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.
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."
There is plenty at stake when these 6-6 teams square off at Houston's NRG Stadium on Monday night. Pretty simple, really: One team goes home with a winning record, the other doesn't. Which team will embrace the momentum-building moment?
ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf and Max Olson break down the matchup.
How Arkansas can control the game: Run the ball and control the clock. This has been Arkansas’ strength all season. The Razorbacks have 14 touchdown drives of five minutes or longer, second most in the FBS behind only Georgia Tech. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each have more than 1,000 yards rushing. No other FBS team can say that. When the Razorbacks are gashing the opponent on the ground, they are hard to stop. -- Ostendorf
How Texas can control the game: Charlie Strong wins games with his stout defense, and when this group forces turnovers it can be awfully tough to beat. Texas had the Big 12's No. 1 total defense and pass defense, and the pressure that Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Cedric Reed get up front ought to make running the ball a challenge at times. It's a bend-don't-break defense that will keep this game relatively low-scoring. -- Olson
Arkansas' X-factor: Trey Flowers has been a quarterback’s nightmare this season. The senior defensive end has 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries. When he’s not chasing him down, he’s batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. He has been the heart and soul of an Arkansas defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game in the month of November, and this will be his final game in a Razorbacks’ uniform. -- Ostendorf
Texas' X-factor: The play of Tyrone Swoopes, obviously. His five-turnover showing against TCU gave the Longhorns no shot and raised doubts among the fan base about whether he's "the guy" for the future. Swoopes can kill those questions with a bounce-back showing. He had one of the finest performances of his career (305 yards, two TDs, 72 percent passing) against Oklahoma State right before facing the Frogs. Can he bring his best against the Hogs? -- Olson
What a win would mean for the Razorbacks: The rebuilding process at Arkansas took a big step this season under second-year coach Bret Bielema. The Hogs won an SEC game, nearly knocked off the eventual conference champion, and now they are playing in a bowl game. A win could propel them into next season and validate them as a contender in 2015. -- Ostendorf
What a win would mean for Texas: The Longhorns got their recruiting momentum rolling last week with a commitment from elite linebacker Malik Jefferson. This 'W' can get the rest of the program rolling. An important win would aid an important offseason for growth, and the Horns badly need to move past the buzzkill of getting beat up by TCU. -- Olson
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.
“If you can get that, you can win,” Strong said. “When you get the two 1,000-yard rushers, you know you're a physical football team and you're running the ball. It is all about ball control.”
Arkansas is in Year 2 of the Bret Bielema project, with the former Wisconsin head coach’s blueprint starting to see dividends with a bowl appearance, a pair of shutouts in Arkansas’ final three games, and one of the SEC’s best running games serving as the foundation. Johnathan Williams (1,085 rushing yards) and Alex Collins (1,024 rushing yards) have paced the SEC’s No.4-ranked running game heading into the meeting with its former Southwest Conference foe.
While Strong’s plan is different than Bielema’s blueprint, the similarities are stark. In an era of high-scoring offenses, big plays and offensive fireworks, Strong and Bielema aim to build around physical, running offenses that can control the game along with tough, versatile defenses than can adapt to the flurry of different styles present on any given Saturday.
UT wants to be known for its toughness, with a physical running gameone of the clearest signs of a team’s physicality. The Longhorns have a long way to go, averaging 146.67 rushing yards per game in 2014. UT averaged 176.33 rushing yards per game in its six wins and 121 rushing yards per game in six losses, including three games of less than 100 rushing yards.
“[We] could have played a lot better than what we played,” Strong said. “We lose six games, [that] would never be a standard here. We could have played a lot better at times than what we did. I think about those close games we were in.”
It’s a similarity Strong’s team shares with Arkansas, another sign both blueprints are starting to work despite being in the infant stages of their instillation. Both teams lost six games but can look back at the regular season and see an eight- or nine-win season just outside their grasp. The Longhorns can look back at games against UCLA, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma as opportunities left on the table. The Razorbacks can look back at losses to Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri and say the same.
“I think it's a really good football team,” Strong said. “But, at the right time, they didn't win those close games.”
Strong was talking about his opponent but might as well have been talking about his own squad. Many people point to the dismissals and departures that followed Strong’s installation of his rules as the culprit in the .500 season.
