Big 12: Keithen Valentine
Last weekend appeared like it would have minimal impact on the race for a College Football Playoff berth, with TCU visiting Kansas and Baylor sitting at home during a bye week. Instead, KU gave TCU everything it could handle and the Horned Frogs ended up dropping out of the CFP rankings top four despite a win.
This weekend, Baylor faces a similar scenario as the clear favorite over Oklahoma State, which is in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
Here are the storylines to watch in the Big 12 during Week 13:
Texas Tech at Iowa State, 3:30 p.m. ET (Fox Sports Networks): Both teams badly need a win with one conference victory combined between the Red Raiders and Cyclones. Texas Tech showed plenty of fight in the loss to OU and has the better offense of the two with either Patrick Mahomes or Davis Webb at quarterback. But the Red Raiders also have an ugly trend of shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and penalties. The Cyclones are coming off a bye week with a renewed focus on righting the ship after a blowout loss to KU in their last game. In a lot of ways, the 2015 season starts now for the Red Raiders and Cyclones with players on both teams looking to solidify themselves as key playmakers of the future.
Oklahoma State at No. 7 Baylor, 7:30 p.m. ET, (Fox): There is no shortage of reasons for Baylor to want to win -- and win impressively. Not only did Oklahoma State hammer Baylor 49-17 in 2013, but the Pokes have been the biggest thorn in the Bears' side in the entire conference in recent years, having won four of the past five meetings. Combine Baylor’s pursuit of a College Football Playoff berth and desire to impress the committee with Oklahoma State’s recent struggles and it could be an explosive night at McLane Stadium.
Oklahoma State running back Keith Toston: Rushed for 172 yards on 30 carries and also caught two passes for 45 yards to spark the Cowboys’ 31-28 triumph over Colorado. Toston scored a pair of touchdowns on a 45-yard TD run and a 47-yard TD pass from third-string quarterback Brandon Weeden to spark the triumph. Toston has topped the 1,000-yard mark for the season, producing 1,130 yards heading into the Bedlam game with Oklahoma on Saturday.
Texas Tech running back Baron Batch: Who said Texas Tech can’t produce top running backs? Batch rushed for a career-high 136 yards on 25 carries and a touchdown and also added seven receptions for 68 yards to spark the Red Raiders’ 41-13 thumping of Oklahoma.
Nebraska safety Larry Asante: Notched a team-high 10 tackles and provided an interception and a clutch forced fumble to pace the Cornhuskers’ 17-3 victory over Kansas State. Asante’s rattling hit caused a fumble by Keithen Valentine at the Nebraska 1, preventing KSU from scoring a touchdown which would have brought it back into the game. His big effort helped boost the Cornhuskers into a Big 12 North title-clinching performance.
Missouri wide receivers Danario Alexander and Jerrell Jackson: Combined for 19 receptions for 315 yards to pace the Tigers’ 34-24 victory over Iowa State. Alexander produced 11 catches for 173 yards and a 63-yard TD grab from Blaine Gabbert, enabling him to set a Missouri single-season receiving yardage record with 1,411. Alexander is second in single-season receiving with 92 receptions. Jackson set career-high totals of eight receptions, 142 yards and a 70-yard TD grab from Gabbert.
Texas quarterback Colt McCoy: Passed for 396 yards and four touchdowns to lead Texas to a 51-20 victory over Kansas. In the process, McCoy notched his 43rd career victory as a starting quarterback to give him the NCAA record. He also rushed for 29 yards and even punted. He capped off his memorable evening by shooting off Texas' Big Smokey cannon and banging on the Texas band’s “Big Bertha” bass drum three times before leaving Darrell K. Royal/Texas Memorial Stadium for a final time as a player.
As he left the field, the Nebraska senior safety again was dabbing at his eyes.
But after a big performance in the Cornhuskers’ 17-3 North Division-clinching victory, Asante was trying to get rid of the remnants of a post-game Gatorade shower he and Nebraska coach Bo Pelini got along the sidelines.
“He was giving me a hug, telling me how much he loved me and how far along I’d come as a player,” Asante said, chuckling at the memory. “Then out of nowhere, I got dumped. But I didn’t get mad. It was joyous. I was happy.”
So were the Cornhuskers, who rode a gritty defensive effort into the Dec. 5 Big 12 championship game for the first time since 2006.
“We want to be known as a hard-hitting, hard-nosed defense,” defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh said. “One where everybody is making tackles and making things happen.”
Asante keyed a stellar defensive performance by Nebraska which limited the Wildcats to a field goal on their first drive and no more scoring after that. It was the 10th time in 11 games that a Nebraska opponent has scored 17 points or less, including the Cornhuskers’ last five opponents.
His big night included an interception and a forced fumble which turned away KSU’s best scoring opportunity when he hammered KSU’s Keithen Valentine, causing a fumble at the Nebraska 1.
Saturday’s triumphant performance is a remarkable transformation from where Pelini inherited the team less than two years ago.
To call that group defensive waifs might be an insult to all of the lost souls who wander the Earth.
The missed tackles and busted coverages that marked the Kevin Cosgrove era are nothing but a bad memory for those seniors who remained in the most dramatic transition in Nebraska’s history.
That team allowed six opponents to score at least 40 points on them as they finished in the bottom ten nationally in rushing defense, scoring defense, total defense, turnover margin and sacks. The Cornhuskers were torched for 76 and 65 points in losses in two of their final three games in that lost season.
“They’ve come a long way in the last two years,” Pelini said. “When I got here, especially the guys on defense, they were written off and told how bad they were.”
But from those humble origins, Pelini nurtured the confidence and got this group to believe in his methods.
The result has been a run of games just like Saturday night.
“They kept getting better,” Pelini said. “Now, look at how far they have come. It’s been fun to watch.”
Many of those same players were integral contributors to Nebraska’s huge defensive effort. After KSU produced a field goal on its opening possession, the Wildcats were turned away on their final 10 possessions without a score. Included in that run were two possessions inside the Nebraska 20-yard line and three other stops at the Nebraska 27, 33 and 41-yard lines.
