Dallas Colleges: Brandon Weeden
While making a stop in one of the seemingly dozens of interview rooms, a reporter surmised that Manziel was tired of talking about his offseason and was simply ready to return to the football field. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, cracked a smile and confirmed that assessment.
"Can't wait," he said. "No more talking off the field. All the talking's done on the field."
Interestingly, the mid-July media extravaganza in Hoover, Ala., is about the last day we've heard Manziel speak publicly, unless you count a handful posts to his Twitter account in the time between media day and the start of Texas A&M's preseason training camp on Aug. 5.
As the college football world has focused on Manziel's eventful offseason -- and most recently, news of an NCAA investigation into allegations that he profited from signing autographs -- Manziel has remained silent as he focuses on the 2013 season.
So, how do you tell the Heisman Trophy winner to do better?
"All you have to do is watch video," Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said.
What does the video reveal?
"You saw him progress as a quarterback as the year went on," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said. "Those first five games or so, he was just freelancing and doing his own thing."
Sumlin has noted several times in the past year that Manziel was a better quarterback in the second half of the season. His grasp of the offense and ability to throw downfield have improved.
The stats support that assessment. In the final six games, Manziel had a better completion percentage (73.4 percent, compared to 63.8 percent in the first seven), more yards per attempt (9.31 vs. 7.95), a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (12-to-3, compared with 14-to-6) and, as a result, a better passer rating (169.5 vs. 144.5 to 169.5).
The area in which he can make serious strides this year is his pocket presence.
"That's what we focused on throughout the spring because we know what Johnny can do when he's outside the pocket, running the ball," Spavital said. "I try not to let him scramble in practice and he gets frustrated at times and you'll see some pretty wild plays out there, but he's been staying in the pocket, going through his progressions, and I think it's making him a better pocket passer."
Sumlin said he has seen Manziel improve in several aspects of his game during the offseason.
"He continued to work at everything. In the classroom, understanding the whole picture, operational procedure, he's a lot better there," Sumlin said. "Mechanically, he's better. He understands some things. It's like playing golf. Once you understand the mechanics, you can kind of correct yourself when things aren't going right. I think he's worked very hard in the offseason to understand the mechanics and, really, the complete offense. I don't think there's one area that he has really concentrated on, I think he has worked on his total game."
The operational procedure that Sumlin speaks of, which simply is his ability to run the offense, is something Spavital noted that Manziel has down solid. Spavital said in the spring that Manziel is now able to get the play signal, operate and spend the rest of the time focusing on what the defense is showing.
In the first year of this Air Raid-style spread offense with its high pace of play, some of the basics were hardest to grasp early on. And that's not just for the quarterback, but all of the offensive players.
"I guarantee you Johnny vs. Florida -- I've never asked him about it -- I guarantee you he went out there and Kliff [Kingsbury] signaled in the play and he made sure the receivers knew what they were doing and made sure the back knew what he was doing and made sure the O-line knew what they were doing and then he just snapped the ball and ran the play," Spavital said. "Well, now, it's second nature to him and you signal the play to him and he just operates it and he can focus on the defense. He can change the play if he needs to and you don't get caught in as many bad plays because he's seen all the bad looks. He's learned his lessons from it. That's the way you get better in this offense; you learn from your mistakes."
Spavital has worked with several quarterbacks who have run this style of offense: Case Keenum at Houston, Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State and Geno Smith at West Virginia. The common thread in all of them, he said, is that the second year running this offense is the year that the quarterback makes a significant step forward because everyone grasps the scheme better.
"It's the year that they go off," Spavital said.
Back at SEC media days, Manziel himself said he wants to be smarter about when he chooses to break the pocket and run.
"There were times where I'd take off running and you've got a guy running down the field on a post that you knew on Monday of the week that that route was going to be open if this coverage was this, this and this. And yet, pressure comes up and you need to step up in the pocket, but then I decide to run," Manziel said. "Maybe the play turns out to be a success, maybe it doesn't, but just making it easier on myself is the bigger thing.
"You can sit there and take a nice easy step, do everything, have your fundamentals and make the throw and let them walk in for a touchdown, or whatever the situation may be. But just continue to get better downfield and seeing the vision [is the key]. All that will come with the more playing time and the more time you're out on the field. I know from the Florida game to Oklahoma, it's a crazy amount of difference."
One thing that the coaches don't want to do, Spavital said, is make Manziel robotic.
"Johnny wants to be a better pocket passer," Spavital said. "You can see him progress as the year went on and he's going to keep getting better at it. The main thing is you don't want to handcuff him and you want Johnny to be Johnny. His ability to scramble and make plays and get out of the pocket is the reason why he won the Heisman. You want to just keep working on the little things and get him to be a better passer, but at the same time you just want that kid to keep balling the way he is."
"Like Mike Davis said, he has a swagger about him now," the running back said of the quarterback.Only now it might be time to believe in the rising junior. Not because of some huge personality shift in Ash, but because this time –-- the junior season following a multiyear starter's sophomore season -- is typically when said actions start to speak louder than words.
Looking back at eight Big 12 multiyear starting quarterbacks -- Texas’ Colt McCoy, Texas’ Vince Young, Missouri’s Chase Daniel, Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell, Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Kansas’ Todd Reesing -- all but one had a dramatic leap in every statistical category from their sophomore to junior years. (Jones was the exception. In the six categories measured, he only increased his stats in one category, average yards per game.)
So the odds are Ash, who started 12 games in 2012, should follow suit. Maybe not to the extreme of Young, who topped the other seven aforementioned quarterbacks when it came to overall production increase. But there should at least be a measure of improvement to Ash’s stats. How much is up for debate for the next several months.
