Dallas Colleges: Josh Stewart
TCU (March 6)
Big name: CB Jason Verrett. A total of 26 NFL teams had reps at the Horned Frogs’ pro day, and you know many of them came for Verrett. He didn’t look to improve his 40 time from the NFL combine (4.38), but he did show off a 39 ½-inch vertical and benched 19 reps.
Sleeper: QB Casey Pachall. While he’ll have to answer lots of questions about his off-field issues, Pachall’s on-field work at pro day was encouraging. He checked in at 6-foot-3½ and 216 pounds, ran his 40 in the mid-4.9s and completed 62 of 72 passes, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Kansas State (March 11)
Big name: S Ty Zimmerman. Though 20 Kansas State players worked out at pro day, Zimmerman was not one of them. He’s still recovering from labrum surgery and reportedly plans to hold a workout next month to show his progress.
Sleeper: OT Cornelius Lucas. Hard to project how things will play out for Lucas, a mammoth tackle at 6-8 and 316 pounds, after he discovered a stress fracture in his left foot at the NFL combine. He’s supposed to be out up to eight weeks but plans to work out along with Zimmerman on April 28.
Oklahoma (March 12)
Big name: CB Aaron Colvin. The Sooners had 28 NFL organization represented at their pro day, but a few key players were still on the mend. Colvin, who suffered a torn ACL at the Senior Bowl, did not work out but hopes to be running again by late April and vowed his recovery is ahead of schedule.
Sleeper: C Gabe Ikard. While Ikard elected to stand by his combine numbers, which were strong for his position group, he did use the pro day to show in position drills just how athletic an interior lineman he can be for an NFL club. Running back Damien Williams also made a solid impression, and receiver Jalen Saunders drew mixed reviews after poor shuttle times.
Oklahoma State (March 13)
Big name: CB Justin Gilbert. The Steelers have the No. 15 pick, so it made sense that Mike Tomlin and his GM were among the many coaches in Stillwater to scout Gilbert. He stood by his 4.37 in the 40 from the NFL combine but did agility drills and reportedly wowed in his position drills. He’s a first-rounder, no doubt.
Sleeper: WR Josh Stewart. Well, OK, he’s not much of a sleeper. But Stewart had work to do to raise his stock, and pro day should’ve helped. He improved his 40 slightly, from 4.69 at the combine to 4.59 at pro day, and showed what he can do as a receiver and returner. Safety Daytawion Lowe also made a good impression.
Texas Tech (March 14)
Big name: TE Jace Amaro. The All-America tight end tried to secure a spot in the first round with improvements in the 40 (4.68) and vertical, and at 6-5 and 266 pounds he evoked comparisons to Vernon Davis from one 49ers scout.
Sleeper: CB Bruce Jones. He’s undersized at 5-7 and 183 pounds, but Jones did grab some attention at pro day with a run of a 4.5-second 40 time and team-best vertical of 41 inches.
Kansas (March 14)
Big name: RB James Sims. A dozen scouts showed up for the Jayhawks’ pro day, and the highlight was probably Sims busting off a run of 4.56 seconds in the 40. The 6-foot, 205-pound back was not invited to the NFL combine and told the Lawrence Journal-World he felt good about the numbers he put up.
Baylor (March 19)
Big names: OT Cyril Richardson, RB Lache Seastrunk, S Ahmad Dixon. Richardson shed 20 pounds after his senior season, which had to encourage NFL scouts, and he did nothing at his pro day to diminish his chances of being a top-50 pick. Seastrunk was as explosive as expected, with a time of 4.37 in the 40 and a 4.36 second shuttle, and tried to show off his pass-catching ability. Dixon ran a 4.64 in the 40 at the NFL combine and improved that to 4.48 at pro day.
Sleeper: TE Jordan Najvar. At nearly 6-6 and 280 pounds, Najvar certainly has the size to make the NFL. His speed had been a question mark, but his reported best for pro day was 4.86 seconds in the 40.
West Virginia (March 21)
Big name: RB Charles Sims. A nice showing at the NFL combine (40 time: 4.48) meant Sims needed only to do positional drills, and he drew good reviews for his pass-catching ability despite small hands.
