Late in the second half of Iowa State's 94-83 victory over Kansas in Friday's Big 12 tourney semifinals, Georges Niang lay on the floor with a reddening towel covering his face. Brannen Greene had caught the Cyclones' big man with an accidental elbow on a drive.
The gash above Niang's right eye represents the war that's been staged in the weeks and months leading up to Saturday's tournament championship game between Baylor and Iowa State.
Every night a fight. Every trip a test.
Saturday’s tournament finale will be brought to you by the Big 12, America's best and most competitive league.
“Well, arguably and certainly, our thought is [that it’s] the best conference in the country, and every night you line up, it's against a really good team,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said earlier this week. “A lot of different styles in the league, some smaller teams, some bigger teams. … The balance, the depth of really good players in the league. It's tough every night.”
Kansas, the favorite and most dominant team in the tournament's history, is back in Lawrence now. And that's not just because Joel Embiid was unavailable this week.
The Jayhawks ran into a gauntlet.
Iowa State lost four of five in January. The Cyclones nearly suffered three losses in a row earlier this month, but Naz Long's buzzer-beating 3-pointer sent them into overtime against Oklahoma State, where the Cyclones won 85-81 on March 8. The Cyclones have won seven of their last nine, and they've resembled nothing short of an NCAA championship contender during this stretch.
“Coach preaches, ‘How are you going to act when adversity hits you? Are you going to give up? Are you going to point the finger? Are you going to point the finger at yourself? How are you going to act?’” Niang said after Iowa State topped Kansas in the semifinals. “He asks us that question all the time, and I feel like we came here for a reason. We didn't want to go down with a fight, so we just kept fighting, clawing, pulling.”
Baylor's rise has been equally incredible. A rough bout of eight losses in its first 10 conference games seemed to push Baylor back into the NIT conversation. But then, the Bears recovered with a 10-1 stretch. They beat Texas, a certain NCAA tournament team, by 17 points Friday. They're playing as well as any team in the league right now.
“Basically, we've just tightened up on our defense and working on closing out the game,” Cory Jefferson said after his team’s win over Texas in the semifinals. Most of the games we have lost, when we went through the early part of the conference play, they were within, like, one to two possessions. So we were there throughout the whole game for the most part, but we just [weren't] finishing out the game, and that's basically what we've been working on.”
The two regular-season battles between these teams showcased their best and worst qualities. Iowa State embarrassed Baylor in the first game, an 87-72 victory in Ames, Iowa, on Jan. 7. DeAndre Kane scored 30 points. The Cyclones beat the Bears up the floor and torched them from the 3-point line (10 for 25). They trapped Baylor's big men and forced 19 turnovers.
But things changed in Waco, Texas, on March 4. That's when Baylor just attacked the rim and threatened every shot inside the arc but only sent the Cyclones to the free throw line for two attempts. Isaiah Austin and Jefferson combined for four blocks. The Bears held Melvin Ejim and Niang to a combined 5-for-25 clip. That's the Baylor team that has whipped the Big 12 in recent weeks.
Whatever happens in Kansas City on Saturday night will be historic.
This is just Iowa State’s second appearance in the Big 12 tournament championship game. The Cyclones won the title in 2000. Baylor has appeared in the championship twice but never won it.
Whatever happens in Kansas City will also be scrappy. The Big 12 doesn't do it any other way.
The matchups in this league tend to leave a mark.
To the ‘bag:
Matt in Dallas writes: With news that Tech RB Kenny Williams is looking to move to OLB, will we be seeing Justin Stockton get carries as a true freshman in 2014?
Trotter: I have a hard time believing this move will stick. I suppose it’s possible Williams could help the Red Raiders in spots at outside linebacker next season. But I don’t believe it will come at the expense of his standing at running back. After Williams and DeAndre Washington, the Red Raiders aren’t exactly experienced at running back, either. Spring is the time for college football teams to experiment. For now, I don’t see this as anything more.
Trotter: The way I see it, the only player who can beat out Clint Trickett to start the season opener is juco transfer Skyler Howard. It’s pretty clear the offense responds better to Trickett than to Millard. But it’s not clear yet how the offense might respond to Howard. With a banner spring followed up with a banner preseason, Howard could warrant a hard look.
Trotter: We’re not to this point with Ash. Sure, the concussion issues might resurface. That’s certainly a possibility. But those issues might be behind him, too. This is something that will be resolved here over the next few months. Either way, Texas is a better team with a healthy Ash. Jerrod Heard and Swoopes have potential, but Ash is the only QB on the roster who has proven he can quarterback Texas to wins in hostile environments.