But if he follows the statistical average presented by those eight quarterbacks who have gone before him, Ash could see his passing efficiency rating rise by 17.10 points, completion percentage by 5 percent, touchdowns by 5.8, interceptions shrink by a nominal 0.25, overall yards move up 581.8 and yards per game to increase by 45.6.
Of course, there are mitigating factors that could shape whether or not Ash has a rise or fall in his stats in 2013.One of which is that Ash already experienced a dramatic rise in his stats from 2011 to 2012. In his sophomore season, Ash finished in the top 25 in passer efficiency rating and increased that rating 45.9 points. He had 15 more touchdown passes as a sophomore, threw for 1,620 yards and completed 10.4 percent more of his passes. (He also had 144 more attempts as a sophomore than as a freshman.) The point being that quite possibly a ceiling, if not already hit, is at least within arm’s length.
A counterargument could be that a shift in offensive philosophy, from traditional sets to spread, should serve to bolster his stats. In addition, the Big 12’s defenses -- at least that of top teams Oklahoma and Kansas State -- have experienced huge losses on their side of the ball. Add that fact to the unavoidable truth that the Big 12 is not exactly chock full of top defenses -- only TCU and Texas Tech finished in the top 40 in total defense in 2012 -- and it sets up for Ash to have at least a nominal rise in his statistical production in his junior season.
If all that is not enough to make a decision, there are still the words of Ash’s teammates to go by as well:
"Now that he has it down, he’s a lot more comfortable," Brown said. "He’s loosened up with us and he talks more now because he knows what he’s doing."
Given that this is Ash’s junior year and that history is on his side, it might just be time to believe those words.
Fellow expert Todd McShay has the same two as Kiper and also is optimistic about the chances of West Virginia’s Geno Smith and Tavon Austin.
So let’s split the difference and label the potential Big 12 first-round picks as an optimistic three, with Johnson being the only absolute first-round lock.
Those three would represent the fewest Big 12 players taken in the first round of the NFL draft since 2008. Even if four went, the Big 12 still would have the fewest since 2008.
That year, only Kansas -- yep, the Jayhawks -- managed a first-rounder, Aqib Talib to Tampa Bay with the 20th pick. In the four drafts that followed, the Big 12 has always put at least five players into the first round, including the first four overall picks in 2010.
How well this year’s group of first-round picks will fare might not be known for years. What is known, though, is how well Big 12 players have done when they are selected in the first round. With that in mind, here is a ranking -- from worst to best -- of the Big 12’s best first-round draft classes over the past 10 years.
2008: It’s all about quantity, and a little bit of quality. In 2008, the Big 12 only produced one first-round pick, Talib. He has not produced dramatic returns in the NFL. In the past two years, he has only started nine games. He was somewhat productive for Tampa Bay in the previous three seasons, starting 41 games and playing in 53. But, again, he was the only Big 12 player taken in the first round in 2008.
2006: Vince Young is working out at Texas’ pro day at the end of March. Enough said. Davin Joseph and Michael Huff have been solid producers. But when the No. 3 overall pick is out of the league and having to work out at his alma mater's pro day, it means it was a bad year for the Big 12 in the first round of the NFL draft.
2004: Tommie Harris and Marcus Tubbs, the two defensive tackles taken in the first round, were productive for a few years, with Harris selected to Pro Bowls in 2005, '06 and ’07 before he was beset by injuries. Tubbs lasted four seasons in the NFL. Roy Williams had 5,715 receiving yards but never lived up to the hype he generated coming out of Texas. Rashaun Woods played only two years and had seven career catches.
2005: The lack of numbers might be what hurts this group the most. Cedric Benson, Jammal Brown, Derrick Johnson, Mark Clayton and Fabian Washington all proved they could play at the NFL level. Benson has had three 1,000-yard-plus seasons. Johnson is one of the top linebackers in the game. Brown remains a solid option on the offensive line. Clayton played seven NFL seasons; Washington played six. But there were only five guys selected and that isn't enough to push 2005 to the top of the list.
2007: It wasn’t the biggest group, but it did include Adrian Peterson, so there could be some quibbling that maybe 2007 should be higher in the rankings. Throw in Aaron Ross and Michael Griffin and the debate could get even more heated. Adam Carriker was also taken this year. He started his career strong but suffered an injury and only played in two games last season.
2003: Kevin Williams has been the standout of this group. The defensive tackle has started every game but four in his 10-year career. Terence Newman has been effective as a defensive back, first in Dallas and last season in Cincinnati. Tyler Brayton played at least 15 games on the defensive line in a nine-year career. Ty Warren played eight solid seasons for New England but tailed off last season with Denver. Andre Woolfolk lasted four seasons, mostly as a reserve.
2011: Von Miller, who was the highest pick among Big 12 players this year, has proved to be the top player so far. Aldon Smith is not far behind. Add in Prince Amukamara, Phillip Taylor, who when healthy is a starter at defensive tackle, a somewhat productive Blaine Gabbert and Nate Solder as well as reliable backups Danny Watkins and Jimmy Smith and this proved to be a successful year for Big 12 first-round selections.
2012: Three quarterbacks, and all were not only starters as rookies but also made huge differences for their respective squads. Clearly, Robert Griffin III made the most dramatic impact, but Ryan Tannehill, with the Dolphins, and Brandon Weeden, with Cleveland, were both solid. Kendall Wright and Justin Blackmon each had 64 catches, for Tennessee and Jacksonville, respectively. Blackmon was targeted more (133 to 104) and had 200 more receiving yards.
