Clemson is on the brink of a fourth straight 10-win season, but it will go to battle with a backup quarterback and big questions on offense. Oklahoma fell far short of expectations this year, but with its stars on offense getting healthier, the Sooners are still extremely dangerous.

Will Clemson send out its dominant senior class of defenders on a high note, or will Oklahoma turn in another breakthrough performance in a bowl game? Here are the storylines to watch in the Russell Athletic Bowl:

Stoudt back at the helm: Cole Stoudt steps in once again as the Tigers quarterback after Deshaun Watson elected to have surgery on his injured knee. Given that Stoudt’s last two games against Power 5 competition included four picks and zero touchdowns, that opens some significant questions about whether Clemson can put up points. Adding more intrigue is the coaching situation for the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris departed for the head-coaching job at SMU, which means Tony Elliott will get his first crack at calling plays.

Healthy Oklahoma: When the Sooners fell to Oklahoma State in the regular-season finale, they were without starting QB Trevor Knight and lost star tailback Samaje Perine in the third quarter to a sprained ankle. Both players have had time to heal and should be on the field against Clemson, which certainly makes Oklahoma’s offense far more dangerous.

Perine vs. Clemson rush D: Despite sitting out the final quarter of the Oklahoma State game, Perine racked up 791 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in his final three games of the season, making Oklahoma’s ground game one of the most explosive in the nation. On the flip side, Clemson’s D surrendered just 2.8 yards per carry this season -- the best in the nation -- and allowed just 10 touchdowns all year. While it does seem like a strength-on-strength matchup, it’s worth mentioning that when the Tigers played Georgia’s prolific running game in the opener, they allowed 328 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.

Getting to Knight: Clemson’s pass rush has been among the best in the nation the past two years. The Tigers had 44 sacks this season, which ranked fifth nationally, and Vic Beasley, Grady Jarrett & Co. tormented opposing quarterbacks all season. To have that same success against Oklahoma won’t be easy, though. The Sooners surrendered just eight sacks all year, the second fewest in the country.

Gallman on the ground: He didn’t exactly finish the year with as much of a bang as Perine did at Oklahoma, but Wayne Gallman helped transform the Clemson offense down the stretch by finally giving the Tigers a consistent threat on the ground. Gallman had 516 yards rushing in Clemson’s last five games, and the Tigers’ ground game, which had averaged just 3.8 yards per rush in the first seven games of the season, upped that average to 4.8 over the final five. A strong game by Gallman and the rushing attack could take a lot of pressure off Stoudt.
The reunion storyline has dominated the talk headed into the Russell Athletic Bowl between Oklahoma and Clemson.

But if Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had his way, he would have done anything he could to avoid facing his former team.

The relationships he developed in 13 seasons with Bob Stoops and the Sooners remain remarkably strong. There is no bitterness, no anger, just mutual admiration on both sides -- from players and coaches.

[+] EnlargeVenables
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesClemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables will face off against former employer Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Take Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard. Though he never played one down for Venables, the two spent countless hours together at Oklahoma while Shepard was growing up. As has been well-documented, Stoops invited Shepard to be a part of the football program with open arms following the death of his father, Derrick, a former Sooners great.

Shepard did not just hang out with Stoops, though. He grew close with all the coaches on staff, including Venables.

“As a young kid I just remember talking to him a lot,” Shepard said in a recent interview. “I had a pretty close relationship with all the coaches at that time, so throughout the years of me just being there and being around the facility we saw each other a lot of the time so we’d talk. ...

“I always loved how passionate he was for the game. You could tell his nose was in the book at all times. He knew the ins and outs of the defense. He’d be fired up every game day. That’s what I liked most about him.”

Shepard also grew into a high school standout, playing defensive back and receiver. Oklahoma initially recruited him to play defensive back, where he attended camps and got first-hand coaching from Venables. And that coaching was intense.

“If you didn’t do a drill right, you were going to go back and do it again until you got it right,” Shepard said. “His voice would be gone for sure ... his head beet-red sometimes from screaming so much but he definitely got the guys fired up. No doubt about it.”

But Shepard really wanted to play receiver, something that was fine with the Oklahoma staff. He signed in 2012, Venables’ first season at Clemson.

Despite a groin injury that kept him out or limited him in the final four games of the regular season, Shepard still leads the Sooners with 957 yards and five touchdowns. Shepard is expected to play Monday.

Venables will be ready and waiting.

“He grew up in the middle of our team breakdowns and practice and fall camp and football camps and sidelines on game days,” Venables said. “He’s a great ambassador for that program. I know his dad’s awfully proud as well as the rest of his family. He’s a terrific ball player. I feel terrible that he’s been banged up this year but knowing him and the fortitude that he has, he’ll find a way to get back out there on the field to finish the year off. Real proud of Sterling and how he’s grown up.”

Venables also built a close relationship with Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker during the recruiting process. Striker, who played high school football in Florida, chose Oklahoma in large part because of Venables.