Sleeper: DE Will Clarke. Knowing it’s possible he’ll be asked to play outside linebacker in an NFL scheme, Clarke worked out at both end and linebacker on pro day and tried to show what he can bring to pass coverage as a nearly 6-6, 268-pound defender.
Iowa State (March 25)
Big name: LB Jeremiah George. After a subpar showing at the combine, George had a nice day in front of 30 NFL officials. He hit 4.69 in the 40-yard dash, posted a big improvement in his broad jump and was solid in positional work.
Sleeper: CB Jeremy Reeves. How’s this for a success story? Reeves played at ISU from 2010-12, missed last season with a pectoral injury and showed up to pro day to prove he’s still got it. He had a crazy good day: 4.29-second 40, 43-inch vertical, 11½-foot broad jump. The New York Jets signed him on Friday.
Texas (March 26)
Big name: DE Jackson Jeffcoat. Like most other top prospects, Jeffcoat stuck with his NFL combine testing numbers. The 6-3, 253-pound end demonstrated his coverage ability in position drills amid talk that he might have to be a 3-4 outside linebacker at the next level.
Sleeper: CB Carrington Byndom. Questions about the three-year starter’s speed were put to rest when he ran his 40 in 4.37 seconds. Byndom was happy with his positional drills and is starting to line up meetings.
1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.
2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.
4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.
5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.
6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,
7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.
8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.
9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.
10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.
Poor quarterback play was the main culprit, but the conference’s lack of elite signal-callers wasn’t the lone reason for the general absence of explosive playmaking in Big 12 stadiums last fall.
Conference pass catchers earned their share of the blame as well.
Yards after catch is one way Big 12 running backs, tight ends and receivers can take ownership over their offense’s success. While the accuracy of the quarterback impacts the opportunities for yards after catch, there has been a correlation between yards after catch and team success in the Big 12 in recent seasons. With the help of ESPN Stats and Information, a closer look at the yards after catch for each Big 12 team during the past three seasons reveals some interesting trends.
- Ten Big 12 teams have finished the season with at least 2,000 yards after catch during the past three seasons. Those teams averaged 8.9 wins per season, with half of them winning at least 10 games.
- Baylor’s record-setting offense was spurred by its highest yards-after-catch percentage in the past three years. The 2013 Bears gained 2,281 yards after catch, 48.9 percent of their 4,668 receiving yards during their Big 12 title season. In 2012, 41.6 percent of their receiving yards came after the catch. In 2011, 44.8 percent of their yards came after the catch.
- Goodley led the league with 598 yards after catch. His yards after catch total would have been no higher than third in the conference in 2012 and 2011. Five different receivers had at least 698 yards after catch in the past three seasons, with Tavon Austin’s 992 for West Virginia in 2012 ranking as the highest individual total during that span.
- Oklahoma State’s 2,851 yards after catch in 2011 is the highest total during the past three seasons and 56.6 percent of its 5,034 total. The Cowboys went 12-1 and won their first-ever Big 12 championship during that season. Justin Blackmon’s 794 yards after catch led the Big 12 in 2011.
- Oklahoma struggled with quarterback play throughout the 2013 season, but the Sooners led the league with 58 percent of their receiving yards coming after the catch, the highest percentage in conference during the past three seasons. OU had 2,588 receiving yards, with 1,500 of those coming after the catch. Sterling Shepard paced the way for OU with 384 yards after the catch.
- Kansas, which has struggled to find playmaking receivers in recent years, hasn’t had more than 1,000 yards after catch in the past three seasons.
- Not surprisingly, Kansas State is the lone Big 12 team that is barely impacted by yards after catch numbers. The Wildcats recorded a 39.4 yards after catch percentage during the past three seasons for a total of 2,991 yards after catch during that span.
- Dana Holgorsen’s offense at West Virginia is built around getting athletes in one on one situations and letting them make plays in the open field. The Mountaineers gained 55.3 percent of their receiving yards after the catch during the past three seasons. Although they only spent two of those seasons in the Big 12, the Mountaineers are the only current Big 12 squad who gained at least 50 percent of their yards after catch in each of the past three seasons.
