Big 12: Michigan State Spartans
Dec. 29, 10:15 p.m. ET, Tempe, Ariz. (ESPN)
TCU take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: The Horned Frogs brought a new style of football in their first year in the Big 12, forcing the rest of the league to get used to more low-scoring games decided in the running game. The Frogs won four games this year with 27 points or less and scored fewer than 20 points in two more, while holding opponents to less than 30. The Frogs season turned when it lost Casey Pachall, who left school to seek treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, forcing redshirt freshman Trevone Boykin to learn on the job. He’s been up and down, but the Frogs live to run the ball and play defense.
They’ll face a Michigan State team which loves to do the exact same. Expect another game won by the team that wins the line of scrimmage and the time of possession battle. The Spartans are fourth nationally in total defense, and the Frogs led the Big 12 in the stat by more than 35 yards per game.
TCU clinched its eighth consecutive bowl bid with a banged-up season in the Big 12, playing with a team that was made up of 70 percent freshmen and sophomores, by far the youngest team coach Gary Patterson had ever fielded. Still, in their first year in a tougher league, the Horned Frogs finished tied for fifth and won seven games despite missing more than 20 players that it expected to have when 2011 ended. Top running back Waymon James suffered a season-ending knee injury, leaving Matthew Tucker as the lone returnee from a trio of running backs that rushed for at least 700 yards last season. Ed Wesley left the team and entered the NFL supplemental draft after spring practice. It was a season full of difficult circumstances for the Frogs, but they perservered and will try to get a jump on a promising 2013 season with a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
Michigan State take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: The bar had been raised for Michigan State entering the fall after the Spartans recorded a team-record 11 victories in each of the past two seasons. Many pegged Mark Dantonio’s squad to reach its first Rose Bowl in a quarter-century and continue to establish itself as a new power in the Big Ten. Things didn’t work out that way, as the Spartans repeatedly came up short, struggled at home and needed a Week 13 win just to become bowl-eligible for the sixth straight year, a team record.
A talent-stocked Spartans defense did its part, finishing in the top 10 nationally in total defense (fourth), scoring defense (10th), rushing defense (eighth) and pass defense (ninth). Middle linebacker Max Bullough and cornerback Darqueze Dennard are among the standouts on a unit that allowed fewer than 20 points in eight games.
Most of Michigan State’s problems came on offense, as the Spartans struggled to replace quarterback Kirk Cousins and his top three receivers. Junior signal caller Andrew Maxwell had mixed results in his first year as the starter, and while a young receiving corps improved, there was little continuity in the pass game. Running back Le'Veon Bell did his share, taking the ball more times (350) than any other FBS player and recording 1,648 yards and 11 touchdowns. But the unit struggled to turn yards into points and lost five Big Ten games by a total of 13 points, including all four conference contests at home.
Bowl practices should help the young offense, but Michigan State’s defense likely will need a big effort against TCU in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl to secure the team’s second straight postseason win.
Here are a some that I’ve received over the last couple of days.
Austin from Arlington, Va., writes: Hey Tim, enjoy reading the blog, thanks for your reporting. I was interested in one of your comments today, when you mention you prefer the college version to the pros. I'm with you, but I was curious to hear you expand on that a little. What aspects of the game (excluding outside the game stuff like recruiting) make the college game a better version for you? Thanks again, keep up the good work!
Tim Griffin: I just think the college game lends itself more to the fans. You don’t have greedy owners threatening to move colleges at the drop of the hat if they aren’t satisfied with their stadium deal. I love the pageantry of a Saturday afternoon game. There’s color involved when you hit a college campus hours before a game you just don’t see in and around NFL stadiums. I’ve covered the NFL for many years, and it always seems too antiseptic for my tastes.
I also like the college game more. I think it skews a little bit more towards offense, which I like. I love the fact the clock stops after a first down, giving teams more plays over the course of a game. I hate the fact that television has made the NFL into a three-hour, 20-minute window with commercials after every kickoff.
I also will take recruiting over the NFL draft any day. And give me the college version of overtime where both teams have the opportunity to have the ball before a game is settled.
In my opinion, it’s really quite clear why the college game is better than the pro version.
Nate from Seattle, Wash., writes: Tim, love the blog, please keep the content coming during the offseason. That being said, on your "crystal ball" piece, in which you looked in to the Big 12's future, you got one thing terribly wrong. Bo Pelini is not interested in the LSU job. It has been mentioned before, but several reports have stated that his wife hated Baton Rouge and Bo wasn't a big fan of the area either. Ohio State may be an issue some day, but LSU? No.
Tim Griffin: Nate, thanks for the kind words. But I’ve heard from sources that Pelini wasn’t that all that happy with his experience in Ohio State, either. I just think that when some school from the Southeastern Conference waves a huge multi-million contract in front of Pelini, likely sometime in the future, he’ll have to think about it. And he left on great terms in the administration and among LSU fans. Not saying that would be enough to persuade his wife to start liking boudin and beignets, but a paycheck with a lot of zeroes at the end has a way of doing some not-so-subtle convincing.