But before he had a chance to sign in 2012, Venables was gone. Striker has not gone into much length or depth about having to face the man who recruited him to Oklahoma, telling local reporters earlier in December, “He's not here no more.”

Shepard said, “I know some of the guys he did recruit are fired up. Coaching changes happen all the time, we just know that he knows a lot about this program, and just guys are fired up to play him because he recruited them here.”

For his part, Venables has tried to put Oklahoma out of his mind. As he says, "You have to separate what your job is and what your past was. I'll be just fine. At the end of the day, it's all about those guys with the paw on their helmet."
Total defense and scoring defense have forever been the statistics widely used to evaluate defenses.

But any more in college football, they only tell a small portion of the story.

With the rise of the hurry-up offense, some defenses have to face more plays or defend more possessions than others. By default, a defense that has to defend 100 plays is usually going to give up more yards and points than the defense that has to defend 70 plays.

With that in mind, ESPN Stats & Information keeps track of a pair of metrics that better define how a defense performs: The yards a defense allows per play; and the points a defense gives up per drive. Factor in a third category -- turnovers gained -- and you have a better account of who is actually playing good defense. And who is not.

Below, we will examine those three statistics and average them out to provide a more accurate representation of Big 12 defense rankings for 2014 (also, in the interest of keeping a level playing field, only conference games were evaluated):

Yards per play
  • 1. Texas: 4.83
  • 2. West Virginia: 5.28
  • 3. TCU: 5.41
  • 4. Kansas State: 5.51
  • 5. Oklahoma: 5.58
  • 6. Baylor: 5.70
  • 7. Oklahoma State: 5.94
  • 8. Kansas: 6.31
  • 9. Texas Tech: 6.63
  • 10. Iowa State: 6.81
Points per drive
  • 1. Texas: 1.30
  • 2. TCU: 1.50
  • 3. West Virginia: 1.65
  • 4. Kansas State: 1.73
  • 5. Oklahoma: 1.92
  • 6. Baylor: 1.99
  • 7. Oklahoma State: 2.40
  • 8. Kansas: 2.47
  • 9. Iowa State: 2.82
  • 10. Texas Tech: 2.98
Turnovers gained
  • 1. TCU: 26
  • 2. Baylor: 19
  • 3. Kansas State: 18
  • 4 (tie). Kansas: 15
  • 4 (tie). Texas : 15
  • 6. Iowa State: 14
  • 7. Texas Tech: 13
  • 8 (tie). Oklahoma: 11
  • 8 (tie). West Virginia: 11
  • 10. Oklahoma State: 9
Taking average placement for the three above categories, this is how the overall defensive rankings shake out:
  • 1. TCU: 2.0 (average rank)
  • 2. Texas: 2.2 (average rank)
  • 3. Kansas State: 3.7
  • 4. West Virginia: 4.5
  • 5. Baylor: 4.7
  • 6. Oklahoma: 6.2
  • 7. Kansas: 6.8
  • 8. Oklahoma State : 8.0
  • 9. Iowa State: 8.3
  • 10. Texas Tech: 8.7
In today's holiday edition of the Big 12 Twitter mailbag, we talk recruiting, potential expansion (again), who could be 2015's version of TCU, and the end of a Twitter era, as @FauxHolgorsen.

Here's to everyone having a Merry Christmas.

Now, on to the 'bag;

@Jake_Trotter: It's probably a wash. Considering the Bears still have coach Art Briles and a veteran quarterback in Bryce Petty, I don't think not having Phillip Montgomery will have a major effect on the offense. Briles has established a culture of scoring that goes beyond any one assistant or player. Likewise, Michigan State has implemented a culture of defense under Mark Dantonio. Pat Narduzzi has been a fabulous coordinator. But just because he won't be in Arlington doesn't mean the Spartans will forget how to play defense. I still expect this to be an epic clash of irresistible offense vs. immovable defense.

Trotter: From a list of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State, I would have to go with the Cowboys. Oklahoma State appears to have uncovered its long-term answer at quarterback in Mason Rudolph, who was terrific in his two starts to cap the regular season. Oklahoma State will also return its entire receiving corps, as well as eight starters defensively. With TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State all headed to Stillwater next season, the schedule lines up for the Cowboys to make a bounce-back run at the conference crown.

Trotter: Clever.

Trotter: For the first time this football season, I went to the movies over the weekend and saw "Interstellar." So if by "horizon" you mean the wormhole next to the rings of Saturn, then yes, expansion is on the horizon.

Trotter: Highly unlikely, considering any expansion is highly unlikely. That said, commissioner Bob Bowlsby has indicated in recent days that if the Big 12 ever expanded, it would look east instead of west. That would seemingly put UCF in play, as one of the top available schools to the east. I'm not sure how a Big 12 school in Florida would work. Then again, the Big 12 really has no convenient options left when it comes to expansion.