The reason for that toughness was instilled by Pelini and his older brother, Carl, who serves as Nebraska’s defensive coordinator.
“We take it personal as a unit. We don’t want to give up any points,” Asante said. “We didn’t have that culture back then. They’ve taught us how to play every play like it’s our last. And we wanted to go out there the right way.”
Suh, who finished in his final home game with nine tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes broken up, said that Pelini's coaching has been the major reason for the change.
"We've grown tremendously, but there still is a lot of work to do,” Suh said. “His message when he first got here has been embraced by everybody. We’re not to what he expects from us, but I think we’re on a good path.”
Asante might be the best example of Pelini’s transformation. He came to Nebraska as one of the nation’s top 10 junior college prospects. But he looked lost in Cosgrove’s defense and there were some early thoughts he couldn’t play in Pelini's defense.
His seven tackles Saturday enabled him to tie for third on Nebraska’s career list for tackles.
There were still some areas of concern, like a sputtering offense that will never be confused with the Cornhuskers’ glory era when Eric Crouch, Scott Frost and Co. wreaked havoc across the Big 12.
The Cornhuskers are built to win games like Saturday’s battle over Kansas State. They will challenge Texas, but likely don’t have the firepower to dent the Longhorns’ emerging defense.
But the recent play of the Blackshirts will give them a puncher’s chance of sticking close to Texas, who might be looking ahead to their BCS title game prospects rather than worrying about the Cornhuskers next month.
“The way we played seems like it’s a recurring theme,” Pelini said. “We still have a long way to go, but there’s still a lot out there. Our kids are hungry and it’s on to the next challenge for us.”
Keithen Valentine's fumble near the Nebraska goal line killed one drive that looked like the Wildcats were ready to score.
KSU came away with no points despite moving to the Nebraska 15 when Josh Cherry misfired on a 33-yard field goal attempt.
And on their final third-quarter possession, the Wildcats again were stymied. Phillip Dillard's third-down sack at the Nebraska 32 ended that possession.
KSU's division title hopes are being frittered away by its sputtering offense.
But Nebraska safety Larry Asante's jarring tackle of Keithen Valentine kept Kansas State from scoring.
Asante's tackle was right on the ball as Valentine was headed for the Nebraska end zone.
Prince Amukamara dived on the ball at the Nebraska 5, killing the Wildcats' best scoring opportunity of the game.
It's the kind of mistake that KSU can't afford to have if they want to win this game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are my Big 12 picks for this weekend.
Colorado 21, Toledo 20: This might be the biggest game of Dan Hawkins’ career after his team’s opening-game debacle against Colorado State. The Buffaloes need to get a ground game going -- remember that guy on the bench is Darrell Scott -- and do a better job of limiting big plays on defense. Toledo quarterback Aaron Opelt threw 67 passes in last week’s loss at Purdue, but will find it much tougher this week against the Buffaloes’ underrated secondary keyed by cornerback Jimmy Smith. I’m looking for the Buffaloes to do just enough to escape the Glass Bowl with a victory-- but it’s not going to be easy or pretty.
Iowa 21, Iowa State 17: The Cyclones have had much recent success against the Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium, where they have won four of the last five in the series since 1999. The Hawkeyes struggled last week against Northern Iowa and were lucky to escape with a victory only after blocking field goals on the last two plays of the game. I look for replacement running back Adam Robinson to run with a little more confidence this week for the Hawkeyes. Don't be surprised if wily Iowa coordinator Norm Parker cooks up a defensive scheme that will handcuff the Cyclones’ emerging no-huddle offense. But it wouldn’t surprise me if the Cyclones were able to make this one close and maybe even eke out an upset victory.
Nebraska 41, Arkansas State 14: The Cornhuskers ran off a 49-3 victory over FAU and Bo Pelini wasn’t happy about his team’s defensive efforts. They’ll be facing another challenger from the Sun Belt in Arkansas State, who shouldn’t pose too many problems. I’ll be interested to see the continued development of future Cornhuskers like Rex Burkhead and Cody Green and see how the defense reacts after the scalding criticism of their coach. If Pelini gets mad after giving up three points, what's he going to do if they give up seven or 10 or 14 points this week?
Oklahoma State 45, Houston 34: Oklahoma State had a strong opening performance, including a salty defensive showing that stopped Georgia cold after the Bulldogs scored a touchdown on their opening possession. It will be interesting to see if that huge victory left the Cowboys with a hangover. It’s something they can’t afford, considering Houston’s high-powered offense keyed by Case Keenum. The Cougars had Oklahoma State on the ropes last season before the Cowboys blew the game open in the second half. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar kind of game on Saturday.
Texas 45, Wyoming 7: The Longhorns’ toughest nonconference road game shouldn’t pose too many problems, even with injuries on the offensive line and other personnel losses in the secondary. I’ll be interested to see how alternating Wyoming quarterbacks Robert Benjamin and Austyn Carta-Samuels attack a Texas defense that allowed more points in an opening game last week in 10 years. It will also be noteworthy to watch Texas’ running backs and see if Vondrell McGee still is the featured back after his fumble problems last week. Despite playing at high elevation, the Longhorns should have no worries.
Kansas 44, UTEP 35: Kansas ran the ball strongly last week against Northern Colorado and should be able to do the same against the Miners. But it wouldn’t surprise me if UTEP quarterback Trevor Vittatoe and some underrated offensive weapons make the Jayhawks sweat their way through their visit to the Sun Bowl. In the end, Dezmon Briscoe will make enough plays as a receiver and maybe as a kick returner to extend the Miners’ 16-game losing streak against Big 12 teams.
Missouri 34, Bowling Green 14: What can Blaine Gabbert do for an encore? His auspicious start has been the talk of the “Show-Me” State this week after a breakthrough performance against Illinois. I was just as impressed by the Tigers’ “Scorpion” defensive front which made Illinois quarterback Juice Williams miserable. The Missouri defense will be tested by Bowling Green’s talented pass-and-catch duo of Tyler Sheehan and Freddie Barnes. The Falcons beat Missouri in each of Gary Pinkel’s first two seasons at Missouri, including his first game there in 2001. But that’s a long time ago.
