Big 12: Grambling Tigers
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Let's throw open the mailbag on a Friday afternoon and see what you the readers are thinking and asking me about.
W. Dawson of Dallas writes: Tim, have you looked at Oklahoma State's schedule yet? How can they get away with having eight home games? I can't believe the Big 12 allowed this to happen, much less their competition. This is an incredible advantage, especially given the narrow margins that separate various Big 12 foes. Talk about running downhill before anyone else has snapped the ball.
Tim Griffin: Obviously, Mike Holder and Mike Gundy can do anything they want with their schedule. And it's a good home schedule with the four Big 12 games and home non-conference games against Georgia, Houston, Grambling and Rice. I guess the risk/reward is this. Most coaches want their team to face a non-conference challenge of some kind before they head into conference play. It doesn't have to be especially taxing - Texas going to Wyoming, Kansas to UTEP -- but most coaches believe that kind of experience is good before they head into conference play.
Obviously, Gundy doesn't think like that. The Cowboys will get a huge boost after playing four home games, but he won't know much about how ready his team will be to play on the road for their first trip to Texas A&M on Oct. 10. If I was coaching, I'd like a little more piece of mind before that first conference road game. And I bet Gundy will be thinking that way the week before the game.
Ocean from Kemah, Texas, writes: Tim, I'm very interested to hear if there has been any shift of momentum due to freshman Chris Whaley's arrival this summer. Also an update on the other Big 12's other freshman prospects would be greatly appreciated.
Tim Griffin: Whaley has struggled keeping up with the other Texas backs after reporting to training camp with an ankle injury that was aggravated playing basketball before he ever arrived. It set him back in his battle for playing time in a crowded Longhorn backfield.
From what I'm hearing, Fozzy Whittaker will be the leading candidate to have more of the carries in the Texas backfield. But he's got to remain healthy, which is something he hasn't been able to do so far. Then, look for veteran Vondrell McGee to have the next shot. Cody Johnson will also be there along with Tre' Newton and Whaley. I look for Whaley to get more playing time as he shows coaches he is more comfortable with his role in the offense and particularly in pass-protection schemes. We'll see that later, rather than sooner for the Longhorns.
And also, look for a post early next week where I'll break down the conference's leading freshman producers so far in training camps.
Mark M. from Arlington, Texas, writes: I know Baylor is pegged as your eighth team in the conference, but I think even that might be overrated! Why is no one talking about how incredible of a job Jason Smith did protecting Robert Griffin last year? Without his protection, combined with a very challenging non-conference schedule, I think Griffin takes a lot more hits and goes through a sophomore slump. I think they finish last in the Big 12 South as a result. Am I wrong?
Tim Griffin: Your scenario could very easily happen, although I do have the Bears winning six games and making a bowl trip. But I think that watching the Bears' left tackle position will be one of the most interesting positions in the conference.
Obviously, Smith was the best lineman in the conference last season, as evidenced by his No. 2 selection in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. I've heard some great things about his replacement, muscular 6-foot-4, 315 pound former Canadian fireman Danny Watkins. But we won't know anything until he starts hooking up with players like Jeremy Beal, Sergio Kindle and all of the others.
Watkins' inexperience will be one of Baylor's biggest question marks. And one missed blitz assignment could end the Bears' season in a hurty. Coach Art Briles has to hope that Watkins is ready for the challenge.
But we'll see how he does. It might be the major factor if the Bears are able to go 6-6 and make that elusive bowl trip, or end up in the Big 12 cellar and you hint. The margin between the two is very slim - particularly with the balance in the Big 12.
Ross Jackman from Sioux Falls, S.D., writes: Tim, I saw the story you linked earlier this week about the conference's most underrated and overrated coaches from that guy in Lincoln. Who is your selection, as the most underrated head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator in the Big 12?
Tim Griffin: Ross, good question. For a head coach, I'll take Kansas' Mark Mangino, who quietly has taken the Jayhawks on their most successful, consistent run in school history. The Jayhawks made back-to-back bowl trips for the first time in school history the last two years and are poised for much more this season.
For my offensive coordinator, I'll take Nebraska's Shawn Watson. The work he did with Joe Ganz the last two seasons was simply phenomenal. Earlier work at Colorado with Gary Barnett's team was outstanding as well. Watson's past history is one of the reasons I think Zac Lee might be better than a lot of people expect for the Cornhuskers. I know he'll be ready, considering Watson's track record.