Trotter: It's possible Chad President ends up in Lubbock. After losing Jarrett Stidham to Baylor, Texas Tech needs a quarterback for this class, and President needs a new team after de-committing from Baylor. But Tech won't be the only Big 12 school that goes after him. Highly ranked quarterbacks (even quarterbacks that could end up as college receivers) usually aren't available this late in the recruiting game. So President will be in demand. As for the Tech defensive coordinator search, Houston's David Gibbs is at the top of the list. Even though Houston finished just fifth in the American, the Cougars have improved defensively under Gibbs, ranking 11th in scoring defense this season. A former defensive coordinator at Minnesota and Auburn, Gibbs is the kind of veteran coordinator Kliff Kingsbury needs to add to his staff.

Trotter: After de-committing from Texas A&M, Daylon Mack tweeted that TCU and LSU were his top two schools. He is apparently scheduled to take an official visit Texas on Jan. 23, which could change things. But I would think TCU's odds of landing Mack at this point are at least 33 percent.

Trotter: Huge bummer. This, by the way, was his farewell letter. In memoriam, below was a great moment in @FauxHolgorsen history...

Trotter: This one is easy ...

.
Brent Venables, Mike StoopsUSA TODAY SportsBrent Venables, left, has turned Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country while Oklahoma has shown little improvement under Mike Stoops.
Three seasons ago, Oklahoma seemed to be in need of a defensive change.

Baylor had racked up 620 yards against the Sooners, the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered. Shorty after, rival Oklahoma State destroyed the Sooners by almost five touchdowns, sending Oklahoma tumbling all the way to the Insight Bowl.

Yet during that Tempe bowl, a supposed Sooner defense savior stood off the sideline.

Mike Stoops' return to Norman seemed imminent. And days later, Bob Stoops turned that supposition into reality.

The hire didn’t exactly force longtime assistant Brent Venables out. The Stoops brothers, in fact, wanted Venables to stay. After all, Mike Stoops and Venables together co-coordinated Oklahoma’s national championship defense in 2000. But with Mike Stoops coming back to take the lead, Venables realized his tenure in Norman was no longer tenable, and he bolted for Clemson.

Three years later, that moment will come full circle Monday, when Oklahoma will meet Venables and the Tigers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

But while Venables has whipped Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country, Oklahoma seems no closer to fielding a championship-caliber defense than it did three seasons ago.

Just like 2011, the Sooners come limping into a mid-level bowl after finishing fourth in the Big 12 standings. Like 2011, they couldn’t stop Baylor. Like 2011, they fell to the rival Cowboys.

And a reunion with Venables only accentuates how far the Sooners have come since 2011. Or, in actuality, how far they haven’t.

Oklahoma has won only one Big 12 title since Venables’ departure – a 2012 co-championship with Kansas State that was sullied by a head-to-head home defeat to the Wildcats.

Since Venables, the Sooners haven’t claimed a first-team defensive All-American, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year or a national award finalist.

And this season, with Mike Stoops recruits finally littering the secondary, the Sooners ranked only ahead of Iowa State among Big 12 teams in defending the pass.

Following a catastrophic 2012 defensive season loaded with highlights of Tavon Austin and Johnny Manziel carving up the Sooners, Oklahoma finally seemed to be turning that elusive corner defensively under Mike Stoops last year. After getting blown out by Texas and Baylor, the Sooners surged late. Then, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma swarmed Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. The Sooners sacked him seven times and forced him into three turnovers in a stunning 45-31 win.

With nine starters returning, Oklahoma defense looked as if it was on its way back. But as it turned out, the Alabama performance was merely an aberration.

Even with the entire front returning, the Sooners struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks and finished just fifth in the league in sacks. As a result, with no standouts at safety and little depth at cornerback, the defensive backfield Mike Stoops cobbled together was exposed.

With the ultimate capitulation coming on Nov. 8 against Baylor.

Completely overmatched, the Sooners opened the first drive of the second half playing their cornerbacks 10 yards off the ball. With little resistance, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty completed all nine of his pass attempts, as the Bears zipped right down the field to take a 31-14 lead on their way to handing Oklahoma its worst home loss since the John Blake days.

Even after that, Bob Stoops avoided publicly criticizing his brother’s defense. But he didn’t have to. His actions later spoke loudest.

In the final minute of the season finale against Oklahoma State, Bob Stoops elected to punt to Tyreek Hill a second time after a running-into-the-kicker penalty. The decision was questionable. But the reasoning was understandable. Bob Stoops wasn’t confident his defense could stop Oklahoma State true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph from driving the Cowboys 90 yards to tie the game. And Bob Stoops wanted to milk every second from the clock he could. But Hill took his second chance at a return to the house, and Oklahoma State dominated the overtime to win, 38-35, while dimming the Sooners’ season even more.

It wasn’t long ago hope bubbled over for the defense. Now, regardless of what happens Monday, the Sooners will head into 2015 overflowing with questions. Yes, the Sooners will boast probable preseason All-American running back Samaje Perine offensively. But with a strained secondary and subdued pass rush, the Oklahoma defense has never looked more discombobulated.