Trotter: There’s plenty to be excited about in Mahomes, who is a raw prospect for a quarterback that figures only to blossom in Kliff Kingsbury’s system. But Stidham is the No. 1 dual-threat QB recruit in the country for 2015 for a reason. Tech landed Stidham over Alabama, Auburn, Baylor, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon and Texas, among a host of many other suitors. In other words, snagging Stidham is the most significant recruiting victory for Texas Tech in a long, long time. Armed with Davis Webb, Mahomes and now Stidham, the Red Raiders are going to be very good at quarterback for the next several seasons.
Trotter: Poor Nick Saban. This is the second time this week he has gotten burned by someone from the metro Oklahoma City area.
Trotter: I agree. I actually think the defense is good enough for Kansas to win two or three games in the league. The Jayhawks are actually pretty solid and experienced at linebacker and in the secondary. But the Achilles' heel has been receiver, which has been an utter disaster since Dezmon Briscoe and Kerry Meier left. There is reason for hope, however, things could be better in 2014. Nick Harwell was an all-conference player at Miami (Ohio) before transferring in. If he can become a viable No. 1 option at Kansas, too, that will go a long way in the Jayhawks scoring more points, and thus, being more competitive.
Trotter: I don’t think this is a bad idea at all. I would definitely watch.
Earlier this week, Texas announced its plan to explore the possibility of expanding Darrell K Royal Stadium with renovations of the south end zone. The school will study the feasibility of completing the south end zone with a focus on “revenue generation,” according to a UT release.
Any planned expansion of DKR is in preliminary stages, with funds needing to be raised, a budget finalized and a construction timeline cemented it can become reality. But if the south end zone renovation eventually comes to fruition, it could push the overall capacity of DKR above 115,000, surpassing Michigan Stadium to make it the largest college football stadium in the nation.
Surely you didn’t expect UT to sit back and watch Texas A&M grab the bragging rights of having the largest football stadium in Texas without a response?
At an initial glance, it might look like pride is dictating the school's decision-making. But a stadium upgrade would help ensure new coach Charlie Strong isn’t left behind when he hits the recruiting trail. And quality recruiting builds the foundation of success in college football.
Strong and Texas already have recruiting advantages galore as college football’s most profitable and richest program, but UT’s desire to pursue as many advantages as possible and expand its home stadium should pay off, both in the program’s bottom line and on the recruiting trail.
AUSTIN, Texas -- Five miles on Monday. Six miles on Tuesday. Then five, six and five to finish out the week.
This is the routine, the ritual, by which Charlie Strong abides: The daily morning jog. He wakes up around 4:30 a.m., laces up his sneakers and hits the pavement.
“I’ve got my route here,” he said. “There’s some really good routes around here.”
“That’s just a way to get my time for myself. I think you need to have time for yourself,” Strong said. “I don’t like to run with anyone. I’m not gonna run with anyone. I don’t want to talk. I just want to run and just let your mind kind of wander, let it go.”
On the chaotic mornings and the calm ones, the new leader of the Longhorns gets away from it all. He’d been doing this for years, embracing the calm before the new day’s storm.
“It’s just a sense of relief, you know, because you’re able to do your thinking and put your day together as you go on,” he said. “And not only do you think about that, you think about everything else, too.”
And that’s how he’ll continue to start his day as Strong continues to work toward giving Texas football the fresh start it desperately needed.
To appreciate the challenges Strong will face in his first year in burnt orange, understand that the first few honeymoon months haven’t exactly been a cakewalk.
Strong had 10 days to assemble his coaching staff. One day after his assistants were all on board, they hit the road to save and salvage the 2014 recruiting class they’d inherited.
“We just tried to keep the class together,” he said. “I know a couple might’ve slipped away from us, but just getting around to the different high schools for two weeks, I went non-stop.”
Strong hit Dallas, Abilene, East Texas, Houston, Beaumont, New Orleans and everything in between, racing to meet as many commits as possible and sway a few more to join him in Austin. There was no break after that class signed. Texas had to piece together its plans for the next batch of recruits and host two junior-day events in the weeks that followed.
One month after agreeing to leave Louisville for the bright lights and big opportunities of Texas, Strong was still living out of an on-campus hotel room and spending many of his days in rental cars and planes.
When he was in town, he joked that he’d spend most of his time in a staff conference room. No time to decorate the new office.
This week provided one of his few chances to exhale. Texas begins spring practices on March 18, and the grind to get there hasn’t let up. This is a day-by-day process, so you can see why he cares about starting those days off right.
Texas defensive coordinator Vance Bedford witnessed another daily routine during his years of coaching with Strong at Louisville.