Thomas from Columbia, Mo., writes: Tim, I liked your crystal ball predictions but was a little disappointed that nothing more about Missouri came from your thoughts. I was hoping that the Big 10 blogger would comment on Mizzou, but that didn't happen. If Missouri does not leave the Big 12, what are your predictions for the Tigers through 2020? And if they do go to the Big 10, where do you think they would end up? Will they fit in with a heavy offense, and annually limited defense? Will they flop or soar in the Big 10?
Tim Griffin: I would think it would be a little harder for Missouri to compete in the Big Ten on a consistent basis than the Big 12. The reason why is because I think the Big Ten is deeper top to bottom than the Big 12. The Big 12 has more dominant teams at the top like Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, but there are still some teams that Missouri enjoys a natural advantage over.
I think they would be on a more even basis in the Big Ten. Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan and Iowa would replace their big rivals in the Big 12. But I think they would be challenged on a consistent basis with teams like Wisconsin, Northwestern, Michigan State and others in the Big Ten as well.
Another possible problem if they were to ever leave the Big 12 would be that Missouri’s developing recruiting presence in Texas would gradually dry up. The Tigers and Gary Pinkel are entrenched in the state and have done a nice job of picking up under-recruited players like Chase Daniel, Sean Weatherspoon, Stryker Sulak and Ziggy Hood from Texas high schools and developing them once they spend a few seasons in the program.
I don’t think Missouri would be quite as effective recruiting Texas if they ever left the Big 12, because I don’t know how excited Texas players like I mentioned would be to play against Big Ten schools rather than Big 12 schools. Those Texas players are excited about an occasional trip back to Texas where friends and family could watch them play.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the Tigers. And like I predicted in my piece earlier today, it wouldn’t surprise me if they decide to move if they get the opportunity.
Dan from Texas writes: Hey Tim, read the blog every day, keep up the good work. I was wondering with the recent success of the Flexbone/Triple Option run by Georgia Tech, and the military academies, do you see more teams hiring coaches that run that system? Are you surprised more schools haven't given it a shot?
Tim Griffin: Dan, I don’t see the triple option really taking off as a mainstream offense at many schools. The military academies recruit to that kind of offense because they have tradition in place in running them and coaches who are confident in playing that offense.
But it’s a big change for most coaches to go to that kind of offense. They worry that the offense doesn’t provide an opportunity to come back in games if they were to fall behind by a couple of touchdowns. It’s not attractive to many of today’s recruits who have been weaned on the excitement of pass-and-catch football. Also, it’s the kind of offense that places your quarterback in jeopardy of being injured on almost every running play if he carries the ball. Most coaches add all that up and see that the flexbone or the option provides much risk when compared with other offensive philosophies.
While the option has a place in college football, I just don’t see it getting a lot of acceptance by most coaches when other offensive avenues are available.
Julio Ramirez from Corpus Christi, Texas, writes: Tim, were you surprised that Mack Brown had such a quick hook with Dan Buckner when he decided to leave school last week?
Tim Griffin: I was stunned that Buckner elected to transfer as quickly as he did. I don’t suspect he was particularly happy with his shrinking role in the offense at the end of the season. I don’t know if the arrest necessarily triggered that or not. But Mack Brown’s statement when he was released mentioned that Buckner’s family was convinced he would be cleared once he goes through the legal process.
Buckner will be getting a fresh start at Arizona starting in 2011. It’s a rare move from a Brown-coached school to one directed by a Stoops brother. But in Arizona’s offense, I think that Buckner could flourish. I think he saw what former Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski was able to do and likely thinks he could produce similar numbers with an opportunity to play for Mike Stoops’ team.
Charles Urich from Dallas writes: From your story about the hiring of Tim DeRuyter yesterday: "But duplicating that success against the offensive firepower in the Big 12 will be a different challenge? Particularly with the personnel the Aggies currently have." Tim, I'm curious to know what you meant by this statement. Are you saying the 4-star athletes we have in this new recruiting class on defense are lesser than what the Air Force Academy had? Are you saying that with the defense we had last year that almost beat Texas and beat Tech is a challenge to work with?
Tim Griffin: The Aggies do have some defensive talent, but in regards to the Texas game you were speaking of, I believe the Longhorns did gash the Aggies for 597 yards and 49 points in that game, didn’t they? The Aggies allowed more than 44 points in five games last season, including two in the sixties. They allowed 640 yards to Oklahoma, 520 yards to Texas Tech and even 521 yards and 31 first downs to Utah State, a team that went 4-8 this season.
DeRuyter will find himself with better defensive players, but he’ll be facing better offensive players, too. It’s a double-edged sword that will make turning around the Aggies’ defense a lot more of a challenge than his previous work at the Air Force.
Thanks again for all of your good questions this week. I’ll check back again on Tuesday.
Tech was an underrated program on the field, qualifying for a bowl game in every season under Mike Leach.
In building his program, Leach was known for his love of pirates and Sherlock Holmes and many other things that had little to do with football. He was a breath of fresh air in the coaching fraternity.
When he was fired after the 2009 regular season, it was a national story because of its abrupt nature.
The Red Raiders claimed 85 victories during the decade, trailing only Oklahoma and Texas. All but one of those wins was earned by Leach, who was fired shortly before Tech’s Valero Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State.