2010: This list maybe doesn’t have the star power and is not littered with offensive playmakers, but six of the nine players picked were selected for the 2013 NFL Pro Bowl: Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Ndamukong Suh, Earl Thomas, Russell Okung and Jermaine Gresham. And the other three players -- Dez Bryant, Sam Bradford and Sean Weatherspoon -- were vital pieces for their respective teams.
West Virginia ran away with the poll before the year began. Who wins now? Which Big 12 offense was best this year?
Note: We can only include five teams in polls. TCU was in the preseason poll, but obviously won't be in this poll. I also put Kansas State in here, rather than Texas Tech, which was fifth in the Big 12 in total offense.
Let's take a look.
The Bears boast the nation's leader in total offense, quarterback Nick Florence, and led the nation in total offense. Florence even accounted for more yards per game than Johnny Football at Texas A&M. The Bears discovered another weapon in running back Lache Seastrunk late in the season and have one of the league's best offensive lines, but Biletnikoff Award finalist and the nation's leader in receiving yards, Terrance Williams, might be the most talented player on the roster.
The Pokes had quarterback issues, but finished the season with three (!!) 1,000-yard passers and finished fifth in the nation in total offense. Running back Joseph Randle is the Big 12's best, and receiver Josh Stewart broke out with 1,154 receiving yards as a sophomore. The rest of the unit is deep, but even without Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden, the Pokes got up and down the field quickly.
Geno Smith got off to one of the greatest starts in the history of the Big 12, reaching 5-0 and throwing 25 touchdowns before his first interception. He came to Earth a bit in the middle of a five-game losing streak, but Tavon Austin definitely has a case as the league's best overall offensive weapon, even though fellow receiver Stedman Bailey racked up 23 touchdown catches, 10 more than any player in the league and more than Blackmon and Michael Crabtree in their Biletnikoff Award-winning seasons. The Mountaineers never found a consistent running game, but were sixth nationally in pass offense.
Oklahoma relied heavily on Landry Jones, but found a home-run hitter in juco transfer Damien Williams. The youth at receiver showed up early in the season, but transfers Jalen Saunders (Fresno State) and Justin Brown (Penn State) provided solid targets late in the season for Jones, who racked up consecutive 500-yard passing games in wins against Oklahoma State and West Virginia. Jones' season has already pushed him into third in NCAA history in passing yardage.
Kansas State didn't rack up yardage by the bunches, but until late struggles against TCU and Baylor, the Wildcats led the Big 12 in scoring offense. Quarterback Collin Klein rumbled his way to New York City as a Heisman finalist, and the ground-inclined Wildcats offense had two of the Big 12's top five rushers, with Klein and running back John Hubert.
Even if the Cowboys win Oklahoma may have to, at least in part, thank Dana Holgorsen. He has helped take both programs to where they want to be, and on Saturday the former offensive coordinator will be back in Stillwater for the first time as a head coach.
At the end of 2009 Oklahoma State scored a total of seven points combined in a pair of embarrassing losses to close the season. Quarterback Zac Robinson was dealing with a bum shoulder, but seven points isn't enough to do much else but rack up frustrating losses that leave point-loving fans unfulfilled.
Coach Mike Gundy was designing his offense and decided to take a different approach to begin the following spring.
Robinson, a dual-threat quarterback built to run and take hits, was being succeeded by Brandon Weeden, a 6-foot-4, 218-pound junior with a big arm and we'll say ... hesitant legs.
With Gundy looking to take on a different role for his team, hiring Holgorsen made sense.
"I had a tremendous amount of respect for him for what he had done with the program," Holgorsen said. "His question to me was how [former Houston coach and current Texas A&M head coach] Kevin Sumlin did things from a CEO standpoint. I think Mike wanted to be more of a CEO type head coach, as opposed to being in the offensive room for 18 hours a day trying to get the offense better. I think he’s done a tremendous job of that.
"Since he’s gone back and made that switch, they’ve won a tremendous amount of ball games. Good for him."
Oklahoma State won a school-record 11 games the next season. Holgorsen left for West Virginia, a team that scored just seven points in a frustrating bowl loss of its own to close the 2010 season and wanted a new head coach.
Once he left, Gundy hired former OSU receivers coach Todd Monken to run the same offense Holgorsen installed in one spring.
"I knew a whole lot about it prior to going there, from a facilities standpoint, a coaching staff standpoint, culture and recruiting standpoint, knew a lot about it," Holgorsen said. "There wasn’t any surprises."
He spent nearly a decade at Texas Tech before coordinating Sumlin's offense at Houston, where the Cougars played Oklahoma State in each of Holgorsen's seasons. In 2009, the Cougars even upset a top five Oklahoma State team in Stillwater.
His first season as head coach at West Virginia -- which only came after scandal led to an early exit for the late Bill Stewart -- was his only season in the past 12 in which he didn't face the Cowboys.
"We were just a typical spread offense. Run/pass, no-huddle offense," Gundy said. "The impact it had was we changed our style of quarterback, so we brought in a scheme that could best fit what Brandon Weeden could have success with, which was pocket-style passing."
It worked. The Cowboys ranked No. 3 nationally in total offense in 2010, up from 70th in a nine-win campaign in 2009. A year later, using Holgorsen's system under Monken, the Cowboys won their first Big 12 title and once again ranked third nationally in total offense.
Meanwhile, Holgorsen was helping build West Virginia, who won the Big East in Year 1 and won a BCS bowl for the first time since 2007 -- Rich Rodriguez's final season in Morgantown.
West Virginia ranked 15th in total offense last season, a year after ranking 67th, despite possessing offensive talent like Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and speedster Tavon Austin.
"[Gundy] was with Pat Jones there for a long time, played for Pat Jones, which is old-school football, tough, hard-nosed physical football and incorporated it into our style of spread offense," Holgorsen said, "keeping it as physical as it can possibly be."
