Big 12: Blake Szymanski

Garrett GilbertAP Photo/Nati HarnikGarret Gilbert's experience may have given him the slight edge among the Texas quarterbacks.
A selection at quarterback often means a selection of style as well.

At Nebraska in 2010, Taylor Martinez's speed chained the more experienced Cody Green and Zac Lee to the Huskers bench. As a result, the Huskers offense looked markedly different, centered around emphasizing Martinez's speed in the zone read game while minimizing his pass attempts as necessary.

Kansas State's Collin Klein didn't win the quarterback job, but coach Bill Snyder gave the sophomore time on the field behind Carson Coffman thanks to his shifty, speedy feet.

Back in 2008, Robert Griffin's athleticism made it near impossible for Art Briles to stick with Miami transfer Kirby Freeman for more than three quarters of the season opener, giving way to a new era built on the legs of the league's best dual-threat quarterback.

At Texas? No such luck.

Offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin took ownership on Monday of Garrett Gilbert's selection, but it was not an easy decision in Austin this offseason.

"They’re all similar," coach Mack Brown told reporters on Monday.

Gilbert, Case McCoy, David Ash and Connor Wood are all over 6-foot-2 and only McCoy, at 200 pounds didn't fall between 219 and 222 pounds.

"They’re big, they’re strong, they’re smart. They’re very accurate passers," Brown said, "and that’s been one of the difficulties of separating them."

Gilbert's experience, however harrowing it may have been, is the only way to differentiate the four, save Ash's slight edge in mobility.

"There was a certain equality for them starting over in a new offense that’s very complicated," Brown said.

But it's likely that the complex offense would have looked almost identical regardless of who won the job. Which as Brown reiterated, complicates matters.

"This whole battle at quarterback has been very difficult because everybody has gotten better, and that's really what you want, and that's what we said from this position is we don't want to have a huge separation," Harsin told reporters on Monday. "We want it to be a difficult decision, and it was. And Garrett did a nice job from spring through summer into fall camp, and he's earned it."

A competition taking place between two wildly contrasting quarterbacks might have added to the intrigue, but though it complicated the selection process, it simplified the quarterbacks' criteria.

"Bryan Harsin has done a tremendous job of making sure that each have had their opportunities with the different levels of competition," Brown said. "Every pass that's been thrown in preseason has been charted. Every meeting has been charted about who missed a question and who got them right. Leadership has been a huge part of this. We've had competition in 3rd down and 4th downs on the practice field, and who did the best in those areas is a huge part of this."

There was no need to skew the scale. Identical quarterbacks means identical grading.

"He's just older. He's done it before, and that probably helped him as much as anything," Brown said of Gilbert, who started all 12 games last season, versus his competition, which has thrown a combined one career pass. It was incomplete, by the way. And thrown by McCoy in last season's opener against Rice, well before the season was lost.

The one thing about the quarterbacks that can't be identical? The results from last year, when Gilbert threw 17 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, more picks than all but one quarterback in the nation, Dwight Dasher at Middle Tennessee State. It has to be different if life in Austin is going to get any different this time around with a new coaching staff, a new offense, but the same quarterback.

"We talked very little about last year. It's something that's still in the back of your mind. ... You've got a bad taste in your mouth. I think each one of us do. But for me, I would say I can use it as motivation," Gilbert told reporters on Monday. "We don't talk about it. We don't think about it much. It's a new year. It's a new season, and so we're very excited about the prospect of moving forward."

Depth is first step to Baylor rise

March, 18, 2010
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WACO, Texas -- Baylor coach Art Briles couldn't contain his excitement before his team's first spring practice.

"I’m 800 years old, but I feel like a kid," he said.

Part of that excitement comes from the growth he sees in his team, and not just in individual players, but in his team as a whole. In short: depth.

"We have competition at every position and that is something that I couldn’t say a year ago, and certainly couldn’t say two years ago," Briles said. "Anytime you have that, it makes the football team better."

Baylor's depth begins at quarterback, where sophomore Nick Florence returns as the backup to Robert Griffin. Injuries to Griffin and last year's backup, Blake Szymanski, forced Florence into a starting role, one he held for seven games in his first season. Florence completed 62 percent of his passes for 1,786 yards and six touchdowns, but will have plenty of mistakes (nine interceptions) to learn from as a sophomore. Most importantly, it was Florence behind center for Baylor's only conference win. Florence set career highs with 427 passing yards and three touchdowns during the Bears' 40-32 victory at Missouri on Nov. 7.

"We’ve got a guy that has his feet wet," Briles said. "You don’t have to worry about stickin’ em in the water."

Junior Kendall Wright returns as Baylor's leading receiver, but a group of young receivers behind him like Lanear Sampson, Willie Jefferson and Terrance Williams, all sophomores, will spend all spring proving they deserve a starting spot.

Another heated competition to replace both safeties will take place every day this spring.

"I’m excited to see those young guys progress and see if they’re ready to get out there on Saturday when the crowd’s hollering," Briles said.

And the spring affords Briles the opportunity to watch those battles, instead of focusing on an opponent looming over a month away, as teams do in fall camps.

"All our concentration is directed toward our personnel," he said. "That's the beauty of it, because we're evaluating us."

Griffin's return brings energy back to Baylor

March, 17, 2010
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WACO, Texas -- After almost six months away from the practice field, Robert Griffin returned when Baylor opened its spring practice.

“It’s gonna be a good day,” Griffin said before strapping on his helmet and jogging onto the field inside the Allison Indoor Practice Facility on a rainy Tuesday.

Most of Waco likely agreed.

