Dallas Colleges: Shontrelle Johnson
Time for another set of predictions after a rough time in Week 2.
Let's get it started.
Last week: 5-3 (.625)
Season record: 14-3 (.824)
No. 15 TCU 44, Kansas 17: If Kansas had looked impressive last week against Rice, this would have looked like a very dangerous game for Big 12 newbie TCU. But the Jayhawks lost, giving Rice its first-ever win over a Big 12 opponent. Inexcusable. TCU's defense still has a lot to prove, but KU won't be able to slow down TCU on the ground or through the air, even at home.
Oklahoma State 51, Louisiana-Lafayette 24: The Ragin' Cajuns will be an interesting test for Oklahoma State's defense, which suddenly is offering plenty of reason for doubt. The offense should be fine, though, as long as the receivers tighten up and help quarterback Wes Lunt out by not dropping passes. Lunt racked up 436 yards last week in his first road start, and only one of his three interceptions was his fault.
No. 8 West Virginia 61, James Madison 13: Another week, another 60-pointer. JMU will control the clock early and frustrate the Mountaineers, who will spend a lot of time in the end zone over the final three quarters.
Baylor 55, Sam Houston State 20: If Baylor turns it over, this game could get scary quickly. Sam Houston State is better than the average college football fan realizes. The problem? So is Baylor. It should be another huge night for quarterback Nick Florence.
No. 14 Kansas State 38, North Texas 13: Lance Dunbar cannot save you now, Mean Green. Coach Dan McCarney is a good fit in Denton, but K-State is playing ridiculously good football, and nobody on North Texas' front line will be able to stop the Wildcats' running game.
Texas Tech 51, New Mexico 14: New Mexico is not very good. The jury is still out on Texas Tech, which finishes up its cupcake platter with the Lobos, winners of one game a year ago. We should see a good performance here on both sides of the ball for Texas Tech. We still don't know anything about the Red Raiders. Suit up for Iowa State in two weeks.
Iowa State 38, Western Illinois 10: How long until all the FCS games are done? Running back Shontrelle Johnson will get back into the groove with another 100-yard outing.
No. 12 Texas 24, Ole Miss 13: U-G-L-Y. This one should be interesting and filled with three-and-outs. Ultimately, Texas' running game will be too much late. Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown should punish the Ole Miss front seven and control possession in the fourth quarter, not allowing Ole Miss to rally late.
This week, I'm heading north to the Little Apple. Prepare yourselves, Kansas State fans. It's been a little while since I've been to Manhattan, but I'll be covering the Wildcats' game against the U in person. Should be a fun trip.
On to this week's picks!
Last week: 9-0 (1.000)
Season record: 9-0 (1.000)
No. 21 Kansas State 27, Miami 20: Miami's offense looked solid in Week 1, but Kansas State is much better than BC. I'm not a big believer in Stephen Morris -- or the Hurricane defensive line's ability to slow Kansas State's running game. Collin Klein has to log a whole lot more than the 12 carries he got last week, but the Wildcats muscle out another win, and Klein tops 100 yards rushing.
Iowa 31, Iowa State 30: I wanted to pick Iowa State badly in this one. My gut's telling me to do it. Iowa is a middling Big Ten squad and the Cyclones have more playmakers than they get credit for with Shontrelle Johnson and Steele Jantz. My head, though? I just couldn't do it. These defensive lines are going to get dominated in the running game, but the Hawkeyes hold home field and give the Big 12 its first loss of the season. James Vandenburg makes the throws he has to make to get the win.
Kansas 38, Rice 20: KU got a win last week, but the Jayhawks are capable of playing a whole lot better. They do. Tony Pierson has another huge game and Dayne Crist gets his completion percentage back over 60. Confidence is building in Lawrence.
No. 17 TCU 59, Grambling State 13: The Tigers lost a heartbreaker last week in the final minutes to Alcorn State. It's not getting any better. The atmosphere in this one should be electric. The game itself? Bring a pillow, friends.
Texas Tech 37, Texas State 24: Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! For a while, anyway. I don't know what to make of Texas State, but it took some time for Tech to regain its footing last week against Northwestern State. I think the Red Raiders take care of business in this one with a strong second half, but on the road against a hyped crowd and a team hungry to prove something? Not many teams are immune to that kind of thing. Tech wears down the Bobcats late.
No. 5 Oklahoma 58, Florida A&M 3: Good grief, I hate games against FCS teams.
No. 15 Texas 41, New Mexico 13: More interesting game here than it seems. Still want to see more from David Ash, and for now, the defense doesn't really matter. Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley can run by the Lobos' defense, but can Ash find them?