The Red Raiders certainly were the Big 12's most entertaining program with a high-powered offense and the quirky Leach in charge. And when they were at their very best, the Red Raiders had an underrated defense directed by Ruffin McNeill that accentuated the team’s offensive firepower.
Here’s a look at my selections for the top moments and players for Tech from the last decade.
QB: Graham Harrell
RB: Taurean Henderson
RB: Baron Batch
WR: Michael Crabtree
WR: Joel Filani
WR: Wes Welker
OL: Brandon Carter
OL: Rylan Reed
OL: Luis Vasquez
OL: Daniel Loper
C: Dylan Gandy
DL: Aaron Hunt
DL: Adell Duckett
DL Brandon Sharpe
DL: Brandon Williams
LB: Lawrence Flugence
LB: Mike Smith
LB: Marlon Williams
DB: Dwayne Slay
DB: Kevin Curtis
DB: Darcel McBath
DB: Jamar Wall
P: Alex Reyes
K: Alex Trlica
Ret: Wes Welker
Offensive player of the decade: WR Michael Crabtree. Despite playing only two seasons, he became the most productive receiver in Tech’s history. He was a two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award with 231 receptions and 41 TD grabs setting an NCAA record for two seasons of production.
Defensive player of the decade: S Kevin Curtis. A fiery, hard-hitting safety, Curtis was the most decorated and one of the most versatile defensive player of the decade for the Red Raiders. Curtis earned first-team All-Big 12 honors in 1999 and 2000 and second-team all-conference honors in 2001. He was a second-team All-American in 2000 while playing strong safety and a second-team All-America choice in 2001 after moving to free safety.
Coach of the decade: Mike Leach. He perhaps was the most influential coaching figure in Big 12 history as he helped push the conference from a stodgy run-based attack to one where cutting-edge passing attacks predominated. He also became a national figure because of his personality and his guest appearances on television shows as diverse as “Sixty Minutes” and “Friday Night Lights.”
Moment of the decade: Michael Crabtree’s late touchdown grab beats Texas in 2008. Graham Harrell’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree was one second left helped push Tech to an area it had never been before. It not only boosted them to a 39-33 triumph over Texas but also served as a national coming-out party for Leach, Crabtree and the rest of the Tech program. In the process, the Red Raiders earned an unprecedented share of the Big 12 South title that season.
Hance told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that he'd like to see the former Texas Tech defensive coordinator working at the school if he doesn't choose to continue his coaching career elsewhere.
McNeill, the Red Raiders' interim coach after Mike Leach was fired, was himself let go earlier this week when new Tech coach Tommy Tuberville set his staff.
Hance said that McNeill could be in the mix for a variety of jobs at the school.
"We’d make him an assistant athletic director to help us with development in charge of certain areas,” Hance told the Avalanche-Journal. “And if he didn’t want to do that, I’d put him in my office in development. There’s not a greater ambassador.”
McNeill, 51, remains in coaching limbo after the move earlier this week by Tuberville. He is expected to have other coaching offers, perhaps at his alma mater, East Carolina.
Hance has not talked to McNeill but did leave him a voice message of his offers.
Hance said he left McNeill a voicemail early in the week, apprising him of the informal offer.
“I just wanted him to realize he’s got a lot of options with us,” Hance said. “He’s got a lot of friends. He’s a class guy. It wasn’t an easy decision, but he is going to be well taken care of either way, whether he stays or if he goes.”
McNeill responded to Hance's offer on Wednesday.
“I got a nice text message back from him, thanking me,” Hance said. “He said he’d get together with me. We’d talk.”
Despite the offer, I would be very surprised to see McNeill go into an administrative role.
He's coming off one of his finest seasons as a coordinator. And he's also got the national notoriety after piloting the Red Raiders' through the difficult situation after Leach's firing to a victory in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
Look for McNeill to return somewhere as a coach next season.
The Big 12 had the bowl with the highest television rating and also the lowest rating, according to information compiled by the Sports Business Daily.
Here's a look at how the Big 12's bowls fared, according to a chart compiled by the Birmingham News.
- The Citi BCS National Championship Game between Texas and Alabama on ABC garnered a 17.2 ranking -- the top ratings of any bowl and up 9 percent from last season.
- The controversial firing of Mike Leach helped the Valero Alamo Bowl game between Texas Tech and Michigan State earn the second-highest ranking for the conference and the highest by any bowl shown on ESPN in history. The game earned a 4.8 rating, up 23 percent from last season.
- The AT&T Cotton Bowl ranked ninth among all bowls and third among Big 12 games. The Oklahoma State-Mississippi game earned a 4.5 rating, up 2 percent from last season.
- The Pacific Life Holiday Bowl between Nebraska and Arizona checked in at 15th place and fourth among Big 12 games. The game earned a 3.7 rating, down 5 percent from last season.
- The Brut Sun Bowl was in 17th place and fifth among Big 12 games. The Stanford-Oklahoma game earned a 3.3 rating, up 50 percent from last season.
- The Texas Bowl was in 23rd place and sixth among Big 12 games. The Missouri-Navy game earned a 2.1 rating during its first time on ESPN, up 2,000 percent from the ratings last season on the NFL Network.