[+] EnlargeGriffin
Brian A. Westerholt/Getty ImagesRobert Griffin is excited about returning to work with his teammates.
Griffin didn’t look hobbled while working full-speed through Baylor’s various option attacks or throwing passes that still had his signature high velocity. He did practice with a bulky protective brace on his right knee underneath his white tights.

“I feel normal,” Griffin said. “I know it’s going to be a process before I’ll be back to where I was, but other than that, it’s not necessarily hard to run and cut.”

Griffin won’t take part in any full-contact drills, but coach Art Briles said any “controlled” drills would feature the 2008 Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

As a freshman, Griffin ran for 846 yards and 13 touchdowns and also threw for 2,091 yards, 15 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

“We won’t put him through any live contact or team activities where there is a chance that something could happen that we’re not ready for,” he said.

Baylor certainly wasn’t ready for Griffin’s torn ACL in just the third game of one of the Bears' most hyped seasons in recent history.

Before the injury, Griffin had improved on his freshman completion percentage by six points, and matched a career-high three touchdown passes against Northwestern State, coming back to play later in the game after the injury.

But the torn ACL discovered days later derailed Baylor’s season, and what began with a win over Wake Forest and hopes of ending a 14-year bowl drought ended with one conference win and more cries of “Wait ‘til next year.”

“It took a couple days to pick us back up,” said receiver Kendall Wright, who also added that Griffin now looks like he never suffered the injury. “It was my first time really catching from anybody else.”

Backup quarterback Blake Szymanski injured his shoulder later in the game, thrusting freshman Nick Florence into extensive action in seven games.

Until now, all Griffin could do was watch.

“It let me see things that I couldn’t see while I was playing,” Griffin said of the injury. “I actually got to sit out for a year, which I didn’t get to do when I first got here like most quarterbacks do. I think mentally in the game I’ll be further ahead than I was.”

Added Briles: “I certainly think it’s going to benefit him from now onto his career.”

Though Griffin won’t be on full display this spring, his goal now is simple: Inch as close as possible to his 2008 form, in hopes of surpassing it by fall.

“The longer out of surgery, the better you feel,” he said. “And that’s definitely working for me.”

Big 12's top 25 moments of 2009

December, 24, 2009
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I've always been intrigued by those end-of-the-year montages where videographers encapsulate an event or a season.

I've tried to do something similar for the Big 12 -- boiling down the conference's 2009 campaign into the 25 most significant moments of the regular season.

Here are my choices. Let me know if you think I've forgotten any. A bunch of good moments were left out, let me assure you.

Unfortunately for the conference, the most significant moments were off-the-field items like injuries and suspensions.

They aren't ranked in any order, although some assuredly are more important than others.


    Tim Heitman/US PresswireLosing Sam Bradford for most of the season derailed Oklahoma's shot at a Big 12 title.

  • Sam Bradford’s injury: Oklahoma’s hopes of claiming the BCS championship were abruptly detoured in the first half of the Sooners’ first game. Bradford was hit by BYU linebacker Coleby Clawson shortly before halftime, knocking him out of the Cougars' 14-13 season-opening victory. The legal hit caused a sprained AC joint in Bradford's right shoulder that kept him out for the next three games.
  • Bradford’s injury – part two: After successfully returning form injury, and leading the Sooners to a victory over Baylor in their conference opener, Bradford started strongly against Texas the following week. He directed a 77-yard scoring drive on the Sooners’ first possession for a 3-0 lead. On the next Oklahoma offensive play, the Sooners' hopes of a fourth straight Big 12 title were dealt a cruel ending. Texas cornerback Aaron Williams knocked Bradford out of the game with a devastating sack. Bradford landed on his shoulder and didn’t play the rest of the season, undergoing surgery several weeks later.
  • “I’m so proud to be your coach”: Without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and top rusher Alexander Robinson, and with a sapping flu bug, first-year Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads was overcome with his emotion in the locker room following his team's 9-7 upset of Nebraska. His heartfelt reaction captured by an ISU film crew became an immediate YouTube sensation. But something tells me that Bo Pelini will show it to his Nebraska team often before the Cornhuskers’ rematch in Ames next season.
  • Robert Griffin’s injury: Baylor’s worst fears were realized in the Bears’ 68-13 victory over Northwestern State when their stellar sophomore quarterback suffered a season-ending knee injury. It killed their hopes of snapping the conference’s longest bowl drought.
  • Todd Reesing is pulled late from Texas Tech game: Kansas appeared on the verge of a breakthrough road win at Texas Tech that would have qualified them for a bowl game. But the Jayhawks squandered a 21-14 lead entering the fourth quarter after two drives ended with fumbles by senior quarterback Todd Reesing. Coach Mark Mangino pulled Reesing for Kale Pick, saying he thought his quarterback was battered from the constant Tech pressure. Removing Kansas’ most decorated player foreshadowed the Kansas collapse the rest of the season. The Jayhawks lost the game 42-21 and the remaining four games on their schedule.
  • Blocked kick saves the Wildcats: Iowa State had pulled within a point of Kanas State with 23 seconds left, but Emmanuel Lamur blocked the ensuing conversion, preserving a 24-23 victory that catapulted the Wildcats into the North Division lead for much of the season.
  • Banks’ kickoff returns: Brandon Banks provided kickoff returns of 91 and 92 yards in less than 3 minutes to boost Kansas State past Tennessee Tech.
  • Colt McCoy's "too early" Heisman moment: Texas quarterback Colt McCoy was presumed to have locked up his Heisman with a 65-yard touchdown run through the middle of the Texas A&M defense, helping spark a 49-39 victory over the Aggies. It punctuated an effort in which McCoy accounted for 479 yards and five touchdowns against A&M. That was, until …

  • John Rieger/US PresswireNdamukong Suh dominated Big 12 opponents all season, but never more than in the Big 12 title game.