Here’s a detailed breakdown of the numbers via ESPN Stats and Information:
The NFL combine is underway with on-field workouts beginning on Saturday. The Big 12 has 25 participants in the combine, and several former conference standouts can make themselves some money. Here are eight former Big 12 playmakers that could help themselves with strong performances at the combine.
Cyril Richardson, Baylor guard: The anchor of the Bears’ offensive line, Richardson is aiming to prove his Senior Bowl performance was an aberration. The combine gives him the opportunity to show his body of work at Baylor is more representative of his NFL future than a week which saw him struggle in Mobile. He has the talent to make an impact on Sundays so it will be a key week for Richardson from the interviews to the on-field work. Richardson is projected as an early Day 3 selection.
Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma center: One of the most productive offensive linemen in OU history, Ikard needs to show he can overcome physical limitations to earn a spot on an NFL roster. Questions about his athleticism surround Ikard so Saturday’s on-field drills for the offensive linemen are key. He has the intelligence and versatility to become a valuable asset for an NFL team but he will have to prove his assets are more important than his weaknesses during the combine. Ikard is projected as a potential Day 3 pick.
Josh Stewart, Oklahoma State receiver: The combine provides Stewart the opportunity to prove his decision to leave school a year early was a good one. Questions about his size and speed have hurt his draft stock and, while he’s not going to grow taller in Indianapolis, he can show he’s faster and stronger than NFL scouts think. Stewart is projected as a Day 3 selection.
Jason Verrett, TCU cornerback: Much like Stewart, size limitations sit upon the shoulders’ of Verrett. Nobody questions his competitiveness, production or coverage skills, but if he wows NFL scouts with his athleticism and impresses them during the interview process, he could prove himself too talented to ignore and spark a rise up NFL draft boards. Verrett is projected as a Day 2 pick that could slip into the first-round conversation.
Mike Davis, Texas receiver: Davis has the physical skills to be an impact NFL receiver but he needs to use the combine to show scouts their concerns about his production, mindset and commitment are unwarranted. If he comes out focused and tries to dominate during on-field workouts on Sunday, Davis could help earn himself some money. If not, he will have even more obstacles to overcome before draft day. Davis is projected as a Day 3 selection.
Jace Amaro, Texas Tech tight end: It’s a big week for Amaro. ESPN.com draft expert Todd McShay included Amaro in his list of prospects with the most riding on the combine . Amaro needs to perform well in drills and show he has unique athleticism to combine with his size (6-foot-5, 265 pounds). Saturday’s drills and on-field work will be critical for the most productive tight end in college football in 2013. Amaro is projected as a first- or second-round pick.
Charles Sims, West Virginia running back: Sims could really boost his draft stock with a fast 40-yard dash time and strong performance in other drills. When the running backs hit the field on Sunday, Sims needs to excel. He’s likely to stand out during receiving drills but if he runs a bad time it could erase all the good work he does during the receiving drills. Sims is projected to be an early pick on Day 3.
Baylor guard Jarell Broxton: Departed All-American Cyril Richardson was an anchor of the offensive line for several seasons in Waco, Texas. Broxton could step in to help replace the All-Big 12 guard. At 6-foot-5 and 326 pounds, Broxton brings superb size and athleticism to the Bears. The No. 32 player in the ESPN JC 50 has the talent to make an immediate impact and the opportunity with Richardson’s departure.
“We think he can play either inside or possibly outside,” coach Art Briles said. “He’s athletic, powerful and is a guy who is going to come in here this spring and compete to get on the field.”
Kansas State defensive back Danzel McDaniel: The Wildcats have Dante Barnett as the lone returning starter in the secondary and McDaniel has the versatility to fill one of those spots. At 6-1, 205 pounds, McDaniel can play several different positions in the secondary and brings good coverage skills combined with a physical mindset.
The No. 45 player in the ESPN JC 50, McDaniel should start making an impact this spring as the Wildcats start to understand how to use his versatility to help slow Big 12 offenses. He has the talent to bring an upgrade in size to the cornerback position or an upgrade in coverage skills to the safety spot. It’s just a matter of finding the right fit.