No. 16 Oklahoma State 44, Arizona 21: Why didn't I put OSU on upset alert this week? Going on the road as a double-digit favorite against a Pac-12 team? My instincts tell me OSU is a lot better than anybody thinks ... and Arizona is a lot worse. Pokes make it 3-for-3 in routs against the Wildcats in three different stadiums over the past 16 games. Wes Lunt hits 300 yards. Joseph Randle goes for 100 and two scores.
Here's how I sort out the league after Week 1:
1. West Virginia (1-0, last week: 2) The Mountaineers were the league's most impressive team in Week 1, and grab the No. 1 spot ahead of Oklahoma after the Sooners' near disaster in Week 1. You heard plenty about West Virginia's offense Saturday. Everybody on that unit, from the QBs to receivers, backs and O-line, validated it. Just have to do it every week. If that happens, this squad's winning the Big 12 title -- and maybe more.
2. Oklahoma (1-0, last week: 1) Be very concerned, Sooners fans, but don't come anywhere close to writing this team off. The offense was awful, but the defense was strong. For now, chemistry on offense can be a legitimate excuse, with room to grow. Landry Jones entered the night with one receiver who had ever caught a ball from him in a game, and the offensive line was still trying to replace a pair of three-year starters.
3. Kansas State (1-0, last week: 3) The Wildcats started slow, but where the heck did that 35-point fourth quarter come from? A pretty good performance from Collin Klein, but it seems clear that Bill Snyder is trying to limit the punishment Optimus Klein takes when he doesn't need to take it. He had 12 carries Saturday night. He got 25 carries in the opener last year, and 13 in a rout over Kansas. Twelve was a new low for him as a starting QB.
4. Oklahoma State (1-0, last week: 6) Don't overreact to this one, folks. The one encouraging thing you can take from Saturday? Even though his receivers were constantly wide open, Wes Lunt looked really good, connecting with Isaiah Anderson on a deep ball downfield for his biggest highlight of the night. Who figured OSU would win a game by 84 points and its starting QB wouldn't throw a TD, though?
5. Texas (1-0, last week: 4) The Longhorns started slow, and were one of just three teams to trail on Saturday, along with Iowa State and Oklahoma. Still, this won't be the first time Texas grinds out a win, or the last time it notches two 100-yard rushers.
6. Baylor (1-0, last week: 7) The Bears didn't look much different with Nick Florence at the helm, but the Big 12's no joke. The defense looks much improved, but tougher tests await than a Garrett Gilbert still trying to get his sea legs in a new offense. I was impressed, and the upside with this group is high, but the battle among this league's top eight teams is going to be brutal. Somebody's got to be really disappointed eventually. The Bears know how to win tight games, though. That helps.
7. TCU (0-0, last week: 5) The Frogs held a fan appreciation day on Saturday, but get to christen the sparkling new Amon G. Carter Stadium, fresh off a $164 million upgrade, against Grambling State next week. The place looks nothing like the old stadium. No shame in dropping two spots. Baylor and Oklahoma State played well enough to hop over the Frogs.
8. Texas Tech (1-0, last week: 8) Good day from Tech with the 44-6 win over FCS Northwestern State. It needed to experience a win pretty badly. The Red Raiders ended their five-game losing streak, but this set of backs is sneaky underrated. Eric Stephens, SaDale Foster and Kenny Williams will be fun to watch. Is there a budding star in Lubbock in TE Jace Amaro, too?
9. Iowa State (1-0, last week: 9) The Cyclones' flaws were on display early with some offensive troubles and a defense getting picked apart by a passer not as skilled as what ISU will normally see in Big 12 play. Its strengths were on display late, though. This team is underrated along the offensive line, and Shontrelle Johnson teams up with James White to make a really good backfield. Good win. Not enough to leapfrog Texas Tech.
10. Kansas (1-0, last week 10) KU looked a little shaky at times, and Dayne Crist's stat line (17-36, 169 yards, TD, INT) won't wow anybody. Still, his level of skill at the position is obvious, and an upgrade over what KU's used to seeing these past few years. Still some work to do defensively, though. Can't get away with giving up 99-yard rushing touchdowns in the Big 12.
I'm coming to your game today, too, so you'll survive. I'll have plenty of coverage from Waco throughout the night.
On to the helmet stickers!
Geno Smith, QB, WVU: Geno's debut as a member of the Big 12 was by far the most impressive of the day. The man validated his status as the league's Preseason Offensive Player of the Year. He completed 32 of 36 passes for 323 yards and four scores, and looked sharper than any QB in the Big 12 as the Mountaineers rolled over Marshall, 69-34. Just about every throw was on the money, at every level of the defense. He broke into the school's record books in style today, breaking Marc Bulger's records for career completions (651) and touchdown passes (60).