- The AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl was in 25th place and seventh among Big 12 bowl games. The Texas A&M-Georgia game earned a 2.0 rating, up 150 percent from last season.
- The Insight Bowl between was in 34th place and eight among Big 12 bowl games. The Iowa State-Minnesota game carried by the NFL Network earned an 0.4 rating, unchanged from last season.
Here are my 10 most memorable moments of the Big 12 season. They aren't ranked in any specific order, but all played a huge part in the conference this season.
- Colt McCoy's injury: When the senior Texas quarterback was lost for the game with a nerve injury to his throwing shoulder after five offensive snaps in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, the Longhorns' hopes were doomed. Even a strong and gutty relief performance by freshman backup quarterback Garrett Gilbert won't alter Texas fans from thinking what could have happened if McCoy had not been injured.
- Sam Bradford's injuries: Oklahoma's hopes of a national championship were crushed after Bradford sprained an AC joint in his throwing shoulder shortly before halftime in the Sooners' season opener against BYU. Their dreams of a four-peat of consecutive Big 12 titles died when Bradford was reinjured early in the first quarter of its South Division showdown against Texas.
- “I'm so proud to be your coach”: Without starting quarterback Austen Arnaud and top rusher Alexander Robinson, and with a sapping flu bug depleting his team, first-year Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads was overcome with emotion in the locker room following his team's 9-7 upset at Nebraska. His heartfelt reaction captured by an ISU film crew became an immediate YouTube sensation.
- Sticks' dramatic comeback: With the Texas Tech program in limbo after Mike Leach's firing three days earlier, the Red Raiders fell behind underdog Michigan State in the Alamo Bowl. Interim coach Ruffin McNeill pulled Taylor Potts from the lineup and inserted backup Steven “Sticks” Sheffield at quarterback with 8:05 left to give his team a boost. Sheffield responded by hitting his first six passes and going 9-for-11 in the game to help direct the Red Raiders to a 41-31 victory. Potts earned Most Valuable Player honors in the game, but Sheffield saved the Red Raiders' victory.
- Colt McCoy's "too early" Heisman moment: McCoy was presumed to have locked up the Heisman with a 65-yard touchdown run through the middle of the Texas A&M defense, helping spark a 49-39 victory over the Aggies. It punctuated an effort in which McCoy accounted for 479 yards and five touchdowns against A&M. That was, until …
- "Big Suh" dominates Texas: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh provided a game for the ages against Texas in the Big 12 title game before losing to the Longhorns, 13-12. Suh had a Big 12 title game record 4.5 sacks, and the Cornhuskers harassed McCoy into three interceptions and sacked him nine times. The big effort not only doomed McCoy's Heisman hopes, but undoubtedly sparked Suh's trip to the Heisman presentation at the same time.
- Broyles slices through the Cowboys: Oklahoma wide receiver/punt returner Ryan Broyles punctuated a 209-yard punt return effort with an 87-yard scoring return to lead the Sooners' 27-0 victory over Oklahoma State, ending the Cowboys' hopes of making a trip to a BCS game. Broyles' 316 all-purpose yards were the third-best effort in school history.
- Robert Griffin's injury: Baylor's worst fears were realized during the Bears' 68-13 victory over Northwestern State when their stellar sophomore quarterback suffered a season-ending knee injury. It killed their hopes of snapping a 15-season bowl drought -- tied for the longest among schools with automatic BCS bids -- just when promise under Coach Art Briles had never appeared brighter.
- Danario's late-season explosion: Missouri wide receiver Danario Alexander progressed into the nation's most explosive receiver during the final half of the season. He nearly became the first player in college football history to notch back-to-back-to-back-to-back 200-yard receiving games. He finished with 214 yards against Baylor, 200 against Kansas State, 173 yards against Iowa State and 233 yards against Kansas in his final four regular-season games.
- Hunter Lawrence's field goal: After it appeared Texas had mismanaged its way to losing the Big 12 title game, one second was put back on the clock. Hunter Lawrence took advantage on the reprieve with a 46-yard field goal that gave the Longhorns a 13-12 victory over Nebraska and a berth in the BCS title game. It was the first time in Lawrence's career -- dating back to pee-wee football -- that he had ever attempted a game-winning kick.
- Garrett Gilbert looks like a keeper at quarterback. Although the national championship game was a difficult learning laboratory, the freshman Texas quarterback showed the kind of flashes that helped make him last season's most heralded quarterback recruit. Gilbert will still be learning as he goes into his sophomore season, but appeared to have confidence in throwing the ball downfield against the tough Alabama secondary as the game progressed. That success was the major reason the Longhorns were able to improbably climb back into the game against the Crimson Tide. With speedsters Malcolm Williams, Marquise Goodwin and D.J. Monroe back for next season, expect the Longhorns to employ a more vertical passing game with Gilbert in charge than the short-passing game that was favored with Colt McCoy during his career.