Holgorsen's fingerprints will be all over both sidelines, but without a stop at Oklahoma State and proof he could run his offense at a major conference away from mentor Mike Leach and away from a minor league like Conference USA, a high-profile head job like West Virginia might never have come along.
"It worked out good for everybody," Holgorsen said.
Prepare yourselves for as many lame high-scoring game jokes as possible before West Virginia and Baylor kick off Saturday at noon in Morgantown.
"Make sure all the bulbs on the scoreboard work!"
"Gentlemen, start your engines!"
"West Virginia state law forbids the possession of defense-like substances, so..."
Hardy har har har, or something. The over/under for Saturday's game is a healthy 79.5 points, and the prediction? A prescription for plenty of aspirin for defensive coordinators Phil Bennett (Baylor) and co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson (West Virginia).
Last season, the Big 12's top two quarterbacks and top two offenses went head to head in Stillwater, where DeForest spent 11 years coaching special teams and safeties, also earning a title as associate head coach under Mike Gundy.
His safeties were tasked with reigning in eventual Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, and the prediction was for a pointsplosion of the highest order.
At halftime? Oklahoma State had given up exactly zero points while the offense raced to a 35-0 lead that grew to 49-3 after three quarters. RG3? Please, said the Pokes defense, who forced five turnovers on the day and walked away with a 59-24 win that did, in fact, clear that over/under after Baylor scored three garbage time touchdowns.
"Oklahoma State did such a good job of moving the ball on offense," Holgorsen said of that game and another in 2010. The over/under for that RG3/Weeden showdown was 72.5, but Oklahoma State again held Baylor scoreless in the first half, forced three turnovers and raced to a 41-7 lead over the Bears before winning 55-28.
"Baylor was always playing from behind," Holgorsen added.
Could DeForest work his magic against Briles again in Morgantown on Saturday and turn a shootout into a blowout?
"We’re going to look at those tapes to try and just like coach Briles and his staff’s going to look at those tapes to try and see those similarities," Holgorsen said. "There’s some things that we can do better. There’s some things that they can do better, and so forth. Every year’s different."
It is, but Oklahoma State's seemed to have the magic touch in shutting down Baylor's high-powered offense. Now, DeForest and Holgorsen are the biggest two pieces of Morgantown's program that's become a sort of "Stillwater East" since Holgorsen took over. DeForest replaced Jeff Casteel, who took his talents to Arizona to follow his former boss, Rich Rodriguez. Holgorsen added running backs coach Robert Gillespie and former OSU cornerback Andrew McGee as a graduate assistant.
Now, it's up to a new group of players but another big-armed quarterback and playmaking receivers to be the Kryptonite to the supermen of Baylor's offense who have the nation's No. 6 offense this year and were No. 2 in 2011.
"When Baylor lines up to play Oklahoma State this year, it’s going to be a completely different ball game, so you can try to take some things and learn from it, but ultimately, it’s preparing the team you have this year the best you ultimately can to be in position and make some plays," Holgorsen said.
Three were from the Big 12, joining former NC State and Wisconsin star Russell Wilson and Stanford's Andrew Luck, the No. 1 pick in April's draft.
Former Baylor standout and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III had the biggest debut of anyone, and arguably the best debut of any rookie quarterback in history. RG3 threw for 320 yards and two touchdowns on 19-of-26 passing, leading the Washington Redskins to an upset win against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome.
RG3 became the first QB in NFL history to throw for at least 300 yards and two scores without an interception in his first NFL start.
"I've won a high school state championship and a bowl game in college, but to play in the NFL, the pinnacle of it all, and win your first game against a Hall of Famer in Drew Brees, it's at the top," Griffin said while cradling the game ball he had just been given. "After the game, (Brees) told me he was proud of me. That's big for him to say after he just lost the game."
Quite the entrance for the No. 2 pick in last year's draft, who also completed his first eight passes, including an 88-yard touchdown to Pierre Garcon. Griffin also ran for 42 yards on 10 carries.
The other Big 12 quarterbacks didn't have such fond debuts, combining to throw zero touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill completed 20-of-36 passes for 219 yards and three interceptions in a 30-10 loss at Houston, but he didn't sound too discouraged after the loss.
"I felt like we hurt ourselves more than they really just stopped us," Tannehill said. "That's a good defense. So being able to move the ball on a good defense like that gives us some confidence. Obviously, we have to fix a lot of things and eliminate those turnovers. But I think it gives us a look at what we could be if we played to our full potential."
Former Oklahoma State star and current Cleveland Brown Brandon Weeden had the worst debut of the three, but nearly came away with a win over Michael Vick and the Eagles.
Vick, who threw four interceptions of his own, threw a game-winning touchdown pass with 1:18 to play in the win over the Browns. Weeden completed just 12-of-35 passes for 118 yards and four interceptions. His quarterback rating of 5.1 was the sixth-lowest in a season opener by any quarterback with at least 15 attempts since 1970, according to STATS, LLC.
His day even started poorly, when he got caught underneath an American flag in pregame warmups.
"I was expecting to get a little warning," Weeden said. "I was playing catch. I always stand on the 35- or 40-yard line. Next thing I know there's about a 100-yard flag over the top of me. I sat on my hands and knees and kind of waited -- me and one of the equipment managers. I looked at him and said, `this (stinks).' "
It's never easy being a rookie starter at any position in the NFL, but it's particularly hard at quarterback. It'll be interesting to see how the rest of the season plays out for these three.