  • "Big Suh" dominates Texas: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh provided a dominating performance, and almost single-handedly pushed his team to the Big 12 title before losing 13-12 against Texas. Suh had a Big 12 title game record 4.5 sacks, and the Cornhuskers harassed McCoy into three interceptions and sacked him nine times. Goodbye Heisman for McCoy in a performance that undoubtedly sparked Suh's trip to the Heisman presentation at the same time.
  • Nebraska’s comeback in the rain against Missouri: The Tigers had dominated the first three quarters en route to a 12-0 lead. But Nebraska quarterback Zac Lee torched Missouri’s secondary for three touchdowns in a span of 202 seconds to spark a 27-12 victory. Lee had completed 9 of 27 passes heading into the fourth quarter.
  • Danario’s late-season explosion: Missouri wide receiver Danario Alexander progressed into the nation’s most explosive receiver during the final half of the season. He nearly became the first player in college football history to notch back-to-back-to-back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. He finished with 214 yards against Baylor, 200 against Kansas State, 173 yards against Iowa State and 233 yards against Kansas in his final four games.
  • Virginia Tech’s late rally against Nebraska: The Cornhuskers appeared poised to steal a victory at Virginia Tech despite an offensive attack that consisted of five Alex Henery field goals. But with less than 90 seconds remaining, Danny Coale got behind Matt O’Hanlon for an 81-yard reception from Tyrod Taylor. The Cornhuskers’ collapsed three plays later when Taylor hooked up with Dyrell Roberts on an 11-yard touchdown with 21 seconds left to cap the Hokies' 16-15 victory.
  • Nebraska’s fumble-fest against Iowa State: The Cornhuskers’ sputtering offense bottomed out in a 9-7 loss at Iowa State. The Cornhuskers started the day on offense with a fumble and finished with a Zac Lee interception on their final play. In between, there were six turnovers that doomed the Cornhuskers’ hopes, leading to the Cyclones’ first victory in Lincoln since 1977.
  • Broyles slices through the Cowboys: Oklahoma wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Broyles punctuated a 209-yard punt return effort with an 87-yard scoring return to lead the Sooners’ 27-0 victory over Oklahoma State, ending the Cowboys’ hopes of making a trip to a BCS game. His 316 all-purpose yards were the third-best effort in school history.
  • Tyler Hansen's redshirt season abruptly ends: After seeing a 14-10 halftime lead over Texas dissipate into a 24-14 deficit in one quarter, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins inserted quarterback Tyler Hansen into the lineup for the first time, ending thoughts that he would redshirt. The Buffaloes beat Kansas in their next game and Hansen remained in the starting lineup much of the rest of the season in front of Hawkins’ son, Cody.
  • Dez Bryant’s dismissal: Oklahoma State wide receiver Dez Bryant rebounded from nagging early-season injuries and appeared ready to help the Cowboys challenge for their first South Division title. He produced five touchdowns in OSU’s first three games. But he was ruled ineligible for the rest of the season on October 7 for violating an NCAA bylaw. Bryant failed to fully disclose his interactions with former NFL standout Deion Sanders to the NCAA.
  • The emergence of "Sticks" Sheffield: A 2-2 Texas Tech team looked in trouble when starting quarterback Taylor Potts suffered a concussion shortly before the half against New Mexico. Backup Steven “Sticks” Sheffield responded by completing his first three passes and punctuated that possession with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Alex Torres as time expired in the first half to boost Tech to a 14-7 lead. That sparked a run of four straight drives capped by touchdowns and a 48-28 victory. Tech won its next three games with Sheffield as a starter.
  • They can play defense at Tech: The offensive-minded Red Raiders led the conference with 34 sacks. Their defensive emergence was best typified in a late-stand against Baylor that preserved a 20-13 victory.
  • Florence’s comeback: Baylor freshman quarterback Nick Florence rallied the Bears from an 11-point halftime against Missouri to an eventual 40-32 victory. In their only conference victory, Florence passed for a school-record 427 yards and three touchdowns, overcoming a 468-yard passing effort by Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.
  • Cha'pelle's clutch pass defense: Colorado cornerback Cha’pelle Brown’s defense in the end zone preserved the Buffaloes’ 34-30 victory over Kansas. It was the loss that started the Jayhawks’ seven-game losing streak, costing them a bowl berth and ultimately Mark Mangino’s job.
  • Mangino's coaching gaffe: Nursing a three-point lead with 2:59 left, Mangino curiously went for three straight passes from his end zone against Missouri. On the final play, Reesing was sacked for a safety by Brian Coulter and Aldon Smith, setting up Grant Ressel’s 27-yard field goal on the last play to give Missouri a 41-39 victory.
  • Matt O’Hanlon’s trio of picks: Former walk-on safety O’Hanlon provided three interceptions, including the game-sealing one with 27 seconds left, to preserve Nebraska’s 10-3 victory over Oklahoma.

  • Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesHunter Lawrence's game-winning kick gave Colt McCoy, above, and the Longhorns reason to celebrate.

  • It’s just not only Suh, too: Nebraska defensive tackle Jared Crick was overshadowed most of the season playing next to Ndamukong Suh --except during Crick's record-breaking five-sack performance during a 20-10 win over Baylor. Crick tied the school record with seven tackles for losses and provided a fumble recovery in the fourth quarter that helped seal the victory.
  • Marquise Goodwin's clutch kickoff return: Texas A&M had just pulled within 42-39 of Texas, and had Kyle Field roaring after a 20-yard touchdown pass from Jerrod Johnson to Jeff Fuller. But freshman Marquise Goodwin, returning kickoffs only because of D.J. Monroe's suspension, silenced the crowd with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that iced the Longhorns' victory.