Shontrelle Johnson, RB, Iowa State: Only a few months ago, Johnson wasn't sure if he'd ever play football again. In his first game back, he set a career high with 120 rushing yards and scored his only touchdown of the day to ice a huge 38-23 win over Tulsa. The Cyclones rallied from an early nine-point deficit to score 24 consecutive points, and Johnson was a big part of the attack. Great to see him back on the field after a very scary neck injury early last season.
John Hubert, RB, Kansas State: Hubert took center stage after playing second fiddle to Collin Klein for most of last season. He had the league's longest play of the day, racing 95 yards for a touchdown to put K-State up three scores in its 51-9 win over Missouri State that featured a 35-point fourth quarter. He finished with 152 yards on just 12 carries, an average of more than 12 yards per touch.
Oklahoma State's offensive line: No big test for the Cowboys in their 84-0 win over Savannah State, but the ever-revolving unit had its starters on the bench by the end of the first quarter and the Cowboys kept rolling over the Tigers. They finished with a pair of 100-yard rushers, and compiled 395 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground. The Cowboys scored 12 touchdowns on the day, and their starting quarterback didn't have an incompletion in his first career start. The competition was bad, but this unit will have to nitpick to find issues in its game this week.
Texas Tech's defense: This unit's taken its lumps lately, and that's not to say it wasn't deserved. Still, after their opening night performance, the unit deserves a helmet sticker. Northwestern State's no juggernaut, but the Red Raiders allowed just 84 total yards in the 44-6 win. Both field goals were from beyond 45 yards, and the league's worst run defense last year gave up just 13 yards on 28 carries. Strong stuff, no matter the opponent. Tech gave up just six first downs and allowed Northwestern State quarterbacks just 71 yards on 11-of-21 passing. Who leads the Big 12 in defense now? Oh, I think you know, even if it's temporary.
"He tore pretty much everything," coach Tommy Tuberville said of his back, who also dislocated his knee. Doctors gave the swelling in Stephens' knee more than a month to calm down before operating.
"We discussed that. It could be less or could be more. It just depends on the situation, how he’s doing, how he reacts," he said.
Stephens performed well in fall camp after suffering the injury early last season, derailing a likely 1,000-yard season that would have been Tech's first since 1998. The only noticeable difference now is Stephens is a little overweight and looks about 90-95 percent of his usual self.
"That’s not the knee problem, he just hasn’t played football in a long time," Tuberville said. "I don’t think physically there’s a problem at all. I’m sure he’s more than 100 percent ready to go with the knee. ... I’ve never had a serious injury like that, but I can just imagine being a major college running back and getting hit all around high and low for the first time in 10-11 months, it’d be awful tough mentally."
The offseason was rough on Iowa State's Shontrelle Johnson mentally, too. Doctors doubted whether he'd return to the game after suffering a neck injury last year against Texas. He missed the spring, but doctors cleared him just before fall camp and his long-awaited return is set for Saturday afternoon against Tulsa.
"Shontrelle’s done an excellent job and had zero ill effects coming back from neck surgery this offseason," Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said. "He’ll be on the field early. If camp is any indication, we think he’s ready to go."
Oklahoma senior running back Dominique Whaley suffered an ugly broken ankle when a player landed on the back of his legs in a win over Kansas State. He'll be on the field early for the Sooners after earning the starting job once again.
"In my mind he looks to be back to what Dom always was, that's explosive, strong, fast," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. Whether he's 100 percent or not, maybe only he and the good Lord really know. But he sure looks it to me. I'm hopeful that will be the case."
Oklahoma rival running backs Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown of Texas were banged up with various minor injuries last season, but a renewed focus on health, diet and fitness has hopes high that the duo will be able to stay on the field in 2012.
The running back whose status is most in doubt? West Virginia's Dustin Garrison. The sophomore led the Mountaineers in rushing as a freshman, but suffered an injury later than any other Big 12 back. He tore his ACL in preparation for the Mountaineers' 70-33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Soreness led coaches to give him a few days off last week, but if he doesn't respond well to practice this week, he could redshirt in 2012, ceding the starting spot to bigger back Shawne Alston, a senior.
"The plan all along has been get him to game week and then get him out there and see what happens," Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said.
Let's get started.
1. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State: Randle is the Big 12's only returning 1,000-yard running back, and even the league's best back has something to prove in 2012. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon took a ton of pressure off him and opened up a lot of space. Can he help carry the offense early this season with a true freshman at quarterback and unproven receivers in the passing game?
