Big 12: John Elway
Record: 4-0, 0-2
The Tigers were an early surprise as they streaked to victories over Illinois, Bowling Green, Furman and Nevada to crack the Top 25 in September. The fast start by sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert had some pundits comparing him to John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger after only a few games. But some of those early praises look a tad premature after a blown fourth-quarter lead against Nebraska and his sputters against Oklahoma State in back-to-back losses to start conference play. The Tigers had three turnovers in each of the losses and the defense struggled producing any turnovers, much to the chagrin of Gary Pinkel and his new coordinators, David Yost and Dave Steckel. The result is a skid into the North cellar as the only team in the division without a conference victory. The running game has also struggled most of the season, making this a marked contrast from Missouri's ’ back-to-back teams that advanced to the Big 12 title game. And it won’t get any easier with a game against a Texas team on Saturday that is intent on proving its BCS mettle.
Offensive MVP, WR Danario Alexander: After struggling with injuries most of his career, Alexander has fulfilled the promise when he arrived at the school. He produced nine catches for a career-high 180 yards last week at Oklahoma State, filling the featured role that formerly was filled by Jeremy Maclin. The tall, angular Alexander ranks second in the conference and ninth in the country with an average of 104.5 yards per game and fourth in the conference with an average of 7.3 catches per game. And he’s already surpassed his previous career season high for receptions and yards only seven games into the season.
Defensive MVP, LB Sean Weatherspoon: Even as the Tigers have struggled during their two-game slump to start conference play, Weatherspoon has been a constant as a defensive leader and producer. The Lombardi Award semifinalist ranks sixth in the conference with an average of 8.33 tackles per game. He’s notched at least nine tackles in three games this season and is only 83 tackles from breaking the school record. He can get it with a fast finish and a bowl game -- much like his strong closing last season. And after the Tigers' slow start, they could certainly use a boost from Weatherspoon, too.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Coming into the season, the Big 12’s cast of returning quarterbacks matched any in the nation.
With Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy back, along with Todd Reesing, Zac Robinson and Robert Griffin, the conference had a stellar collection.
|Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images|
|Blaine Gabbert has gotten off to a scorching start, throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions.|
Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert has been the key player in the Tigers’ 4-0 start, leading the conference in pass efficiency as he’s thrown for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“I really never thought it wouldn’t be like this,” Gabbert said. “We haven’t done anything that I didn’t expect we would be able to do. All of us worked hard and prepared to get ready for the season. What we’ve done is a result of all of that.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is just as enthralled with Gabbert’s mental makeup as he is with his prototypical 6-foot-5, 240-pound stature, his loping 4.51 speed in the 40-yard dash and his big passing arm that has NFL scouts drooling.
“One important thing for quarterbacks is to stay in a place where you can function, where you don't get caught up in the hype or the negative of what's going on and you kind of stay in the zone. Whether you get sacked, or throw a touchdown or an interception, you come right back in this zone,” Pinkel said. “I've been impressed with him, he's doing a good job of staying in that area.”
Gabbert will get a chance to renew his acquaintance with his old friends at Nebraska -- a school he almost attended -- when he visits Faurot Field Thursday night in a huge early North Division showdown.
“I’m looking forward to playing them like all of my games,” Gabbert said. “But the fact it’s Nebraska doesn’t make it any bigger or more important for me.”
The commitment with the Cornhuskers came after Gabbert’s family had forged a close relationship with former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan. But several weeks before Callahan was fired, Gabbert reneged on his commitment and instead picked Missouri.
In the process he became the first five-star quarterback to choose Missouri, bringing Pinkel’s staff a playmaker to build a program around.
“I made my original commitment about what I thought was right for me,” Gabbert said. “After I decided to come to Missouri, I never had any second thoughts or focused on that. We’re focusing on the present.”
It’s easy to understand why after Gabbert’s scintillating debut.
In his first college start, Gabbert completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards, three passing touchdowns and another rushing TD to key the Tigers’ 37-9 upset victory over Illinois in the season opener. That start had pundits tripping over themselves, comparing him to John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger after his first college game.
He built on that in his most recent game, a 31-21 win over Nevada. Gabbert threw for a career-best 414 yards, on 25-of-40 passing, with three more touchdowns.
The Gabbert family still has an association with Bo Pelini and his staff at Nebraska. His younger brother, Tyler, is currently a Cornhusker commitment.
But Blaine Gabbert has caught Pelini's attention during his preparation for Thursday’s game.