Oklahoma 34, Idaho State 0: Landry Jones gets his first start at quarterback as he replaces Sam Bradford. I look for Bob Stoops to have a conservative approach this week designed to build confidence for Jones over the next several games. There won’t be anything fancy as the Sooners will lean on a running game that needs to help restore assurance in an offensive line that struggled last week. Idaho State dropped a 50-3 outing at Arizona State last week in a game where Bengal quarterbacks threw four interceptions. It might be more of the same as the Sooners’ defense will be charged to pick up its performance with all of the lingering questions on offense.
Texas Tech 41, Rice 17: Taylor Potts didn’t have the best of college career starts, throwing three interceptions last week against North Dakota. I look for improvement from him and the Tech running attack as they meet rebuilding Rice. Owls coach David Bailiff is still struggling to find a quarterback and I expect both John Shepherd and Nick Fanuzzi to get an opportunity to play. But it won’t nearly be enough as the Red Raiders should cruise into the Texas game with a better performance than their first game.
Kansas State 31, Louisiana-Lafayette 24: Carson Coffman should have a better performance in his second game and the Kansas State special teams will be improved in a tougher-than-expected battle at Cajun Field. The Ragin’ Cajuns have a couple of nice offensive weapons in quarterback Chris Masson and running back Undrea Sails. If they get rolling, it could be a long night in the bayou for the Wildcats. I’m also a little concerned about how Kansas State’s lack of depth affects them at both offensive line and defensive line during what should be a hot, humid night. But in the end, Kansas State running backs Daniel Thomas and Keithen Valentine will provide enough offense for the Wildcats to escape Louisiana with a tough victory.
Last week: 9-3 (75.0 percent)
Season: 9-3 (75.0 percent)
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has been working heralded junior college transfer Daniel Thomas at running back during most of practice.
Thomas, a transfer from Northwest Mississippi Junior College, was considered as a potential contender for the Wildcats at quarterback. But Snyder has played him at running back with the emergence of Carson Coffman and Grant Gregory at quarterback.
"He is really a fun guy to watch," Snyder said of Thomas. "I think he is going to be a good player. As we all know, he is kind of multi-faceted and he can do a number of things, which makes him more than just a single, isolated threat as just a running back."
Thomas is in the mix along with Keithen Valentine, who leads the group and is the most experienced player at the position. Valentine rushed for 129 yards in eight games last season.
Other potential contenders include redshirt freshman Jarell Childs and freshman John Hubert, who both have showed flashes of potential in the Wildcats' early work as they prepare for their Sept. 5 opener against Massachusetts.
"When you talk about depth, you talk about quality depth, and we've got some numbers at running back," Snyder said.
But Thomas, a 6-foot-2, 227-pounder who rushed for 618 yards and six touchdowns and passed for 450 more yards and two TDs, has been one of the more intriguing parts of the Wildcats' offensive work during fall camp.
"He can be utilized in the running game, the passing game, and can become a blocker as well," Snyder said. "But all running backs normally have to be that way, and we will utilize Daniel to do the things he can do best."
Thomas' development and the depth at the position has enabled Snyder to switch his two leading rushers from 2008 to other positions.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
If it's a Friday afternoon, it's time to dive into my mailbag.
I received a bunch of good questions this week. Here are some of the best:
Justin from Austin, Texas, writes: I read your recent post about Texas having the most commits thus far from the ESPNU 150. One thing that interests me is the lack of a top running back on that list. I was curious as to your opinion on why Texas is not THE school to go to if you are a top quality running back, especially considering the Longhorns' lack of a true standout player at this position.
It would seem to me that someone with a lot of talent at the position would jump at the opportunity to come to a high profile school and potentially get 3 to 4 years of playing time right off the bat. Is it because Texas isn't perceived as a good running back school anymore, or are we already too stacked with players (though no "great" ones yet) so that recruits feel they won't get the playing time?
Tim Griffin: Justin, you make an interesting point. I, too, noticed that Texas hasn't attracted a blue-chip running back yet. Of course, Lache Seastrunk from Temple, Texas, would fit into that category. But it seems that Texas has missed out on the perceived great running backs and hasn't had a difference maker there since Cedric Benson graduated.
Maybe it's because of the Greg Davis' recent spread offense making top running back recruits shy away from the school as it becomes more heavily pass-oriented. But I think a bigger reason might be because of the development of spread offense as the de facto choice for many Texas high schools anymore. It means that more top athletes across the state are playing either quarterback or wide receiver.
There aren't nearly as many top running back prospects in Texas as there might have been 15-20 years ago. The days of top running backs like Earl Campbell, Adrian Peterson and Eric Dickerson now seems a little dated.
But if the Longhorns were successful in attracting Seastrunk, it wouldn't surprise me that Davis could develop an offense with him as a running back with 20-25 carries per game - even with a spread offense being employed much of the time.
Garon McClure writes: Tim, I am a Sooner fan and read your blog and columns almost daily. I was wondering what you thought about the Sooners trying to use Mossis Madu in the way that Florida used Percy Harvin the last few years. Have you heard any rumors or anything like that? I think it would be an intriguing wrinkle to the offense since they say they are moving him to the slot and he is a good runner too.
Tim Griffin: I think the Sooner coaches are tinkering with a variety of ways to employ Madu. His receiving skills, as well as the logjam at tailback with Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray, led to his move as a slot receiver this spring. It wouldn't surprise me if they still found a chance to let him run the ball, maybe in a limited role like Harvin did for the Gators last year.
I was very impressed with Madu last season for the Sooners. He came up big for them in the Big 12 championship game against Missouri when he rushed for a career-high 114 yards and three touchdowns after Murray was injured. And I look for him to be occasionally featured as a runner at times in 2009.
Dan Kaminski of Des Moines, Iowa, writes: When most teams are blowing out another team, coaches pull their starting quarterback and put in their backups. Texas did this and Florida did this last season with Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow respectively.