Three years have passed now since Venables left.

And yet under Mike Stoops, the feeling in Norman remains the same.

Big 12 Tuesday mailbag

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
4:00
PM ET
Kansas State's preseason destiny, Texas' offensive style, and the decisions of the committee highlight Tuesday's mailbag. As always, thanks for your questions. To submit questions for next week's mailbag, click here.

Nick in Las Vegas, Nevada writes: In online chatter people suggest that schools such as TCU & Baylor will never be allowed to play for a National Championship due to being small private schools. Do you think there is any merit to this "anti-small school" theory?

Brandon Chatmon: Not really. Say Florida State and Ohio State lost in their title games, what would have happened then? The committee just jumps Michigan State or Ole Miss or whoever into the top four? Now, I do think the committee needs to re-evaluate how it does things, because Baylor should have been in the top four, but I don’t think the Bears were left out because the committee is "anti-small school." The Bears were left out because the committee decided Ohio State was the better team. We’ll see if the committee was right and I was wrong.


Connor in Beaumont, Texas writes: A big issue with Texas' offense is that the quarterbacks that have been recruited over the last couple of years (Swoopes, Heard) have little to no experience in a "pro-style offense." Meanwhile the rest of the country is running spread and it's working. What are the implications of changing offensive philosophy? Can it be done for just one season or a couple?

BC: It doesn't matter the type of offense Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard ran in high school. Either they are playmakers or they aren’t. Now, changing the philosophy does have an impact as it can limit your options on the recruiting trail with limited options at tight end, fullback, etc... But that shouldn’t matter much at Texas. I think coach Charlie Strong’s focus is more on being a physical running team more than a "pro-style offense" and it’s important to note that running a spread-style passing offense doesn’t mean you can’t have a physical, tough running game. In fact, Baylor and TCU averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game in 2014. If I was a Longhorns fan, it would be more important to me that our offense changes organically each year to adapt to the best players on the offense, including the best playmaking option at quarterback.


Catalokie in Tulsa, Oklahoma writes: I know there's a lot of relief about Trevor Knight under center for the Sooners' bowl game, I'm thrilled he's healthy, but what about next season? Knight hasn't always shown the consistency he was applauded for after the Alabama game. Might Baker Mayfield top Knight for the starting job?

BC: I wouldn’t be surprised if Baker Mayfield becomes a starter at Oklahoma, and I expect a pretty good battle to start during the offseason. Knight’s status as the future at quarterback in Norman has changed from unquestioned to unclear, that’s the only thing I’m certain about.


Omar in Flower Mound, Texas writes: Can you explain to me why Trevone Boykin didn't even get invited to the New York, I feel like every other year they always bring in at least 4 people if not more. I don't think he should or would have beaten out Marcus Mariota for it, but I definitely would have picked him over Amari Cooper or Melvin Gordon. Your thoughts?

BC: Inviting four finalists to New York is not the norm, Omar. I thought Trevone Boykin had a great year as the catalyst to TCU’s turnaround, he was exceptional in every way. But I didn’t pick him to win the Heisman. I voted Mariota, Cooper then Boykin, and that was harder than I expected to pick between Mariota and Cooper, but Boykin was below that pair in my eyes. I agree he probably should have been in New York though.


Tyler in Waco, Texas writes: Reading your most recent mailbag, one thing that stuck out to me was this idea that if FSU and OSU both lost in championship week, but the Big 12 had chosen their "One True Champion" in Baylor, that TCU would have been left out of the Playoff at 11-1 for some other team. I just don't see that happening at all. Even without their "co-champs" label, would a two-loss Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, or Mississippi State really have made it ahead of TCU? I just don't see that happening. I may just irrationally hate Bowlsby, and maybe what he did was the right call in some scenarios, but I just can't see how an 11-1 TCU doesn't make the playoff, even without the "Co-Champ" title.

BC: I pretty much agree with what you’re saying Tyler, that’s why I’ve said I would have handled it differently and named Baylor as the Big 12’s champion. Yet we have to remember, in the weeks leading up to the selection, the committee was steadily dropping undefeated Florida State in favor of one-loss teams. Why wouldn’t it consider jumping any two-loss team it wanted ahead of TCU? I doubt it would have happened, but I doubted TCU would be ranked No. 3, win by 50 points and drop to No. 6, so ...


Daniel Drummond in Houston writes: Brandon, what can the Big 12 do to get better representation on the CFP committee? The Big Ten and Pac 12 had a lot of ties to the committee, but the Big XII was notably excluded, and more than a few people think that played into the decision to keep Baylor and TCU out.