“Charlie, every morning at 7 a.m., would call his two daughters and make sure they were up and ready to go to school,” Bedford said. “To me, that’s saying a whole lot about who he was as a man. He treats the players the same way. I can’t say that about a lot of guys I’ve worked for. He has that same attitude on the football field -- he’s going to coach them hard, but he cares about them as young men first.”
Getting Longhorns players prepared for their fresh start is just the first of Strong’s many challenges in 2014. The transformation is already underway, led by new strength coach Pat Moorer -- another Louisville import -- whose offseason training program is said to be infamously painful.
Meanwhile, Strong’s staff has spent weeks putting together their playbook. Plenty still needs to be sorted out in spring ball, most notably the decision on whether a 3-4 or a 4-3 base defense best suits the Texas talent they’ve inherited.
And there are holes to fill in the lineup, of course, with three longtime starters on the offensive line, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-America kicker/punter all gone.
At quarterback, David Ash missed 10 games with concussion issues and won’t take any hits in spring practice. He’ll need to learn the new scheme and get back to playing his best football quickly, or else landing USC transfer Max Wittek this spring is a must.
But that’s the easy stuff, the in-house issues that Strong has 15 spring practices and a long summer to address. What should consume just as much of his time is figuring out how to slow down Texas A&M in recruiting and Baylor, Oklahoma and the rest of the Big 12 on the field.
Again, this is just half the job. Strong has to find his comfort zone when it comes to the public demands of his new gig. Mack Brown played the politician better than anyone. That’s not exactly the game Strong wants to play.
He says a misconception exists that he doesn’t like dealing with media. Truth is, he doesn’t mind it. Strong’s first few news conferences have exceeded expectations. Still, managing expectations in Year 1 -- with fans, boosters and anyone else bleeding orange -- will get challenging as the year goes on. He’s well aware of that.
“I always say this: We’re like a political office,” Strong said. “You’re open to public scrutiny. Everybody’s got an answer about your job. Everybody can coach. I’m good with it. I’ll give ‘em a lesson if they need it, come on over here.”
Stack up all those demands, and it’s easy to see the pressure, though Strong said last month he isn’t sensing it yet. After all, he did sign up for all of this.
“I don’t think about it. If you prepare the right way, and preparation is the key, then it relieves all pressure,” he said. “That’s the key. You have to be prepared. You can’t just bounce out there with no agenda, no vision, not knowing what you want to go do.
“Why change? Keep doing what you’re doing. Just be yourself and keep doing what you were doing.”
Times like these require staying grounded. That’s where the daily routines help most. The job isn’t easy, but Strong is ready to build Texas back up one day -- and one run -- at a time.
Offensive returner ready to take next step: Hate to state the obvious here, but David Ash needs to take one big step in the right direction this spring. After playing in only three games last season because of concussion issues, Ash will be cleared for full practice participation and wear a green no-contact jersey. His return to the weight room this winter was encouraging, but he has a brand-new offense to master and has a new quarterbacks coach for the third straight season. He needs to get comfortable and confident once again this spring.
Redshirt freshman to watch: Plenty to choose from, but cornerback Antwuan Davis stands out. Former coach Mack Brown was very tempted to throw the freshman from Bastrop, Texas, on the field in 2013 but held off. Great measurables, track speed and a fiery competitiveness make Davis a second-year guy capable of fighting his way into a role in this secondary.
Most significant position battle: We outlined that in this post, but it’s worth repeating: kicker and punter. With consensus All-American and Lou Groza Award finalist Anthony Fera gone, Texas faces some big question marks at both spots. New special teams coach Chris Vaughn wants to see all his options in action and put each kicker and punter through pressure situations to see who comes out on top.
Key midterm enrollee: This is a shorter list than usual this year, as only three signees joined the program in January. But tight end Blake Whiteley will be the most interesting to watch. The Arizona Western Community College transfer has everything you’d want in the size department -- 6-foot-5, 245 pounds -- and was a 1,000-yard receiver during his high school days. Texas hasn't had a feared pass-catcher at that spot in a long time.
Question that could be answered: Which players can hang with the new brand of Texas football? That’s been the critical question throughout offseason workouts, and Strong and his staff will get much more definitive answers in the next month. Those who can keep up will stand out. Those who can’t might not be on the roster much longer. Expect some attrition after spring ball ends, as is often the case with new regimes.
Question that won’t be answered until fall: The quarterback job. It’s possible USC transfer Max Wittek does not reach a final decision on his destination until April or May, and freshman Jerrod Heard arrives not long after that. Both will make a run at the job (if Wittek chooses UT), and we won’t know where things stand with Ash’s long-term health until he starts taking hits again. He won’t see any in spring ball, that’s for sure. Texas coaches are excited about having Ash for two more seasons, but they’ll also put a high value on competition.