“It had nothing to do with the guys who we didn't have,” Strong said. “You're going to win with the ones you have and not with the ones you don't have. So with a lot of those players not being with us, playing with what we had, we were good enough. We just didn't play well. We didn't play well at the right time.”
Change didn’t come, but it was needed. UT took some lumps early this season with the hopes of a later payoff. That came in the form of three wins in the Longhorns’ final four games to secure bowl eligibility.
“I think that we needed him,” offensive lineman Sedrick Flowers said of his coach. “He came in here, and he's made us all humble ourselves. I know when I first got here, I wouldn't say I was an arrogant person, but in the program there was some arrogance. There were some players that were entitled, and he came in here and just took that all away. Everybody is on the same level. We all just want to work and get a championship.”
The foundation has been set, but the concrete is still drying. The will to have a physical running game is apparent, but UT’s 3.91 yards per carry, ranking No. 85 among FBS teams, is not the standard that will lead to championships or make anyone envious.
“Physicality is what we pride ourselves on,” tight end Geoff Swaim said. “Anytime you can impose your will on another team, it makes your job easier, makes the defense's job easier. I don't really get into the whole run/pass, all that kind of stuff. It's more about who can be more physical, who can do their job the best and which team is tougher.
“That's what we want to be and that's who we strive to be. It's a growing process. It's never something you just say this is who you are and it just becomes that. That develops and that develops; not only this year, but it'll develop next year and it'll just keep growing.”
Here's what happened last week on the recruiting trail in the Big 12:
Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 4
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 23rd
The latest: Jarrett Stidham, No. 39 in the ESPN 300 and the nation's No. 3-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect, gave his pledge to Baylor over Oregon on Friday. An Under Armour All-America Game selection, Stidham decommitted from Texas Tech on Dec. 13, just a couple weeks before he was scheduled to enroll with the Red Raiders. Stidham instead will enroll early at Baylor and vie immediately to become Bryce Petty's replacement as the Bears' next starting quarterback.
Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Just a little more than a week after getting a commitment from ESPN JC50 DT Demond Tucker, the Cyclones closed the deal by signing him Wednesday. Tucker should help shore up an Iowa State defense than ranked 122nd nationally in stopping the run. The Cyclones also picked up juco CB Jomal Wiltz last week. Wiltz was considering Cal, as well.
Total commits: 21
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Shortly after grabbing four high school players out of the Metroplex, new coach David Beaty signed a Big 12-high seven juco players on Wednesday. Three of those committed last week, including running back Ke'aun Kinner, cornerback Brandon Stewart and guard Jayson Rhodes.
Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Alex Delton, a three-star dual-threat QB out of Hays, Kansas, remains on track to enroll early in Manhattan and contend this spring for the starting quarterback job that will turn vacant after Jake Waters graduates. The Wildcats also dipped in the Lone Star State last week to add a pledge from Flower Mound offensive tackle Evan Curl.
Total commits: 17
ESPN 300 commits: 7
ESPN JC50 commits: 3
Class rank: 20th
The latest: Like Red River rival Texas, Oklahoma had a big Friday, adding ESPN 300 DE Ricky DeBerry out of Virginia, and four-star safety Kahlil Haughton out of Waco. The Sooners lost a commitment from three-star DE Tyrell Jacobs over the weekend, but they remain in the hunt for ESPN 300 inside linebacker Anthony Wheeler.
Total commits: 17
ESPN 300 commits: 2
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 33rd
The latest: The Cowboys made efforts to shore up their offensive line in signing juco tackle Brandon Pertile , who picked Oklahoma State over Florida. The Pokes also added a key FBS offensive tackle transfer in Victor Salako, who started for UAB last year, and will be eligible immediately since UAB shut down its football program.
Total commits: 22
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: 36th
The latest: The Horned Frogs are positioned well to land five-star DT Daylon Mack, who decommitted from Texas A&M on Friday. Mack released his new top two on Twitter, and TCU made the cut with LSU. Reeling in Mack would pin the exclamation point on an otherwise solid TCU class.