- Texas Tech's quarterback battle in 2010 will be the most interesting in the conference. Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield both were productive in the Red Raiders' Valero Alamo Bowl victory over Michigan State. Potts claimed the Valero Alamo Bowl's most valuable offensive player honors and Sheffield directed the Red Raiders' comeback over the Spartans. But both quarterbacks will come in even with new coach Tommy Tuberville and a new offensive coordinator taking over. The job is there for the taking for either one of them.
- Iowa State's surprising success likely will be short lived. The Big 12's feel-good story of the season was capped with Iowa State's victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl. Paul Rhoads' victory should resonate for the ISU program for the next several months. And the way it finished couldn't have been more fitting as cornerback Ter'ran Benton, who missed most of the season with a broken leg, iced the victory by recovering a Minnesota fumble in the final minutes. But as sweet as the bowl victory might have been for ISU fans, a significantly more difficult schedule looms next season. They better enjoy the spoils of a bowl victory while they can with Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Utah and Northern Illinois looming on the 2010 schedule.
- Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson had the best bowl game of anybody around the Nebraska program. And he needed it. Complaints about Watson's offensive philosophy were growing after the Cornhuskers' offense limped toward the finish line at the end of the regular season. Watson utilized the time off before the Holiday Bowl to help rebuild Zac Lee's confidence, find a way to get Niles Paul involved and utilize a Wildcat attack with Rex Burkhead running the ball. All worked masterfully in the Cornhuskers' 33-0 victory over Arizona in their top offensive performance of the season. That production should help turn around public perception about Watson's offense and catapult the Cornhuskers into spring practice with some badly needed offensive confidence.
- Missouri's refusal to run the ball against Navy was the biggest shock in the Texas Bowl. The Tigers had all kinds of chances to take control of the game, utilizing their superior size in the trenches against Navy's undersized read-and-react defense. And they still didn't do it in a stunning 35-13 loss to the Midshipmen. Even as Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green used a two-man defensive front, Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost stubbornly tried to keep throwing the ball. Missouri's running backs only ended up with 16 carries in the game. It was understandable that Yost thought the Tigers could keep passing with Blaine Gabbert and Danario Alexander. But a little balance would have kept the game from getting away from them.
But there were still enough top producers to fill out a team of top performers from the conference's 4-4 bowl season.
Here's a look at my top performers:
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Passed for career-best 418 yards and added three passing TDs to direct Sooners’ Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
RB Alexander Robinson, Iowa State: Rushed for 137 yards -- his sixth 100-yard game of the season -- to pace Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
RB Baron Batch, Texas Tech: Rushed for 100 yards, scored two TDs and produced six receptions for 85 yards in Red Raiders’ comeback victory in the Alamo Bowl over Michigan State.
WR Jordan Shipley, Texas: Overcame slow start to produce 10 catches for 122 yards and two TDs against Alabama, becoming Texas’ leading career receiver.
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma: Produced career-best totals of 13 receptions, 156 receiving yards and also matched career high with three TD receptions to help beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
TE Trent Ratterree, Oklahoma: Grabbed three receptions for 86 yards, including pivotal 38-yard catch that was Jones’ longest pass of game in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
OL Ricky Henry, Nebraska: Helped Cornhuskers dominate in the trenches in biggest Cornhuskers' bowl victory since 2000.
OL Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State: Dominant effort helped Cyclones claim first bowl victory since 2004 and only third bowl victory in school history.
OL Jacob Hickman, Nebraska: Cornhuskers’ center set the tone for easy victory over Arizona.
OL Brandon Carter, Texas Tech: Colorful lineman helped Tech roll up school bowl-record 31 first downs, 579 total yards against Michigan State.
OL Trent Williams, Oklahoma: All-American moved from tackle to center and didn’t miss a beat in the Sooners’ Sun Bowl triumph.
DL Sergio Kindle, Texas: Had his best game of the season with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses against Alabama.
DL Pierre Allen, Nebraska: Set the tone for Nebraska’s pass rush with two sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and notched a quarterback hurry in the Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona -- first for a Big 12 team in a bowl game in conference history.
DL Christopher Lyle, Iowa State: Insight Bowl defensive MVP produced five tackles, including two for losses and one sack to lead Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota.
DL Rajon Henley, Texas Tech: Four tackles, four quarterback hurries, one sack against Michigan State.
LB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Produced team-high seven stops, broke up one pass in Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona.
LB Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma: Produced 12 tackles (three solo, nine assists), two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Stanford.
LB Andre Sexton, Oklahoma State: Produced 10 tackles, two interceptions and one tackle for a loss in Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi.
DB Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska: Earned Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors with five stops, a 37-yard interception and a pass broken up against Arizona.
DB Ter’ran Benton, Iowa State: In his first game back after recovering from mid-season broken leg, notched five tackles and game-clinching fumble recovery in Cyclones’ Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota.
DB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Produced six tackles, broke up two passes and one interception against Michigan State.
DB Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: Notched eight stops (five tackles, three assists) and added an interception in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: Averaged 50.2 yards per punt on his eight punts, including four punts inside 20 in Cotton Bowl.
K Alex Henery, Nebraska: Converted all four field goals of 47, 50, 43 and 22 yards to set the Holiday Bowl record. His big night gave him a Nebraska single-season record of 24 for the season.