Isn't it about time we see more Pac-12 vs. SEC nonconference matchups in the regular season?
Texas A&M and UCLA certainly think so, as they've inked a home-and-home series for 2016 and 2017. UCLA will come to Kyle Field in 2016, and Texas A&M will return the visit to the Rose Bowl in 2017.
It's rare that we see a Pac-12-SEC matchup in the regular season and even rarer when they play home and home. LSU and Oregon met a few years back in Arlington, Texas, and Tennessee and Oregon just completed a home-and-home series.
But to see Texas A&M and UCLA going on the road to face each other is a refreshing sign, not to mention a sign of things to come in the College Football Playoff era. We're sure to see more of these types of matchups with strength of schedule being weighted so heavily by the selection committee.
Here's a look at some of the higher-profile nonconference games on tap the next few years involving SEC teams:
- Alabama vs. West Virginia, in Atlanta
- Ole Miss vs. Boise State, in Atlanta
- LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Houston, Texas
- Tennessee at Oklahoma
- Clemson at Georgia
- Arkansas at Texas Tech
- Auburn at Kansas State
- Alabama vs. Wisconsin, Arlington, Texas
- Texas A&M vs. Arizona State, in Houston, Texas
- Oklahoma at Tennessee
- South Carolina vs. North Carolina, in Charlotte, N.C.
- Auburn vs. Louisville, in Atlanta
- Texas Tech at Arkansas
- UCLA at Texas A&M
- Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech, in Bristol, Tenn.
- LSU vs. Wisconsin, in Green Bay, Wis.
- Texas A&M at UCLA
- Florida vs. Michigan, in Arlington, Texas
- Purdue at Missouri
- North Carolina State at LSU
- Georgia Tech at Ole Miss
The new College Football Playoff is supposed to encourage schools to schedule better nonconference games, as teams try to beef up their schedule strength to earn one of the playoff’s coveted four spots at season’s end.
On Thursday, Texas A&M and UCLA announced that they’ll play each other during the 2016 and 2017 seasons.
Other schools have announced future marquee nonconference opponents, including Texas A&M vs. USC, Notre Dame vs. Texas, Alabama vs. Michigan State and LSU vs. Oklahoma.
Here are five other nonconference games I’d like to see in the future:
When Meyer was still coaching at Florida, the Crimson Tide and Gators played in two of the most anticipated SEC championship games. The No. 2 Gators beat the No. 1 Tide 31-20 in 2008, and then the Tide turned the tables on No. 1 UF with a 32-13 win in 2009.
Alabama and Ohio State have played only three times in history, with the Tide winning each time, most recently in a 24-17 victory in the 1995 Citrus Bowl.
2. Texas vs. Texas A&M: Perhaps the biggest casualty in conference realignment, Texas and Texas A&M haven’t played each other since the Aggies bolted the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Sadly, there are no plans for the in-state rivals to play again in future regular seasons.
The Aggies and Longhorns played each other 118 times from 1894 to 2011, with their annual meeting traditionally being played on Thanksgiving Day. UT won nearly twice as many games as the Aggies (76-37-5), including nine of the last 12 meetings.
With former Louisville coach Charlie Strong taking over at Texas, and Kevin Sumlin building the Aggies into an SEC powerhouse, the game would also pit two of the sport’s best African-American coaches against each other.
3. Oregon vs. Baylor: Two of the game’s most explosive offenses -- and two of its best-dressed teams -- would undoubtedly light up the scoreboard if they ever played. In fact, the contest would probably look more like a track meet.
Under coach Art Briles, the Bears have become the Ducks of the Southwest, with their hurry-up, spread offense and myriad flashy uniforms closely resembling what Chip Kelly and then Mark Helfrich built at Oregon. The Bears and Ducks follow the same blueprint on offense: play fast and score fast.
We hoped to see this matchup in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl last season, but alas, it didn’t happen. Oregon and Baylor have never met on the gridiron.
4. Michigan vs. USC: Two of the sport’s traditional heavyweights have faced each other eight times in the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Vizio, but only twice during the regular season -- in 1957 and 1958.
The Trojans won the last three meetings in the Rose Bowl, 32-18 in 2007, 28-14 in 2004 and 17-10 in 1990. USC has won six of the past seven meetings overall and holds a 6-4 advantage all-time.
We might have seen this matchup during the regular season if a Big Ten/Pac-12 scheduling partnership hadn’t fallen apart in 2012.