Total commits: 22
ESPN 300 commits: 9
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 11th
The latest: After a few shaky weeks on the recruiting trail, the Longhorns had a monster Friday, snagging a commitment from ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson, who is the No. 5 overall prospect in state. The same morning, Texas also added Jefferson's high school teammate four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal. Charlie Strong's defensive class could get even stronger if DT Daylon Mack and ESPN 300 CB Kris Boyd end up in Austin. Mack is slated to take an official visit to Texas on Jan. 23. Boyd is planning to announce his decision on Christmas day.
Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 4
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: 29th
The latest: After losing Stidham, Texas Tech's QB predicament took another hit when Waco Midway's Ben Hicks picked SMU days after Tech offered. The Red Raiders want to add a QB in this class, but they're running out of viable high school options. Signing a juco QB could be the answer. Tech has a successful week otherwise, picking up pledges from three-star safeties Darreon Jackson and Christian Taylor, three-star WR Tony Brown and DE Lonzell Gilmore.
Total commits: 24
ESPN 300 commits: 3
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 24th
The latest: The Mountaineers batted .500 last week on ESPN JC50 prospects. Thursday, they missed on WR Isaac Whitney, who chose USC instead. But the day before, West Virginia picked up Rasul Douglas, the nation's No. 3 juco CB. Assuming All-Big 12 strong safety Karl Joseph stays at West Virginia for his senior year, the Mountaineers could boast a formidable secondary in 2015 with Douglas, Joseph, freshman All-American free safety Dravon Henry and cornerback Daryl Worley.
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.
I have decomitted from Texas A&M and I will be releasing my top two schools around noon Saturday!— THEE MACK TRUCK (@DaylonMack) December 19, 2014
Just minutes ago, Mack followed through on his Friday tweet, releasing his top two teams.
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MESQUITE, Texas -- Three crazy days, Mike Jefferson says. That's how his brother got here. In truth, it wasn't that long.
Malik Jefferson's decision to commit to Texas was reached in just a few hours on Wednesday. Three crucial conversations that night convinced the state's most coveted recruit where he was going.
The first one: The Jeffersons' long-awaited family meeting. Going into that talk, Mesquite Poteet's ESPN 300 star insists he wasn't seriously leaning toward any of his three finalists. But he wanted to get this done. He needed clarity.
The talk was neither brief nor easy. The arguments were impassioned, the voices at times raised. Malik knew the family debate, while vitally important to his process, wasn't going to be pretty at times.
"Everything was kind of intense," father Michael Jefferson Sr. said. "Very intense."
He and wife Teresa insisted throughout that Malik needed to appreciate the big-picture pros of Texas. They were all-in on the disciplined culture Strong is cultivating, as well as the value of a degree from Texas for the rest of his post-football life.
"We butted heads a little bit," Malik said Friday following his commitment ceremony. "I just had to understand what my parents were telling me."
UCLA, the family agreed, was ultimately just too far away. Texas A&M, his father argued, offered too much uncertainty, starting with its still-unresolved defensive coordinator vacancy. Malik was still on the fence about those concerns.
The biggest factor tugging him to become an Aggie? His friendships with Kyler Murray, Christian Kirk, now-former pledges Daylon Mack and Damarkus Lodge, and several other leaders of the A&M recruiting class.
"I wanted to play with those guys so bad, my gosh," Malik said. "Those are my brothers. We talked every day."
Though he agreed with the case his parents and brother Mike made for Texas, Malik felt he had to give A&M one last shot. So once the tense family discussions wrapped up, he called Kevin Sumlin.
The linebacker wants to keep the contents of that conversation to himself, out of respect for a coach he's admired throughout this two-year process. Simply put, Malik says, the conversation did not go well. He needed to know who his coordinator and position coach would be. That question couldn't be answered.
"Malik is very emotionally invested in things," Mike Jefferson said. "When he feels betrayed in any type of way, you're setting yourself up for failure. I think A&M not contacting him about the defensive coordinator had a major influence."
He moved on. Texas seemed like his best and most logical option, but Malik still needed a little more convincing. So, late Wednesday night, he went over to DeAndre McNeal's house.
The four-star receiver had quietly made up his mind earlier in the week. In fact, he'd been leaning toward Texas ever since attending the Red River Showdown game in October.
But he played coy when Malik showed up, pretending to care more about the pepperoni pizza he was eating.
"What are we going to do?" Jefferson asked.