3. John Hubert, Kansas State: Life is good for Hubert when defenses focus heavily on quarterback Collin Klein, but you can't argue with his production. He averaged nearly five yards a carry and racked up 970 rushing yards last season.
4. Waymon James, TCU: James averaged a silly 7.23 yards per carry last season, leading TCU's trio of backs in rushing, though all three had between 120 and 123 carries (seriously). Ed Wesley is gone, and James' yards per carry average will drop as he faces tougher defenses this season, but he's still a big talent.
5. Jeremy Smith, Oklahoma State: Smith is the forgotten man in Oklahoma State's backfield until he keeps his legs churning and converts third downs, and chips a blitzing nickel back in the backfield to give Wes Lunt a couple more seconds to get rid of the ball. He's faster than he gets credit for, and averaged better than seven yards a carry in the Big 12 last season, the league's second-highest average.
6. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech: Stephens' season was cut way short last year by an awful knee injury. There's no telling how he'll look when the season starts back up, but not many guys were better than him over the first half of last season.
7. Dominique Whaley, Oklahoma: Whaley's season was cut short, too. He suffered a broken ankle, but the former walk-on is back and will try and make a run at a 1,000-yard season for the Sooners' pass-heavy offense. If he plays like he did last season before the injury, expect it to happen, and expect him to hog the carries in a crowded backfield.
8. Matthew Tucker, TCU: Tucker joins James in TCU's backfield. He scored 12 touchdowns last season, which ranks second among returning Big 12 running backs. Without Wesley, Tucker is due for more touches. The trio combined for more than 2,300 yards on the ground last season. Watching Tucker and James race for 1,000-yard seasons will be fun.
9. Roy Finch, Oklahoma: Finch loves to put defenders in the spin cycle, but could hardly get on the field last season until Whaley was injured. Once he did, though, he made a big impact. He topped 83 yards four times in five weeks late last season, but he has to be more consistent. He also had four yards on six carries against Iowa. We'll see if he showcases his explosiveness as a junior in 2012.
10. James White, Iowa State: Iowa State badly needed White to step up when Shontrelle Johnson went down with a neck injury, and White did. He topped 135 yards twice after Johnson's injury and scored eight times, including two in a triple-overtime win against Iowa early in the season.
Honorable mention: Dustin Garrison, West Virginia; Joe Bergeron, Texas; James Sims, Kansas; Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State; Tony Pierson, Kansas
Remember, these are preseason predictions. We'll obviously still do week-to-week picks once the season arrives, and they might change between now and then. There are a lot of preseason practices, and a lot of games between now and the end of the season.
There are always teams that disappoint and teams that surprise. But here's how I see the Big 12 shaking out in Week 12.
My predictions for Week 12 in the Big 12:
Oklahoma 41, West Virginia 38: Just one more stop was all Oklahoma needed. It got it. The Big 12 Game of the Year lives up to the hype, and it's decided by two of the league's best talents. Tony Jefferson makes an acrobatic interception on a Geno Smith ball intended for Stedman Bailey in the final minute to seal the game. Landry Jones tosses four touchdowns and has all day to throw. He's not sacked once, and hardly ever knocked down to dirty his jersey. Those big-game jitters on the road? Jones did a heck of a job silencing them on this night ... but one more dangerous road game awaits.
Oklahoma State 44, Texas Tech 31: Wes Lunt keeps getting better, and slings three touchdown passes, including two in the red zone to Blake Jackson. The Cowboys don't run all over a handcuffed Texas Tech squad as they did in 2011's 60-point victory in Lubbock, but OSU wins this one convincingly to put Texas Tech's bowl hopes on thin ice.
Kansas State 24, Baylor 20: Just like last year's game, this one comes down to the wire, but Bill Snyder goes with the gutsy play in the final seconds, giving the ball to his Honey Badger on a run-pass option in the red zone on third down, instead of kicking the game-tying field goal. Quarterback Collin Klein drags two Baylor defenders into the end zone and proves the Big 12's silver fox still has plenty of magic left. K-State's ball-control offense hogties its powerful Baylor counterpart into one of its lowest outputs of the season.
Iowa State 17, Kansas 13: Kansas keeps threatening, but the Cyclones duo of Shontrelle Johnson and James White overcomes a pair of fumbles to win this one, icing it late with a six-yard run from Johnson to seal the game with a first down near midfield. Kansas' offense looks out of sorts in its final home game of the year, and even though the Jayhawks keep looking competitive, they can't get over the hump.