5. Georgia vs. Florida State: UGA coach Mark Richt was a longtime assistant under legendary FSU coach Bobby Bowden before taking over the Bulldogs, and he recently poached defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt off the Seminoles’ staff.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles go head-to-head for a lot of recruits every year, and Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher upgraded his roster by effectively recruiting South Georgia and Atlanta.
The Bulldogs and Seminoles have played 11 times and only once since 1984 -- UGA defeated FSU 26-13 in the 2003 Sugar Bowl. Georgia leads the all-time series, 6-4-1.
A vacant sign would be the best representation of the Sooners backup quarterback spot with Blake Bell's move to tight end and Kendal Thompson's decision to transfer to Utah.
“It’s opened that window of opportunity for him to get those reps, and I’m sure it will be the most a guy like that’s been able to get [at OU],” head coach Bob Stoops said. “But watching Justice work out, he fits the part of being here and belonging, so we’ll be excited to get him those snaps and seeing how he does.”
Questions about Thomas tend to revolve around his ability to juggle his football and baseball duties. He was solid while running the scout team last fall but will have to manage his time well to excel behind center this spring.
“Coach Pete [Hughes] and Josh [Heupel], they’ve already communicated really well through the winter,” Stoops said. “We want him to have success at both and I know they want him to have it too. So we’ll do the best we can to manage it. So far, it hasn’t been a problem.”
Three practices into the spring, the Sooners feel positive about the progress of Hansen and Thomas alongside Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield, who is ineligible to play this fall but has already made a strong impression in crimson and cream.
“Justice being here, Cody being involved in spring practice, those guys have done a lot of good things,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “They’ve taken their understanding to a new level and [are] spreading the ball around. We’re going to need more than one quarterback to play well for us to win games. Those guys have made some good strides in three days.”
No battle for a backup spot on the depth chart is more important in Norman, Okla., this spring. The nightmare scenario for the Sooners would be watching an injury to Knight derail what could have been a national title run in the fall.
“It’ll be a big part our team’s success, is those guys coming around and getting a really good and consistent feel of what we want them to do at the quarterback position,” Stoops said. “It’ll really important that we do a good job with them and make sure they work hard in the spring.”
- The Des Moines Register's Tommy Birch answers five burning questions about Iowa State this spring.
- Texas Tech running Kenny Williams is playing both ways this spring, reports the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Don Williams. Redshirt freshman Josh Outlaw has been moved from guard to tackle this spring.
- Oklahoma State's Tyreek Hill chose the Cowboys because he could play football and run track, according to this profile by The Oklahoman's Cody Stavehagen.
- Ex-Oklahoma running back Roy Finch showed scouts he can be an NFL player by running a 4.44 time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day, the Oklahoman's Jason Kersey reports. Damien Williams has no hard feelings with the Sooners after being kicked off the team late last season. Williams was allowed to run in OU's pro day. Former OU cornerback Aaron Colvin, who tore his ACL at the Senior Bowl, is hoping to be sprinting again by April 23.
- Former Oklahoma State linebacker Shaun Lewis is ready to make an impression at his pro day, The Oklahoman's John Helsley writes.
- The Dallas Morning News' Rick Gosselin says former TCU QB Casey Pachall has as much mental toughness as any QB in the draft.
Assistant head coach/defensive line
Rumph must get this question a lot: What’s it like at Alabama?
Actually, the inquiry probably sounds more like this: No, what’s it really like at Alabama?
And it’s probably safe to say he gets lots of questions about Nick Saban, too.
“He has a method to his madness and you can’t knock it,” Rumph said. “Whatever you want to say about it, you can’t knock it. Because it works.”
What’s the secret to Bama’s success? This will sound cliché, of course, but Rumph believes much of what makes the difference comes down to two big things: Accountability and attention to detail.
At Alabama, those are the core standards. At Texas, it’s a must if you want to play for Rumph.
“If I tell you that you need to walk one mile,” Rumph said, “and you walk a half mile, I’ve got issues with that. I think that’s the difference for some programs.
“We say get behind the line. Everybody better be behind the line. We say run 10 yards. You better run 10 yards. Not eight, not nine. A lot of places that aren’t successful are that nine yards, that ‘He ran hard but he only ran nine yards, he didn’t run 10 yards.’ I see the same thing here. We tell those guys it’s attention to detail. It’s about the little things, about doing your job.”
It’s like a dam, he says. All it takes is one little crack that goes overlooked and, over time, the dam busts.
Crimson Tide players had to be dedicated to doing things the right way every single time. When you do a squat in the weight room, Rumph said, it better be the best squat ever. You better dominate that squat, and then do it again. That’s how you build toward big things.