And how could we forget …
  • Hunter Lawrence’s field goal: After it appeared Texas had mismanaged its way to losing the Big 12 title game, one second was put back on the clock. Hunter Lawrence took advantage with a 46-yard field goal that gave the Lonhorns a 13-12 victory over Nebraska and a berth in the BCS title game. It was the first time in Lawrence’s career – dating back to pee-wee football – that he had ever attempted a game-winning kick.

Baylor season review

December, 9, 2009
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It had all the makings of a special season for Baylor.

A season-opening victory at Wake Forest convinced long-suffering Bears fans they really could go to a bowl game for the first time since 1994. Even a home loss to Connecticut didn’t diminish that excitement.

But in the following week the Bears’ hopes of stopping the Big 12’s longest bowl drought were snuffed out when standout sophomore quarterback Robert Griffin suffered a season-ending knee injury. It took the luster from an otherwise memorable 68-13 victory over Northwestern State.

Without Griffin, the Bears offense predictably struggled. Backup Blake Szymanski was also injured in the Northwestern State game, paving the way for freshman starter Nick Florence.

Despite his inexperience, Florence kept the offense humming and even threw for a school-record 427 yards and three touchdowns to pace a 40-32 upset victory over Missouri.

Efforts like those were few and far between for a Baylor offense that sputtered most of the time. The Bears ranked 103rd in scoring and 108th in rushing.

Other than the Missouri game, the Bears had trouble scoring against Big 12 opponents. They scored less than 14 points in seven of their eight conference games and produced an average of 10 points per game in the last three games.

The defense struggled as well, particularly late in the season. The Bears were blistered for 468 passing yards by Missouri and two weeks later yielded 375 rushing yards against Texas A&M. During the final four games of the season, the Bears allowed an average of 446.5 yards per game and 5.83 yards per play.

And with key defenders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake leaving, the Bears defense now becomes its biggest question.

Offensive MVP IR Kendall Wright

There’s a tendency to still pick Griffin because he means so much to the Bears. But as far as an actual production his season, inside receiver Kendall Wright was a key player no matter who was throwing him the ball. Wright led Baylor with 66 receptions, 740 receptions and produced four touchdowns. He caught at least one pass in every game, extending his streak to 24 games. And his numbers should pick up next season when Griffin is healthy.

Defensive MVP Joe Pawelek

He finished his career as one of the top defensive players in Baylor history, producing 422 tackles -- a total greater than any other active FBS player. Pawelek finished his career with 45 consecutive starts, capping his career with a 12-tackle effort against Texas Tech in his final game. He led the Bears with 109 tackles and also notched 14 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

Turning point: Sept 26 vs. Northwestern State

Robert Griffin’s injury changed everything about Baylor this season. The Bears' bowl hopes were iffy as soon as Griffin limped off the field after a tackle by Northwestern State’s Gary Riggs. An MRI later revealed he tore his ACL in his right knee causing him to miss the rest of the season. After that injury, the Bears lost seven of their last nine games to again fall out of bowl eligibility.

What’s next?

Griffin apparently is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation after the surgery and should be ready to participate in spring practice. The Bears return most of their offensive weapons, but will miss center J.D. Walton, James Barnard and receivers Ernest Smith and David Gettys. The defense is where the big losses will be found as Pawelek, Jordan Lake and three starters along the defensive front all will be gone. It won’t be easy to rebuild on the fly -- especially in the Big 12 South.

Texas, Nebraska top Big 12 weekly rankings

November, 30, 2009
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Here's how I rank them heading into the Big 12's championship game week.

1. Texas: The Longhorns are cruising to the BCS title game, although they showed some unexpected defensive struggles against Texas A&M. Fortunately for them, Colt McCoy was ready with the kind of performance that subdued their old rivalry and gave him some big Heisman Trophy traction. Their challenge beating Nebraska this week will be to stay away from mistakes and play with the confidence that befits their national title contender status.

2. Nebraska: It’s no surprise the Cornhuskers are playing for the Big 12 title. But they have overcome their share of adversity as they make their first championship game appearance since 2006. Bo Pelini's team has a puncher’s chance Saturday night against Texas mainly because of a determined defensive front and a special teams unit that has dictated field position all season long. Punter/kicker Alex Henery has been among the most valuable Cornhuskers all season and will need a big game against Texas on Saturday.

3. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys ran into a buzz saw Saturday at Oklahoma as they struggled offensively throughout the game against a determined and challenged Oklahoma defensive unit that whipped them in the trenches. With their BCS at-large hopes dead, Mike Gundy's team remains the likely choice for the Cotton Bowl and the opportunity to finish with 10 victories for the first time since 1988. But it wasn't a good sign for them that Donald Booker likely will miss a bowl game and Zac Robinson was hobbling with a sprained ankle.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders dodged a bullet in a struggling offensive performance against Baylor before Taylor Potts piloted them to a second-half comeback against the plucky Bears. But the biggest story in that game and all season was a strong defensive effort down the stretch. Mike Leach has Tech pointed upward through what was expected to be a rebuilding year. Considering all of the quarterback injuries, the Red Raiders have accomplished more than what was expected in an 8-4 season.

5. Missouri: Battling out of an early hole, the Tigers showed some gumption in their comeback against Kansas. Danario Alexander again showed why he deserves to be a Biletnikoff Award finalist after producing his third 200-yard effort in the past four games. In Missouri football history, there had been three previous 200-yard receiving games before Alexander. Blaine Gabbert finished strongly, avoiding an interception over his last 161 attempts of the season. The defense struggled against Kansas, but provided a key stop at the end of the game, and Carl Gettis' two fumble recoveries helped spark the comeback.