The reigning Big 12 champs are quite mortal. Chalk this one up as the biggest surprise of the young season in the Big 12. Turns out, Oklahoma State can't just plug-and-play to replace a pair of first-round picks. Tracy Moore turned in a fantastic game (eight receptions, 106 yards, four TDs), but Wes Lunt is no Brandon Weeden, and Justin Blackmon's usually sure hands were missed. Lunt threw for 440 yards, but three interceptions and a school-record 167 penalty yards on 15 flags were too much to overcome. The front seven looked like it had never seen a zone read before, giving up 59 points to a still-learning Arizona team in a 59-38 loss. The defense was missing its coordinator, Bill Young, who is dealing with a health issue, but the Cowboys might end up looking pretty mediocre in a very deep Big 12 if the turnovers and penalties don't cease. Worse than committing four turnovers? Forcing zero. The Cowboys didn't get a single takeaway in the desert on Saturday night after forcing 44 last season.
Never, ever doubt Paul Rhoads (again). How do we keep doing this? A tossup game? Against a rival? Most folks (myself included) picked the Hawkeyes, but Rhoads pulled off another huge program win, setting a milestone yet again with the Cyclones, who hadn't won at Iowa since 2002, when Seneca Wallace was still in town. It didn't look pretty, and Iowa State's loaded with flaws, but there's no such thing as a bad win when it comes against a rival or it comes on the road. Iowa State got both on Saturday, making big plays down the stretch to make it happen.
TCU knows how to make an entrance. Yes, it was an FCS opponent, but zero incompletions in 17 attempts for two quarterbacks, and a defensive shutout? Oklahoma State showed us on Saturday night exactly what beating up on an FCS opponent ultimately means (nothing), but what else could TCU do? Look out for true freshman Devonte Fields, too, who could become a force in this league. An injury to Ross Forrest has forced TCU to depend on him more than it would like, but the talented blue-chip recruit notched his first career sack as Gary Patterson became the school's all-time leader in wins.
It's going to be another long year in Lawrence. What's more troubling? Kansas losing this game? Or Kansas being just a six-point favorite against Rice, which had never beaten a team from the Big 12 since the league was formed? The Jayhawks looked the part of an inexperienced team that didn't know how to win on Saturday, squandering a 24-13 lead late in the third quarter and losing a game it had no business losing. Dayne Crist's second interception of the day was a back-breaker, giving Rice the ball near midfield to set up the game-winning field goal as time expired. Crist is better than KU's alternatives, but he hasn't played well to this point. He finished just 16-of-28 for 144 yards with a touchdown and two picks. I thought Kansas would be better this year. The Jayhawks may improve by season's end -- Saturday proved they've got more room to do it than any team in the Big 12 -- but good grief, losing to Rice at home? I don't care what the circumstances are. That's terrible for a Big 12 team. This is the worst KU loss since the 6-3 North Dakota State disaster that kicked off the Turner Gill Era in 2010.
Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team to open its season on the road or even away from home, and it wins the award for weirdest opening game, too.
TCU is idle in Week 1. If you're wondering where Texas A&M and Missouri went, go check the SEC blog.
SATURDAY (all times ET)
No. 11 West Virginia vs. Marshall (noon, FX): West Virginia takes on its in-state rival to kick off its first season in the Big 12. There's been plenty of hype about what Dana Holgorsen's offense will look like in Year 2. Time to stop talking and start producing. Geno Smith and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin just might put on a show in this one.
Iowa State vs. Tulsa (3:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network): Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads isn't hiding from the fact that his team is the underdog in this one. Despite hosting the Conference USA member Golden Hurricane, oddsmakers have Rhoads' squad as a 1.5-point underdog. Here's guessing Rhoads is a little insulted at that, but using it to motivate his team. Will it work?
No. 21 Kansas State vs. Missouri State (7 p.m., K-StateHD.TV): Kansas State's campaign to validate last season's narrow successes kicks off with what should be simple: an FCS opponent. Don't take it for granted, though. Even last year's 10-win team needed a touchdown in the final minutes to beat FCS member Eastern Kentucky 10-7. This one shouldn't be close, but you never know.
Texas Tech vs. Northwestern State (7 p.m., Fox Sports Southwest Plus): It's been nine years since Texas Tech played a nonconference game against a BCS conference opponent, and that won't change in 2012. This time around, though, it's needed. Tech is trying to win its way back after going 5-7 last year, but the main attraction on Saturday will be Eric Stephens, who will be making his return from a terrible knee injury suffered against Texas A&M last year.
No. 19 Oklahoma State vs. Savannah State (7 p.m., Fox College Sports): Savannah State's won just one game in the FCS in each of the past two seasons. Oklahoma State won 12 and the Big 12 last season. The post-Brandon Weeden/Justin Blackmon era might have its bumpy nights, but this shouldn't be one of them. The only thing that could go wrong here is if the Cowboys unleash their hideous gray jerseys again like they did in last year's opener. True freshman QB Wes Lunt's debut has been long-awaited since he won the starting job this spring.
Kansas vs. South Dakota State (7 p.m., Jayhawk All-Access/Jayhawk Television Network): The Jayhawks have undergone a transformation unlike any other team in the Big 12 this offseason. Former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis is in charge and he brought with him an avalanche of transfers, headlined by QB Dayne Crist. Keep an eye on defensive end Josh Williams, who transferred from Nebraska. Wins have been scarce the past two years at KU, so don't expect the Jayhawks to take anyone lightly, even an FCS opponent. Coach Turner Gill's tenure got off to a rough start back in 2010 when he lost to FCS North Dakota State.