“Stop being so result-oriented,” Rumph said. “I tell my guys, don’t worry about making 10 sacks. Don’t worry about 20 sacks. Just the process to get there.”
Even with Alabama’s gigantic turnaround under Saban, Rumph proudly says Texas is the “best university in the universe.” How quickly the Longhorns regain their national prestige will depend on how quickly the players buy into what Rumph and the coaches are demanding.
As he put it: “We want to make the most feared statement in college football: ‘We play Texas next.’”
Defensive backs/special teams
When you dedicate eight years of your career to being a recruiting coordinator in the SEC, you learn a few things along the way.
Four years of those duties at Arkansas and four more at Ole Miss gave Vaughn a wealth of knowledge about how to win a kid over. The key, he says, is knowing that convincing the recruit is a small piece of the pie.
Recruiting is a game of relationships, a lesson that Vaughn learned over and over and was reinforced by his 13 years of working with former head coach Houston Nutt.
“We all sound like car salesmen, of course, because we want to sell our university and what we believe in,” Vaughn said. “But it’s the mom and dad, the grandmother, the uncle, that when all the schools come in, they see through what’s on the side of the helmet or what type of shoes you’re wearing or the people sitting in the stadium.
“They just want to know somebody is going to take care of their baby. I think that’s one thing I really learned from Houston: You’ve got to build relationships with the family. At the end of the day, that young man is going to ask a family member close to them, ‘What do you think?’”
Vaughn, who will recruit southeast Texas and Louisiana for Texas, has ties all over the South from his past gigs. Those should pay dividends in the instances when the Longhorns staff looks outside the state for talent.
One talent Vaughn always likes to see when he’s out evaluating recruits: Wrestlers.
Back in his days at Godby High in Tallahassee, Fla., Vaughn was runner-up in the state wrestling championship. He was an undersized 195-pounder in the 220-pound class, and he didn’t lose often.
“If a guy is a good wrestler, as a football player, that carries a little weight with me,” he said. “If he’s good, I know he’s dedicated, know he’s a hard worker, know he loves to compete and doing the little things are important to him.”
And when it comes to recruiting, those little things can make all the difference.
As a result, Petty will go into his senior season as the clear-cut favorite to repeat.
But is there anyone else in the league capable of threatening his reign?
That receiver -- Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett -- could become Petty’s biggest challenger, especially if the Wildcats emerge as contenders for the Big 12 title. Despite missing two games because of injury, Lockett finished third in the conference in receiving yards (1,262) and receptions (81) last season. He led the league in receiving yards per game and became virtually uncoverable late in the season, when quarterback Jake Waters also found his passing stride. Lockett torched Oklahoma for 278 receiving yards and three touchdowns, then hauled in another three touchdowns two games later in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against Michigan.
Lockett, however, isn’t the only player who could push for the award, especially if quarterbacks Trevor Knight and Davis Webb build on the way they played at the end of their freshman seasons.
In the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Knight shredded two-time defending national champ Alabama while leading Oklahoma to a stunning 45-31 victory. Knight threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns and finally performed the way the Sooners thought he would when he beat out favorite Blake Bell for the starting job before the season.
Webb was just as impressive in Texas Tech's victory over double-digit favorite Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Webb completed 28 of 41 passes and threw for four touchdowns, tying a Holiday Bowl record. He finished with the league’s third-best Adjusted QBR behind Petty and second-team All-Big 12 performer Clint Chelf.
The league’s top five rushers from last season are out of eligibility. But after taking over for injured starter Johnathan Gray, Texas' Malcolm Brown showed he could be a reliable workhorse running back able to move the chains. In his final three games last season, Brown rushed for 128, 131 and 130 yards. With Gray’s health in question as he attempts to return from a ruptured Achilles' tendon, Brown could open the 2014 season as the primary back again.
In addition to Petty, Baylor has two other big-time playmakers coming back in receiver Antwan Goodley, who led the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns last season with 13, and running back Shock Linwood, who was sixth in the Big 12 in rushing in 2013 with 881 yards despite being Baylor’s third-team running back.
There are several dark horses to watch as well, including Gray, Oklahoma running back Keith Ford and West Virginia running back Rushel Shell.
But we put the question to you via a poll: Who is the biggest threat to Petty repeating as Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year?
Fans and recruits could circle the date on their calendars, young players and new coaches saw it as the first opportunity to make a lasting impression.
This spring, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy raised eyebrows when the Cowboys announced their “Orange Blitz” open practice session would replace their traditional Orange-White spring game. TCU has rarely held a traditional spring game under Gary Patterson, with the Horned Frogs preferring intra-squad scrimmages.