McNeal says he elected to answer that by singing: "The stars at night are big and bright/deep in the heart of Texas."
"When I said that, he jumped out of his chair and shouted, 'Is that what what you're thinking? Heck yeah!' We went berserk," McNeal said. "He actually broke the chair. My mom got on him about that."
"I didn't think he would say that," Jefferson confessed. "It was a great surprise."
Malik went home, prayed and slept on his choice. In the morning, his mother wanted to know if he'd made up his mind. So he decided to surprise her: he walked up to her and held up a Texas banner.
Later that day, McNeal called Strong to deliver the good news.
"He jumped out of his seat and threw a block party on the 40 Acres," McNeal joked.
Jefferson, at last, had found closure in a thrilling but exhausting recruitment. And Strong had his first gigantic recruiting victory as a Longhorn.
"The No. 1 player in Texas chooses a 6-6 school?" Michael Jefferson Sr. said. "Why did he choose a 6-6 school? It's because of the coach, because of the leadership."
But it was the family and the best friend that sealed the deal.
On to the 'bag:
@Jake_Trotter who would be your Top 5 in Big12 football going into next year?— Chuck (@cbilly126) December 19, 2014
@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.
@Jake_Trotter are we any closer to adding 2 more teams and a championship game?— Dwayne Chamberlain (@dtchamberlain) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter when will BYU will be invited possibly?— Martin borg (@Martyaborg) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter will DGB come back to OU or leave for the NFL?— Jon Greene (@JonGreene9) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter for 2015, best guess starting QB at WVU next year and Rushell Shell, plus or minus 1,000 yards rushing?— Bryan Shaw (@BGoGolf) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter which bowl wins would do the most to amp up the Big12's national perception? Top-tier, middle-tier, or low-tier?— Diego De Valdenebro (@Diegobear) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter what does Stidham committing to Baylor mean for Chad President? Does he open his commitment back up?— Jim Bell (@Bell4Jim) December 19, 2014
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."
@Jake_Trotter who is starting at quarterback for Baylor next year?— Nate Earl (@nate_earl) December 19, 2014
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.
@Jake_Trotter do you think K-State will have to fight those Oklahoma schools for Lockett's younger brothers?— Matt 'Emaw' Stafford (@mstaffrd) December 19, 2014
Trotter: No. Kansas State has first dibs on any Lockett from now until the end of time.
@jake_trotter Who is taller: Art Briles or Paul Rhoads?— Drew (@Dlew56) December 19, 2014
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..
“We Run This State”? Not today.
Texas won a critical head-to-head recruiting battle over Texas A&M on Friday morning when a pair of Mesquite (Texas) Poteet High teammates, ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal, announced that they’re Austin-bound.
Jefferson, the No. 35 player in the country, was a priority recruit for the Aggies, while landing McNeal -- who would have likely projected to receiver, a talent-rich position at A&M -- would have been a bonus. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jefferson was the one that Sumlin and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have spent nearly two years developing a relationship with and pinning their hopes on as a game-changer at a position of need: linebacker.
The Aggies offered Jefferson a scholarship 632 days ago. Over that time, as Texas A&M’s defense struggled and Jefferson’s profile rose, the need to land him increased. What’s worse for A&M is that the Aggies seemed in prime position to do so only to lose momentum in the final days of the recruitment for myriad reasons, but none more glaring than the fact that Sumlin has yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mark Snyder, whom he fired on Nov. 28. Jefferson stated as much in talking about the final weeks of his recruitment.
The famed maroon helicopter Sumlin once touted as “undefeated”? No more.
Sumlin took said helicopter to Rockwall, Texas, to watch Jefferson and McNeal on Sept. 25 when they played Rockwall-Heath High. It was that night that he became sold enough on McNeal to later offer the versatile, 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect and at the time, it seemed to be a safe bet that Jefferson was leaning toward A&M where some of his friends -- like ESPN 300 quarterback Kyler Murray and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Daylon Mack, among others -- are heading.
The Aggies were quietly confident they’d land Jefferson after his official visit to Texas A&M the weekend of their Nov. 15 loss to Missouri, which Jefferson attended. The nation's third-ranked outside linebacker was wowed during his time there. He also was impressed on visits to Texas and UCLA, but ultimately, Sumlin was confident.