“He was recruited highly because he's a good player," Pelini said. "We have a lot of respect for him and their offense. He's a good player. And it's like anything else. If he plays good or doesn't play good it doesn't change anything.
"If he has a good game or he's mediocre or however people perceive him to be, this is only his fifth start too. It's not going to change it. Regardless of what happens, he's still a good player. And Blaine is just going to keep getting better with the more experience he gets."
Gabbert’s abilities have transformed the Missouri offense, according to his teammates. His deep passing touch -- his arm has a range up to 79 yards -- has provided this Missouri team with a noticeable vertical element.
“Just by him coming out and playing like he’s done has helped us,” wide receiver Danario Alexander said. “Obviously, we had a lot of success when Chase [Daniel] was our quarterback. But now, we are a totally different team.
“Blaine is a bigger, more physical player. He can run the ball and stretch the field. Chase is a great quarterback and helped us do a lot of stuff when he was here. But having Blaine as our quarterback has really opened our playbook up.”
Alexander said that Gabbert’s performance wasn’t a question for his teammates. As such, his quick start hasn’t been a surprise.
“Everybody was looking to see what kind of quarterback he would be for us,” Alexander said. “It’s pretty simple. He’s played well for us.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Iowa State's hopes of stemming a nation-worst 17-game road losing streak have improved since the beginning of the week.
The Cyclones visit Kent State Saturday night and will be facing a team that will be battling a couple of big personnel losses.
Kent State coach Doug Martin told reporters after his Wednesday press conference that freshman quarterback Spencer Keith will be making his first career start Saturday night against the Cyclones.
The move came as injured starter Giorgio Morgan threw the ball well earlier in the day at practice, but was judged by Kent State trainers as still not ready to play on his sprained ankle.
Keith will get the start Saturday night, with plans to redshirt him in 2010, Martin told reporters.
“The thing I’m telling Spencer is that this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint,” Martin said. “I don’t expect him to go out there and instantly be John Elway. He is going to have his difficult moments. It’s important for him to believe that we are going to put him in good position to succeed."
The Golden Flashes already will be playing without running back Eugene Jarvis, who will miss the rest of the season after sustaining a lacerated kidney in their loss to Boston College last week.
Jarvis, a 5-foot-5, 170-pound senior, was Kent State's leading returning rusher and receiver from last season after producing 801 rushing yards and 25 receptions for 273 yards.
Martin made an emotional appeal when speaking to reporters earlier this week that Jarvis should receive a sixth season of eligibility because of his injury.
"If this kid doesn't get a sixth year, everybody in Kent should storm the NCAA and we should burn the place down," Martin said.
It's clear that the Cyclones will be meeting up with an emotional opponent Saturday night reeling from several big losses.
But with road games against Kansas, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri later this season, Iowa State's game against the Golden Flashes represents their best chance to win on the road this season.
And facing an opponent with multiple injury concerns only bolsters the Cyclones' chances.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
1. Texas: The Longhorns could afford to sleepwalk through the first half against a team like Wyoming, but they won’t be that fortunate once Big 12 play begins. Tre’ Newton looks like he could be the featured back they are looking for. The biggest concern after two weeks has to be the offensive line developing as finishers after early struggles.
2. Oklahoma: Sure, it was against Idaho State, but the Sooners’ performance was exactly what was needed to restore some confidence. Kevin Wilson didn’t simplify the offense too much for Landry Jones and the personnel changes in the offensive line resulted in a better performance. The Sooners’ defensive effort was outstanding as Idaho State didn’t advance past Oklahoma’s 49. And the best news is that Sam Bradford is a week closer to returning to the lineup.
3. Oklahoma State: Chalk up the Houston game as a tough learning experience. Zac Robinson just doesn’t look right to me compared to his early-career performances. The defense couldn’t keep up with Case Keenum and yielded too many big plays. The schedule turns soft the next couple of weeks, meaning Kendall Hunter can take his time returning to the lineup -- particularly with Keith Toston and Beau Johnson playing as well as they did on Saturday.
4. Kansas: Where did that defensive performance against UTEP come from? Even the late touchdown by the Miners doesn’t diminish the strong effort, particularly the rushing defense and pass rush.
5. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have handled everything thrown their way in the first two games and are ready for the challenge of Virginia Tech. A quick start put the Arkansas State game away early. Zac Lee is exceeding expectations. But despite allowing only 12 points this season, Nebraska’s defense looks inconsistent and spotty. But the Cornhuskers have won six straight games -- their longest streak since winning 13 in a row during 2000-01.