Patterson values the opportunity to watch other team’s spring games on television but refuses to give other coaches that advantage over his team and doesn’t view the event as essential for the Horned Frogs program. TCU has not finalized its plan for this spring, but a traditional spring game seems unlikely.
Although his program normally holds an event, OSU opened the spring with a young, battered roster, which was the main reason for Gundy’s decision to shun a spring game this year. For Gundy, engaging fans with a spring game had to take a backseat to the overall development of the young players in the program during the 15 practices the Cowboys will hold in March and April.
“At some point I have to make a decision based on what's best for our team first and then our fans and people that follow us second,” Gundy said earlier this week.
Other Big 12 coaches point to health concerns as obstacles to holding a traditional spring game featuring two separate squads.
“Spring games are always a trying time due to depth at certain positions,” said Kansas coach Charlie Weis, who will hold KU’s spring game on April 12. “Concern for injuries is always an issue, not being able to field two entire competitive teams is a problem.”
Postponing the spring game can become a real option, particularly after losing a large class of seniors off the roster thus crippling the overall depth of the program until February signees arrive in the summer. Quarterbacks end up switching teams in the middle of the game, a lack of available linemen waters down the quality of the action and fears of a season-changing injury can cloud these spring finales.
“Everyone says, ‘Well I would love to have a draft and have my guys go on each side of the ball,’” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “You can’t, you don’t have the personnel. Sometimes you have so many injuries or you may be thin that you can’t afford to have a spring game and get somebody hurt. Some other years, when we are a little bit down, I don’t want to take a chance on it. It is all great until someone gets hurt and blows a knee out, and then it is, ‘Why did I do that?’”
The Sooners are one of the Big 12 programs that are all-in on the spring game, selling tickets to the event, televising the action and creating a game-like atmosphere at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. But even OU dumbs down the efficiency of the actual football in the game, sitting starters and simplifying schemesto avoid lurkers, such as Patterson, who are aiming to gain useful tidbits on the Sooners that they can use in the fall.
Even with all those drawbacks, the spring game remains valuable for the majority of the conference, with several Big 12 coaches pointing toward the game-like atmosphere, not to mention the recruiting value, of the traditional spring game as assets too useful to ignore.
“I think it's great for the fans,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “You only get six home games in the regular season, sometimes we only get five some years. So to have another game at Jones Stadium so that everyone can come back and tailgate, have some festivities, I think it's great for the university and great for the fan base. And I like to see our players when the lights come on. Anybody can do it in practice, but when the lights come on and there's some pressure and people are watching, let's see how you perform."
Kansas State won’t kick off its spring drills until April 2 but will hold its spring game on April 26. Head coach Bill Snyder believes the tradition of the spring game outweighs any cons.
“The positive attributes of having a spring game for us include tradition, for our young people and our fan base, the benefits it provides our local community and the experience our players get by playing in front of a large crowd,” he said.
Charlie Strong is convinced his team can still get quality work done with a traditional spring game. The Longhorns will hold their version on April 19, with UT’s new head coach convinced it will be just another day for his players to get better.
“The most important thing is that the spring game is another opportunity to get out on the field and coach your team,” Strong said. “It's another practice, more reps and more video to look at as you get ready for the season. It is the final spring practice and having a chance to go in the stadium with a great crowd gives you an opportunity to see how the team responds to that as well."
Realistically, while opinions about the spring game vary when it comes to its value in terms of developing the current roster for the upcoming season, its recruiting value cannot be understated. There is no better spring event to put all the positives of the program on full display and intrigue potential recruits to make a special trip to campus.
“When you can bring players in and see people in the stands cheering and excited, it really helps,” Kingsbury said.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Texas A&M has only had a week's worth of spring practice. There are still many months to come until the Aggies are even close to naming a starting quarterback, but the battle to become the next signal-caller in Aggieland is in full swing.
How did it look after five practices?
"I've seen a bunch of guys that are pretty good," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "There's a great competition."
Each of the three candidates -- senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen -- have been able to rotate turns working with the first team throughout the early practices and each have made progress, according to Sumlin.
"Kenny is a lot more focused right now and is doing some good things. The young guy [Allen] has come in and is making strides every day. You don't expect him to be where those guys are at this point."
While each has their strengths, you won't find any with the scrambling ability that their predecessor, Johnny Manziel, had. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner's elusiveness separated him from other quarterbacks. Joeckel, Hill and Allen better resemble the prototype that fits the offense Sumlin and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital have spent the last six years working in.