Sumlin’s pitch to Jefferson? He’s the missing piece the Aggies need on defense to pair with star-in-the-making freshman defensive end Myles Garrett. The need for quality linebacker depth was clear when Texas A&M’s two true freshmen starters at the position -- Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker -- suffered injuries in that loss. That night, the Aggies promptly saw their run defense go to hell in a handbasket, as the Tigers rolled up 202 rushing yards in the third quarter alone with Alaka and Walker sidelined en route to a 34-27 Missouri win. A&M made the decision midseason to move Alaka and Walker into starting linebacker spots after ineffectiveness from their predecessors in the season’s first half.
The Aggies struggled getting (or keeping) quality linebackers on campus since Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart graduated after the 2012 season. In their 2013 recruiting class, they seemed to find a future star in Darian Claiborne, but dismissed him from the team after multiple arrests. Injuries affected 2013 recruits Shaan Washington and A.J. Hilliard this season and other linebacker prospects from that class either played sparingly or haven't been effective.
The 2014 linebacker haul included Alaka and Walker, but ESPN 300 linebacker Hoza Scott -- once ranked the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation -- was a nonqualifier and thus wasn't signed, never made it to campus and the Aggies weren’t able to land other ESPN 300 linebackers they targeted in the class like Kenny Young or Zach Whitley Jr. Add Jefferson to the list of “what ifs” should he stick with Texas until classes begin in January, as he is a midyear enrollee.
Jefferson would have been a key piece to the defensive puzzle, one the Aggies sorely needed. Could a splash defensive coordinator make enough of a difference to flip Jefferson? Possible, but unlikely. Jefferson took great time and care in this decision and it will be difficult to reverse, especially with his family's support in him choosing Texas.
Malik Jefferson's father on A&M trying for flip when they get DC: "A commitment from a Jefferson is final. It's over."— Max Olson (@max_olson) December 19, 2014
The lack of a defensive coordinator was key here, but regardless of recruiting, Sumlin has to get that hire right. After two seasons of atrocious defense and a sixth-place finish in the SEC West this season, the pressure is on to get someone who will produce elite results and help the Aggies turn into contenders in the nation’s most talked-about conference. Sumlin and the Aggies are about to enter Year 4 in the SEC and it’s time to see results of the recruiting the Aggies have been talking about producing.
The Aggies still have a top-10 recruiting class (they’re ranked sixth in the ESPN Class Rankings currently) and there are still big targets on the board that they’re strongly in the mix for, like five-star cornerback Kendall Sheffield.
But no matter the reasoning, two days after landing the nation's No. 30 player, ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk and three junior college prospects, Friday goes down as a loss for the Aggies and a win for the Longhorns. Sumlin said Thursday that missing a defensive coordinator or receivers coach hadn’t affected recruiting yet.
On Friday, it did.
The Longhorns ran the state on Friday morning. The Aggies have work to do in the final seven weeks of the 2014 recruiting cycle.
Best win: When the Aggies traveled to Auburn on Nov. 8, they did so as 23-point underdogs, with few convinced they could leave Jordan-Hare Stadium with a victory. They had barely beaten Louisiana-Monroe at home the previous week and that came after an ugly, three-game losing streak. Freshman quarterback Kyle Allen was on fire early, the Aggies blocked a field goal return and returned it for a touchdown to end the first half and hung on in the second half for a 41-38 victory. It required some good fortune (two lost Auburn fumbles in the final three minutes and three overall) but it served as the signature win for Texas A&M this season.
Worst loss: Texas A&M’s first road game at Alabama in 2012 was the stuff dreams are made of for the Aggies; this year it was an unequivocal nightmare. The Aggies were whipped six ways to Sunday by the Crimson Tide, 59-0. Texas A&M was never competitive in the game. The Aggies allowed 602 yards, only managed 172 yards itself and it was the program’s worst loss since the 77-0 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in 2003. It was a jarring loss -- it prompted personnel changes soon after and began raising questions about where exactly this program was headed, three years into SEC membership.