6. Texas Tech: After a slow start in the first half against Rice, the Red Raiders boat-raced the Owls as they scored on six straight possessions. Taylor Potts’ big night helps give him the confidence he’ll need to prepare for the first road trip as a starter at Texas. The defense had a balanced performance with six sacks, eight other tackles for losses and 12 pass deflections. But they’ll be tested in Austin, where Mike Leach is 0-4 and his teams have allowed an average of 49 points per game to the Longhorns.
7. Missouri: Hold off on those comparisons between John Elway and Blaine Gabbert just yet. Gabbert looked like a second-game college starting quarterback against pesky Bowling Green before the Tigers’ comeback from a 14-point deficit late in the third quarter. But despite not playing their best, Missouri still found a way to win. One of the main reasons was that offensive coordinator David Yost still had faith in his running game even when behind.
8. Baylor: The Bears took the week off after their impressive victory at Wake Forest. But it won’t be any easier as they try to maintain those high expectations against a Connecticut team still stewing after its close loss to North Carolina on Saturday. Baylor should have plenty of confidence for the Huskies after their near miss on the road last season.
9. Texas A&M: I bet Mike Sherman probably wished he was playing somebody on Saturday after the first-week triumph. Instead, the Aggies took the weak off to prepare for this week’s game against Utah State. They had a strong outing that arguably was the Big 12’s most complete game of the first week. They shouldn’t be challenged much by Utah State.
10. Kansas State: Is Bill Snyder really up for five more years of this job? After losing to Louisiana-Lafayette the day after his new contract was announced, he might have some doubts. Daniel Thomas played as advertised as a running/passing/receiving threat and the Wildcats showed some resiliency to put themselves into position for the comeback against the Ragin’ Cajuns. But inconsistent quarterback play and too many special-teams mistakes paved the way for their eventual upset loss.
11. Iowa State: Paul Rhoads’ early onside kick turned the momentum of the game around and left himself open for a lot of second-guessing after the loss to Iowa. But that was only part of the problem. Austen Arnaud had four interceptions during a turnover binge that marked the spotty execution of the Cyclones’ offensive efforts. Despite a 32-point loss, the Cyclones’ defense played much better than the offense. And it won’t get any easier as the Cyclones will try to halt a nation-worst 17-game losing streak at Kent State.
12. Colorado: It can’t get much worse to start the season for the Buffaloes, who dropped two games to schools from outside BCS conferences and allowed 1,000 yards on defense to boot. The Buffaloes’ embarrassing defensive efforts have them ranked in the bottom 10 teams nationally in rushing defense, pass efficiency defense and total defense. And a rushing game that was thought to be the team's biggest strength ranks only 109th nationally.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few pieces of correspondence I thought would be of interest to most readers. It starts off with the hottest topic in the conference for the last several days.
Steve from Des Moines writes: Tim, the Cyclone Nation is hurting over here after the way that Gene Chizik snuck out on us. Why did he do this and what kind of timetable does Jamie Pollard need to be working on as he tries to find a replacement?
Tim Griffin: Let's be truthful here. Iowa State is a historically challenged program no matter what conference it is in. Auburn probably ranks among the top 15-20 jobs in the nation. So it's not surprising that he willingly left like he did. I think most other coaches would have done the same thing.
Chizik probably didn't think he would have this kind of opportunity materialize so quickly when he made his celebrated remarks about wanting to remain in Iowa State for the next few years last month. And he decided he could be vilified in the Tall Corn State for his opportunity coaching at what he considers a dream job.
I've also got to think that Chizik will be much better prepared for his shot at Auburn after his two-year apprenticeship at Iowa State. He'll be a better coach after getting his on-the-job training in Ames where the scrutiny wasn't quite so intense.
And I've got to think that Pollard has to get on the business of finding a Chizik's replacement as soon as possible. I'm thinking that he really needs to have somebody in place by the end of the week to enable his new coach to be up and running around the holidays.
Korey in Midland, Texas, writes: Tim, how would Sam Bradford, or any other potential first pick, avoid getting drafted by the Detroit Lions? I know John Elway and Eli Manning have done it.
Tim Griffin: I think the secret is to hire a pushy agent who would be willing to make himself or his client look bad by demanding where they want to play. If you remember correctly, both Elway and Manning were perceived as bratty when they demanded they wouldn't play with the Baltimore Colts or San Diego Chargers -- the teams that originally drafted him.