BIG 12 STANDINGS (after Week 12)
1. Oklahoma: 10-0 (7-0)
2. West Virginia: 9-2 (6-2)
2. Kansas State: 9-2 (6-2)
4. Texas: 8-2 (5-2)
5. TCU: 7-3 (4-3)
5. Oklahoma State: 7-3 (4-3)
7. Baylor: 5-5 (2-5)
8. Texas Tech: 5-6 (2-6)
9. Iowa State: 4-7 (2-6)
10. Kansas: 3-8 (0-8)
ESPN Insider KC Joyner named his top five in college football this year, and Texas' Malcolm Brown is the only Big 12 player on the list.
The Longhorns' schedule strength is based on a projection that could change somewhat as the Big 12 finalizes its 2012 slate, but it was still favorable enough to make colleague Ryan McGee's list of the top 10 early schedule winners of 2012.
Add that to the four returning starters on the offensive line and things would seem to look great for Brown the upcoming season.
Well, they would until one reviews Brown's YPC and GBYPA totals, both of which ranked dead last in this comparison. It's not as if the Longhorns had a bad run-blocking win rate, either, so some of this has to fall on Brown. If the schedule stays just as favorable and Brown can improve his yards per carry rates, an All-Big 12 conference honor could be in his near future.
So what about other backs in the Big 12?
Here's a few guys I'd keep an eye on:
Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State: Johnson had a chance to break out in 2011, but suffered a neck injury early and missed the rest of the season. He's a shifty back with lots of speed, too. James White and Jeff Woody filled in well for Johnson this year, but Johnson is a highlight reel waiting to happen.
Eric Stephens, Texas Tech: Stephens was in the process of breaking out in 2011 before suffering a dislocated knee early in conference play and before the Red Raiders closed the season on a five-game losing streak. He's expected to return in 2012. He was easily on track to become the first Tech running back to rush for 1,000 yards before the injury.
Johnathan Gray, Texas: So, he's not a Longhorn just yet, but Texas has the nation's No. 1 running back coming to campus next year after reeling in Brown, the nation's No. 2 running back, in its 2011 class. Gray broke the national record with 209 career rushing touchdowns, and he figures to score a few times in his first year on campus, too. Carries will be hotly contested in Austin next year, but Mr. Football USA, according to ESPN HS, will try to earn his touches.
Lache Seastrunk/Glasco Martin, Baylor: Seastrunk was another highly recruited player (No. 6 RB in 2010 class), but transferred to Baylor from Oregon and had to sit out 2011. Martin's got plenty of talent, too. They'll join Jarred Salubi in 2012 to try and replace Terrance Ganaway. Baylor's had a 1,200-yard rusher in each of the past two seasons. You have to like one of those three players' chances to continue the streak in 2012.
In this position, unlike quarterback, depth is a major, major factor in these rankings.
1. Texas A&M
The Aggies had the two most talented backs, and despite injuries to both, proved it through an otherwise frustrating 2011. Christine Michael suffered a torn ACL, but still managed 899 yards on just 149 carries. Cyrus Gray injured his shoulder late in the season, but secured his second consecutive 1,000-yard season and ranked third in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 198 times. This duo should have easily surpassed 1,000 yards, but even when they were injured, Ben Malena played well in the final two games.
Mizzou dealt with injuries, too, first to Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore. Cue Henry Josey. Josey became the best back in the Big 12 this year before suffering a major knee injury that included torn ligaments. He may not be back in 2012. His 1,168 yards were third most in the Big 12, despite carrying the ball just 145 times. Lawrence finished 12th with 566 yards.
3. Oklahoma State
Joseph Randle stole the show this year, rushing for 24 scores and ranking second in the Big 12 with 1,216 yards. Only Collin Klein ran for more touchdowns and Terrance Ganaway was the only player with more yardage. Still, Jeremy Smith had averaged more than 7 yards a carry, and he'd be able to start for anyone else in the league. Herschel Sims showed promise, too, with 242 yards on 31 carries.
Ganaway led the Big 12 in rushing with huge performances late in the season, including a 200-yard, five-touchdown game in his final outing as a college athlete in the Alamo Bowl. He averaged more than 6 yards on his 250 carries and had 330 more yards than any other back in the league. Jarred Salubi added 331 yards, too.
Texas' Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were banged-up late in the season, but Fozzy Whittaker played well until suffering a torn ACL against Missouri, too. Scatback D.J. Monroe was effective in the passing game as well. Four running backs topped 300 yards and Brown led the team with 742 yards, despite missing three games and having his carries limited early in the season.
Oklahoma got great contributions from walk-on Dominique Whaley early on, and he proved to be the team's most effective runner and best runner between the tackles. He fractured his ankle in midseason, and finished with just 627 yards to lead the team. Roy Finch emerged late in the seasons after a quiet first half and added 605 yards.