How come everyone talks about Sam Bradford's numbers last season but no one talks about the fact that when OU was blowing teams out by 50 points, Bob Stoops rarely (or at the last few minutes of the fourth quarter only) put in his back-up and thus inflated Bradford's stats?
Don't get me wrong, I think Bradford is one of the top quarterbacks, but his stats wouldn't have been anywhere as impressive as McCoy's had McCoy stayed in and played all games until the end.
Tim Griffin: I think that the usage of Bradford and McCoy assuredly speaks to the comfort and confidence that Mack Brown had in his backup quarterback compared to Bob Stoops with his. But I don't think the scoring was as significant for Bradford in blowout games as you might think.
Late in the season, Bradford played into the fourth quarter against Texas Tech and was needed in the fourth quarter against Oklahoma State, considering the Sooners were nursing only a three-point lead midway through the quarter.
It was understandable for him to be in the fourth quarter of the Big 12 championship game, his last opportunity to shine for Heisman voters. Still, Bradford accounted for only seven of his 50 touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, and three of those came in Oklahoma losses or games settled by two touchdowns or less.
Bradford's single-season numbers were the best in Oklahoma history by a quarterback, but I don't necessarily think that playing deep into games was that big a factor in them.
Cecil Wilson from Plano, Texas, writes: Tim, when are you hosting your next online chat? And what does Mack Brown and Co. have to do, besides go undefeated and win the Big XII Championship to get to the National Championship game in Pasadena? Thank you.
Tim Griffin: My next chat will be coming up probably not next week but the week after, likely on the same day as my Big 12 previews appear.
I'll give a couple of days notice when it will be approaching, because I always enjoy receiving all of your questions.
And I don't necessarily think Texas would have to go undefeated to win the national championship. I do think it would be crucial for them to finish quickly and win the Big 12 title game. And they should hope that the other contenders all have a loss or two to help winnow the field and make them stand apart from the rest.
I think if they do that, a Big 12 champion team with zero or one loss is going to have a good shot to make the national championship game. A one-loss team made it last year from the conference with Oklahoma.
Clayton Buehrle from Dallas writes: Tim, concerning the Top 40 teams in the BCS, could you please explain how ESPN expects to "play" the different teams against each other? What teams are playing (Current teams or past teams?)? The whole scenario is fun but seems a bit confusing. My friends and I could use some insight. Thanks.
Tim Griffin: My colleagues took a novel approach of breaking up the 40 teams into four 10-team conferences and then having a playoff. Mark Schlabach's story today spells out how the fantasy would play out.
My favorite part is a yearly relegation that would drop out the bottom feeders every year and replace them with teams from outside the top 40. I know that sounds a little like European soccer, but I think that would really be interesting to see teams jump up a level or drop depending on how they played the previous season.
And that's what makes the whole idea of relegation such a fun topic idea.
Brad Millican of Fort Worth, Texas, writes: How are fall practice schedules set? There seems to be a huge difference in when all the Big XII teams report for camp. Is this regulated by the NCAA?
Tim Griffin: Brad, different coaches have different strategies in how they want to break down the practices as they get ready for the season. Each school has 29 practices from the start of practice to the first game. The first three practices are without pads. But the schedule is
different based on the academic schedule of each school. Some coaches like to have a lot of two-a-days early to immediately challenge their teams. Other coaches like to backload things and test their teams a little closer to the start of the season.
Mark McCabe of Stafford, Va., writes: Tim, growing up a Cornhusker fan and now having lived in several places around the country... I found the recent ESPN poll asking, "What are you most looking forward to in the fall? College or Pro Football (never mind the World Series)." Both the Big 12 (TX and MO the exceptions) and the SEC areas picked college football.
Do you think fan support has a major impact on success or does success lead to fan support?
Tim Griffin: Mark, I noticed the same chart. I've lived in both the South and Midwest for extensive periods and think that the passion for college football is the strongest in those "flyover areas." The lack of competing NFL teams lead to that support. And I do think it has a major impact on success. Recruits know they can pick a school in that area and realize their games will be the biggest sporting events in their states. That's a heady feeling for a recruit and a big reason why places like Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama and Iowa have been able to continue their success over many years.
And it doesn't surprise me that Texas and Missouri aren't as excited about college sports as other Big 12 areas. The heavy influence of professional sports in both states - probably as strong there as any area in the conference - has tempered some of the excitement for college sports in recent years. The fans there still get excited when a team like Texas or Missouri makes a run at a national championship. But the NFL helps cut down some of the day-to-day excitement in college football there.
Kenneth Smith of Houston writes: Who do you think will win the starting QB spot at Kansas State? Also do you think that K-State will be in the mix for the Big 12 North title?
Me personally, I think the Wildcats are going to upset a team this year, maybe Missouri or Kansas. The offense seems to be pretty good with Keithen Valentine in the backfield again and Brandon Banks at wide receiver. The defense last season was OK, but they need to learn just to wrap up to make a tackle. Who do you think will be the two teams competing in the North?
Tim Griffin: I think that Kansas State will be the mystery team in the North this season - even more than Colorado. I've always had huge respect for the coaching acumen that Bill Snyder brings to his program. He'll be facing a huge challenge at Kansas State, but I think his task will be a little easier because so many of his assistant coaches have coached or played for him and are familiar with his demands.
I think Carson Coffman will get the start for the Wildcats' opener Sept. 5 against Massachusetts. But I'm thinking that Grant Gregory and Daniel Thomas likely will have chances to play as well. I think Thomas could be the starting quarterback later this season, as Snyder has always favored quarterbacks who were adept at running and passing like Michael Bishop, Ell Roberson and Jonathan Beasley. Thomas fits that mold.
And as far as the last two teams competing in the Big 12 North, I'll go with Nebraska and Kansas. I think the regular-season finales for both teams - Nebraska at Colorado and Kansas and Missouri at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City - will have much importance in determining the North champion this season.