Player of year: Myles Garrett. It’s strange to see a true freshman in this spot, but he was the team’s best player this season in terms of production. He led the Aggies with 11 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and was a second-team All-SEC selection. Even when he wasn’t sacking quarterbacks, he was wreaking havoc (ask Auburn’s Shon Coleman) and Garrett’s presence was missed when he sat out the Missouri game because of a concussion. He had nine quarterback hurries, a blocked kick that was huge in the victory over Auburn, a pass breakup and 50 total tackles.
Breakout player: Josh Reynolds was one of the least-heralded recruits in the Aggies’ 2014 recruiting class, but he turned out to be a gamer. The former Tyler (Texas) Junior College player tied the school’s single-season record for touchdown receptions with 12, led the team with 762 receiving yards and was second on the team in catches with 47. A player few were talking about coming into the season -- much of the preseason hype at receiver centered around Ricky Seals-Jones, Speedy Noil andMalcome Kennedy -- turned out to be one of the most productive for Texas A&M in 2014.
Play of year: It's Garrett's blocked field goal against Auburn, which Deshazor Everett returned for a key touchdown in the Aggies’ upset of Auburn. But the most “wow-worthy" play has to be the one Noil made in the Aggies’ loss at Mississippi State. In a ridiculous display of athleticism, Noil leaped to catch the ball near the sideline over a defender, got two feet down while falling out of bounds and made sure to reach over the goal line. The true freshman showed why he was a five-star recruit.
2015 outlook: This season was one of growing pains; next season is one the Aggies must take a big step forward. They’ll return most of their starting skill-position players on offense and most of the front seven on defense. Allen, who ended the regular season as the starting quarterback, should be better with some experience under his belt (so should Kenny Hill, if by chance he returns to the starting job) and how the defense performs will hinge on who is in charge of it, as Kevin Sumlin has yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mark Snyder. The schedule starts with a big game early (against Arizona State at Houston’s NRG Stadium) but it’s favorable because the Aggies don’t have to leave the state until October. With another top-10 recruiting class on the way, the Aggies should show improvement.
Why West Virginia will win: Quarterback Clint Trickett has been cleared for the bowl. Trickett struggled a bit late in the season but was a still a major factor in the Mountaineers' midseason run. He and Kevin White should have their way against an Aggies defense that got lit multiple times this season. West Virginia 38, Texas A&M 29 -- Trotter
Why Texas A&M will win: The Aggies will get their house in order after shaking up their coaching staff and give West Virginia all it can handle. Clint Trickett's status can swing this game, of course, but doesn't a showdown between Kevin Sumlin and Dana Holgorsen have to be decided by who scores last? Texas A&M 35, West Virginia 28 — Olson
Russell Athletic Bowl
Why Oklahoma will win: While Clemson will be without dynamic freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson for the game, OU welcomes Trevor Knight back under center. Combined with Samaje Perine in the backfield, that should be enough for OU to eke out a win. Oklahoma 28, Clemson 21 -- Chatmon
Why Clemson will win: The Oklahoma passing game was a mess the last month of the season. Trevor Knight returning will help, but even when Knight was healthy, the passing attack was uneven. Former Sooners coordinator Brent Venables directs Clemson's pass defense, which is No. 3 nationally. That means the pressure will be on Samaje Perine (coming off an ankle injury) to shoulder the offensive load. Clemson is not great offensively, but I'm not confident the Sooners will be able to score enough in this one. Clemson 21, Oklahoma 17 -- Trotter
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl
Why Texas will win: The Longhorns' defensive line is full of talent and will be ready and well-equipped to handle the physical nature of the Razorbacks' offense. Texas 27, Arkansas 17 -- Chatmon
Why Arkansas will win: Strength on strength will be on display in this matchup, with the big boys on the Arkansas offensive line squaring off against Malcom Brown and Texas' menacing front. But I have a little more confidence in the Hogs to score points than the Longhorns, who were wildly inconsistent at times with young Tyrone Swoopes at QB. Arkansas 20, Texas 14 -- Trotter
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl
Why TCU will win: You don't get the sense there will be a letdown factor with this team after it missed the College Football Playoff. Gary Patterson has worked too hard on building TCU's mentality to allow a slipup now. The Horned Frogs swing this with a fourth-quarter turnover from Bo Wallace. TCU 35, Ole Miss 31 -- Olson
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
Why Baylor will win: The Bears are bummed they didn't make the playoff, but they also realize this is an opportunity to atone for last season's Fiesta Bowl fiasco. Michigan State has a great defense with a good quarterback. But the Spartans couldn't hang against all of Oregon's offensive firepower early in the season and will succumb to Bryce Petty & Co., too. Baylor 42, Michigan State 34 -- Trotter
Valero Alamo Bowl
Why Kansas State will win: This is a sneaky great matchup, though I still can't figure out why Stanford made it look so easy against the Bruins in the regular-season finale. The last hurrah for Jake Waters, and Tyler Lockett will be as deadly efficient and effective as usual. Kansas State 31, UCLA 27 -- Olson
Why UCLA will win: Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley entered the season as a Heisman candidate but stumbled in UCLA’s final game. He should rebound and cause all kinds of problems for K-State’s defense with his feet and his arm. UCLA 31, Kansas State 27 -- Chatmon
TicketCity Cactus Bowl
Why Oklahoma State will win: There was no reason to believe the Cowboys could win Bedlam, yet they did and became bowl eligible. Mason Rudolph looks like the real deal, and this young Cowboys team has plenty of momentum. Oklahoma State 31, Washington 30 — Chatmon
Why Washington will win: The Huskies lost to every ranked team they faced in Pac-12 play. Until Bedlam, the same was true of OSU in the Big 12. I'm a Mason Rudolph believer, but I like the UW defense a bit more. Washington 28, Oklahoma State 17 -- Olson
Season records: Trotter 67-8, Chatmon 66-9, Olson 64-11.
- The attorneys for Oklahoma State and attorneys for Texas offensive line coach Joe Wickline bickered in court on Thursday, reports Mike Finger of the San Antonio-Express News. The battle over Wickline's buyout and eventual role in the Longhorns offense continues to wage on. The entire ordeal has actually overshadowed a pretty solid job from Wickline during his first season in Austin. With injuries and dismissals destroying his offensive line group, Wickline was still able to help the unit slowly improve during the home stretch of the season including a pair of 200-yard rushing games.
- Oklahoma State's Bedlam win over Oklahoma might have meant more to Cowboys running back Desmond Roland than any other person on the field. The senior lost his mother Carolyn to cancer during the season and told The Oklahoman's Kyle Fredrickson "It felt like a spirit hit me" as the game headed into overtime. It was good to see something positive happen to Roland after all the sadness and disappointment that he overcame during his final season.
- It's been a frustrating scenario for Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard, who has been trying to overcome a groin injury since early November, writes Eric Bailey of the Tulsa World. A critical part of OU's passing game, Shepard tried to play against Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State but simply couldn't accelerate or be as explosive as normal, forcing him to miss the bulk of those games. He remains questionable for the Russell Athletic Bowl but is confident he could return to action after having some time to rest the injury. Trevor Knight's return to the Sooners offense is key but Shepard's potential return is even more important. The junior receiver brings game-breaking ability to the perimeter and was one of the nation's best receivers before his injury.
- West Virginia quarterback Clint Trickett has been cleared to play in the Autozone Liberty Bowl after missing WVU's final game due to a concussion. Coach Dana Holgorsen called the Mountaineers' bowl game starter a "game-time decision" and even mentioned a "rotation" during his pre-bowl news conference on Thursday. It's a smart move for Holgorsen to consider using both quarterbacks. Skyler Howard had a strong game to lead WVU to a win over Iowa State in the Mountaineers final game and could be the starter in 2015 yet Trickett's improved play is one of the main reasons for his team's bowl berth. It seems like the right move to reward both guys with snaps in the bowl game.
- TCU didn't make a playoff but the Horned Frogs are No. 1 on this list of College Football's Top 25, ranked by academics. Kansas State is ranked No. 10, Baylor is No. 16 to round out the Big 12 schools in the ranking. It should be a nice tip of the cap to Gary Patterson's program, which clearly values off-the-field excellence in addition to its on-field success this fall. No wonder Patterson has been pulling in the coach of the year awards on a regular basis since season's end.