"These types of quarterbacks that we have here are similar to what I had at West Virginia and Oklahoma State, and you've just got to utilize their strengths and take advantage of what they do best," Spavital said. "They're obviously probably going to be more pocket-passer guys, but I think some of them are mobile enough to maybe get some things out there on the perimeter."
Each quarterback is at a different stage in terms of how much of the offense they've been given, Sumlin said. For Joeckel and Hill, that's an advantage. For Allen, who has been on campus since January as an early enrollee who signed with the 2014 recruiting class, inexperience is the primary hurdle right now.
"He's got to learn the offense," Sumlin said of Allen. "We have to put him in a position where he can be successful with not giving him the whole menu and letting him play in a style that benefits him and where he's comfortable. Realistically, Matt should have everything. Kenny should have a little less than everything and [Allen] should have a lot less than both those guys at this point. We're a third of the way through [spring]. He shouldn't have everything. He'll get more and more as we go and we'll be able to assess a little bit more. After five practices I think all of those guys are right where you thought they'd be."
This week, as the Cowboys opened up spring drills, Gundy explained why he chose to hold an “Orange Blitz” open practice for the public instead of the “Orange-White” spring game.
“We need to practice. We need that practice,” Gundy said. “We’re a young football team and there’s not a lot of maturity. So we think it’s best for our team and I think it’s best for the fans, and that’s why we established at an early stage what we want to do.”
Oklahoma State will also be without several key players recovering from injury, including offensive tackles Devin Davis (knee) and Brandon Garrett (leg) and running back Desmond Roland (shoulder).
“We have a number of players that won’t be with us from an injury standpoint,” Gundy said. “Some of them because medically we don’t feel they’re ready. Others, I don’t want to push it in the spring.
"In a spring game you have to divide teams up and you got to almost have two-deep on each team before you start switching jerseys, and it becomes an unattractive game for the fans. So I thought it would be best for us to have another practice, and also give our fans a better opportunity to see the things they want to see -- the young quarterbacks, the running backs, some young receivers, those linebackers that are young, the junior college transfers. That setting, in our opinion, is better than a watered-down spring game."
On top of the injuries, the Cowboys will field one of the youngest teams in the Big 12, if not the country, next season. According to ESPN Insider Phil Steele, Utah State is the only FBS program with fewer returning starters than the Cowboys, who bring back just nine total starters.
“We’re young in areas and a little bit limited to open things up in the spring from a play standpoint,” Gundy said. “We have a lot work ahead of us just to play catch up.”
All told, coming off a 10-3 season, Oklahoma State faces the enormous task of replacing its starting quarterback in Clint Chelf; its top three receivers in Stewart, Tracy Moore and Charlie Moore; and all six of its all-conference defenders in linemen Calvin Barnett and Tyler Johnson, linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, and defensive backs Justin Gilbert and Daytawion Lowe.
“What that means is we have a lot of young players we have to bring along in the next few weeks,” Gundy said. “But we also have to be a little careful how we handle them from a rep standpoint, and bring them along slowly. And we need every practice we can get.
"Oklahoma State is fine. We're fine. We just have a lot of young players."
- Texas will conduct a study examining the potential completion of south end zone of Darrell K Royal-Memorial Stadium. In other words, the Longhorns may be aiming to take back Texas A&M's title of "biggest stadium in Texas."
- Four anonymous Texas high school coaches ranked Baylor ahead of Texas in the pecking order of the state's best college football programs.
- Kansas is bringing back the spread under new offensive coordinator John Reagan, writes the Topeka Capital-Journal's Jeff Deters.
- Coach Paul Rhoads is raring to get going with his new Iowa State coaching faces after a "crazy" offseason, writes the Des Moines Register's Tommy Birch. Spring ball has allowed the Cyclones to move on from a rough 2013 season, according to the Ames Tribune's Bobby La Gesse.
- Texas Tech Kliff Kingsbury said with a guaranteed 10-year contract, he'd never punt again. Red Raiders defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt gives the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal's Don Williams five players who have caught his eye so far this spring.
- The Oklahoma State coaches have begun the rebuilding process after being decimated by graduation, writes the Oklahoman's John Helsley. The Cowboys added several junior-college kickers to the roster, reports the Tulsa World's Kelly Hines.
- Former Oklahoma linebacker Corey Nelson tells The Oklahoman's Jason Kersey that he's 100 percent after suffering torn pectoral last season. OU's pro day was this morning. Kersey also caught up with former Sooner QB Drew Allen, who is also hoping to get a shot in the NFL.
- Former TCU cornerback Jason Verrett could be a value pick for the Dallas Cowboys if Verrett's shoulder injury causes him to drop in the draft, according to Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com. The Cowboys were at Verrett's pro day at TCU last week.
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