And for my most underrated defensive coordinator, I'll choose Texas Tech's Ruffin McNeill. The work he did with the Red Raiders to help develop their defense was a big reason the Red Raiders were able to forge a three-way tie for the South Division title last season. He'll have his work cut out trying to replace pass-rushing specialists like McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams and safeties Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet, but I expect McNeill will have another strong unit again this season.
Mitch Nelson from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Tim, the Big 12 has four high-profile quarterbacks this year in Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Zac Robinson and Todd Reesing who will probably finish their college careers after this season. Can you break down who their possible replacements will be and which team has the best chance to not miss a step with a new quarterback next year?
Tim Griffin: I really am hesitant to pick which team has the best quarterback situation in the future because so many of these players don't have any game action. I'd like to reserve my decisions until I get to see some of the young kids play in a little bit of game action. But here's how I see those four schools in the future.
Oklahoma: The leader as far as experience would appear to be redshirt freshman Landry Jones, along with junior John Nimmo and Ben Sherrard. I've heard some good things about Drew Allen, a tall 6-foot-6 thrower from San Antonio Alamo Heights High School. But especially keep an eye out for Blake Bell of Wichita, Kan., a dual-threat thrower/runner who is one of the prizes of the Sooners' 2010 recruiting class. He will be the most heralded quarterback to enter the Oklahoma program since Rhett Bomar.
Texas: As far as promise goes, the Longhorns would appear to have it with Garrett Gilbert who I expect to play as a freshman and beat out Sherrod Harris for the backup role this season. And they also have two more quarterbacks coming in the 2010 recruiting class - Connor Wood of Second Baptist High School in Houston and Case McCoy, the 6-foot-2, 169-pound little brother of Colt McCoy.
Oklahoma State: I know that Gundy actually wasn't that disappointed with Zac Robinson's injury last week because it forced the action in the backu quarterback battle
between junior Alex Case and sophomore Brandon Weeden. Gundy told me he was a little angry that one of the two players hadn't jumped out and taken the backup role. Whoever wins that would appear to be in line to replace Robinson.
Weeden has a little bit more maturity because of his five-season career in minor-league baseball. But Cate has more game experience and comfort in the OSU offense. And the Cowboys also have a commitment from 2010 recruit Johnny Deaton of Sand Spring, Okla., who might be their long-term answer.
Kansas: I think the fact that redshirt freshman Kale Pick has won the backup job is significant here. First, it will enable Kerry Meier to move to wide receiver full time. It will also get Pick more snaps in practice and have him ready in the spring when the opportunity to replace Reesing will materialize for him.
Mangino is also high on a couple of freshmen quarterbacks he has in Christian Matthews, a taller, skinner thrower and Jordan Webb, who kind of looks like Reesing and followed his route by graduating early and reporting to college a semester early to boost his early assimilation into Ed Warinner's offense.
That's all the questions I have time for this week.
Thanks again and have a great weekend.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Big 12 teams should be seldom tested before conference play begins as most teams again are opting to compete with a pillow-soft slate of opponents.
Here's the toughest and weakest of the Big 12 nonconference schedules:
1. Oklahoma: BYU (at Arlington, Texas), Idaho State, Tulsa, at Miami
The Sooners deserve props for adding the BYU game late. The nationally televised game should showcase Oklahoma's defense as it thwarts Max Hall and Harvey Unga for the Cougars. Idaho State is a bad Division I-AA team that went 1-11 last season. Tulsa and Miami both went to bowl games last season. The Golden Hurricane will be breaking in a new quarterback and a new coordinator -- not a good recipe for success for a road team at Owen Field. And although the game against Miami brings back memories of Jimmy Johnson vs. Barry Switzer, the fact is that the Hurricanes could be worn out by the time Oklahoma visits. Miami starts the season with a meat-grinder schedule of Florida State, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech before the Sooners visit.