KU's James Sims led the team in rushing again with 727 yards. Darrian Miller was excellent, too, with 559 yards, though he was dismissed after the season. Freshmen Tony Pierson and Brandon Bourbon have plenty of promise, both averaging more than 5.5 yards a carry in 2011. The bad news: All their carries were limited by an awful defense that limited KU's chances to run the ball.
8. Kansas State
K-State's rushing attack centered around Klein, but John Hubert, a slippery back from Waco, Texas, had a good year. Hubert was seventh in the Big 12 with 970 yards. Bryce Brown offered basically nothing to K-State, and beyond Klein and Hubert, the Wildcats were pretty thin. Additionally, without Klein, would Hubert have duplicated his success?
9. Texas Tech
An awful knee injury derailed Eric Stephens' likely 1,000-yard season, and the rest of Texas Tech's backfield got banged-up, too. Stephens will probably return in 2012 from his dislocated knee, and finished with 565 yards, 17th in the Big 12. Aaron Crawford and DeAndre Washington both topped 300 yards.
10. Iowa State
ISU lost Shontrelle Johnson for the season early on, but James White filled in well. He finished with 743 yards, which ranked ninth in the Big 12. Jeff Woody had 380 yards and provided quality carries late, including the game-winning touchdown against Oklahoma State.
Texas running back Fozzy Whittaker, who scored nine touchdowns this year, also went down with a torn ACL in Saturday's victory over Missouri.
Two weeks ago, Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles and Texas A&M running back Christine Michael suffered torn ACLs and will miss the remainder of the season. K-State receiver/kick returner Tyler Lockett is out for the season with a lacerated kidney.
Oklahoma running back Dominique Whaley suffered a fractured ankle and Iowa State running back Shontrelle Johnson injured his neck early in the season while he was still the Cyclones' leading rusher. Texas Tech running back Eric Stephens' likely 1,000-yard season, the first in Lubbock since Ricky Williams in 1998, ended on a dislocated knee suffered in a loss to Texas A&M.
That said, there's still plenty of big talent still standing around the injury-riddled league.
|Baylor QB Robert Griffin III on last week's narrow victory over Kansas, his Heisman hopes, this week's game against Oklahoma and more. |
Is it Heisman contender Brandon Weeden, who leads the league in passing yards and has dished out a league-leading 31 touchdown passes at the helm of Oklahoma State's explosive offense?
Is it do-everything quarterback Robert Griffin III at Baylor, who engineered a dramatic 21-point comeback against Kansas last week to put the Bears into the postseason for the second consecutive season after a 16-year drought?
What about OSU receiver Justin Blackmon? He's likely the biggest talent in Stillwater, and the only game he missed in the past two seasons was the one time the Cowboys were held under 30 points, a 24-14 victory over Kansas State last October.
What about the nation's leader in rushing touchdowns, K-State quarterback Collin Klein? With Josey down, he's now the Big 12's leading rusher, and only two players in the FBS have more carries.
Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones is the last man standing at OU, playing without his leading receiver, Broyles, and leading rusher, Whaley. What would happen to the Sooners if he went down?
So, who's the most irreplaceable? Vote in our poll.
Oh yes, I'm proud to announce this season we're pulling off a big debut.
I'll be in Waco, Texas, for Baylor's Friday-night tangle with TCU.
Then, I'll be making the trek Sunday to College Station for Texas A&M's game against SMU. Lots of Texas football in Week 1.
Last year, I was pretty happy with my predictions. I had a couple of rough weeks in conference play, but I rode a strong start and finished second (I think) among our bloggers.
On to the first set of predictions for the year ...
Last year: 77-19 (.802)
Overall: 0-0 (.000)
TCU 24, Baylor 21: This is my pick of the week. Come back later today for a video in which I explain the pick.
No. 21 Missouri 31, Miami (Ohio) 17: The RedHawks are underrated, and don't command a lot of respect ... until they take the field. The Tigers' offense will have a few kinks to work out, but will go home with a 1-0 record.
Iowa State 24, Northern Iowa 10: A rocky start for the new quarterback in Ames, too, but the Cyclones get the job done and Shontrelle Johnson loudly makes his presence known.
Kansas 27, McNeese State 17: Not sold on Kansas' ability to put up big points just yet, but there won't be an FCS embarrassment this time around. Right? Right??
Kansas State 41, Eastern Kentucky 10: The Colonels will have nightmares of Collin Klein running the zone read all the way back to Kentucky.
No. 8 Oklahoma State 62, Louisiana-Lafayette 24: Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon will be rocking ballcaps on the sideline for a front-row seat to the fourth quarter.
