin kept pleading. He kept hearing no.

First, he was too big.

"I was a little chubby, but I was taller than a lot of the other kids, too," he said.

In sixth grade, he weighed in at 185 pounds, 50 pounds over the 135-pound limit for his age group in Missouri, but was still allowed to play.

[+] EnlargeMissouri quarterback James Franklin
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREJames Franklin is ready to prove he can be the next great Missouri quarterback.
He played everywhere but quarterback in the fifth grade, his first year playing the game, but his gig in sixth grade?

Right tackle and defensive end. He wanted to be a quarterback.

"I’d always ask about it and they’d never let me play," he said. He was better suited elsewhere, they told him.

He moved south to Texas before seventh grade and rotated between duties as center, guard, running back, receiver, linebacker and his background in soccer earned him a job punting.

But still no quarterback. Eventually his duties were trimmed to wide receiver and defensive end, but by his freshman year, he'd stopped asking.

That's when he finally got his shot.

After a year as the team's backup and a tight end, he took the starting job.

Just four years later, he's about to take hold of a Top-25 team.

Fall camp was supposed to be the stage for a big-time quarterback battle, but Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer abbreviated the race.

"When he said he was leaving, I was in shock," Franklin said. "At the same time, I was like, now I need to step it up, because guys are going to be looking to me."

Gabbert still hasn't found a permanent home, but Franklin felt he was robbed of a chance to prove he could win the job.

"My main competition left, so it was kind of like it was given to me in a way," he said. "It’s not like I earned it."

So Franklin, perhaps the next in a line of great Missouri quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel, didn't have a job to win, but he had (and still has) plenty to prove.

"What I did during the summer was try and work harder to prove that I have earned it," he said. "I wanted to come into fall camp and make it look like I had earned it and execute the plays and offense and not that it was just given to me."

Part of the transition from being the backup to NFL first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to the Tigers starter has been piping up.

He's a far cry from Gabbert and his predecessor, Chase Daniel, both of whom grew up with quarterback seemingly written all over their genes.

The naturally quiet Franklin has been prodded by teammates T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, among others, to be the voice of a team with a chance to make plenty of people across the Big 12 listen in 2011.

"It meant a lot, because I know they’re trusting in me and encouraging me. They want me to get to greater heights," Franklin said of his receivers' tutelage. "We have a really good squad this year and I think we can go far. That’s something they see that as well and they want it to happen and they want to move along faster so we can get there."

Call it the final step from a lifelong transition from right tackle to quarterback. He's not asking to play the position any more.

Franklin's time has come.

Mailbag: Building a program, preseason polls

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
3:30
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Thanks for all the emails. Feel free to drop a few more in my box if you've got something to say.

Alex in Waterloo, Iowa, asked: I am a believer that Shontrelle Johnson will be a quality running back in the big 12. you ranked Knott tenth in the top 25. those are just a couple examples of the athletes Rhoads has brought in. Tech, A&M, OSU, MIZZOU and Kansas have all seen success in recent years. Do you see ISU reaching that level soon?

David Ubben: Maybe, but it's going to be awhile. Let's compare them with Missouri.

Missouri's program's rise began with excellence at one position: Quarterback. Obviously, that's the most important position on the field. Brad Smith got it going, Chase Daniel continued it and we saw even more with Blaine Gabbert last year. Missouri hasn't had a dropoff at that spot. If anything, it's gotten better, at least physically.

The Tigers stocked their team with big-time skill position talent around Daniel and saw huge heights for the program. Gabbert had similar talent around him, but he finally had a defense behind him last year. Missouri's built the program over the last 6-7 years piece by piece.

Iowa State? The only place their team stands out is at linebacker, which isn't hugely important in Big 12 play. If one of the new quarterbacks, Jerome Tiller or Steele Jantz, can emerge as a big time playmaker, then maybe, but until Iowa State can see improvement at more of the key positions, I don't see the program building to the point where others like Missouri, Oklahoma State or Texas A&M have gotten.

Tanner Singleton in Baton Rouge, La., asked: I hope you show some A&M love in what's left of the top 25 players count down!

DU: Ha, a warning: I've gotten a lot of emails about this. There won't be as much A&M love in the top 10 as some of the Aggies fans think.

Sorry.

Matt in Anchorage, Alaska, asked: How do you grade yourself on your rankings? Is today's "Top 25 Poll" your belief of how these teams will do this year, or just how good you believe they are right now? In other words, if your preseason picks were perfect, would these 25 teams be ranked in this same position at the end of the year in the "Final 25 Poll"? And if that's true, do you believe that Texas will finish the year outside of the Top 25?

DU: As with my top 25 every week, it's simply a reflection of how good I believe the teams are right now. It's not a prediction for the postseason. If I'm guessing right now, I think Texas finishes just outside the top 25 at the end of the year. I expect them to make it in the preseason poll, though.

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