Thanks for all of your questions this week. We'll check back again next Friday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
After spring practice, there's been a little movement in my pre-spring power rankings. Here's where I think schools are slotted heading into the summer.
|Kenny Felt/Icon SMI|
|Sergio Kindle was switched to defensive end this spring and dominated early practices.|
1. Texas: Colt McCoy is back bigger and stronger than ever. But the real improvement during the spring for the Longhorns came in the secondary, where they have legitimate two-deep talent. Sergio Kindle was a natural at defensive end and incoming freshman Alex Okafor was better than advertised as a prime pass-rusher. The running game is still a question and depth at defensive tackle could be iffy. But the Longhorns still remember how 2008 played out -- at least if the asterisk-marked Big 12 championship hung in their team room is any indication. February pre-spring ranking: 1.
2. Oklahoma: Gerald McCoy talks about the Oklahoma defense being the best in the nation and they could be with nine returning starters. And the Sooners could improve even more if Auston English and Ryan Reynolds make strong comebacks from injuries. The biggest question remains the four new starters along the offensive line who will be charged with blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. That turnover remains the primary question that could stymie the Sooners' hopes of an unprecedented fourth straight Big 12 title. February pre-spring ranking: 2.
3. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy looks to have the conference's most balanced offense -- even as Dez Bryant recovered from knee surgery this spring. The big question remains the defense. New coordinator Bill Young started work on the defensive line as his first order of business before branching out to the rest of the unit. The Cowboys can score with anybody, but Young's work improving the defense will determine whether OSU can contend for its first Big 12 South title and be a legitimate factor in the BCS race. February pre-spring ranking: 3.
4. Nebraska: Quarterback Zac Lee's early grasp of the offense looked impressive this spring, but he'll have to build on that quick study if the Cornhuskers are to contend for Bo Pelini's first North title. There are still some holes at wide receiver and along the right side of the offensive line, but the Cornhuskers are improving their talent level -- particularly on defense. I make them a slight favorite in the North Division, mainly because of a more favorable schedule of cross-division rivals. February pre-spring ranking: 4.
5. Kansas: Anticipation is soaring for the Jayhawks, who finish the spring with legitimate hopes of their first undisputed Big 12 North title. Todd Reesing is the North's best quarterback and the return of Dezmon Briscoe from his suspension would give Reesing his best offensive weapon. The line will have less experience than any team in the conference, but has some heralded talent in place. The biggest defensive question will be replacing three starting linebackers who were the heart of last season's defense. Mark Mangino has hinted at a 4-2-5 defense that may be better suited for combating the Big 12's explosive offenses. Their hopes will depend on navigating the North's toughest stretch of South Division opponents. February pre-spring ranking: 5.
6. Texas Tech: Coach Mike Leach has a new five-year contract but will be facing some heavy lifting. This will be his most significant offensive rebuilding job during his coaching tenure as he replaces the prime weapons of last season's South Division tri-champion. Taylor Potts won't be as productive as Graham Harrell, but he has more experience coming into the position than most of Leach's previous starting quarterbacks. The star power at wide receiver will be lacking without Michael Crabtree, but the spring showed the Red Raiders still have much talent and should be deeper throughout the receiver rotation. McKinner Dixon's spring suspension, coupled with Brandon Williams' defection to the NFL, makes pass rushing iffy. And the Red Raiders are looking for two new safeties from an inexperienced group. It all adds up to a challenging rebuilding job for Leach. February pre-spring ranking: 6.
7. Colorado: The Buffaloes remain the Big 12's mystery team and Tyler Hansen's thumb injury only accentuates that uncertainty. New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau will be taking over this summer. And while he's been around the program for three years, it's still a concern taking the top job. The offense looked fine in the spring game, particularly a bruising rushing game keyed by Darrell Scott and Rodney Stewart. The defensive line remains the biggest question on the other side of the ball and we won't know how that group will play until the season begins. Dan Hawkins confidently picked the Buffaloes to go 10-2 after last season. They'll be better than last season's 5-7, but I'm not sure they will live up to their coach's optimism. February pre-spring ranking: 8.
8. Missouri: It was tough to get a handle on the Tigers during the spring. Blaine Gabbert had some moments, but his numbers weren't that impressive. But those struggles were understandable considering he was throwing to some inexperienced receivers while Danario Alexander and Jared Perry recovered from injuries. The turnover in both coordinators from last season will be interesting to watch. And with all of the thoughts about the huge personnel losses on offense, the Tigers also will lose a lot on defense. I still think the Tigers will go bowling this year, but will be better suited for a run at the 2010 North title than this season. February pre-spring ranking: 7.
9. Baylor: Optimism is flowing along the Brazos with Bears backers -- with good reason if Robert Griffin can duplicate his freshman success. The biggest offensive question remains his protection with two new offensive tackles. On defense, the Bears have a lot of talent returning and Phil Taylor looks like the real deal at
defensive tackle -- their biggest defensive need. Art Briles is changing the culture at Baylor, but it will be interesting to see if he can really push them into bowl contention -- not an easy task in the Big 12 South. February pre-spring ranking: 9.
10. Texas A&M: Credit Mike Sherman for thinking outside the box. The idea to move Von Miller to the "jack" position on defense was a master stroke -- if Miller can hold up to the pounding he'll face in the trenches. It was hard to get a gauge on A&M's running game with so many injuries in their offensive line. When healthy -- and with the arrival of heralded freshman Christine Michael -- the Aggies should be much better than last season. Same for a secondary that appeared overmatched in the spring, but was crippled by injuries at cornerback. It will be a long road back to Big 12 contention, but look for A&M to be more respectable this season. February pre-spring ranking: 11.
11. Kansas State: I wonder if Bill Snyder has ever had second thoughts since returning to coaching. His rebuilding job with this team pales next to what he originally faced back in 1989, but the Big 12 is a more difficult challenge than that old Big Eight was. Carson Coffman claimed the starting job with a late push in the spring, but will be challenged by Grant Gregory and Daniel Thomas later in the summer. The running game needs somebody to emerge as Keithen Valentine and Jarell Childs alternated spring work. The defense has a long way to go, although Vic Koenning's 4-2-5 appears to better suit the talent on hand. Snyder's acumen should help them in some close games, but it still will be a huge challenge to get them back into bowl contention. February pre-spring ranking: 10.