Yet each team had players who made a significant impact on their teams that went largely unnoticed as teammates grabbed the headlines. With the help of SIDs around the conference, here's a closer look at the Big 12's unsung heroes during the 2014 season:
Baylor LB/S Collin Brence: A former walk-on, Brence started every game for Baylor, finishing with 49 tackles and adding seven hurries, 3.5 tackles for loss and one interception. On a defense with stars like Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart, Brence was quietly a key contributor as the Bears won a second-straight Big 12 title.
Iowa State WR D’Vario Montgomery: The sophomore transfer from South Florida emerged as the Cyclones’ best receiving threat during the home stretch of the season. Montgomery had 41 receptions for 564 yards and two touchdowns in ISU’s final seven games. His 605 receiving yards led the team and his 13.75 yards per catch average was tops among Cyclones with at least 10 receptions.
Kansas C Joe Gibson: The redshirt freshman took over starting center duties midway through the season and brought solidarity to the Jayhawks' interior line. Making QB Michael Cummings the starter and Eric Kiesau the playcaller were among the noted changes that paid off during Clint Bowen’s time as interim coach but Gibson’s role was just as important.
Kansas State DT Travis Britz: A valuable part of K-State’s defense, Britz was a key member of one of the Big 12’s top defenses before missing the final two games with an injury. The junior provided an anchor for Bill Snyder’s squad with 27 tackles including five tackles for loss and three sacks.
Oklahoma FB Aaron Ripkowski: Samaje Perine doesn’t become the Big 12’s best freshman without the help of the former walk-on fullback. Ripkowski was a driving force behind the Sooners’ running success as teams set out to stop the run yet still failed against the crimson and cream. Ripkowski’s aggressive nature, durability and stellar blocking helped OU rank No. 1 in the Big 12 in nearly every rushing category.
Oklahoma State DT Ofa Hautau: Emmanuel Ogbah grabbed Big 12 defensive lineman of the year honors but Hautau played a key role in OSU’s defensive line. His 28 tackles including 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks don’t speak to the value he brought to the table in the interior of the Pokes' defense.
Texas TE Geoff Swaim: The senior brought a consistent physical presence to the Longhorns' running game while the offensive line went through injuries, changes and uncertainty for much of the year. He also played a critical role on the Longhorns’ special-teams units.
TCU DT Davion Pierson: While Chucky Hunter got the headlines, Pierson was just as good along the Horned Frogs' defensive interior. The junior was disruptive with 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks for TCU while giving the Horned Frogs arguably the Big 12’s top defensive tackle duo.
Texas Tech HB DeAndre Washington: It’s unusual to consider Washington unsung but he was that good for the Red Raiders in 2014. There was a direct correlation between Washington’s production and Tech’s win total. He rushed for 100 yards in three of Tech’s four wins and he joined Perine and BU’s Shock Linwood as the only Big 12 running backs to surpass 1,000 rushing yards this season.
West Virginia LB Wes Tonkery: The senior brought stability to the Mountaineers defense, finishing with 62 tackles as WVU’s improved defense helped Dana Holgorsen’s squad return to a bowl game after a one-year hiatus. Tonkery also added eight tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Now, we’re putting you in charge of the Big 12’s destiny.
With 10 teams and no championship game, the league finds itself at a disadvantage on Championship Saturday. The names of several schools have been thrown into the conversation as people debate which teams could help the Big 12’s cause in the future. Should the Big 12 consider expansion?
The Big 12 was left with the impression that a conference title game would have helped the case of Baylor or TCU, but expansion isn’t the only option. If the NCAA allows the Big 12 to play a conference championship game with just 10 teams, it could be a clear step toward solving the problem without adding additional schools with more mouths to feed at the money table.
Expansion and adding a championship game are significant changes. Yet, maybe significant change is not needed. The answer could be as simple as crowning a single champion. That’s right ... bye, bye co-champions. If there is one clear winner of the Big 12 Conference, it removes any doubt about a true champion in the eyes of the committee. And, by the way, actually fits the conference’s moniker of “One True Champion”.
Or is it all an overreaction? The Big 12 was one or two upsets away from having two teams in the top four, which would have been a best-case scenario for the conference. The option to stand pat and do nothing could be considered. Just because things didn’t work out in the Big 12’s favor during Year 1 of the College Football Playoff doesn’t necessarily mean the conference must react immediately and make changes.
Considering the current state of the conference, what would you do? What changes would you make? Vote in our poll and comment below.