Both of their early career decisions have been forgotten by fans after they became entrenched and successful for their new teams. But it isn't easy when a career starts off and you end up playing at a place where you don't want to play.
The scouts I'm talking to don't think that Bradford would necessarily picked that highly. Most tell me he likely will be a mid-first round draft pick if he should come out. So that likely means that he would end up on a team that would be a .500 or better squad.
Ryan from Waco writes: Hey Tim, love the blog. I just had a quick question. Why is Baylor linebacker Joe Pawelek being snubbed by everyone for any kind of recognition? He was second in the Big 12 in tackles (10 behind Oklahoma's Travis Lewis, who had an extra game for the Big 12 Championship), but led the conference in tackles per game. He led the nation's linebackers in interceptions. He finished top-10 nationally in tackles and interceptions, regardless of position. Instead, he gets no consideration whatsoever for All-American, Bednarik, Butkus, or Nagurski honors, despite being the only player in the nation in 2008 to be top 10 in both tackles and interceptions. Where's the love, Tim?
Tim Griffin: I think that Pawelek suffers in national perception because of the Bears' lack of on-the-field success. If they would ever make a bowl trip or notch a big upset or two, I think the nation would start realizing how important he is to what they do. I know in our discussion on the Football Writers Association of America All-America team he received some prominent mention and just missed making the team.
If he has a big senior season next year and the Bears find some more success, it wouldn't surprise me if he starts making those All-America lists.
And as it is, Pawelek is reminding me more and more of one of my favorite players of my youth, old-school linebacker Jack Pardee. Like Pardee, Pawelek is a tough, determined defender with a knack for producing turnovers. If he keeps improving and his team wins, look for him to start getting some national exposure.
Thomas from Dallas writes: Tim, do you honestly think OU and Sam Bradford are better than Colt McCoy and Texas?
Tim Griffin: Thomas, to be truthful, no. I'd like to see the two schools play a rematch, but we weren't able to see that after Florida claimed the SEC championship.
So I guess it will just make the game in early October that much more meaningful, won't it? I can't wait for that game.
Jonathan from McKinney, Texas, writes: I'm a big fan of your blogging. Great job....except for one thing, which I will ask that you explain: You think Florida will beat OU in the championship game. How? Thanks for your insight.
Tim Griffin: I felt that Florida had an advantage when the game was first announced and today's announcement that DeMarco Murray will miss the game puts the Sooners at a little bit of a personnel disadvantage. I think that Oklahoma will miss him as much for his kick-return and receiving skills as his running, which will likely be filled by Mossis Madu.
While Florida doesn't have a featured back, I think the combination of Chris Rainey, Percy Harvin and Jeffrey Demps will pose some problems for the Sooners. And Tim Tebow's unique skills will be a difficult challenge for Brent Venables to cook up a defensive scheme to combat.
I still wonder if Oklahoma's struggles covering kickoffs will bite them in this game. And I have to give Florida senior kicker Jonathan Phillips an edge over Oklahoma freshman kicker Jimmy Stevens. The game might come down to that.
That all for today. I'll check back later this week with a few more missives.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- There's a palpable sense of excitement that's noticeable throughout the Oklahoma City area leading up to the Sooners' game against TCU later this evening. The newspapers and television stations are already hyping this as a chance for the Sooners to claim the top spot in the polls tomorrow with a victory.
But history hasn't been good to the Sooners on this date in previous history. Check out these two games from the past that aren't fondly remembered by the Sooner faithful.
1980: Stanford 31, No. 4 Oklahoma 14 (Norman, Okla.) -- John Elway passed for 237 yards and three touchdowns, enabling the Cardinal to snap Oklahoma's 20-game home-winning streak. Despite playing without leading rusher Darrin Nelson, the Cardinal jumped to a 31-0 lead. Oklahoma committed seven turnovers on a gloomy, rainy day that got worse as it continued for Barry Switzer's team.
1986: No. 2 Miami 28, No. 1 Oklahoma 16 (Miami) -- Vinny Testaverde passed for 261 yards and four touchdowns -- including three TD passes in the third quarter -- to boost the Hurricanes' victory. The Hurricanes held Oklahoma to 186 rushing yards, overcoming a strong performance by LB Brian Bosworth, who contributed 14 tackles. The game was enlivened by a nasty brawl during the fourth quarter.