12. Iowa State: Paul Rhoads is a realist. It's hard not to be after he took a look at his defensive players and realized how far the Cyclones have to come in order to be a force in the North. Look for them to make steps this season thanks to his enthusiasm, but still facing a huge climb in order to be competitive with all of the explosive Big 12 offenses. The Cyclones should be productive on offense with new coordinator Tom Herman. Backup quarterback Jerome Tiller looks like he's ready to push Austen Arnaud after a strong spring game. And Alexander Robinson could emerge as one of the Big 12's most underrated players as a versatile run-catch option. February pre-spring ranking: 12.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Bill Snyder has never been the biggest fan of spring games.
In a perfect world, the veteran Kansas State coach likely would have preferred to use his final spring practice in a more controlled atmosphere than at the spring game.
But his first-string offense and defense showed some flashes as it outscored the backups, 45-0. Snyder actually flipped the score at halftime to make it more spectator-friendly after the starters on the Purple team had jumped to a 17-0 edge at the break. They punctuated the game by scoring four touchdowns in the second half.
"Have you ever seen anything as boring as that?" Snyder joked with reporters after the scrimmage concluded.
Five months have passed since Snyder accepted the rebuilding job after his three-season sabbatical. There were some bright spots in the spring game despite some rocky performances earlier in practice.
The first-string offense directed by quarterback Carson Coffman piled up 483 yards. The first-string defense was even better, limiting the KSU backups to nine first downs and 123 total yards.
"This team just needs to practice, practice, practice," Snyder said.
Here are some things that we learned during the course of the spring:
- Coffman appeared to make some headway late in practice, but the quarterback position still remains open.
Coffman showed flashes by passing for 334 yards and three touchdowns. The four quarterbacks who alternated with the second-stringers were a combined 9-for-26 for 62 yards with two interceptions.
"We're much improved from where we were in the beginning of the spring, but we still have a lot to work on," said Coffman, who appears to have earned the respect of his team after they voted him as an offensive captain.
- Look for South Florida transfer Grant Gregory to challenge as soon as he arrives on campus after battling Matt Grothe for the job earlier in his career with the Bulls.
And heralded junior college transfer Daniel Thomas of Northwest Mississippi Community College will get a shot, too. If Gregory emerges to challenge Coffman, we might see Thomas moved to running back to capitalize on his athletic skills.
- One of the other bright spots of the spring was the play of freshman running back Jarell Childs, who narrowed the gap and is challenging Keithen Valentine for the starting job. Valentine finished with 92 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game and still is considered as the No. 1 contender at the position.
- Attendance for the spring game was 12,850. But the most impressive number might have been 450 -- the number of recruits and parents who attended the game.
- Freshman punter Ryan Doerr looked solid throughout the spring, capping his efforts by averaging 45.4 yards per punt in the spring game while kicking for both teams. Included in his barrage were long kicks of 60 and 58 yards.
That production is important for the Wildcats, particularly because incumbent D.J. Fulhage averaged only 38.1 yards per kick last season -- good for 93rd nationally.
- Some questioned the move of Logan Dold to running back to the secondary. While we didn't get a chance to watch him play in the spring game, his athleticism will help in the secondary.
- New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's retooled 4-2-5 defense looks like it will be productive, although the big game might be taken with a grain of salt, considering it was against the second-stringers.
The new alignment will employ three safeties and hopefully be more productive than the group last season that was 117th in total defense, 106th in pass defense, 110th in scoring defense and 112th in rush defense.
Former walk-on linebacker Alex Hrbec accounted for a huge game with 19 tackles and Brandon Harold chipped in with nine tackles and three sacks to key the play along the defensive line.
- Harold looks a lot more comfortable as a rush end than a defensive tackle, as was experimented at times last season.
"He was a good player last year, and I think one thing that's happened with Brandon is he's becoming a little bit more physical," Snyder told the Topeka Capital-Journal. "He's gained some weight and I think he's just about to turn the corner in the weight room. He can handle a lot of weight.
"He's gaining, and I say gaining, he's still an awfully good player. But you have to realize he was a true freshman last year, so it's in his normal progression that he should get better if he's really focused on it. He should be an improved player year in and year out. And he is making those strides and he is concerned about it -- he wants to be a good player."
Harold contributed three sacks in the spring game and appeared to be one of the most productive Wildcats.
- Wide receiver Brandon Banks clearly looks like the Wildcats' most productive offensive player - as he was most of last season. Banks produced 141 yards on six receptions, including a 64-yard grab from Coffman for a touchdown.
"I'm pretty comfortable but we're going to get to keep working at it as the season comes along, and keep getting better every day," Banks said. "Grade-wise we are probably a C, but there is room for improvement. I think the second-team offense is improving a little bit, but everyone needs to step up and get better, including me. So we're in pretty good shape right now."
- Snyder made a symbolic gesture during the spring game by wearing the old-school Kansas State uniforms that looked like those worn by the Dallas Cowboys. The Wildcats won't be able to wear those once the season starts because of contract obligations with Nike.
And Snyder had an interesting look himself, wearing a coat and tie as he patrolled the sidelines. His wardrobe, he said, could be attributed to not having time to change after some activities earlier in the morning.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Happy Friday afternoon. Here are some of the more interesting letters I received during the past week.
Adam: Would you care to make any comparisons between Oklahoma State's ultra-talented trio of Zac Robinson/Dez Bryant/Kendall Hunter to other OSU trio greats of Mike Gundy/Barry Sanders/Hart Lee Dykes and Josh Fields/Rashaun Woods/Tatum Bell?
Tim Griffin: Adam, I think it terms of total firepower, the Gundy/Sanders/Dykes grouping was the best, followed by the current group of Robinson/Bryant/Hunter with Fields/Bell/Woods ranking last.