Oklahoma State receiver Tyreek Hill: Speed. Speed. Speed. That’s what Hill will bring to the Cowboys. It is going to be tough for OSU to replace Josh Stewart, who seemed to make game-changing play after game-changing play during his final two seasons.
Hill has the speed and big play ability to change games, just as Stewart did. Yet, the Cowboys’ roster is littered with potential playmakers including redshirt freshman Ra’Shaad Samples. This spring will be Hill’s chance to show he can step in as a playmaker at the receiver spot, even with other talented options on campus.
“He has been very successful when he has the ball in his hands,” OSU coach Mike Gundy said of Hill. “I don’t think it’s any secret for all of us, certainly from a coaching standpoint, if you have a player that can make plays then he has to touch the football.”
Texas Tech receiver Devin Lauderdale: The Red Raiders need playmakers to help offset the loss of tight end Jace Amaro and receiver Eric Ward. Lauderdale, who initially signed with the Red Raiders in 2013, joins the program after one season at Navarro (Texas) junior college.
Lauderdale should play immediately and this spring will be the Red Raiders’ first opportunity to figure out what the 5-11, 170-pound receiver can do best. Don’t be surprised if Lauderdale ensures himself a key role in Kliff Kingsbury’s attack before summer.
“Fast. Fast. Fast,” Texas Tech receivers coach Eric Morris said. “Has big play potential any time the ball in his hands.”
West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard: The search for Geno Smith’s replacement continues. And Howard has as good a chance as anyone to step into that role this fall. Spring football provides Howard the chance to show Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen that he can run the WVU offense with efficiency after he watched his offense struggle at various times during 2013. If Howard hopes to insert his name into the quarterback race it will start in the spring.
“Howard is here and is studying hard, is throwing with the guys and is here a lot,” Holgorsen said. “The film supports what we think he can be. The good news is that his idol is Russell Wilson, and that’s good for a number of obvious reasons. He believes that he’s got the skill set to be able to be successful. I’m really excited about coaching him.”
- Trey Millard, Oklahoma
- Jeremiah George, Iowa State
- Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma
- Ahmad Dixon, Baylor
- Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
- Demetri Goodson, Baylor
- Jason Verrett, TCU
- Marcus Heit, Kansas State
- Anthony Fera, Texas
Previous ranking: Stewart was No. 13 in the blog’s preseason list of the Big 12’s top 25 players.
Making the case for Stewart: Why did he drop? Injuries and uncertainty at quarterback played a major role.
The junior was less productive this season but just as explosive. He looked like the Big 12’s best player in OSU’s 24-10 win over TCU, just an example of his ability to impact games at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. Going against one of the conference’s top secondaries, Stewart finished with 10 receptions for 141 yards and a touchdown. And he added a 95-yard punt return for a touchdown against the Horned Frogs.
With 60 receptions for 703 yards and three touchdowns, Stewart wasn’t the consistent force in 2013 that he was during his sophomore year (101 receptions, 1,210 yards, 7 TDs). Nonetheless, Big 12 coordinators didn’t like the thought of having to deal with the dynamic slot receiver and returner. Stewart’s quickness, competitiveness and ball skills made him one of the Big 12’s top receivers and top overall players.
The rest of the list:
- No. 20: Ryan Mueller, DE, Kansas State
- No. 21: Clint Chelf, QB, Oklahoma State
- No. 22: Jeremiah George, LB, Iowa State
- No. 23: Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma
- No. 24: Ty Zimmerman, S, Kansas State
- No. 25: Calvin Barnett, DT, Oklahoma State
Of the five major conferences, the Big 12 had the fewest players leave early for the NFL draft with only three. The departures of those three players, however, leave massive holes in their former offenses.
Below is a breakdown of those three players and who will be counted on to fill their shoes:
The replacement: Tyreek Hill
In a mild surprise, Stewart elected to go pro, even though he was given a Day 3 (fourth through seventh rounds) draft grade. Stewart might not get drafted high, but he has been a critical piece on the Oklahoma State offense as a dynamic slot receiver the past three years.