6. Oklahoma: The Sooners came up with their defensive performance of the season, limiting Oklahoma State to 109 yards and denying them from converting on all 14 third-down plays. Ryan Broyles made a huge difference in the return game and the Sooners overcame a patchwork offensive line to play consistently. Bob Stoops punctuated his most disappointing regular season with an impressive triumph. Now, he'll attack those pesky bowl-game struggles that have dogged him the past few seasons.

7. Texas A&M: Jerrod Johnson started his 2010 Heisman candidacy early with a career game against Texas as he accounted for 439 total yards and four touchdown passes. The Aggies had the offense to stick with Texas, but critical errors on defense and special teams were too great in the end to overcome. The upcoming bowl practice will be invaluable for a young team aiming to improve and become a potential surprise in the South Division next season.

8. Kansas State: No bowl game for the Wildcats, but Bill Snyder can take a lot of pride in the job that he did to take them within a game of the Big 12 championship game. Mike Gundy’s loss at Oklahoma opens up discussion for Snyder as the Big 12’s coach of the year. Considering the way Snyder built his team’s offense around quarterback Grant Gregory and running back Daniel Thomas -- both of whom arrived on campus shortly before fall practice -- provides evidence that he merits serious consideration for the honor.

9. Iowa State: Kansas’ loss assures the Cyclones a bowl berth and a chance to have some critical bowl practice for a young team that will grow immensely from the experience. Paul Rhoads will get his share of coach of the year votes for his four-game win/loss turnaround from last season. And how about a chance for the Cyclones to finish this season with bowl trip to Shreveport and a shot at Gene Chizik and Auburn? But ISU won't be picky about any bowl trip.

10. Kansas: For 57 minutes Saturday, Mark Mangino was providing a clinic on why he should return as the Jayhawks’ coach. But his clock management and play-calling decisions down the stretch left him open to huge questioning as Missouri charged back for the comeback victory. It still remains amazing that a team that started 5-0 and appeared ready to challenge for the Big 12 North title would fall apart like the Jayhawks did during a seven-game losing streak to finish the season. And their late performance Saturday against Missouri provides critics with ample ammunition why a coaching change is necessary.

11. Colorado: Dan Hawkins’ job was saved and he’ll enjoy the benefit of coaching a team that should be more experienced after this season’s struggles. This time around, don’t expect Hawkins to make any wild pronouncements or predictions for next season at the team’s season-ending banquet like last season. The Buffaloes showed hope for the future by gashing Nebraska for 403 yards -- the most allowed by the Cornhuskers this season. Hawkins' first task will be to work on the team’s fundamentals after the Buffaloes committed 107 penalties this season.

12. Baylor: Blake Szymanski’s return to the starting lineup looked like a masterstroke before Texas Tech charged back for the comeback victory. The Bears’ bowl hopes were in trouble as soon as Robert Griffin was out with a season-ending injury. But Art Briles' team still played tough and showed a lot of moxie as the season progressed without its standout quarterback. The Bears learned lessons from the struggles but will have to rebuild a defense that will be stripped of key playmakers like Jordan Lake and Joe Pawelek. Briles must find replacements if the Bears have any hopes of snapping their conference-worst bowl drought that dates to 1993.

Texas Tech's defense preserves 20-13 win over Baylor

November, 28, 2009
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Texas Tech's defense provided a key stop in the final minute to preserve the Red Raiders' 20-13 victory over Baylor.

It wasn't pretty, but the Red Raiders came up with enough stops to push its record to 8-4.

Gutsy Baylor had its chances with a first-and-goal from the Tech 10 with less than 3 minutes to go. But Daniel Howard made a key stop on third down when Blake Szymanski appeared to have a clear path to the end zone.

The Red Raiders forced a fourth-down incompletion to wrap up the victory.

Tech improves to 8-4 and appears headed to the Alamo Bowl after the triumph. Baylor falls to 4-8 and will miss a bowl game for the 15th straight season -- the longest drought in the Big 12.

Tech charges into 20-13 lead in fourth quarter

November, 28, 2009
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Texas Tech has pushed ahead thanks to an opportunistic defense and an offense that finally appears to have jumped back into the game.

Matt Williams' 43-yard field goal with 6:24 left to extend the Red Raiders' lead to 20-13.

After Baylor scored on its first drive of the second half to extend its lead to 13-3, Tech charged back for 17 unanswered points.

Tech quarterback Taylor Potts struggled early before bouncing back with a strong effort in the second half.

Now, Baylor has one chance to pull back to tie the score.

It will be up to Blake Szymanski to spark the comeback.

Szymanski sparks Baylor to halftime lead

November, 28, 2009
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Baylor coach Art Briles made a surprising decision, starting senior quarterback Blake Szymanski for the Bears' final game against Texas Tech.

Szymanski has responded with a big effort that has helped boost the Bears to a 10-3 halftime lead over Texas Tech.

He's thrown for 152 yards, keeping Texas Tech's defense flummoxed.

Baylor's defense has been the other big story, limiting the Red Raiders to three points on two red-zone possessions.

Baylor cornerback Antonio Johnson snuffed out the first drive with an interception in the first quarter.

And shortly before the half, the Bears turned away three plays from the 2-yard line, forcing Mike Leach to settle for an 18-yard field goal with 4 seconds left.

Szymanski has outplayed Tech starter Taylor Potts, who has completed only 14 of 26 passes in the first half.

The Bears said all week they were approaching the game at the Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, like it was their bowl game.