BC: Obviously with Oliver Luck’s departure to the NCAA that leaves an opening in the committee, and I’d agree with fellow Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter that Texas Tech’s Kirby Hocutt would be a great fit with his experience at various Big 12 schools and overall understandings of the dynamics of the Big 12 region. He would be a terrific first step. But I must say issues like this are the reason I'm hoping for a expanded playoffs in the near future. I mean, could you imagine if a committee decided who makes the NFL playoffs?
The Big 12 bowl season kicks off Monday with a tripleheader featuring West Virginia-Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Oklahoma-Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl and Texas-Arkansas in the nightcap in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl. In this week's Big 12 roundtable, we examine the keys for the three Big 12 teams playing in the Monday bowls:

What is the biggest key for West Virginia?

Chatmon: Kevin White ’s return to the dominating force that caused all sorts of problems for West Virginia’s early season opponents would help, particularly if he can do it against double teams. But it will be the Mountaineers’ pass defense, led by cornerback Daryl Worley, that could decide the game. Facing the SEC’s top passing offense, WVU’s secondary has talent but faces a tall task against a Texas A&M offense that featured five different receivers that passed 400 receiving yards in the regular season. Thus, it will take a solid pass rush and strong performances from the WVU secondary to slow down the Aggies.

Olson: Don't overlook the reason why Texas A&M is searching for a new defensive coordinator. The Aggies allowed 298, 363, 335 and 384 rushing yards in their final four SEC games. The formula for beating them up late in the season was pretty obvious. With West Virginia's line healthy again, the Mountaineers should ride Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith and take advantage of the passing looks the run game sets up.

Trotter: Get Kevin White going early and often. The Aggies had one of the worst pass defenses in the SEC this year, and they have no one (who does?) who can physically match up with White. If the Mountaineers can devise ways to get White -- and wingman Mario Alford -- opportunities for big plays early, they can put A&M on its heels for the rest of the game.

What is the biggest key for Oklahoma?

Chatmon: Quite simply the Sooners' offensive line must win in the trenches. OU’s offensive front is among the nation’s top units but will face a fast, physical and athletic Clemson defense with all the traits to slow down OU’s offense. Offensive balance will be key, as well as winning on first down. The Sooners averaged 7.94 yards per first-down play in their eight wins. That number dropped to 6.13 yards per first-down play in their four losses. If OU faces a game full of third down-and-long plays, it could be a long 60 minutes.

Olson: It's not just about winning the trenches for Oklahoma. The protection of Trevor Knight is of the upmost importance against Clemson. I'm no expert on transient quadriplegia -- nor had I ever heard of it prior to Knight's injury against Baylor -- and I trust that OU was extremely careful with its testing to deem Knight cleared to play. But you know he will take tough hits in his first game back, and after such a jarring injury, you'd hope his line can keep him clean and playing without fear of getting hurt again.

Trotter: Clemson owns one of the best statistical defense in the country, which could put points at a premium for the Oklahoma offense. That's why it's imperative that the Sooners' defense shows up in this game. The Tigers aren't great offensively, so the Sooners ought to be able to impose their will. Then again, this is an Oklahoma defense that massively underachieved during the last two months of the season.

What is the biggest key for Texas?

Chatmon: The formula has been pretty simple for the Longhorns. When Charlie Strong’s team wins the turnover battle, it wins the game. When it loses the turnover battle it heads into the locker room full of disappointment. Arkansas did a decent job protecting the ball, with 17 turnovers in 12 games, but the Razorbacks' 11 fumbles provides some hope for the Longhorns to get one or two turnovers. More importantly, UT and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes must protect the ball much better than they did against TCU and give themselves a chance.

Olson: This might sound like a strange request, but I want to see Texas finally show up in the third quarter and score some points. The Horns put up a total of nine points in the third period in Big 12 play. Nine. After nine games that's not some anomaly; it's a weakness and a strange one. Arkansas is going to play UT close and has had real trouble scoring in the second half (7.5 ppg in SEC play). Any points Texas can muster after halftime could make all the difference.

Trotter: Whoever wins the battle in the trenches between the Arkansas offensive line and the Texas defensive front probably is going to win this game. When the Hogs struggled to run the ball this year they struggled to score. But when they got the run game going they were difficult to beat. Texas has the horses with Malcom Brown and Co. to win the battle with the Razorbacks up front. If the Longhorns do, odds are they'll also end their season with a win.
We asked college football fans what recruits they want under the Christmas tree for their favorite school. Here are the best answers in this special Christmas edition of the Early Offer. The Early Offer will return next week from the Under Armour Game practices in Orlando, Florida.

video

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert projects the impact No. 13 defensive end Ricky DeBerry will have at Oklahoma.
video

Andrea Adelson talks with Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley to discuss his success this season and his thoughts on facing Oklahoma in the Russell Athletic Bowl.
Baylor receiver Corey Coleman and Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard showed signs of their All-Big 12 futures with strong bowl showings during the holiday season a year ago. Both players led their team in receptions in the 2013 postseason before earning All-Big 12 honors in 2014.