The reason I give the 80s group the edge is because of Sanders. Earlier this week, a national web site said that Sanders was the second-greatest living Heisman winner behind only two-time winner Archie Griffin. His rushing numbers are still mind-boggling.
And it would be interesting to see how much better Hart Lee Dykes would have done if he played in today's era where passing is such an important part. Dykes was by far the second offensive option on those teams and he still had 60, 61 and 74 catches in his three seasons as a starter.
That being said, I think that Zac Robinson could go down in history as the greatest quarterback in OSU history and Dez Bryant's numbers will end up being as good as anybody. But as good as Hunter is, he's still no Sanders.
Chance from Memphis, Tenn., writes: Thanks for the heads up regarding the possible Minnesota home-and-home addition for Texas. Didn't Texas have Utah and Arkansas on the 2009 schedule at one time, and both opted out?
TG: Chance, yes they did. Texas had a planned series with Utah for 2008 and 2009 called off fby the Utes. And after beating the Razorbacks in 2008, Arkansas officials decided they didn't want to play Texas in 2009. Instead, the Razorbacks have asked that game to be pushed back until 2014 as they start a 10-year contract for games against Texas A&M at the new Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlington, Texas.
All of this doesn't do Mack Brown much good for this season. He might have to answer for his non-conference schedule which is packed with gooey treats like Louisiana-Monroe, Wyoming, UTEP and Central Florida.
If there's a close race in the BCS standings, something tells me that Brown will be doing a lot of spinning about his schedule during November.
Adam Nettina from Baltimore writes: Tim, Why the heck is Logan Dold moving the safety when he showed such promise as a running back? He was the second all-time leading rusher in Kansas high school history, was K-state's leading rusher in terms of yards per carry among regulars a year and runs the 100 in 10.9 seconds.
Yet, he's being replaced a senior who only ran for 3.8 yards per carry in limited duty a year ago and a redshirt freshmen with basically no on-field experience. So why make the move with Dold and not somebody else?
TG: Adam, I agree that I was a little surprised by the move of Dold, particularly considering his production last season. But I also know that Bill Snyder traditionally has favored small, quick backs like Darren Sproles. I'm wondering if he thinks that Keithen Valentine better suits his philosophy. And I also know that Jarell Childs has been a big surprise during spring practice.
Seth from New Haven, Conn., writes: Hey Tim, I'm a Yale student who just saw that Nebraska's Patrick Witt intends to transfer to New Haven. What should we expect to see from him?
TG: I get the feeling that Witt transferred to Yale more for academic reasons that for a chance to play. He had the opportunity to play at places like Duke and South Carolina and also considered UCLA. But I think his style will suit him at Yale, playing for Coach Jack Siedlecki.
Witt is a big, strong quarterback who has a strong arm for deep throws. Remember, he was the player who Bo Pelini turned to when Joe Ganz was injured for a few plays against Clemson in the Gator Bowl.
I'm not thinking that Witt will be heading to the Bulldogs with any sense of entitlement. And I'm also expecting he will be excited about continuing his career. So I wouldn't be surprised if he really thrived with his opportunity.
Preston Nix from Austin, Texas, writes: Tim, what keeps the Big 12 from trading Iowa State, Colorado, and/or Baylor for Utah, Boise State or other schools that could broaden the Big 12 market and make it a national powerhouse like the SEC seems to be?
TG: Mainly, it's tradition and the relationships that all of the schools have made with the others over the years. Iowa State was in the Big Eight with many of those other schools since 1928. Colorado was a member of the Big Eight from 1948. That's a lot of years for relationships.
And if Baylor hadn't come along with the other three schools from Texas when the Big 12 was formed, it's likely that none of them would because of the Bears' strong political power in the state legislature in Austin. Also, the complete sports programs of those schools - both in men's and women's sports - will be a factor in keeping them together.
I don't look for the Big 12 to break up any time soon. From everything I'm hearing, I think there's greater cohesiveness among the 12 partners who make up the league than ever before.
Joseph Hauss from College Station writes: Tim, I love your blog and read it every day. The 2009 season can't get here quickly enough. I just was wondering what your thoughts were about Mike Leach's comments about Stephen McGee? An A&M student I should be all against Tech. Unlike, many of my colleagues I find Mike Leach to be my kind of guy because he speaks his mind and isn't scared to. That being said, I believe he was actually complimenting McGee on his accomplishment but was inferring that he would have been using McGee's skills in the passing game since he stepped foot on campus in 2005.
TG: I think that Leach's compliment was a backhanded swipe at McGee's previous and current coaching staff. And I've got to think there's a tad of envy for Leach in the fact that McGee, who started two games last season, was drafted in the fourth round.
Meanwhile, Graham Harrell, the prototypical quarterback for Leach's offense went undrafted despite setting a FBS career record for most career touchdown passes.
I've got to wonder if there might be a fear for Leach and the Red Raiders that Harrell's failure to be drafted might hurt the school in returning at a later time. But it seems like top quarterbacks always end up playing for the Red Raiders. It's just that the elite ones might have been more willing to make that move if Harrell had been a higher draft selection.
R.W. Dobbins of Oklahoma City writes: Jermaine Gresham as the best tight end in Oklahoma history? Well considering Keith Jackson was the best tight end in the history of any school, you might be a little off.
TG: I appreciate your response, but remember, I said that if Gresham had a huge year he could be remembered as Oklahoma's greatest tight end. I still think that is the case.
Jackson was a great athlete who averaged 23.7 yards per reception. But he also benefited from defenses which were stacked to stop the Sooners' wishbone offense when he was playing. And also remember that Jackson had 62 catches in his career. Gresham had 66 catches and 14 touchdowns last season.
I realize that football is different today than when Jackson was playing. But Gresham can be just as valuable and could earn All-America status with a big season this year. And he probably deserved it last season.
Benson from Washington, D.C., writes: Tim, I loved following the draft and I noticed that Missouri had more players picked than any team from the Big 12. Has that ever happened before? Also, was their total the most ever picked in one draft for a Big 12 team and was it the most ever for Missouri in one draft?