Texas Tech 55, Texas State 17: This game? Well, it's ... it's not going to be good. Seth Doege will make sure the entire Bobcats defense is 100 percent sure how to dougie by game's end.
No. 1 Oklahoma 41, Tulsa 27: This one's close for a half, and it's not pretty, but G.J. Kinne forces the issue late and the Sooners get away clean. Damaris Johnson is badly missed.
Texas 34, Rice 13: Texas shows a lot of promise in this one, but on the back of its running game. It's only Rice, so scale back your expectations on this solid performance.
No. 9 Texas A&M 34, SMU 24: Like Miami (Ohio), SMU is way underrated. The SEC talk isn't a distraction for the Aggies, but SMU's offense is. The Ponies get in a couple of early shots against a maturing front seven, but the Aggies take control in the second half. (No, SMU, you can't get in the Big 12 by winning this game.)
Here's the top 10's you've missed so far:
Running back is one of the weakest position groups in the Big 12 heading into 2011, a change from last year's extremely strong class. Just one of the league's top 11 rushers returns, and part of the success from last season was because of so much experience at the position. There are a few guys on this list with upside, but only a few are truly established. Some guys might make good on their upside, but for now, running back joins cornerback and defensive line as the league's weakest positions.
Also, if you haven't played a snap in the Big 12, you're not included on this list. (Also, if your last name is Brown.)
2. Christine Michael, Texas A&M -- Before Gray took off, Michael was far outperforming his teammate and looked headed for a 1,000-yard season after rushing for 844 yards and 10 scores in 2009. He was at 631 yards through eight games before breaking his leg, and no player in the Big 12 could top his 2009 effort. Despite playing just over half the season, he still ranked 14th in the Big 12 in rushing. Considering 10 of the top 11 rushers in the league are gone, it's easy to see why the powerful, 5-foot-11, 215-pounder is No. 2 on the list.
3. Roy Finch, Oklahoma -- Finch showed lots of flash last season in spot duty behind DeMarco Murray before aggravating a foot injury that kept him out of the first half of the season. He'll have to stay healthy to make good on his potential, and despite being on the All-Big 12 preseason team, he's not on his own team's depth chart just yet. He'll have to jump over Brennan Clay and Jonathan Miller to get his touches in a crowded backfield that will likely carry the load by committee this season.
4. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State -- Randle was extremely valuable last season out of the backfield, catching 37 passes for 427 yards and a key touchdown against Texas A&M. That was more receptions than any running back outside of DeMarco Murray, but this year, he'll join Jeremy Smith in trying to replace Kendall Hunter, who ran for more than 1,500 yards last season.
5. Eric Stephens, Texas Tech -- Stephens has been underrated and underexposed behind starter Baron Batch, but his time looks like it has finally come. The Red Raiders have a deep backfield, but Stephens is its top talent, averaging 5.26 yards on his 127 carries last season, leading the team with six touchdowns.
6. James Sims, Kansas -- Sims was one of the bright spots in a dark year for Kansas football last season, taking over the starting role after a season-opening loss to North Dakota State and rushing for 101 yards in an upset win against Georgia Tech. Sims also scored four of his nine touchdowns in a comeback win against Colorado. I'd expect Sims' touches to take a slight hit with Darrian Miller on campus now, but he was extremely productive considering the Jayhawks' lack of a passing game, which ranked 105th nationally last season.
7. Shontrelle Johnson, Iowa State -- Johnson's lateral movement reminds me a bit of Finch, but he's got a lot of speed and if Iowa State's offensive line gets him a crack, he can be a home-run hitter. He was stuck behind Alexander Robinson last season, but Johnson averaged 6.2 yards on the limited carries he got, turning them into a pair of touchdowns. That's the highest average of any returning Big 12 back.
8. De'Vion Moore, Missouri -- Missouri doesn't have a big time back, but it doesn't need one. Moore led a group of four backs that combined to rush for more than 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns last seaosn. Look out for shifty Henry Josey to slide in and unseat Moore to lead the team in rushing, but Moore will get lots of touches in the red zone this season, and he's great at finding a crease. No Tigers running back got more than 100 carries last season, and that might still be the case, but Missouri truly proved that a running back platoon can be extremely successful, even if it lacks a game-changer at the top of the depth chart.
9. Terrance Ganaway, Baylor -- Ganaway is the bowling ball third of a good trio at Baylor. Jarred Salubi is the shiftier third and Glasco Martin is the young guy with lots of hype. All three should form a solid group. Art Briles said this week at media days that he'd love for one of them to separate themselves, but also understands it might not happen with this group.