RET Niles Paul, Nebraska: The Holiday Bowl offensive MVP amassed 94 yards in returns, including a 49-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He also added four catches for 123 yards, including a clinching 74-yard TD grab from Zac Lee.
Best game: In the grand scheme of things, Iowa State’s 14-13 triumph over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl was a matchup of two 6-6 teams. But the Cyclones’ pulsating victory still provided much excitement for the Cyclones. Alexander Robinson rushed for 137 yards in the victory that was settled by a late fumble recovery by ISU cornerback Ter’ran Benton, who was playing in his first game since breaking his leg on Oct. 24. Benton pounced on the turnover by Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray and the ISU did the rest with a clock-killing drive that provided an unexpected bowl victory for coach Paul Rhoads. Yes, that’s the same team that was expected to struggle to stay out of the North Division cellar before the season.
Best relief performance: Texas Tech starting quarterback Taylor Potts had a strong game in the Valero Alamo Bowl, but the Red Raiders needed a spark as they trailed Michigan State 31-27 early in the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Steven Sheffield responded by completing his first six passes after relieving Potts, driving for two touchdowns to claim the victory. Potts earned the game’s most valuable player honors, but Sheffield finished by completing 9-for-11 passes for 88 yards as he directed the comeback.
Best use of bowl practice: Nebraska’s maligned offense showed some unexpected punch against Arizona in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. Nebraska offensive coordinator Shawn Watson took advantage of bowl preparations to rebuild quarterback Zac Lee’s confidence and incorporate freshman Rex Burkhead into the Wildcat formation. The result was a 33-0 victory over the Wildcats with 223 yards of rushing -- most for the Cornhuskers since the first game of the season.
Best bow to youth: Injuries forced Oklahoma to employ freshmen defenders including defensive linemen David King, defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland and cornerback Demontre Hurst against Stanford in the Brut Sun Bowl. The trio came up big throughout the game to spark the Sooners’ 31-27 victory over the Cardinal. “The future’s bright,” Oklahoma defensive ends coach Chris Wilson understated to the Oklahoman after the game.
Most significant injury: Texas moved the ball smartly against Alabama, gaining 26 yards on five plays with Colt McCoy in charge. But McCoy went down with nerve damage to his right shoulder, the Longhorns’ offense unraveled during the rest of the half with backup Garrett Gilbert at quarterback. Alabama took advantage to charge a 24-6 halftime and take control of the Citi BCS National Championship Game.
Worst reaction to a defensive formation: Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green dared Missouri to run the ball by using an alignment with two down linemen. Even with Derrick Washington in the backfield, the Tigers could produce only 65 yards rushing as they repeatedly passed and sputtered in a 35-13 loss to the Midshipmen.
Worst finish: Mississippi’s defense took over down the stretch, forcing turnovers on the Cowboys’ final six turnovers. Zac Robinson’s offense contributed four interceptions and his team lost two fumbles as the Rebels claimed a 21-7 victory over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
Worst play call: Texas could have gone to halftime trailing by only 11 points. But Texas coach Mack Brown elected to have Garrett Gilbert attempt a seemingly safe shovel pass to D.J. Monroe. The ball was batted around and finally ended up in the arms of Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus, who then stiff-armed Gilbert to the ground and pirouetted around Kyle Hix en route to a 28-yard touchdown return.
Worst officiating call: With about nine minutes remaining in a tie game, Oklahoma State had the ball on the Ole Miss 19-yard line and appeared poised to claim the lead. Ole Miss defensive tackle Jerrell Powe looked to have obviously jumped offsides on a snap as he charged past center Andrew Lewis before the snap was completed. Feeling that he had a free play, Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson threw to the end zone, where he was intercepted by Ole Miss free safety Kendrick Lewis in the end zone. Robinson begged to have the call overturned, but the officials didn’t do it. The Cowboys unraveled from that point in the game.
Worst special teams: Texas A&M’s struggles on special teams were the biggest reason the Aggies dropped a 44-20 loss to Georgia in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl. The Bulldogs blocked a field-goal attempt, returned a kick for a touchdown and blocked a punt in the first half. The Aggies capped the debacle by snapping the ball over A&M punter Ryan Epperson's head in the third quarter, leading to another Georgia touchdown. The special-teams meltdown was the major reason the Aggies dropped their 11th game in their last 13 bowl games.
The bowl season only added to those miseries.
The conference finished 4-4 in its bowl games, but lost in the BCS title game for the second straight season as Texas fell to Alabama. Colt McCoy’s injury may have left an asterisk on that defeat in the minds of most Longhorn fans and even for Barack Obama, but it’s a loss nonetheless.
McCoy’s injury was the capper in a jinxed season for the Big 12 that included season-ending injuries to Sam Bradford and Robert Griffin, a season-ending NCAA suspension to Dez Bryant and season-long injury struggles for 2008 leading rusher Kendall Hunter.
The final Associated Press rankings underscored that sentiment. The Big 12 finished with only three teams ranked among the top 25, the fewest since a record-low two teams were ranked at the end of the 2006 season. Texas finished at No. 2, Nebraska was No. 14 and Texas Tech was No. 21.