No. 15 Texas vs. Wyoming (8 p.m., Longhorn Network): This offseason, Texas has been hard at work crafting a powerful running game and a quarterback in David Ash who's better at making decisions. We'll get a preview of what's to come Saturday night. The Longhorns have looked sluggish in the past two openers against Rice, but a suffocating defense could feast on the Cowboys' spread attack.
No. 4 Oklahoma at Texas-El Paso (10:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network): Oklahoma is the Big 12's only team on the road in Week 1, but the Miners have been talking a big game all summer. Quarterback Nick Lamaison told reporters he hoped to be the best QB in the game, and the university president said she told UT-Austin the team would "do our best to ensure that Oklahoma would be not as competitive after they left El Paso, because we will have shown them a surprise." Here's guessing that talk is cheap when the ball is finally kicked off. The Sooners are 31-point favorites.
Baylor vs. SMU (6:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network): The old Southwest Conference rivalry is renewed when SMU heads fewer than 100 miles south to face the Bears in the first game since Robert Griffin III left for the NFL and won the starting job with the Washington Redskins. New QB Nick Florence is capable of putting up big numbers, too, but keep an eye on Oregon transfer RB Lache Seastrunk, and don't be surprised if he breaks a big run or two.
Monday, we looked at the Big 12 team most likely to surprise, but what about the other side of the coin?
Who's most likely to underachieve? Let's ask the people.
Here are my five candidates:
David King. The Sooners bring back defensive playmakers in Tony Jefferson and Demontre Hurst, as well as quarterback Landry Jones, but Jones is dealing with a lot of new faces in the receiving corps. The Sooners seem to have at least one annual head-scratching loss. Will the Sooners disappoint and fail to win 10 games, despite starting the season in the top five?
Can Kansas State truly disappoint if no one expects the Wildcats to succeed? The Big 12's second-place team a season ago returns its core, but finds itself outside the preseason top 20 and picked to finish sixth in the Big 12. Kansas State has the potential to win the conference, but will the SnyderCats regress after some magic in 2011? That means a 6-7-win season in Manhattan.
Hopes are high for Oklahoma State, despite the loss of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. The biggest reason? The Cowboys' Air Raid offense and a defense that returns lots of big talents, headlined by cornerbacks Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown, as well as linebacker Shaun Lewis. But do you believe enough receivers will emerge, and that true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt can handle his first year of major college football? Or will OSU slide down the Big 12 standings and win 6-7 games after winning the Big 12 last season?
TCU is joining the Big 12 and looks like it has the offense to compete, but do the Horned Frogs have enough defense? Offseason departures for drug arrests and academics have the Frogs razor thin at linebacker, and last season was disappointing for a secondary that has had big expectations the past few years. Disappointment for the Horned Frogs, picked in the preseason's top 15, would mean about six wins.
The Mountaineers have the league's biggest headliners on offense in quarterback Geno Smith, and receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. The Mountaineers are buzzing around the top 10 to start the season, but their 70-point outburst in the Orange Bowl has diverted attention from losses along their front seven and some ugly games last season, including defeats against Syracuse and Louisville, and poor performances against Pitt and South Florida. Will West Virginia fail to contend for a league title, falling to a 7-8 win season?
There's also the option of Texas and Baylor, but we can only have five teams in the poll results. Would you pick someone else who isn't on our poll as the most likely Big 12 team to disappoint?
Collin Klein emerged as a star and carried his team to a memorable season.
In 2010, Oklahoma State played the part of shocker. Despite losing Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant, the Cowboys won a school-record 11 games and Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon made names for themselves along the way to becoming first-round NFL draft picks.
So who's going to be the surprise team this season?
Cast your vote in our poll.
The Jayhawks have won just one of their past 24 Big 12 games, but there are a ton of new faces these days, and ultimately, it'll be hard to predict what to expect from the Jayhawks. Coach Charlie Weis couldn't be more different than former coach Turner Gill, and the Jayhawks already got a big upgrade at quarterback with Dayne Crist. Add an avalanche of transfers and newcomers who are cracking the two-deep, and the Jayhawks could shock plenty of people this season by flirting with bowl contention.
Texas Tech dropped its final five games last season after beating No. 1 Oklahoma in Norman, the first team to beat Bob Stoops' Sooners at Owen Field since 2005. That meant the first losing season since 1992, and the end of the Big 12's longest bowl streak. The catch? The Red Raiders were already thin, and fell apart once they were racked by injuries. Tech has one of the league's most underrated players in Seth Doege at quarterback, and a great set of receivers. With some defensive improvements under coordinator Art Kaufman and the end of its bad luck with injuries, could Texas Tech surprise and come close to a nine- or 10-win season?
The Cowboys are the defending champs, but the echoes of doubt won't be silenced. How will they replace Weeden and Blackmon? Sounds pretty familiar, no? (Read the top of this post for a refresher.) The defense is going to be pretty stout and still make big plays. True freshman Wes Lunt is progressing well and should have plenty of big targets. Will the Cowboys surprise and be a serious threat in the Big 12 title race?
K-State won 10 games, finished the season ranked 15th and second in the Big 12, and return 17 starters. Yet, because of all the close and comeback wins last season, plenty of folks are chalking it up to luck. K-State begins the season ranked outside the top 20 and picked sixth in the Big 12. Will Bill Snyder prove everyone wrong once again and contend for a Big 12 title?
Paul Rhoads has a quarterback controversy on his hands to deal with first. Once that's settled, could Iowa State show it's making steps toward being a bigger player in the Big 12? The Cyclones have just barely made bowl games in two of the past three seasons, courtesy of huge upsets. ISU wants those wins to be much less shocking. Rhoads once again is saying that this is the best team he's ever had in Ames. Can he prove it and win eight games for the first time as the Cyclones' coach? (Note: Keeping the beard can only help.)