Due to inconsistent quarterbacking early in the season and a foot injury late, Stewart finished with only 60 receptions for 707 and three touchdowns. Stewart still ranked eighth in the Big 12 in receiving. But the season before, he had 101 receptions for 1,287 yards and seven touchdowns. Stewart’s numbers were down, but he was still Oklahoma State’s top playmaker, both as a receiver and a returner (Stewart was fourth nationally in punt returns).
The good news is the Cowboys might have just the player to replace him. Hill is the No. 4-rated junior college player in the country out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Hill had offers from Alabama, Florida State and USC, and Texas made an especially strong push to land him late, but Hill ultimately stuck with his commitment to Oklahoma State and signed with the Cowboys.
The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Hill was a running back in junior college, but the Cowboys plan to use him as a slot receiver. Hill has run the 100 meters in 10.19 seconds, which would make him one of the fastest players in college football.
Hill has the speed and the moves. If he can consistently catch the ball, the Cowboys could have yet another dangerous playmaker operating out of the slot -- and as a punt returner -- next season.
The replacement: Shock Linwood
Seastrunk went into this season on the short list of Heisman contenders. While he was never a threat to win the Heisman, Seastrunk still led the Big 12 with 1,117 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and an average of 7.45 yards per carry as Baylor led the nation in scoring and captured the school’s first Big 12 title.
Even with Seastrunk bolting early for the draft, the Bears figure to feature another prolific offense next season, thanks to the return of quarterback Bryce Petty and wideout Antwan Goodley. If Linwood performs the way he did as Seastrunk’s replacement last season, then the Bears' offense might not miss a beat.
After gashing defenses in mop-up time, Linwood finally got meaningful snaps in a prime-time Thursday matchup with Oklahoma in early November. When Seastrunk strained his groin and Glasco Martin suffered a knee injury, Linwood took over in the Baylor backfield and the Sooners had no answer for him. Linwood cut his way to 182 rushing yards on 23 carries, with most of his damage coming in the second half as the Bears coasted to a 41-12 win.
Linwood followed that up with 187 yards in Baylor’s 63-34 victory over Texas Tech the next week. As a result, despite being Baylor’s third-team tailback, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and averaged 6.88 yards per carry, second in the league only to Seastrunk.
With Seastrunk and Martin gone for good, Linwood will be the featured back, and he has the talent and skill to put up huge numbers over an entire season.
Leaving: Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro
The replacement: Jakeem Grant
There was no player like Amaro in college football this season. The unanimous All-American had 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. He was too fast for linebackers; too strong for defensive backs.
The Red Raiders obviously don’t have anyone resembling Amaro’s skill set on their roster. But they do have an inside receiver in Grant who has the talent to replace some of that production.
As a sophomore this season, Grant hauled in 65 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns. The 5-foot-6, 160-pound dynamo was also fifth in the Big 12 in plays of 20 yards or more.
Due to some immaturity, Grant was benched for Texas Tech’s regular-season finale against Texas. But he got coach Kliff Kingsbury’s message and responded with 125 all-purpose yards, including six receptions for 89 yards and two touchdowns, in the Red Raiders’ 37-23 upset of Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl.
Grant probably won’t be able to replicate what Amaro accomplished this season. But his unique quickness and speed could make Grant one of the best playmakers in the Big 12 in 2014.
But the Big 12 suffered the least attrition of any of the five major conferences, with only three players announcing they were going pro before the Jan. 15 deadline: Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk, Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro and Oklahoma State receiver Josh Stewart.
That pales in comparison to other leagues. The SEC alone has 28 players leaving early. The Pac-12 has 25. Even the ACC has 10.
As for the Big 12, there are two ways to look at this. One, there's a lot of young talent coming back in the league, including the dynamic Baylor pass-catching duo of quarterback Bryce Petty and receiver Antwan Goodley and Kansas State wideout Tyler Lockett, who was uncoverable this season, on offense. On defense, menacing Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker and Texas pass-rushing defensive end Cedric Reed are back.
The other way to look at it, though, is the overall talent of the league is down, relative to other conferences. Amaro is the only one of the early entries who has a shot of being a first-round pick. Nobody else who elected to come back would have had a shot at being first-round selections, either. By contrast, the SEC, Pac-12 and ACC are loaded with underclassmen who figure to be Day 1 picks.