This season's bowl games provide another opportunity for young players on Big 12 teams to show they're ready for a bigger roles in the future. Here are some Big 12 names to keep an eye on this bowl season:

Baylor DE K.J. Smith: The redshirt freshman stepped in and stepped up after Jamal Palmer was lost for the season with his ACL injury midway through the year. Smith finished with 39 tackles including 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. His 3.5 tackles per game are a sign he can impact the running game as well as the passing game in the Bears GoodYear Cotton Bowl matchup with Michigan State. And he could see his role in Baylor’s defense expand even further in 2015 if Shawn Oakman elects to head to the NFL.

Kansas State LB Elijah Lee: The true freshman forced himself into the Wildcats plans early during his freshman season and saw his role continue to expand as the season progressed. Lee finished the regular season with 16 tackles and 4.5 sacks while playing various roles on Bill Snyder’s defense. His athleticism could be an asset against Brett Hundley and UCLA with a big game setting him up as one of the Big 12’s potential breakout players in 2015.

Oklahoma WR Michiah Quick: The true freshman showed flashes of playmaking ability after he became a bigger part of the offense following Shepard’s injury in early November. His 16 receptions for 164 yards and one touchdown during Shepard’s absence led the Sooners. Quick’s speed and open field ability could make him a threat for Clemson’s defense particularly with Trevor Knight’s return. A big Russell Athletic Bowl performance could cement Quick’s role in OU’s offense in 2015, even with the Dorial Green-Beckham, if he returns to school, and highly touted junior college signee DeDe Westbrook amping up the competition at receiver.

Oklahoma State LB Justin Phillips: The Cowboys' crazy overtime win in Bedlam overshadowed a stellar performance from Phillips. The true freshman played the majority of the game, finishing with 10 tackles including seven solo stops in the most significant action of his debut season. Phillips saw spot duty through much of the season but if he builds on his Bedlam performance with solid Ticket City Cactus Bowl, he could be a name to keep an eye on in 2015.

Texas WR Armanti Foreman: The Longhorns will be searching for playmakers in the passing game next season with John Harris and Jaxon Shipley moving on. The freshman scored touchdowns in each of UT’s final two games including a 73-yard catch-and-run against TCU on Thanksgiving. Foreman’s quickness and speed makes him an asset to the Longhorns' offense and a solid AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl showing would re-affirm his long term potential and place him high on the list of Longhorns to get the ball in 2015.

TCU CB Ranthony Texada: The redshirt freshman locked down the starting cornerback spot opposite Kevin White as Jason Verrett’s replacement, making him a guy to keep on eye on during the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Texada started every game of his freshman season and will be the most experienced member of TCU’s cornerback group in 2015. Texada has been solid all season long but will need to take his game to another level to be the No. 1 cover man in Gary Patterson’s defense.

West Virginia WR Daikiel Shorts: Dana Holgorsen will be looking for someone to fill the playmaking void left by White and Mario Alford after the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Shorts seems a prime candidate and could use the bowl game to send the message that he plans to make a jump from complementary receiver to go-to target as a junior. With eight of his 24 receptions in WVU’s final two games of the regular season, Shorts could be starting to come into his own.

Russell Athletic Bowl primer: Clemson vs. Oklahoma

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
12:00
PM ET
Clemson and Oklahoma took two different avenues on the road to the Russell Athletic Bowl.

The Tigers knocked off South Carolina in their final game, snapping a five-game losing streak to their in-state rival in the process. Meanwhile, a devastating home loss to in-state rival Oklahoma State on the final day of the regular season sent Oklahoma tumbling into the Dec. 29 matchup in Orlando, Florida.

Clemson can grab victory No. 10 with a victory; Oklahoma can grab much-needed momentum heading into the offseason after a disappointing final six games. ACC reporter David Hale and Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon break down the matchup:

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrevor Knight is returning as Oklahoma's quarterback for the bowl game, but Clemson will be missing its starter, freshman Deshaun Watson.
How Clemson can move the ball on offense: Clemson finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation on defense. But on offense, there are some major concerns, and those worries only increased when the Tigers announced that quarterback Deshaun Watson will miss the bowl game after undergoing knee surgery. That leaves the offense in the hands of Cole Stoudt, who was awful in his last two games against Power 5 foes. That means the key for Clemson will be limiting how much the offense needs to rely on Stoudt, who had 33 or more passing attempts in four straight games midway through the year. Instead, Clemson needs to rely on an improved running game led by Wayne Gallman (486 yards in his last four games against Power 5 foes) and a healthy Tyshon Dye. Through Week 8, Clemson ranked 111th nationally in yards per carry and 27.4 percent of its runs went for a loss or no gain. Since then, it’s added more than a yard per rush and just 19 percent of the Tigers' runs have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. That trend needs to continue against a solid Oklahoma run defense if the Tigers are to have a chance.