Cast your votes now.
1. The Cowboys offense is set up for Wes Lunt to succeed. Most importantly, the bulk of the Cowboys offensive line returns, as does coach Joe Wickline. Never underestimate the power of an extra second in the pocket. Those add up over time. He's got arguably the league's best 1-2 punch at running back in Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, and though his receivers aren't the most experienced, they're hardly green, and he's got lots of targets who will be productive, starting with Josh Stewart, Tracy Moore and Isaiah Anderson. There's no Justin Blackmon or Brandon Weeden in this offense, but Lunt should do well, and he'll have loads of help.
3. The Cowboys know what it takes to win a Big 12 title. Never underestimate the ability of a team that knows what it's like to reach the summit. No, Oklahoma State is not the best team in the Big 12 to begin the season, but it's stocked full of players who know what it takes to be that team. My guess is they're willing to push the rest of the team to that level if the players who need to step up are able to match that effort. You can't duplicate experience, but last year OSU broke the Oklahoma-Texas duopoly that dominated this league. The pieces are in place for the Cowboys to have a reasonable shot to do it again.
Why Oklahoma State won't win the Big 12
1. They're starting a true freshman at quarterback. The offense that Dana Holgorsen brought to Stillwater in 2010 is much simpler than what it ran when Mike Gundy was in charge of the offense piloted by Zac Robinson, but Lunt is still a true freshman. He'll make plays, and he'll make mistakes -- probably too many to ultimately win a title. History is absolutely against him. Only two first-year starting quarterbacks have won Big 12 titles, to say nothing of true freshmen, which has never been done, even if there have only been a handful of true freshmen to start in this league.
2. The turnover avalanche won't be quite as plentiful. Oklahoma State forces turnovers. Period. That's what the defense does. Last season, when the Cowboys forced an FBS-best 44 turnovers, was not a complete aberration. That said, it was still somewhat of an outlier, and in a few of those games, OSU needed every one of the turnovers it forced. OSU forced 34 turnovers in 2010 (fifth nationally) and 30 in 2009 (11th nationally). That's a pretty clear trend since the arrival of defensive coordinator Bill Young. OSU's defense should be very, very good, but it's a little silly to expect another 44 turnovers to roll in this season. No other team in college football had more than 39 last year.
3. The rest of the contenders are more talented. Oklahoma State has a ton of talent, but do the Cowboys have as much as the teams ahead of them in the conference poll? Certainly not Oklahoma. Depending on where you want to see talent, it's close between the Cowboys and West Virginia or Texas when you assess the depth chart from top to bottom. I'd probably lean toward West Virginia and Texas in both of those cases. Last year, OSU had as much talent as any team in the league, if not more. This year, the Cowboys have enough talent to win the league, but they don't have as much as other teams in the Big 12.
See more fall camp previews.
Next up: Oklahoma State.
Media's predicted finish: Fourth.
Biggest story line: Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon are gone. The Cowboys are going from a 28-year-old quarterback to an 18-year-old quarterback, but he's got to find a handful of new targets to come close to what Oklahoma State was used to with Weeden and Blackmon in 2010 and 2011. The Cowboys enter the season in the unfamiliar position of defending champs, but outside of the quarterback and pass-catching spots, this team is anything but rebuilding.
Biggest question mark: Wes Lunt. We know he beat out J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf this spring to amazingly win the job as a true freshman who should have still been in high school, but how will he handle the first year of major college football? It won't be easy, especially considering the strength of the league's defenses, which should be stronger than they've been in recent seasons. Can Lunt be productive and also take care of the ball?
Who needs to step up: The cornerbacks. Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown should be absolutely nasty at cornerback, but they simply have to be great this season. The margin for error for the defense is nothing like it was last season. It may surprise some, but the Cowboys actually led the Big 12 in scoring defense in conference games last season. That's nice. OSU still has to be better, and it's going to start with the Pokes' pair of returning starters at corner.
Biggest position battle: Starting left tackle Michael Bowie broke team rules and was suspended, but chose to leave the team, leaving the Cowboys reliant on a sudden position battle at left tackle. Parker Graham started three games there last year and may grab the spot, but sophomore Daniel Koenig, redshirt freshman Devin Davis and juco transfer Chris Grisbhy will be in the mix, too.
Don't forget about: RB Jeremy Smith. Joseph Randle is the headliner. Herschel Sims was the superstar recruit kicked off the team this spring. Smith will have to join Randle in supporting his new quarterback, proving that their success on the ground -- the duo combined for almost 2,000 yards -- was more than defenses being distracted by Weeden and Blackmon. Smith is a power back, but even he broke out for scores from 74 and 30 yards against Texas, the league's best defense.
Breaking out: There are lots of receptions to be had in this offense. The only question? Who's going to get them? Tracy Moore, Isaiah Anderson and Josh Stewart are the most likely candidates, but look out for spring breakout star Charlie Moore and newcomer Blake Jackson, one of the nation's best juco tight ends a year ago.
Let's do this:
1. Geno Smith, West Virginia: Smith put up huge numbers (4,385 yards, 31 TD, 7 INT, 65.8 completion percentage) and did so efficiently last season. Both of his top two targets are back and the adjustment to Big 12 defenses shouldn't be too difficult.
2. Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Jones and Smith will go head-to-head all season for honors as the Big 12's top passer. Who comes out on top is anyone's guess, but Jones regressed last season, and his receivers let him down after Ryan Broyles' season ended with a knee injury. He'll try to bounce back with just one reliable target (Kenny Stills) to start the season. The rest of the receiving corps is loaded with potential, but very inexperienced.