They've played loose and confident in the first half.

Now, will they be able to continue it for 30 more minutes?

Streaking Florence ready for huge challenge against Texas

November, 11, 2009
11/11/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Baylor stunned the Big 12 with the upset of the season last week, snatching a victory at Missouri to keep the Bears’ bowl hopes alive.

To continue that streak, the 4-5 Bears need to pull the biggest upset in the conference’s history this week as they square off against No. 3 Texas in Waco.

Despite those daunting odds, Baylor freshman quarterback Nick Florence remains unfazed. That attitude is understandable, considering what he accomplished last week.
 
 Manny Flores/Icon SMI
 Nick Florence is looking forward to facing the Texas defense.


Florence set the Baylor single-game passing record last week, blistering Missouri for 427 yards and three touchdowns passes. Coming into the game, Florence had thrown only two touchdown passes in his previous 147 attempts in his career.

“That game was huge for us,” Florence said. “All along, I knew we were a good football team, but we just had to execute. We had a good week of practice and that work showed on the field.”

Several days later, Florence was just as ebullient when asked what that game did for his team’s confidence, which had been flagging after four early Big 12 losses and producing only 34 points in the Bears' first four conference games. In their previous game against Nebraska, the Bears had failed to score an offensive touchdown for the first time in the last two seasons.

But despite those earlier struggles, Florence started hot against the Tigers and remained that way throughout the game. He hit 11 of his first 12 passes and didn’t stop until he had blown the game open with four scoring drives during a six-possession span late in the game.

“It’s been awhile for us to have that kind of effort and was just a blast for it to happen like it did,” Florence said. “It just shows we are a good team and we can execute when we have a chance on the field.”

That binge wasn’t a shock to Baylor coach Art Briles, who said he has seen flashes of growth in Florence over the past several weeks.

"I think he played with a lot of poise, a lot of confidence and a lot of belief,” Briles said. “With his increased repetitions, his confidence and anticipation skills have gotten better. It was a good deal that it happened, but was I surprised? I don’t think so.”

Florence began the season as the Bears’ third-string quarterback behind starter Robert Griffin and veteran backup Blake Szymanski. His rise is even more improbable considering that he spent last season at Baylor apart from his team as a “grayshirt.”

While his current teammates competed in the 2008 season, Florence went to the Summer Olympics in Beijing with an evangelical group and made some extra money by working as a window washer around Waco. It gave him the opportunity for another year of maturity before his chance to play arrived this season.

“It was kind of weird for me,” Florence said. “It was the first season I hadn’t played football since I was in about the fourth grade. Not to have a game on Friday or Saturday night was a little strange. But it was fun to watch games and be a fan of football. It gave me the chance of seeing things from a different angle.”

But the Baylor season turned around when Griffin went down with a season-ending knee injury in the victory over Northwestern State on Sept. 26.

Szymanski also was hurt in that game, opening an opportunity for Florence, who started five of the next six games. The only game that Florence hasn’t started since Griffin’s injury was an Oct. 17 loss to Iowa State, which was started by Szymanski.

“We’ve felt pretty good the last couple of weeks about his development and the guys rallying around him,” Briles said. “That’s as critical a factor as anything else. They are really starting to play together.”

That belief will be tested against Texas, which will come into the game with one of the stingiest defenses in the nation. The Longhorns will challenge Baylor with a defense that leads the nation in total defense and rushing defense, and leads the Big 12 in pass defense. The Longhorns are allowing only 230.8 total yards per game.

The opportunity doesn’t intimidate Florence, who said he is excited about playing the Longhorns and keeping the Bears’ postseason hopes alive after his mammoth game last week.

“I don’t even know how to describe this opportunity,” Florence said. “I never would have been able to imagine something like this. It’s kind of surreal. What’s happened in the last eight weeks has been a wild ride. We’ll just play Texas this week and see what we can do.”

Big 12 helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 8, 2009
11/08/09
1:07
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Here are my helmet stickers for this week. We had to share a couple of them, but they were all richly deserved.

The Nebraska defense: Hard to split this one up among so many producers who held Oklahoma to its lowest point production in the 142-game coaching tenure of Bob Stoops. Matt O’Hanlon provided a team-high 12 tackles and three interceptions, including the clincher with 27 seconds left. Ndamukong Suh was all over the field with a pass deflection, four tackles and a blocked kick. Phillip Dillard had eight tackles, including two tackles for losses, a sack and an interception. The entire defense divvied up five interceptions and 12 pass deflections by 10 different players in a stellar effort that keeps their North Division title hopes alive.

Baylor quarterback Nick Florence: Passed for a school-record 427 yards and three touchdowns and added another running touchdown to spark the Bears’ 40-32 upset victory over Missouri for their first conference victory of the season. Florence completed 11 of his first 12 passes and finished 32 for 43 in passing, breaking the school record of 412 passing yards set by Blake Szymanski in 2007 against Rice.

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and wide receiver Jordan Shipley: The two roommates shared one of the most memorable efforts in Texas football history to spark the Longhorns’ 35-3 victory over UCF. Shipley snagged 11 passes for a school-record 273 yards, including an 88-yard TD toss from McCoy. The big effort might have catapulted McCoy back into serious Heisman contention as completed 33 of 42 passes for 470 yards and two touchdowns, including a 14-yard strike to James Kirkendoll. It was the second-highest passing effort in school history, trailing only Major Applewhite’s 473-yard outing in the 2001 Holiday Bowl.

Oklahoma State running back Keith Toston: Rushed for a career-best 206 yards and three touchdowns to spark the Cowboys’ 34-8 victory over Iowa State. Toston scored on touchdown runs of 2, 17 and 1 yards. Toston punctuated his big day with a 69-yard run in the fourth quarter that marked his career-long rush.