TG: Benson, you're right. Missouri had the most players picked in the Big 12 with six draftees. But it wasn't the most in school history. That came in 1981 and 1943 when the Tigers had seven players selected. And both of those drafts were significantly bigger than today's current seven-round draft. The NFL went 12 rounds deep in 1981 and 32 rounds in 1943.
The Tigers' haul last weekend still didn't match Oklahoma's Big 12 record of 11 players that were picked in 2005.
Thanks again for all of the letters. Enjoy your weekend and I'll be checking back again next week.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
With only two teams still holding spring games, we're nearly down to the bitter end in terms of practices across the Big 12.
Colorado and Kansas State still have work to do. But there are other stories around the conference today that merit some consideration as well.
- Dave Matter of the Columbia Tribune writes an outstanding story that delves into the unconventional coaching background of new Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Yost.
- Former Nebraska All-American linebacker Trev Alberts has emerged as the leading candidate for the Nebraska-Omaha athletic director job, Rob White of the Omaha World-Herald reports. Alberts is set for two days of meetings with school officials and students in Omaha later this week.
- Dave Curtis of the Sporting News lists Kansas State running back Keithen Valentine and Nebraska wide receiver Curenski Gilleylen as prime examples of "Mr. April" from 2008.
- Former Texas A&M football coach Jackie Sherrill tells Victoria Advocate reporter Mike Forman why he remembers Texas fans chanting "Poor Aggies" only once during his coaching career.
- Robert Cessna of the Bryan Eagle proposes a way for Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne to make his budget by selling the roughly 200 empty seats in the press box for the Aggies' spring game.
- An argument with a former girlfriend lead to felony and misdemeanor drug charges for Oklahoma State wide receiver Bo Bowling, the Oklahoman's Scott Wright reports.
- Fast-rising former Oklahoma tackle Phil Loadholt could sneak his way into the first round of this weekend's NFL draft, according to the Oklahoman's Jake Trotter.
- David Youngblood of the Oklahoma State Daily O'Collegian writes about the Cowboys' defensive progress this spring.
- Bobby La Gesse reports for the Omaha World-Herald that new Iowa State defensive coordinator Wally Burnham has started his transformation of the Cyclones' defense, but still has much work to do.
- Record-breaking Missouri kicker Jeff Wolfert expects to be a free-agent selection in this weekend's draft, but told Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star he remains confident he can play in the NFL.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Happy Tax Day to everybody. Hopefully, there won't be many midnight filers among my readers and there will be a healthy return coming to most of you.
Me, I wasn't quite so lucky, but took care of my payment to Uncle Sam a few days ago. And I've been dealing with a cranky Windows system all morning that has made work a bear -- and then some.
But nothing can stop lunchtime links. (Hat tip to my wife's computer -- you can never tell when you need a good backup).
- Boulder Daily Camera columnist Neill Woelk urges Dan Hawkins to bring back Colorado's traditional power running game.
- Kansas State running back Keithen Valentine is excited about getting a second chance in the program with new coach Bill Snyder, Kansas City Star/Wichita Eagle beat writer Jeffrey Martin writes.
- Iowa State players are learning that peak conditioning is the most important factor in picking up Tom Herman's spread offense, Ames Daily Tribune beat writer Bobby La Gesse writes.
- Robert Cessna of the Bryan Eagle notes that Texas A&M linebackers are becoming more proficient with their blitz packages.
- Six-foot-7 Adrian Reese has moved from tight end to split end for Texas Tech, where he conceivably should be able to take advantage of height mismatches with smaller cornerbacks. Don Williams of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal writes that Reese will challenge Edward Britton and Rashad Hawk for playing time at the new position.
- Former Oklahoma assistant Charley North has stacked his new staff at Dibble High School with former Sooners players, Ryan Aber of the Oklahoman reports. Among the members of North's staff include Stephen Alexander, J.R. Conrad and Jacob Gutierrez.
- Veteran Lawrence Journal-World sports editor Tom Keegan details the recent development of Kansas wide receiver Johnathan Wilson.
- Who gets to wear the gold jerseys at Missouri's spring game on Saturday? Matt Schiffman of the Columbia Missourian writes about the spirited battle between the Tigers' offensive and defensive units to determine who will wear those prized uniforms.
- Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins, already the conference's highest paid athletic director, could be in line for another cash bonanza, Andy Hyland of the Lawrence Journal-World reports. Perkins could pocket a retention bonus of $750,000 if he remains at Kansas through June 30.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here's a collection of tidbits, notes and quotes I've been saving for Friday afternoon. Enjoy them.
WHO'S HOT AND NOT
Hot: Kansas State receiver Ernie Pierce, who produced 11 catches for 176 yards last week against Oklahoma. He had six catches all season before last week.
Not: Colorado, which fumbled on two of its first four snaps and went downhill from there in a 58-0 shellacking at Missouri.
Hot: Baylor quarterbacks, who have gone seven straight games without throwing an interception.
Not: Baylor kicker Ben Parks, who shanked a 19-yard field goal and had an extra point blocked last week against Nebraska.
Hot: Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier, who needs seven receptions to set the school's single-season record of 70 set by Richard Estell in 1985.
Not: Kansas punt returner Daymond Patterson, who has four muffs in his last four games.
Hot: Missouri defensive end Stryker Sulak, who has forced five fumbles in his last eight games.
Not: Nebraska's defense, which allowed plays of 43, 40, 47, 34 and 44 yards against Baylor last week.
Hot: Texas A&M quarterback Jerrod Johnson, who has combined for 1,083 passing yards and six touchdowns in his last three games.
Not: Kansas quarterback Todd Reesing, who had less than 200 yards passing last week for the first time in 13 games.
Hot: Nebraska quarterback Joe Ganz. When the final three games of last season are included, Ganz has fired 30 touchdown passes in his last 11 games.
Not: Oklahoma State's offensive line, which allowed five sacks last week against Texas after allowing seven in the previous seven games of the season.
Frigid: Colorado's offense. The Buffaloes are averaging 10.5 points per game in conference games. The next lowest team, Baylor, is averaging 20.2 points per game.