2. Colorado: Colorado State, at Toledo, Wyoming, at West Virginia
Coach Dan Hawkins has this team pegged for good things in the conference. The Buffaloes will be tested by four FBS opponents, including two on the road. The rivalry game against Colorado State should be decided in the trenches and the Buffaloes' offensive line will be a load for the Rams. The Toledo game might be trickier than expected considering the Buffaloes will be playing this one only five days after the Colorado State game. But Colorado still should have the talent to prevail. Something tells me that Hawkins will remember that new Wyoming coach Dave Christensen's offense hung 113 points against his defense the last two seasons when he was at Missouri. And the West Virginia trip will be a challenge, although new Mountaineers quarterback Jarrett Brown is largely untested.
3. Missouri: Illinois (at St. Louis), Bowling Green, Furman, at Nevada
The Tigers' inexperienced defense will get a huge challenge in the opener against Illinois' pass-and-catch tandem of Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn. They'll be facing another experienced quarterback in three-year Bowling Green starter Tyler Sheehan, but the Falcons' defense will be breaking in two new cornerbacks. Furman has a talented quarterback in Jordan Sorrells, but the Paladin's defense shouldn't be able to match Missouri. The trip to Nevada might be a hornet's nest. The Wolf Pack have made four straight bowl trips, multi-purpose quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the Western Athletic Conference's last two leading rushers. And, oh, yeah, the Wolf Pack probably still remember that 69-17 beatdown to the Tigers last season in Columbia.
4. Nebraska: Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State, at Virginia Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette
No truth to the rumor that the Cornhuskers are gunning for the September version of the Sun Belt championship. Their road game at Virginia Tech is the toughest game that any Big 12 team will play this season. But Bo Pelini will have two games to get his defense ready for Tyrod Taylor and Co. Florida Atlantic coach Howard Schnellenberger made his career name by beating the Cornhuskers in the 1984 Orange Bowl while at Miami. He won't be nearly as successful this time around. Arkansas State stunned Texas A&M last season, but the Red Wolves will be utilizing a new offensive line this season. And Louisiana-Lafayette's offense is very young and the Cornhuskers will be catching them the week after they have met up with LSU.
5. Oklahoma State: Georgia, Houston, Rice, Grambling
Four home games make for an ideal schedule for the Cowboys to make some national noise. The Georgia game will be arguably the biggest home nonconference game in school history. But the Cowboys grab a break as the Bulldogs try to break in new quarterback Joe Cox. Houston will have Case Keenum and a high-powered offensive attack, but the Cowboys blistered the Cougars for 56 points last year and could score more this season. Rice won't be as good this season after losing most of its offensive firepower. And Grambling has a great football history and an even better band.
6. Baylor: at Wake Forest, Connecticut, Northwestern State, Kent State
The nonconference schedule could determine whether the Bears can snap that long bowl drought. And it won't be an easy one considering that Baylor is the only Big 12 team with two opponents from "Big Six" conferences. The Wake Forest opener will be a huge test, but Robert Griffin might be able to feast on a depleted Demon Deacon defense that lost four starters to the NFL draft. The Bears nearly beat Connecticut last season on the road and the Huskies lose their starting quarterback and top rusher from that team. New coach Bradley Dale Peveto will bring new ideas for Northwestern State, but the Bears have a big edge. And Kent State will be breaking in a new quarterback for a team that has won only 19 games in the last five seasons under Doug Martin.
7. Kansas: Northern Colorado, at UTEP, Duke, Southern Mississippi
The Jayhawks should be able to name their margin against Northern Colorado in the opener. The trip to the Sun Bowl against UTEP the following week might be a different matter. UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe could be a challenge, although the Jayhawks should have enough firepower to outscore them. A Kansas-Duke game would be a made-for-national television delight in basketball. Football, however, is a different story. And Southern Mississippi might be poised to challenge for the Conference USA title and might be a chore with leading conference rusher Damion Fletcher and all of its starting secondary back to challenge Todd Reesing and Dezmon Briscoe.
8. Texas A&M: New Mexico, Utah State, UAB, Arkansas (at Arlington, Texas)
The Aggies desperately need to build confidence and collect a few victories before the South Division gauntlet begins. After last season's opening-game loss against Arkansas State, expect coach Mike Sherman to have the Aggies focused for all of the games. They catch new New Mexico coach Mike Locksley with an uncertain quarterback in the Lobos' opener. Utah State is universally picked to finish last in the Western Athletic Conference. UAB will be rebuilding its defense and likely won't pose many problems for Jerrod Johnson. But the game against Arkansas at
the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium will be a challenge for A&M's defense. The Razorbacks should be much improved in Bobby Petrino's second season. Fans are paying premium prices and expect big things from both teams. The Aggies may catch a break considering the Razorbacks will play SEC contenders Georgia and Alabama in their previous two weeks.