How Oklahoma can move the ball on offense: If the Sooners can run the ball, they can control the game. Oklahoma averaged 299.8 rushing yards per game in its eight victories and 206.3 rushing yards per game in its four losses and if All-Big 12 receiver Sterling Shepard plays, should be closer to full strength on offense in the bowl game than at any point since a 48-14 blowout loss to Baylor on Nov. 8. Bob Stoops' team will need all of its weapons against arguably the best defense it has faced all season led by former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The return of Shepard and quarterback Trevor Knight would bring the balance the Sooners need if they hope to avoid being one-dimensional as they strive for success against Clemson’s defense.

Clemson’s X-factor: The secondary. Clemson has a formidable defensive front, and that reputation is well deserved. The Tigers have recorded 245 tackles for loss in the past two years — 29 more than any other program in the country — and since a season-opening loss to Georgia, no team has allowed fewer yards on the ground than Clemson. But while the pass rush and run defense get a lot of credit, the secondary has been widely overlooked. Still, Clemson finished third in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 162 yards per game through the air and just 5.5 yards per attempt. Freshman MacKensie Alexander is a star in the making, and veterans Garry Peters and Robert Smith are among the ACC’s best. With the pass rush challenging Knight up front, the back end of Clemson’s defense is more than capable of cashing in on mistakes, and Clemson is 35-4 under Dabo Swinney when it wins the turnover battle.

Oklahoma’s X-factor: As the season approached the winter months, Big 12 teams learned it was ill-advised to kickoff to Alex Ross. The Tigers would be wise to mimic that special-teams game plan because Ross has the ability to change games with his kick-return skills. The redshirt sophomore returned 40 percent of his kick returns at least 30 yards, averaged 32 yards per return and changed the game with kickoff returns for touchdowns in Oklahoma's victories over West Virginia and Texas. A game-breaking special-teams play could be the difference in a game that looks headed toward a defensive battle, and Ross looks like the perfect guy to provide it.

What a win would do for Clemson: The obvious impact here is that it would give the Tigers their fourth straight 10-win season for just the second time in school history. It would also give Clemson a bowl victory for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened since the Tigers won five in a row from 1986 through 1990. But perhaps as much as anything, this would be a nice reminder of Dabo Swinney’s success as a head coach. Much of that has been pinned on Chad Morris’ offense, but with Morris gone to SMU and Watson on the sideline, a Clemson victory would belong as much to Swinney as anyone.

What a win would do for Oklahoma: It would be a breath of fresh air after a suffocating second half of the season, when the Sooners played .500 football (3-3). Oklahoma hasn’t beaten a winning team since Oct. 11 (Texas) and enters the bowl game off the heels of that devastating Bedlam loss that left players, coaches and fans alike bewildered in early December. A win would help bandage that wound and send out the Sooners’ redshirt seniors, such as tackle Daryl Williams and tight end Blake Bell, with a 52-14 record during their five seasons at Oklahoma despite a disappointing final season.
A glance into the rearview mirror won't bring a smile to faces of Oklahoma players or coaches.

The 2014 season started with the Sooners looking down at everyone in the Big 12 in preseason predictions, picked to be the conference's best team, with a segment of prognosticators picking them to secure a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma hopes it can spark an offseason boost in Orlando, much like the one Trevor Knight provided after last season's Sugar Bowl.
Instead, an 8-4 regular season, which included a 3-3 record in the second half of the year, has left a cloud of unease and dissatisfaction hanging over the program heading into a Russell Athletic Bowl matchup with Clemson on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Florida.

Disappointment reins during the holiday season with motivation for a meaningless bowl game among one of the many questions for Bob Stoops' team. Yet coaches and players alike insist motivation won't be a question, particularly against a Clemson squad ranked No. 17 with a 9-3 record.

"It's pretty simple: It's a great opportunity to play a great opponent like Clemson, they're really good," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Whenever you walk on that field with Oklahoma on your chest and you're playing a team like Clemson, that's all the motivation you need. I don't buy into any other scenario to be honest with you."

Winning should be enough. Yet, that's the simplistic version of the Sooners' motivation. Everyone in the program, from top to bottom, wants to win the game. Past that, motivations vary.

The last time we saw the Sooners, they were hobbling off the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf with their tails between their legs following a 38-35 overtime loss to Bedlam rival Oklahoma State on the season's final day.

None of the Sooners' seniors wants that to be the lasting image of their final moments in crimson and cream. It wouldn't seem to represent a group of redshirt seniors that went 51-14 during five years in Norman, even though their senior seasons didn't play out like they would have hoped.

"One last win," senior guard Adam Shead said. "One more time to play together, this is the last time you will see this group of people on the same field together, the last time a lot of seniors will be strapping it up here, we want to go out with a bang."

The Sooners' veterans would much rather create one final memory-book moment with an upset of the 17th-ranked Tigers and fill their final moments with joy instead of despair.

"[I want to] send us out the right way, to see smiles after the game, after a win against Clemson," senior tackle Daryl Williams said. "Going against [former OU defensive coordinator] Coach [Brent] Venables' defense, it's the best we're going to face this year, it will be a great challenge and even better if we win."