Kansas State running back Daniel Thomas: Rushed for 24 times for a career-high 185 yards and a 5-yard touchdown to spark the Wildcats’ 17-10 victory over Kansas that keeps them in first place in the North Division. Thomas topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season early in the third quarter and finished with 1,087 yards for the season. He now has five 100-yard rushing games this season.

Baylor facing another QB change heading into Nebraska game

October, 28, 2009
10/28/09
1:03
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Baylor coach Art Briles will likely turn again to freshman Nick Florence as his starting quarterback when the Bears meet Nebraska on Saturday.

The Bears have struggled since Robert Griffin sustained a season-ending knee injury in the Bears' victory over Northwestern State on Sept. 26.

Both Florence and Blake Szymanski have received starts, but Briles said that Florence likely will get the shot Saturday because Szymanski is nursing a bruised (right) throwing shoulder.

Baylor started the season 2-1 with Griffin as the starter, but has won only one of four times since his injury. Included in that streak are three straight Big 12 losses to Oklahoma, Iowa State and Oklahoma State where the Bears have produced only 24 points.

“For the most part, Nick did what we asked him to do, and that is really all you can ask of any player,” Briles said at his weekly news conference. “He’s competing hard and trying hard to do the right thing at the right time. He got a little bit ahead of himself a couple of times in some sticky situations that I don’t think will ever happen again. Nick is the kind of guy that if you tell him once, it sticks.”

Florence is hopeful of more production offensively if he gets a second chance as a starter.

"I think this week, as an offense, we need to just come out and find our identity," Florence said. "I think everyone on the offense is pretty excited to find a groove and finally fit in. We are going to do that this week and it is going to be a good game Saturday."

The freshman quarterback told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that he's predicting big things when the offense finally starts producing.

"When we find our identity as an offense and when we go out there this week and really start clicking, I think it’s going to be a different story than what everyone’s expecting," he said.

Cornhuskers set to face another backup QB

October, 27, 2009
10/27/09
3:59
PM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Most thought that playing backup quarterbacks early in the conference race would be a ticket for Nebraska to cruise to an early lead in the North Division.

The Cornhuskers haven't fulfilled their end of the bargain as they've lost in back-to-back weeks to Texas Tech backup Steven Sheffield (starting in place of Taylor Potts) and Iowa State's Jerome Tiller (starting in place of Austen Arnaud).

Nebraska figures to have at least two more weeks in starting against backups. Robert Griffin is out for Saturday's game against Baylor. The Cornhuskers will likely face freshman Nick Florence in that game as Blake Szymanski recovers from a bruised shoulder.

And they'll get Oklahoma's Landry Jones, who is starting in place of 2008 Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford.

The Cornhuskers' stunning back-to-back home losses have pushed their season to the brink.

Bo Pelini has to be kicking himself that his team didn't prepare and play better against the two backup quarterbacks in home games. If Nebraska had won one of those two games, the Cornhuskers would have been in the driver's seat with a showdown game against Kansas State looming on Nov. 21.

Instead, the Cornhuskers need to win at least three of their five remaining games -- and maybe four -- to claim the North title.

They will have the opportunity to play backup quarterbacks the next two weeks.

Pelini can only hope these two games go better for Nebraska than the Cornhuskers' first two conference games against backups.

'Year of the backup QB' marks Big 12 this season

October, 27, 2009
10/27/09
11:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

It hasn't been a good season for starting quarterbacks in the Big 12.

In fact, it could almost be said that it's been "open season" on starting quarterbacks across the conference this season.

Only six teams have had the same starting quarterback in the lineup for all of their games. And it's no coincidence that the conference's best teams -- Texas and Oklahoma State -- have had the same starting quarterback for every game.
 
 AP Photo/David J. Phillip
 Zac Robinson has started every game at quarterback for the Cowboys this season.


Baylor and Oklahoma have already lost Robert Griffin and Sam Bradford, ending the Bears' hopes of a bowl game and likely ending the Sooners' chances of defending their unprecedented three-peat of conference titles.

But no team has been as drastically affected as Texas Tech, which had never had a quarterback miss a start before this season under Mike Leach. The Red Raiders have more than made up for it this season as Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield both have been knocked out of the lineup at different times.

Potts returned to the lineup last week and struggled in the Red Raiders' loss to Texas A&M. It led to a heavy chorus of boos and chants of "No More Potts" after his interception in that game as third-stringer Seth Doege finished the game.

"I ignore that, but I'm going to play whoever I think is the best guy," Leach said of the vociferous fan reaction. "I guess it's free speech."

With Sheffield still a week away as his injured foot heals, Leach could turn to Doege Saturday against Kansas.

But he's not tipping his hand early in the week.

"Game-time decision," he said. "We'll look at practice."

Here's a look at each Big 12 team and their progression of quarterbacks this season.

Baylor: Griffin was idled with a season-ending knee injury against Northwestern State on Sept. 26. Backup Blake Szymanski had struggled with bruised shoulder. Freshman Nick Florence started games against Kent State and Oklahoma. Szymanski started against Iowa State. Florence returned to the starting lineup Saturday against Oklahoma State.

Colorado: Starter Cody Hawkins struggled with on-field performances and was replaced when Tyler Hansen burned his redshirt against Texas on Oct. 10. Hansen started the Buffaloes' games against Kansas and Kansas State, but was replaced by Hawkins against Kansas State on Saturday.