In 2010, the Big 12 had a conference-record nine players selected in the first round, including five underclassmen. That was a banner draft for the conference. This draft will not be.
It seems like OSU’s offense took a clear step backward during Mike Yurcich’s first season as offensive coordinator. Yet the Cowboys finished among the top 3 in the Big 12 in most categories, including points per game (39.1), yards per game (448.8) and yards per play (5.9). But their struggles in key moments, like the road loss at West Virginia and on third down (38.6 percent conversion rate, sixth in the Big 12 and No. 60 among FBS teams), drops this grade to an A-.
Quarterback Clint Chelf saved the offense with his performance in the second half of the season, although he experienced some ups and downs of his own at various times. OSU’s receivers were among the deepest in the Big 12 with Charlie Moore, Jhajuan Seales, Tracy Moore and Josh Stewart each looking like top targets at different points in 2013 making the receiving corps the strongest group on the offensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys running game was the main area where the Pokes took a clear step backward, rushing for 171.9 yards per game and losing the balance their offenses had become known for during recent years. Inconsistency at running back and along the offensive line played a major role in those problems.
For the first time in recent years the Cowboys defense was the foundation of their success. The Cowboys finished atop the Big 12 in several defensive categories including points per game (21.9, No. 19 among FBS teams), third down conversion rate (31.4 percent, No. 7 among FBS teams) and passing yards per attempt (5.8, No. 10 among FBS teams).
OSU’s defense had its share of struggles, particularly late in the season, but it was one of the Big 12’s best units from beginning to end.
Special teams: D+
OSU’s special teams cost them a game against West Virginia and didn't help the cause in the team's Bedlam loss. Overall, the special teams unit was below average for the majority of the season. The Cowboys finished at the bottom of the Big 12 in field goal percentage (61.1 percent) and net punting (34.3 net yards per punt). Only the dynamic punt return skills of Stewart and the sheer speed of Gilbert on kick returns kept this grade from being an F.
Some people will look at this team and say it underachieved while others could look at it and say it overachieved. Problems along the offensive line handcuffed the offense for a good portion of the year and Chelf spending a portion of the year on the sidelines didn’t help. But the Cowboys still found a way to win 10 games and were one drive from winning another Big 12 title.
Stewart is coming off a junior season in which he hauled in 60 passes for 703 yards and three touchdowns. Those numbers were actually down from his monster sophomore campaign, when he caught 101 passes for for 1,210 yards and seven touchdowns. But inconsistent quarterback play early in the season and then a foot injury late were the reasons for the dip in production.
Even though he wasn't quite as a productive this season, Stewart was still one of the most dangerous playmakers in the league (he also had two punt return touchdowns this season). His departure ensures Oklahoma State, which also has to replace quarterback Clint Chelf and seven starters on defense, will be in rebuilding mode next year -- at least early in the season.
Stewart leaving also means the Big 12 will be minus yet another one of its most talented skill players in 2014. Baylor All-Big 12 running back Lache Seastrunk declared for the draft Monday and Texas Tech All-American tight end Jace Amaro declared immediately after the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State last month.
With Stewart gone, the Cowboys could turn to one of their highest-rated recruits to fill the void. Tyreek Hill, who is the No. 4 junior college recruit in the ESPN JC 50. Hill had offers from Alabama, Florida State and Texas and was a running back for Garden City (Kan.) Community College, but he was recruited by Oklahoma State to play slot receiver.
OSU and Missouri battle in the AT&T Cotton Bowl (7:30 pm ET, FOX) on Friday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Here’s a preview of one of the most evenly matched games of this bowl season.
Who to Watch: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Look out Clint Chelf, Sam is coming for you and he’s been a terror for opposing offenses throughout the year. He led the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss. The senior brings a combination of acceleration and athleticism to the table that is very difficult for offenses to stop. If OSU has any hope to win, it can’t let Sam spend his holiday season in the backfield in hot pursuit of Chelf, the Cowboys quarterback, and OSU's running backs.
