Big 12: Temple Owls
The Red Raiders’ defense was a surprising strength last season, emerging from the shadows of Mike Leach’s offensive reputation to become a force in its own right. Tech’s defense ranked fourth nationally in sacks, 40th in turnovers produced and 41st in scoring defense in a 9-4 season.
“This defense was very good last year,” Willis said. “Some people may look at their record and kind of change things around, but these guys competed well.”
Willis, who arrives at Tech after one season serving as Alabama’s associate head coach and outside linebackers coach, was convinced of that success after studying film of the Red Raiders’ season after his arrival. The chance to work with his former coaching mentor Tommy Tuberville only made him more excited about the opportunity.
“I turned on the game film and watched them play against Texas and some other schools. They compete now. They get after you,” Willis said. “They’re hard-nosed, blue collar, and that’s what we’ll continue to be. We’ll be aggressive, fly around and get to the ball, that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
With the Big 12’s pass-heavy reputation, Willis promised an aggressive blitzing defense that will attack rival offenses.
“This conference is known for throwing the ball,” Willis said. “You turn on the film and you see a lot of points being scored and the defenses really trying to get after the team and slow them down some. We’ll do the same thing. We’re going to be aggressive, that’s what we do. That’s going to be our motto.”
Willis will face a difficult challenge with his players as he replaces the popular Ruffin McNeill, who helped transform the Red Raiders’ defense over the last 2 ½ seasons.
But Willis arrives at Tech with the reputation as one of the fastest rising defensive coaches in college football after his work at Alabama on Kirby Smart’s defensive staff.
“It was very hard to leave that place; it truly was, because I had a great time there,” Willis said. “Everybody talks about the bowl game and victory, but to me it wasn’t so much the victory and getting to the championship, it was the process and the road getting there.”
His association with Alabama coach Nick Saban prepared him for his chance as a coordinator, where he learned the building blocks of developing a strong program.
“I think my time with coach Saban and what I learned was, of course, the formula. I will try to do the same thing here and run the same type of program and the same attitude,” Willis said. “So, I’m excited to come here and for the opportunity and I think we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Before working at Alabama, Willis was a linebackers coach under Will Muschamp for two seasons in 2006-07 at his alma mater of Auburn on a staff where Tuberville was the head coach. After Muschamp left for the Texas job, Willis remained on the Tigers’ staff that was coordinated by current Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads the following season.
That familiarity and his relationship with Tuberville was what convinced him to come to Texas Tech.
“It’s huge because coach Tuberville and I go back a long way,” Willis said. “I started my coaching career under him as a graduate assistant. I spent about three years under him in that capacity. I wanted to be an assistant coach.”
Willis played college football at Auburn. He was drafted in the fifth round by Green Bay in the 1993 draft and also played for Philadelphia, Seattle and the Birmingham Thunderbolts of the defunct XFL.
After that league disbanded, Willis returned to Alabama to work on his degree. He began his work at Auburn as a student assistant in 2001 and became a graduate assistant two years later under Gene Chizik. He also had one-year stints with Rhode Island and Temple.
“I wanted to be an assistant coach and he sent me out to spread my wings a little bit and learn a little bit,” Willis said. “I coached at a few different spots before I came back to him when he hired me. He really let me grow as a coach, and that’s one thing about him, like players, he gives you the opportunity to grow. I’m grateful for that.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
I feel a little remiss that we didn't celebrate Nebraska coach Bo Pelini's birthday last week in a suitable manner.
Pelini turned 41 on Saturday, a likely day for stoppage of mail and garbage delivery considering his early success with the Cornhuskers.
A rash of recent hirings of younger coaches has dropped Pelini to 13th among the youngest FBS head coaches. And his matchup with Clemson's Dabo Swinney in the Gator Bowl will be only the second time that Pelini has been older than his opposing coach. The only other time that happened was when he beat Ron Prince and Kansas State earlier this season.
And here's another way to place Pelini and Swinney's youth in perspective. Their combined ages at kickoff for the Jan. 1 game in Jacksonville will be 80 years, 1 month and 31 days. That total is far less than Penn State's Joe Paterno, who will be 82 years and 11 days old on that date.
Here's a look at the youngest FBS coaches in the nation. Coaches who have been hired since the end of the season to their new jobs are indicated with an asterisk.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are 10 items to watch for across the Big 12 this weekend.
1. Chase Daniel's offensive surge: Missouri has scored on its last 13 possessions over the last two games with Daniel directing the offense. They should have another easy game Saturday against Buffalo, but can Daniel keep his amazing offensive production going? His Heisman candidacy is improving with each performance.