9. Texas Tech: North Dakota, Rice, at Houston, New Mexico
Mike Leach's nonconference schedule won't be as bad as last season's trip to the pastry wagon, but not by much. North Dakota is transitioning into FCS status this season after ranking 137th among the 148 Division II passing teams last season. Sounds like target practice for Taylor Potts, doesn't it? Rice won't be nearly as tough as last season without James Casey, Jarrett Dillard and Chase Clement gone. The trip to Houston will be Tech's biggest challenge and Case Keenum will test Tech's rebuilt secondary in the first battle between the old Southwest Conference rivals since 1995. And New Mexico will have had several weeks to work under Locksley's system, making them a tougher challenge for the Red Raiders in early October.
10. Texas: Louisiana-Monroe, at Wyoming, UTEP, Central Florida
The Longhorns had a couple of game against Utah and Arkansas fall through in their planning. But don't expect the Longhorns to get that much sympathy for a group of opponents that won't give them much BCS bounce. Louisiana-Monroe will be breaking in a retooled offense with a new quarterback. The road trip to Wyoming doesn't resonate like some the Longhorns have made to places like Ohio State and Arkansas in recent seasons. The Cowboys will be breaking in a new quarterback, too. UTEP could contend for the Conference USA West title, but the Miners are a different team on the road. And the Nov. 7 game against Central Florida will bring the nation's worst offensive team from last season into Austin.
11. Iowa State: North Dakota State, Iowa, at Kent State, Army
Paul Rhoads doesn't want any surprises early in his first season and his nonconference schedule. North Dakota State has posed problems to FBS teams like Minnesota in the past. Iowa doesn't have Shonn Greene back, but has almost everybody else back on a stout defense that will challenge the Cyclones. Mighty mite 5-foot-5, 170-pound tailback Eugene Jarvis will test ISU's defense and the trip to Kent State won't be a gimme. And new Army coach Rich Ellerson will bring 6-10, 283-pound wide receiver Ali Villanueva along with starting quarterback Chip Bowden from a team that won three games last season.
12. Kansas State: Massachusetts, at Louisiana-Lafayette, at UCLA, Tennessee Tech
The schedule doesn't provide as many gooey treats as some that Bill Snyder's teams have feasted on in the past, but it's still nothing to write home about. Massachusetts is a contender in the CAA, which is the toughest top-to-bottom FCS conference in the nation. Louisiana-Lafayette will have to replace a lot of offensive talent, but can be troublesome at Cajun Field. UCLA struggled offensively last year and will be breaking in a new quarterback with four new offensive linemen. KSU might be able to compete in that one better than most might think. And Tennessee Tech coach Watson Brown, older brother of Texas coach Mack Brown, returns a talented pass-and-catch combination of Lee Sweeney and Tim Benford. KSU still should roll, however.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The season is less than 100 days from starting and it's never too early to start analyzing schedules.
The Oklahoman's Berry Tramel did just that, doing his yearly list of the best and worst of the upcoming Big 12 schedule, ranked 1 through 96.
His top game and mine are alike, as are most of them. His list is heavily stacked to conference games, as the days of reputable non-conference games for Big 12 teams are getting to be few and far between.
Here's Tramel's list of the top 10 games:
1. Texas vs. Oklahoma at Dallas, Oct. 17
2. Texas at Oklahoma State, Oct. 31
3. Georgia at OSU, Sept. 5
4. Oklahoma at Texas Tech, Nov. 21
5. Oklahoma State at Oklahoma, Nov. 28
6. Nebraska at Missouri, Oct. 8
7. Oklahoma at Miami, Oct. 3
8. Nebraska at Virginia Tech, Sept. 19
9. Missouri vs. Kansas at Kansas City, Nov. 28
10. Texas Tech at Texas, Sept. 19
And here's his list of the bottom 10 games as well:
96. Idaho State at Oklahoma, Sept. 12
95. Northern Colorado at Kansas, Sept. 5
94. North Dakota at Texas Tech, Sept. 5
93. Tennessee Tech at Kansas State, Sept. 26
92. Grambling at Oklahoma State, Sept. 26
91. Northwestern State at Baylor, Sept. 26
90. Furman at Missouri, Sept. 19
89. Massachusetts at Kansas State, Sept. 5
88. Louisiana-Monroe at Texas, Sept. 5
87. North Dakota State at Iowa State, Sept. 3
Oklahoma teams dominate his list. I've got to think some North Division games will be good ones, but they probably don't rank with those he listed involving the power elite of the South.