What to Watch: The interior lines. Missouri has a strong group in the trenches, and OSU’s success has mirrored its ability to control the line of scrimmage. Whoever wins the battle of the big fellas will probably win the game. Both teams have very talented skill players, like OSU receiver Josh Stewart and Missouri running back Henry Josey, who can make plays if given the chance. How do you take those explosive players out of the equation? Win the battle up front.
Why to Watch: The matchup between OSU cornerback Justin Gilbert and Mizzou receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is one reason. The battle between former Big 12 foes is another. These two teams know each other better than the normal bowl matchup, and the Cowboys will be looking to strike another blow for the Big 12 after Oklahoma’s Sugar Bowl win, while the Tigers will be looking to redeem the SEC. The Sooners’ win over Alabama could very well ramp up the intensity in this one.
Prediction: Oklahoma State 35, Missouri 34. The Cowboys prevail in one of the best games of the bowl season. Neither team dominates in the trenches, so this one is decided by turnovers and key plays on special teams. A late turnover by the Tigers helps OSU score a late touchdown to snatch the victory out of the hands of their former conference rival.
1. Who’s the king of the conference? The Big 12 title race won’t officially be over after this weekend’s big showdown, but by the end of Saturday we should know whether Baylor or Oklahoma State is the conference’s top team. If the Bears win, they’re one big step closer to being No. 3 in the polls and fighting for a spot in the national title game. Oklahoma State sets up a three-way tie at the top of the Big 12 standings with a home victory, and then things get messy and crazy. But the Cowboys would assert themselves as the best of the bunch with that upset.
3. Winning the battle of the injury report: Baylor doesn’t know if running backs Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin will be available to play Oklahoma State. Top Bears linebacker Bryce Hager could be out, too. And the Cowboys need top playmaker Josh Stewart back on the field after he missed the win over Texas. Cornerback Justin Gilbert got banged up against Texas but has said he won’t miss Baylor. Don’t expect Mike Gundy or Art Briles to tip their hands until kickoff.
4. Baylor tries to break Stillwater curse: The last time Baylor defeated Oklahoma State in Stillwater was 1939. Since 1994, the Cowboys are 9-0 at home against Baylor and 6-3 in Waco. There’s no obvious reason for the Bears’ longtime futility at Boone Pickens Stadium other than, you know, that BU used to be the cellar dweller of the Big 12. But they have a chance to end that slump on Saturday.
5. Kansas State: Big 12’s fourth-best team? The Wildcats are on quite a hot streak after starting 2-4 on the year. K-State has won four in a row, clinched bowl eligibility last weekend with a win over TCU and has a chance to land a signature win in the home finale against No. 20 Oklahoma. Beat the Sooners head-to-head and KSU can finish 6-3 in league play and as high as fourth place in the Big 12.
6. Trevor Knight time: Or maybe Blake Bell will start. Or it could be Kendal Thompson, which evidently would make a lot of Sooners fans happy. If the Iowa State game is any indication, we could see two or all three make appearances against Kansas State. No matter what, OU needs to find a solution to its QB carousel before the team travels to Oklahoma State on Dec. 7. This is the last chance for an in-game audition.
7. Jayhawks going for two: Kansas went more than 1,100 days between Big 12 victories. Might this program have to wait only seven days for its next one? KU knocked off West Virginia with a heavy commitment to the James Sims-powered run game and has been playing foes much closer than Iowa State has in Big 12 play. This is a big chance for the Jayhawks to notch their first road win since 2009.
8. Iowa State just wants a W: Iowa State remains winless in Big 12 play, and since knocking off Baylor 35-21 last October, ISU has won two of its last 15 games. Cyclones fans are ready for this brutal 1-9 season to end. The home finale against Kansas is as good a chance as any to at least get one win and send the program’s seniors off on a good note.
1. Oklahoma State can win the big one: Mike Gundy's team went to Austin, Texas, knowing a loss knocks it out of the Big 12 title picture. It didn't have top playmaker Josh Stewart. But the Cowboys had a sound plan for shutting down the Longhorns on both sides of the ball, and they executed it very well. OSU held a Texas team that was 6-0 in the league to a season-low 13 points and handed coach Mack Brown his most lopsided home loss (38-13) in his Texas tenure. As Gundy put it after the win: This is playoff football. Win one game and the next one gets bigger. Oklahoma State won what might've been the Big 12 semifinals on Saturday. Now the Cowboys get a de facto conference title game at home next Saturday against Baylor and are in firm control of their own destiny.