Iowa State: Starter Austen Arnaud bruised his hand during the Cyclones' victory over Baylor on Oct. 17. He was replaced in the starting lineup by Jerome Tiller, who directed the Cyclones' upset victory at Nebraska on Saturday.

Kansas: Todd Reesing has started every game.

Kansas State: Carson Coffman started the first four games, leading the Wildcats to a 2-2 nonconference record. Grant Gregory was inserted into the starting lineup when conference play began, leading KSU to a 3-1 record.

Missouri: Blaine Gabbert has been slowed by a sprained right ankle, but has been the Tigers' starter in every game. Backup Jimmy Costello replaced him late in the Tigers' loss to Texas last week.

Nebraska: Zac Lee has been the starter for every game, but the Cornhuskers have sputtered against top opponents. The Cornhuskers have scored 59 points against opponents from BCS conferences, with 27 of those points coming in one quarter. Coach Bo Pelini has hinted at a change to freshman Cody Green, who despite strong early production, has seen action in only four games this season.

Oklahoma: Bradford was knocked out of the starting lineup late in the first half of the Sooners' season-opening loss to BYU. Backup Landry Jones has played well at times, setting the school's single-game record for touchdowns with six against Tulsa. Jones started three games before he was replaced by Bradford, who started against Baylor and Texas. Bradford was knocked out of the Texas game on the Sooners' second possession, re-injuring his shoulder and forcing season-ending surgery.

Oklahoma State: Despite sustaining a pulled groin muscle in training camp, Zac Robinson has started every game for the Cowboys.

Texas: Colt McCoy has started every game for Texas.

Texas A&M: Jerrod Johnson has started every game for Texas A&M.

Texas Tech: Potts was Texas Tech's starting quarterback for the first five games before he was knocked out of the New Mexico game with a concussion. Sheffield rallied the team with a strong performance in that game and then orchestrated victories in the next two games against Kansas State and Nebraska before injuring his foot against the Cornhuskers. Potts returned to the starting lineup but struggled in the Red Raiders' loss to Texas Tech on Saturday. Now, Leach is hinting that he might start Doege against Kansas this week.

Big 12 predictions, Week 8

October, 22, 2009
10/22/09
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

I’m hoping for a little better luck this week after having gotten stung (again) by Texas A&M, losing out on Nebraska and not having the guts to pick Colorado to beat Kansas, even though I had an inclination the game would be closer than the prognosticators thought.

Maybe I’ll have the guts to pick one of those games when it hits me this year.

Here are my picks for this week:

Kansas State 24, Colorado 21: Look for a tight defensive battle in this one as the improving Wildcats hook up against new Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen. The Buffaloes looked transformed under Hansen, who directed them to the upset victory over Kansas last week. He’ll be challenged by a KSU defense that notched six sacks and produced three interceptions last week. The Wildcats have been limited at quarterback with Grant Gregory and Carson Coffman alternating time this season. But look for the Wildcats to win this one because of the Buffaloes’ difficulties on the road and the coaching acumen of Bill Snyder.

Nebraska 35, Iowa State 17: The Cornhuskers need some confidence after last week’s stunning upset loss to Texas Tech. Bo Pelini has hinted at a possible change to Cody Green as his starting quarterback from Zac Lee, who started their first six games this season. The Cyclones played well against Baylor last week, but will be taking a big step up against the Cornhuskers on the road. Whoever plays for the Cornhuskers at quarterback needs to boost an offense that has struggled with its line play and getting its wide receivers involved.

Oklahoma State 33, Baylor 24: The Cowboys need this one to set up a huge showdown next week in Stillwater against Texas. Despite the loss of Dez Bryant (NCAA-mandated suspension) and Kendall Hunter (cracked foot) their offense has played well. And Bill Young’s defense has emerged in the past several weeks as they were showcased in a strong second-half performance against Missouri. Baylor will attempt to test them with backup quarterback Blake Szymanski, who was intercepted three times last week. The Bears produced only 10 points last week against Iowa State and will need a big improvement in order to gain the upset this week.

Oklahoma 31, Kansas 28: It will be interesting to see how the Sooners rebound after last week’s disappointing loss against Texas. Look for Oklahoma to have a bigger than expected day as Landry Jones and Ryan Broyles will challenge a Kansas pass defense that has struggled and featured three new starters last week. Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing has had success passing all season to Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe, but the Jayhawks will be facing their toughest defensive challenge of the season against the Sooners.

Texas Tech 48, Texas A&M 17: This simmering rivalry isn’t getting as much national attention as usual after the Aggies’ three-game losing streak. Backup quarterback Steven Sheffield has engineered a three-game winning streak for the Red Raiders, but isn’t expected to play after sustaining a foot injury against Nebraska last week. Mike Leach has directed the Red Raiders to four straight victories over the Aggies and seven wins in the last eight seasons. Whoever is playing at quarterback for the Red Raiders should find success against an A&M defense that ranks 94th in total defense and 104th in scoring defense. Also, keep a watch for a Tech defense that has played well in recent weeks, allowing Kansas State and Nebraska an average of 12 points in the last two games.

Texas 38, Missouri 24: The Longhorns hope to continue their march to the Big 12 South title against Missouri, who they have beaten 14 times in a 15-game stretch, marred only by a loss in 1997. An improved running game helped spark a second-half comeback for the Longhorns against Oklahoma. Colt McCoy will hope to rebound after a struggling performance against the Sooners. The Longhorns will be facing a Missouri team that lost its first two conference games -- a far cry from its success in title game appearances each of the last two seasons. The biggest reason has been Missouri's difficulty in producing turnovers. The Tigers need to turn that trend around if they have any hope of stunning the Longhorns.

Last week: 3-3, 50 percent.

Season: 46-16, 74.2 percent

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