It's the final opportunity for other seniors, like Williams and fellow tackle Tyrus Thompson, to showcase their talent with the hope of an NFL payday on the near horizon. Williams is the No. 39-ranked prospect and Thompson is the No. 45-ranked prospect for the 2015 NFL draft according to Scouts, Inc. While both players reiterated their focus on winning, first and foremost, both know a strong performance against projected first-round pick Vic Beasley would help their future.

"Dude's a really good player," Thompson said. "I know I'll be at my best, I know he's going to do the same because I might be a target for him too. We'll both do our best and see who comes away with the win."

The Tigers' elite defensive end, the No. 18-ranked prospect overall, will line up across from Williams and Thompson after recording 29 tackles including 18.5 for loss and 11 sacks to earn All-American honors for the second straight season. Safe to say, there's money to be made in the head-to-head battles between the Sooners' All-Big 12 bookend tackles and the Tigers' star.

"He has it all, he's fast, he's physical," Williams said. "A great challenge for me and Tyrus."

But bowl games aren't all about upperclassmen making final memories or securing future paychecks. Postseason contests are about opportunity as well.

"It's important to play well," Norvell said. "The last game is always kind of a transition game, you're finishing the careers of some players but you're also springboarding other guys."

They can help shape the offseason, create excitement around the program and shape the future of a program, much like Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance made him the unquestioned starter heading into this season. Young players like true freshman receiver Michiah Quick get the chance to show they should be a bigger part of the overall plan for 2015.

"It's an important game for a lot of reasons," Norvell said. "There are guys that are going to be back next year and it's important that they play well. I think that's important for everybody in the program.

"It's an opportunity for guys to play, play well and springboard into 2015."
Dec. 19, 2014. Consider it one of the biggest days for Big 12 recruiting in a long time.

On a day already anticipated as one to watch with the morning announcements of ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal, the Big 12 got its own version of a Christmas bonus with five major commitments by the end of the afternoon.

Jefferson and McNeal committed to Texas. ESPN 300 quarterback Jarrett Stidham committed to Baylor after recently decommitting from Texas Tech. ESPN 300 defensive end Ricky DeBerry and four-star safety Kahlil Haughton chose Oklahoma.

And better believe, it’s not over for the conference.

There are several players who could be additions to the growing number of Big 12 commitments. Here are five names to watch from now until national signing day in early February.

In today's Big 12 Twitter mailbag, we talk plenty about 2015, including changes to the conference format and quarterback battles.

On to the 'bag:

@Jake_Trotter: My top five, as of December 19, would be 1) TCU, 2) Baylor, 3) Oklahoma, 4) Texas, 5) Oklahoma State. But a lot can and will change between now and the preseason that could shake up this top five.

Trotter: Closer? Maybe. Close? No. The only change I see happening is the league clarifying its goofy One True Champion rule, and actually declaring a single champion for playoff purposes. There is a chance the conference could apply for a waiver to hold a championship game with 10 teams. But in talking to people around the league, I don't envision the Big 12 adding such a game, at least for next season.

Trotter: No time soon. The Big 12 still has no plans to expand. If it did, BYU would obviously be in the picture. But again, the Big 12 is not adding teams right now.

Trotter: The decision remains up in the air, but if I had to bet, I would put my money on Dorial Green-Beckham going to the NFL. The decision to transfer to Oklahoma was always about playing this season, not sitting out and playing in 2015. That could still happen. But as a likely Day 1 or Day 2 pick, I see him declaring for the draft.

Trotter: I could see Rushel Shell breaking the 1,000-yard barrier. With a new quarterback, the Mountaineers could pound the ball a little more next season. As for who the quarterback will be, Skyler Howard has generated momentum with the way he performed the last two games, but I still favor William Crest. There was a reason Crest was the No. 2 quarterback as a true freshman coming out of fall camp. Assuming he is healthy and can go through spring ball, Crest would still be my pick to win the job for 2015.

Trotter: The Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Baylor beating Michigan State and TCU handling Ole Miss would do the most for the Big 12's national perception. It certainly wouldn't hurt if the other Big 12 teams win, too. But a sweep in the two New Year's Six bowls is what will count most toward 2015 perception of the conference.

Trotter: Chad President has indicated that he's sticking with Baylor. President also has the ability to play other positions, too, if he gets beat out by Jarrett Stidham. So I would guess he stays pledged to Baylor. By the way, not many better surnames out there than "President."

Trotter: I think it's Seth Russell, at least to start out. Russell has the experience edge both on the field and with reps operating the Baylor offense. Russell struggled a bit in the Texas Tech game, which gives me pause. But he has also had a bunch of good moments as Bryce Petty's backup the past two years.

Trotter: No. Kansas State has first dibs on any Lockett from now until the end of time.

Trotter: This is probably the most random question in this mailbag's history. But I believe the answer is Paul Rhoads. Someone also provided photographic evidence:

Trotter: Thanks for all the questions, guys. Sorry I couldn't include all of them. I hope everyone has a great weekend..

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