3. Kansas finally tastes sweet victory: If you don't understand why Jayhawks fans ripped down the South end zone goal posts after KU's 31-19 home win over West Virginia, you don't recognize how much agony this fan base has had to endure in the past few seasons. Kansas won its first Big 12 game since Nov. 6, 2010, and got coach Charlie Weis his first conference win by pounding the rock against a banged-up WVU defense. Unless Kansas loses every Big 12 game from now until the end of the 2016 season, it appears the Jayhawks will not be the ones to break Baylor's record of 29 consecutive conference losses -- at least not for a long time.
Damien Williams, Brennan Clay and backup QB Trevor Knight combined for 337 yards. Going 2-to-1 on the run-pass ratio did the job this week against the Cyclones. That ISU team is also a bit of a mess at this point, so maybe it's safer -- for now -- to hold off on saying OU made some grand discovery in its run game.
5. TCU's nightmare season is almost over: The two newest members of the Big 12 are both now 4-7 and will not go bowling. But we expected West Virginia to take a step back in 2013 after basically overhauling its entire offense. The Big 12 media believed TCU would be the No. 3 team in the league this fall. Wrong on that one. For the third time this season, the Horned Frogs lost a game by three points or fewer. They've lost by more than two TDs only once. They've had bad luck and bad injuries. It's just not their year. TCU finishes with a visit from Baylor in two weeks, and Gary Patterson will have his players treating that one like their bowl game.
Record: 8-1 (5-1 Big 12)
All-time record vs. Texas: 4-23
Last game: Like Texas, Oklahoma State earned a relatively easy win over Kansas, 42-6, this past Saturday and didn’t need a great performance on offense to do so. Justin Gilbert took the opening kickoff to the house, Clint Chelf threw for 235 yards and three scores and OSU pretty much had this one wrapped up by halftime with a 28-0 lead. One issue worth noting: Leading receiver Josh Stewart did suffer a leg injury and missed the rest of the game.
Last meeting with Texas: A last-second victory for the Longhorns on par with Texas’ nailbiter against West Virginia this past weekend. David Ash led a game-winning drive capped by a controversial Joe Bergeron touchdown with 29 seconds left to escape Stillwater with a 41-36 victory. Jaxon Shipley caught three touchdowns and Ash came through big with a 29-yard pass to D.J. Grant on fourth down with the game on the line, then a 32-yard pass to Mike Davis, who made an acrobatic catch to set up the winning score. This was also one of the first fall-apart games for Texas’ defense in 2012. The Pokes went for 576 total yards and Joseph Randle burned Texas for 199 yards and two scores on the ground.
Key player: Chelf has been playing some nice ball the past two weeks since regaining the starting quarterback job for the Cowboys. He lit Texas Tech up for 299 total yards and four touchdowns, including two on the ground, and was solid against KU. West Virginia’s Paul Millard exploited Texas’ pass coverage on several occasions Saturday, and Chelf is capable of doing the same -- though that won’t be as easy if he doesn’t have top playmaker Stewart at his disposal.
Why Oklahoma State might win: Do not underestimate these Pokes. They’ve reeled off five straight wins since the 30-21 upset loss to West Virginia, found their run game with the bruising Desmond Roland and have one of the best defenses in the Big 12 under new coordinator Glenn Spencer. They know what’s on the line this weekend: If they want to win the Big 12, they must beat Texas.
Why Oklahoma State might lose: Case McCoy magic, obviously. No, truthfully this will be a brawl of a ballgame and Texas is at a big disadvantage if Johnathan Gray is unavailable. If McCoy can limit his turnovers (six interceptions in his last four games) and Texas’ defense can get past the WVU shootout and back to playing at an elite level, the Longhorns have a chance. And they’ll be underdogs again this week, a role this team has embraced during its six-game winning streak.
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