2. Texas A&M's starting quarterback: Stephen McGee's streak of 29 straight starts as Texas A&M's quarterback is in jeopardy after he sustained a sprained right shoulder in the Aggies' most recent game at New Mexico. Will he be ready to go Saturday against Miami? Or will Coach Mike Sherman instead opt for talented backup Jerrod Johnson, who passed for three touchdowns to direct the Aggies' first victory of the season after McGee's injury?
3. Texas' young secondary against Rice's sophisticated passing offense: Freshman safeties Earl Thomas and Blake Gideon made it through unscathed against UTEP. But they'll be taking a big step forward when facing Rice QB Chase Clement and the Owls' talented and underrated receivers James Casey and Jarrett Dillard.
4. Any lingering reaction from Miami's beat-down over Texas A&M last season: Dennis Franchione's program is gone for the Aggies. The Aggies will have a chance Saturday to blot away memories from one of the recent humiliations in school history stemming from last season's disappointing loss at the Orange Bowl. And new A&M coach Mike Sherman can regain some of his lost luster after his season-opening loss against Arkansas State with an upset on Saturday.
5. How will Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree react to the pointed criticism of Mike Leach? Harrell passed for 418 yards and five touchdowns and Crabtree won AT&T national Player of the Week honors after grabbing eight receptions for 164 yards and three TDs last week after a 43-7 victory over SMU. And Leach still wasn't happy. What will they do for an encore against a leaky Massachusetts defense that has allowed an average of 47 points per game in its last two games?
6. Iowa State's Vegas vacation: Gene Chizik says the Cyclones will bunk far away from the Strip in preparation for Saturday's game against UNLV. Will staying away from the bright lights of the casinos help them snap a 12-game road losing streak, including the last six games with Chizik?
7. Robert Griffin's encore: After breaking the Big 12 single-game rushing-average record last week against Washington State in only his second career start, the freshman Baylor quarterback now steps up in class against an underrated Connecticut defense in a national television contest. A big effort could be huge statement for Art Briles' rebuilding efforts.
8. Rhett Bomar's return to the Big 12: The former Oklahoma quarterback transferred to Sam Houston State after washing out with the Sooners. Bomar led the Sooners to a 19-3 victory over Kansas in his last game against them in 2005. Will he be as productive against a much improved Jayhawks team -- with a much diminished team in terms of talent around him?
9. Texas' running game: The Longhorns have struggled at times running the ball. But the emergence of Fozzy Whittaker might have given them a breakaway threat. He should have a lot of opportunities against Rice, which has been gashed for an average of 317.4 rushing yards per game in its seven games against Mack Brown's Texas teams.
10. Missouri's retooled secondary: Starting FS William Moore isn't expected to play Saturday against Buffalo after reinjuring his right foot last week. Converted CB Del Howard will start in his place. Howard will be challenged by Buffalo WR Naaman Roosevelt, who made headlines last week with his game-winning, final-play TD catch against Temple.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
That's right, I said this week. Because the Big 12 will have games scheduled four straight nights this week.
Ah, the nirvana of football on multiple nights. What a concept.
Here's the latest four-star viewer's guide for the games of the weekend. Plan your week and set your tape recorders and Tivos accordingly.
Like always, a ranking of four stars indicates must-see television, and maybe even a game tape to be savored by more devoted viewers. Three-star games are worth the investment in time. Two-star games bear a quick glimpse or two for occasional score updates. And one-star games are indications that your time might be better spent painting the dining room or playing with the kids. All games will be played on Saturday, unless otherwise noted.
West Virginia at Colorado (Thursday, 8:30 p.m., ET, ESPN): The Mountaineers toyed with the Big 12's best team last year. Can they expect a repeat playing against the hungry Buffaloes -- especially at high altitude?
Kansas State at Louisville (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2): The Wildcats haven't played any BCS opponents so far. But this game could be a winnable one, particularly as Steve Kragthrope's tenure at Louisville has never looked shakier.
Baylor at Connecticut (Friday, 8 p.m., ESPN2): The nation will be introduced to Baylor QB Robert Griffin, who will hook up with the underrated 3-0 Huskies. Coach Randy Edsall's team ranks fifth nationally in rushing, eighth in scoring defense and 19th in rushing defense and might be better than last season's Meineke Car Care Bowl team.
Miami at Texas A&M (3:30 p.m., ABC-TV): This battle of once-potent nationally powers sounded better when it was announced than today. But A&M coach Mike Sherman has special impetus to win this game after preseason comments by his boss, A&M president Elsa Murano, a Miami native.
Buffalo at Missouri (Saturday, 2 p.m.): Sentimental trip back to the Big 12 for Buffalo coach Turner Gill, who tormented the Tigers during his playing career at Nebraska. Buffalo is coming off wild last-play victory over Temple. But they won't find accommodating hosts in the Tigers, who lead the nation in total offense and scoring and rank third in passing.