Most notably, the Big 12 lost all three bowl games against the Southeastern Conference. The nation’s baddest conference bullied the Big 12 again, stretching its record in bowl games against the Big 12 to 12-3 since 2003. Convincing victories by Alabama over Texas in the BCS title game, Mississippi over Oklahoma State in the AT&T Cotton Bowl and Georgia over Texas A&M in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl came by an average of 18 points per game.
Missouri was flummoxed by Navy’s triple-option offense in a humbling 35-13 Texas Bowl loss where it appeared the Tigers’ coaches had little inkling for making in-game adjustments.
Despite a victory over Stanford in the Brut Sun Bowl, Oklahoma finished the season out of the top 25 for the first time since Bob Stoops’ first season in 1999. The Sooners finished 2009 with five losses, most since Stoops’ first season.
Texas Tech overcame a suspension-depleted Michigan State team in the Valero Alamo Bowl in a game that was overshadowed by Mike Leach’s firing three days before kickoff.
Oklahoma State skidded out of the top 25 after starting the season at ninth in the preseason Associated Press poll.
The Big 12’s two most impressive bowl victories came with upset triumphs from North Division teams. Nebraska stymied Arizona with a vintage defensive performance in Ndamukong Suh’s final game in a 33-0 victory over Arizona. And Iowa State punctuated the conference’s feel-good story of the season as Paul Rhoads’ team produced an emotional 14-13 triumph over Minnesota.
But conquests like those were too few and far between for the Big 12 in a season to forget for the conference’s power elite.
Saturday's broadcast of Texas Tech's 41-31 victory over Michigan State earned the highest rating in ESPN bowl history. The game earned a 5.6 rating, translating to about 5,553,630 households that watched the game.
Valero Alamo Bowl officials announced that the game will finish as the No. 7 highest-rated game among all bowls shown so far this season, trailing only the five BCS bowl games and the Capital One Bowl.
“Our hats go off to the leadership and strength of character of the coaches and players from Texas Tech and Michigan State,” said Derrick Fox, the president and CEO of the Valero Alamo Bowl. "It’s gratifying that fans across the nation again tuned into the Valero Alamo Bowl and delivered tremendous exposure for the City of San Antonio and our game sponsors.”
The San Antonio-based bowl has now produced three of the top six most-watched bowl games in ESPN history. The 2010 game holds the top spot with the 2006 Alamo Bowl (Texas vs. Iowa) as second all-time and the 2005 MasterCard Alamo Bowl (Nebraska vs. Michigan) as sixth.
Those numbers show that Leach's contentious breakup with Texas Tech was widely watched and interesting to the nation.
Now, the next question will be whether his replacement proves to be as interesting to the nation.
How the game was won: The game turned when interim Texas Tech offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley decided to bench Taylor Potts after he sustained a finger injury on his non-throwing hand with about 8 minutes left. Steven Sheffield came off the bench to direct two consecutive scoring drives, wrapping up the victory with two gutsy fourth-down conversions on the game-clinching drive.
It’s notable: McNeill becomes the second interim coach in the last seven seasons to beat Michigan State in the Valero Alamo Bowl. The first was Nebraska’s Bo Pelini in 2003.
Turning point: After Tech had claimed the lead on Sheffield’s 11-yard TD pass to Detron Lewis, the Tech defense provided the clinching play two plays later. Franklin Mitchem provided the interception of Kirk Cousins that iced the victory.
Player of the game: Sheffield came off the bench to direct Tech’s game-winning drive, completing 6 of 6 passes for 80 yards, capped by his scoring pass to Lewis for the go-ahead touchdown. Sheffield finished by hitting 9 of 11 passes for 88 yards as he directed two late scoring drives. His late charge gave his team the victory, even as Potts threw for 384 yards and two TDs to earn Most Valuable Player honors.
Unsung hero: Leading Texas Tech wide receiver Alex Torres struggled with only two catches and had a critical drop late in the game. But on the next play, Torres made a critical 6-yard gain on fourth-and-5 that kept the drive alive, setting up the touchdown to ice the victory.
Stat of the game: Tech rolled up 580 yards of total offense, including 472 passing yards. The Red Raiders averaged 461.8 yards of total offense and 380.7 passing yards with Leach.
Record performance: Lewis produced a career-best 10 receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns to help power Tech’s victory.
What it means: McNeill might have become this season’s version of West Virginia’s Bill Stewart by claiming an impressive victory as an interim coach. But how he did it was the most striking part of his team’s performance, confidently converting two pivotal fourth-down plays with the swash-buckling nature his boss similarly brought to coaching. Texas Tech athletic director Gerald Myers still might want to go for a coach with more experience, but McNeill showed some moxie along the sidelines that appears to make him suited for a head-coaching shot somewhere.
WHO TO WATCH: Ruffin McNeill, Texas Tech’s interim head coach
The most scrutiny at the Alamodome will be reserved for McNeill, who will be replacing Leach in his first opportunity as a head college football coach. McNeill has been responsible for a dramatic improvement in the Red Raiders’ defense since taking over as coordinator during the 2007 season. He’s helped orchestrate a fearsome pass rush that ranks second nationally with 39 sacks. And he’s a popular figure among the players who is the ideal choice to settle the discord of earlier this week. A big performance by his team could gain him traction in his bid to become the permanent head coach. If the Red Raiders play well Saturday night it will serve as his best selling point.