3. Collin Klein, Kansas State: Clearly, I'm taking more than just passing acumen into account here. Klein is the Big 12's No. 2 returning rusher, and also threw for just under 2,000 yards last season, adding 13 passing touchdowns to the 27 he scored rushing. We'll see how much better he is as a passer this fall.
5. Casey Pachall, TCU: Pachall didn't have eye-popping numbers, but only because TCU rode on the shoulders of its trio of running backs. Still, Pachall's numbers are going to be better this year, and he's got great targets in Josh Boyce, Skye Dawson and Brandon Carter, not to mention youngster LaDarius Brown.
6. Nick Florence, Baylor: I like Florence to have a big year with really good receivers, but he's got too much to prove for now. He looked good in spot duty for RG3 against Texas Tech last season, but his senior season will look much, much different than his inconsistent freshman year all the way back in 2009.
7. Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State: The Big 12's only freshman quarterback is a true freshman, and Lunt earned this spot by beating out some really tough competition in J.W. Walsh and Colton Chelf this spring. Amazing stuff, and his coaches know good quarterbacks. Zac Robinson and Brandon Weeden have established quite the QB tradition in Stillwater. Here's guessing Lunt continues it.
8. Dayne Crist, Kansas: Crist's college career hasn't been what he imagined after coming to Notre Dame as one of the most highly recruited signal-calling prospects in his class, but he's got a chance to start something special at Kansas in his senior year, reunited with former coach Charlie Weis. Crist won't have the weapons some of the other guys on this list have, but he gives KU a big, big upgrade at the position.
9. Steele Jantz/Jared Barnett, Iowa State: These two have to cut down the turnovers, but they've both shown the ability to be playmakers. There's no guessing who wins this legitimate battle in the fall, but coach Paul Rhoads isn't afraid to bench either one if the turnovers don't stop.
10. David Ash/Case McCoy, Texas: Mack Brown insists it's still a contest. My jaw will be on the floor if Ash doesn't trot out on the field for the first game of the season. Ash has some potential and promising targets in Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, but he hasn't shown the big-play ability of Jantz or Barnett. Expect Ash to move up this list by season's end, but for now, it's all just potential.
Robert Griffin III was beaten by Jeremy Lin for the Breakthrough Athlete of the Year, and the Los Angeles Kings' unlikely run to the Stanley Cup earned them a nod for "Best Upset," over Iowa State's season-changing win over Oklahoma State.
RG3 won for Best College Athlete, but it's time to hand out a few awards of our own. It's time once again for the Big 12 Blog ESPYS.
Most memorable moment: Texas K Justin Tucker beats Texas A&M. Tucker booted a 40-yard field goal as time expired to literally silence a deafening Kyle Field and send a very talented Aggies team to 6-6 and a devastating finish to a forgettable final Big 12 season. It also gave the burnt orange faithful a claim to "Scoreboard" for a long while, until (if?) the two teams ever play again.
Best breakthrough performance: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys edge out Collin Klein for this award, but did anyone really, truly believe Oklahoma State could go all the way and win the Big 12 title in 2011? Sure, they had the horses and were good enough on paper, but you lose enough games and come up short enough over time, and people can't help but doubt you. OSU silenced those doubts in 2011. My hat is off, and the Cowboys ended the seemingly endless Oklahoma-Texas duopoly at the top of the Big 12.
Best play: RG3 beats Oklahoma. Two images will define the 2011 Big 12 season: Iowa State storming the field and RG3's bomb to Terrance Williams in the final seconds to beat Oklahoma for the first time in school history. Iowa State's upset had a big impact, but RG3 had the more memorable play, and wins the award here.
Best audience: Texas A&M fans vs. Texas. No crowd was louder for a longer period, and no atmosphere was better. Kansas State and Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl was close, but even Oklahoma State's Bedlam romp didn't compare to the Thanksgiving heartbreak at Kyle Field.
Best athlete: RG3. Not like there was any competition for this one, no?
Toughest athlete: Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State. Klein was the workhorse who took a beating and left the season with the bloodiest elbows in college football. They're healed now, and he's ready to do it again. He carried the ball 316 times last year and helped K-State win 10 games. No other QB in college football had more than 250 carries.
Honorable mention: Jake Knott, LB, Iowa State. Wondering why? Here you go. Insane.
Best encore performance: Oklahoma State's pass-catch combo of Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden. Sure, the sequel wasn't quite as good, but that's just on the stat sheet. Who really cares? They sat together at a table in January 2011 and announced their intentions to return for one more season. What were they imagining? Exactly what they got the next fall: A Big 12 title. They parlayed that into a two spots in the NFL draft's first round this spring, too.
Best coach: Bill Snyder. The Wildcats kept on winning through all the outside doubting, and proved over and over again that they'd be a tough out for anybody. Ultimately, only Oklahoma State proved capable of shutting down the SnyderCats late-game magic, but Snyder took K-State from a modest pick of eighth place to begin the season all the way to a second-place finish and 10 wins.
Best game: Kansas State 53, Texas A&M 50 (4 OT): Kansas State found themselves trailing by 10 midway through the fourth quarter, but a long touchdown pass changed the game and K-State did what so many did to Texas A&M in 2011: Came back to win. It took four overtimes and a lot of big plays, but K-State defended their home field.
Honorable mention: Baylor 50, TCU 48; Oklahoma State 41, Stanford 38 (OT)
Best finish: Lone Star Showdown. Texas A&M took the lead in the final minutes, but Texas QB Case McCoy engineered an unbelievable, unlikely final drive that got the Longhorns back in field goal range and allow Tucker to boot the game-winner. Pure drama in a game loaded with emotion from all sides.
What other awards should be handed out?
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