Rice at Texas (Saturday, 7 p.m.): Old Southwest Conference rivalry has been dominated in recent years by the Longhorns, who have won nine straight games and 37 of their last 38 against the Owls since 1966. This one shouldn't be close, although young Texas secondary will be tested by Rice's pitch-and-catch combination of QB Chase Clement and WR Jarett Dillard.
Iowa State at UNLV (Saturday, 9 p.m., MTN): Struggling Cyclones have got to have better red-zone production against Rebels, coming off impressive overtime victory at Arizona State. Rebels have cobbled together a 2-1 record despite not ranking above 75th nationally in any of the eight major team statistical categories.
Sam Houston State at Kansas (Saturday, 7 p.m. FCS): Lack of a running game doomed Kansas against South Florida. The Jayhawks will have a chance to work on that weakness against the Bearkats, who haven't played in more than three weeks since beating East Central on Aug. 28. Sam Houston QB Rhett Bomar returns to the Big 12 with a high-powered offense that leads FCS teams in scoring offense and turnover margin, is third in passing efficiency and fourth in rushing and total offense.
Massachusetts at Texas Tech (Saturday, 7 p.m.): Look for another offensive binge by the Red Raiders, who will be meeting their second FCS opponent so far this season. The Minutemen have struggled defensively, allowing 94 points in their last two games and rank 94th among the 109 FCS teams in scoring defense. This one could get really ugly.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The ability to sit in the studio gave me the opportunity to watch a lot more football than I usually do when I'm sitting in a stadium watching a game. Heck, even more than when I'm at home and it seems like I forever have some household chore to do.
So being in Bristol gave me a chance to really watch football. Here are some things I noticed today.
1. Is anybody else surprised that East Carolina struggled before barely escaping New Orleans with a narrow victory over Tulane? How many times have we seen the BCS-buster du jour come up flat after a couple of wins against the big boys? And the Pirates better prepare for it every week as Conference USA play continues.
2. Who needs View-Masters to hype Missouri QB Chase Daniel for the Heisman? After three games, how about 10 touchdowns and one interception. His quarterback efficiency rating has been more than 250 in each of the last two weeks.
3. Injuries for coaches are a miserable time. But doesn't Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis look especially glum after he was leg-whipped by John Ryan along the sidelines late in the first half?
4. Seeing Dennis Quaid be such a prominent part of the Syracuse game-day experience today was somehow fitting as the Orange struggled through another disappointing loss. Remember, Quaid used to be "The Grey Ghost." And Syracuse used to be a place where running backs flocked.
5. Best story of the day was the emergence of Florida State WR Corey Surrency, who never played high school football. Surrency made his start playing in flag-football tournaments before going to El Camino Community College. He's simply emerged as Christian Ponder's go-to receiver.
6. Wonder how much moving Houston's game against Air Force to Dallas hurt the Cougars? Air Force jumped to a 31-7 lead before Houston stormed back to pull within 31-28 late. The Cougars have piled up 749 passing yards and 1,017 yards in their last two games. All they have to show for the offensive explosion are two losses.
7. Worst weekend this year goes to the Pac-10 for enduring humiliating losses (Baylor over Washington State, Maryland over California, TCU over Stanford, BYU over UCLA and Oregon's struggles with Purdue). But just like they've said over the last few years, thank goodness for USC.
8. Best finish of the day came at UB Stadium in Buffalo, where the Bulls eked out a narrow 30-28 victory over Temple thanks to a 35-yard pass from Drew Willy to Naaman Roosevelt with no time left. If I'm an athletic director at a struggling BCS school, I'm thinking about giving Buffalo coach Turner Gill a chance.
9. Seeing Michigan State RB Javon Ringer pick up a career-high 43 carries en route to 282 yards brings back memories of when Lorenzo White was toting the rock that much for the Spartans.
10. Sure, Northwestern has only beaten Syracuse, Duke and Southern Illinois this season. But coach Pat Fitzgerald's team has quietly fashioned a 3-0 record and is halfway to bowl eligibility.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
New Baylor coach Art Briles is a proven winner who has had success in all of his previous head coaching opportunities, most recently taking Houston to four bowl games in the last five seasons. Before that, he directed Stephenville High School to four Texas state high school championships.
But Briles will be facing the challenge of his coaching career in his new job with the Bears. Want to know how difficult it will be? Consider that the Bears are tied for seventh among the NCAA Division I programs in terms of the longest current bowl droughts.
Here's a list of the longest active bowl gaps in college football:
|New Mexico State||1960||Sun|
|Vanderbilt||1982||Hall of Fame|
|Duke||1994||Hall of Fame|
|San Diego State||1998||Las Vegas|
Note: Buffalo, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, Florida International and Western Kentucky have never made bowl trips as Division I-A members.