WHAT TO WATCH: How much will the Red Raiders be different without Leach on the sidelines?
No program gained more of an identity from its head coach than Tech. Leach helped transform the Red Raiders into a consistent Big 12 power with a high-powered passing attack and unconventional coaching ploys like forgoing punts in unconventional situations and calling timeouts like a basketball coach to alter game momentum. It will be interesting to see if that changes with McNeill in charge. He’s more of a traditional, old-school leader who has helped the team’s development with a strong defensive attitude. And he’s also a former special-teams coach who has an appreciation for that phase of the game -- perhaps more so than Leach. Without their former head coach, look for the Red Raiders to lean toward a more typical game strategy. It might be a little unsettling for Tech and probably more boring, but should help their chances to win.
WHY WATCH: Texas Tech’s reaction once it hits the field
The Mike Leach era is over after his messy divorce earlier this week. But his former team still has to pick up the pieces and play in a bowl game that could be a motivational challenge. Will Tech fans have any signs of support for Leach inside the stadium? And how much focus will the team bring to a game against a Michigan State team that has been overshadowed by all of the drama that has enveloped the game?
PREDICTION: Texas Tech will have to regroup quickly after Leach’s firing. But the Red Raiders come into this game with a big advantage. Their high-powered offensive attack would appear to be ideally suited to take advantage of a leaky Michigan State defense that surrendered at least 500 yards of total offense in three of its last four games, ranked 103rd nationally in pass defense and had the nation’s worst touchdown pass-to-interception ratio (29 touchdown passes allowed/five interceptions). And that was before the Spartans lost 14 players to suspension before arriving in San Antonio. All of that means that Taylor Potts and Tech’s high-powered passing attack should be able to feast on the Spartans’ sputtering pass defense, no matter who is calling the plays. Prediction: Texas Tech 31, Michigan State 17.
Attorneys representing the embattled Texas Tech coach announced that they will be seeking a temporary restraining order to get the Texas Tech coach back on the field.
If Leach is successful, he'll coach the Red Raiders in Saturday's Valero Alamo Bowl against Michigan State. If not, the next domino may have dropped in what could be the end of his 10-season coaching tenure at Tech.
If Leach wins out, he'll be in line to earn $800,000 if he's still the coach at Tech at the end of business on Thursday.
Leach's position appears strong as far as public sentiment goes in West Texas and the Lubbock area.
If he was to leave the Tech program, it would be with disappointment from fans who have seen his coaching tenure as a "Golden Era" for the Red Raiders. The Red Raiders have qualified for bowl games in each of his 10 seasons and soared as high as No. 2 in the national polls late last season after they stunned Texas on Michael Crabtree's late game-winning catch in Lubbock.
That jubilation -- both for Leach and the Tech program -- seems far removed as the hearing on the restraining order approaches.
But he has made other late comebacks in the past. Most observers had written off his chances of obtaining a new contract last February after contentious negotiations between Leach's representatives and those from the school.
In order to remain as Tech's coach, Leach will have to deliver a similar last-second comeback.
And pulling that off twice in 10 months might be a tall order, even for as popular a public figure as Leach.
The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal reported Tuesday that the Tech coach did not dispute the facts after ESPN analyst Craig James had complained to school officials about Leach's treatment of his son, Adam, after he suffered a mild concussion last month.
The Avalanche-Journal reported that the school completed an initial investigation before suspending Leach. Leach did not dispute the facts, but also did not believe he had done anything wrong. The Tech coach also told officials that Adam James was "a slacker" and that Craig James was too involved in his son's football career.
Leach had until Monday to write a letter of apology to James and his family. When he didn't, Tech officials took action.
It led to Leach's suspension, with pay, from his job as head coach.
Leach's attorney, Ted Liggett, told the Avalanche-Journal that he hasn't given up hope that Leach will coach the Red Raiders in Saturday night's Valero Alamo Bowl against Michigan State in San Antonio. Liggett said he could consider legal action to get him back on the sideline.
"We're going to do everything we can to see that our client is duly served justice and that he's reunited with his boys as soon as possible,'' Liggett said.When asked how he planned to go about it, Liggett said, "Through the court system, don't ya?''
If Leach can't coach, it will lead to a unique coaching situation for the Red Raiders in the bowl game. Defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill will serve as Tech's interim coach.
McNeill told reporters Monday in San Antonio it will be the first time he has served as a head coach since he coached a high school team in Lumberton, N.C., in the mid-1980s.
Wide receivers coach Lincoln Riley will take over Leach's play-calling duties for Saturday's game, with staff assistant Sonny Cumbie signaling plays from the sideline.
The Alamo Bowl already had been marked by who wasn't going to be at the Alamodome. Michigan State suspended 11 players and dismissed two others in connection with a Nov. 22 dorm fight. Among the players who will be missing are wide receivers B.J. Cunningham and Mark Dell and starting cornerback Chris L. Rucker, who have all been charged with misdemeanors in connection with the incident.