I've got three underrated rivalries that merit some mention, although they probably aren't in the top ten. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State always play entertaining games against each other, particularly in Stillwater, Okla. Texas Tech and Texas A&M is merely the nation's most underrated blood feud. And I'm curious about the Nebraska-Kansas State game as much for the post-game handshake between Bo Pelini and Bill Snyder -- if it happens -- as anything on the field.
But as you can see there's a lot of feast and famine in the Big 12 schedule this season. But I still can't wait. September can't get here quickly enough for me.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma State officials have announced that their Sept. 5 game against Georgia will be designated as a premium game.
Except for the 5,000 tickets made available to the visiting team, no single-game tickets will be available for the Bulldogs' first visit to Boone Pickens Stadium. It means the only other tickets for that game will be available through buying a complete season-ticket package.
The school used a similar plan last season that made the Oklahoma game one that required a season ticket, in most cases, to see. It resulted in a record season-ticket sales of 48,254 for the season, according to the Tulsa World.
But it also helped contribute to the fact that the Oklahoma game was not close to being a sellout, with a crowd of 49,031 attending the game between the then-No. 3 Sooners and the then-No. 12 Cowboys. The attendance was nearly 11,000 fans short of the reconfigured 60,000-seat capacity at the facility.
Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder defended the controversial policy.
"Our football program is heading in the right direction," Holder said in a statement. "We believe the decision to hold the ticket and donor seat pricing is the right choice. We set new records in season-ticket sales and attendance last season. Our goal is to eventually sell out the stadium with season tickets."
The Cowboys also will have nonconference home games against Houston, Rice and Grambling, and conference home games against Missouri, Colorado, Texas Tech and Texas.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman had an interesting story earlier this week about Texas considering some major late changes in its nonconference schedule for the 2009 season and beyond.
Bohls reported that Texas and Wisconsin were in serious talks about a 2009 game in Austin. But that discussion finally bogged down when the two schools couldn't arrange for a return game to Wisconsin until at least 2013. Texas officials had even agreed to shift its Sept. 19 game against Central Florida to a future season, but still couldn't agree to a potential deal with the Badgers.
Texas senior assistant athletic director Butch Worley also told Bohls that the Longhorns are considering trying to get Notre Dame back on their schedule for the first time since 1996. That game makes sense because the Irish are desperate to have upcoming games in the talent-rich recruiting area of Texas.
Such discussion from Texas officials is interesting after the Longhorns were barely nosed out by Oklahoma for the Big 12 South Division title game berth after the Sooners and Longhorns finished in a three-way tie for the division crown with Texas Tech.
Texas' four-game 2008 nonconference schedule featured games against Florida Atlantic, Rice, Arkansas and UTEP, while Oklahoma's was marked by games against No. 7 TCU and No. 17 Cincinnati along with Tennessee-Chattanooga and Washington.
It's clear that the Sooners got a boost from the stronger nonconference schedule. And it undoubtedly helped the Sooners nose out the Longhorns in the final BCS standings despite Texas' 45-35 head-to-head victory over Oklahoma earlier in the season.
The Longhorns again could be facing a similarly weak nonconference schedule dilemma compared to the South Division's other projected powers. Here's how the top projected teams in the conference measure up for 2009.
Oklahoma: BYU (at Arlington, Texas), at Miami, Tulsa, one game to be determined.
Texas: Louisiana-Monroe, Central Florida, UTEP, at Wyoming.
Oklahoma State: Georgia, Rice, Grambling, Houston.
It's understandable why the Longhorns are beating the bushes trying to beef up their nonconference schedule. Because as it stands now, they are definitely behind both the Sooners and the Cowboys in terms of strength of nonconference schedules.