10. Fozzy Whittaker, Texas -- Whittaker has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career, but rushed for 351 yards last season and enters the season as the starter ahead of Cody Johnson. He'll have to hold off promising freshman Malcolm Brown as well as Johnson, but for now, the Longhorns' running backs have a lot to prove in a new offense built to help them succeed.
Last year's class was one of the best in recent history, but this year's class? Unassuming to begin the season. There are a few possible stars looming, but very, very little talent returning. Cyrus Gray ranked seventh in rushing yards last year (thanks to an insane finish), but he's the only player returning to the Big 12 from the conferences' top 10 rushers in 2010.
The Aggies are the only team with a truly elite backfield tandem, though I could see Oklahoma and/or Oklahoma State joining that group by the end of the year.
The rest of the league? Every team has at least a couple of players to get excited about, and teams 5-10 are all pretty close. No one is really understaffed at the position, but obviously, they're fit to be ranked.
Here's where I have them:
1. Texas A&M
Oklahoma will try and replace do-everything forever (or whatever) back DeMarco Murray with a platoon likely led by shifty Florida native Roy Finch. True freshman Brandon Williams made a big impact in spring camp, and Brennan Clay will likely earn a few touches, too. Health concerns raise questions about a pair of other OU backs' knees (Jermie Calhoun, Jonathan Miller), but walk-on Dominique Whaley led the team in rushing in the spring game.
3. Oklahoma State
The Cowboys have a great pair in sophomores Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, and a nice set of backs to spell them if needed, too. Kye Staley, once a top-flight recruit, returned this spring after quitting the team following a severe knee injury, and might earn a few touches this spring. Also, Abilene, Texas, native and 2011 ESPNU 150 signee Herschel Sims arrives this fall and may jockey for time and the opportunity to shed a redshirt.
What the Tigers lack in a truly elite back, they have in depth. Missouri has four backs who are all capable of being very good in the Big 12, even though neither of the four topped 600 yards a year ago. A big reason for that was none of the four got more than 100 carries, but with the carries they did get, every back averaged more than five yards per carry. The platoon approach works for Missouri, but senior De'Vion Moore and junior Kendial Lawrence will lead the way with sophomores Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy not far behind.
6. Texas Tech
The Red Raiders lose backfield constant Baron Batch, but have a good group lined up for 2011. Tommy Tuberville's effort to establish a more efficient running game is a realistic possibility with Eric Stephens as the likely feature back, and Aaron Crawford, Ben McRoy and Harrison Jeffers in the mix. True freshman Ronnie Daniels' strong spring likely earned him some time, too, rather than a redshirt.
Baylor loses a 1,200-yard rusher in Jay Finley, and figures to use a thunder-and-lightning approach with 6-foot, 240-pound bowling ball Terrance Ganaway and shifty, 5-foot-9, 205-pound Jarred Salubi. Glasco Martin, a more balanced back, may earn a few carries, too. Regardless of who has the ball, life is good for Baylor backs, who get a bit more room from defenses that are forced to respect Robert Griffin III's legs.
8. Kansas State
The Wildcats' top two rushers, including two-time league rushing champ Daniel Thomas, are gone. Hopes are high for Wichita native and former blue-chip back Bryce Brown, but he's still entrenched in a position battle with John Hubert and Robert Rose heading into fall camp.
Texas brings back a pair of seniors in Fozzy Whittaker and Cody Johnson, but if the Longhorns are going to climb up this ladder by year's end (and they might) it's likely to be on the back of hyped incoming freshman Malcolm Brown, who is on campus and set to begin fall camp. D.J. Monroe might be the fastest player in the Big 12, but he'll have to master the nuances of pass blocking to get more than a few touches every game. Jeremy Hills can offer some depth at the position, too, after Tre Newton was forced to quit the game because of concussions.
10. Iowa State
Shontrelle Johnson showed some flash last year, but he still brings just 35 career carries into his 2011 effort to replace Alexander Robinson. Jeff Woody and James White offer a bit more depth, too. Florida native DeVondrick Nealy might get into the mix if he can put together a strong fall camp.
The ball is kicked...
That's how it goes, right?
College basketball is over, but brackets live on forever. Or something. Anyway, inspired by our friends over at the SEC blog, we'll try our hand at a little bracketology on the football field.
What if the Big 12 played a single-elimination tournament?
Ten-team brackets are a little unusual and more complex than the NCAA Tournament bracket, so if you're unfamiliar, we'll be working off this bracket.
I seeded the tournament based on my pre-spring power rankings (which, admittedly, have fluctuated already since January) and in true NCAA Tournament fashion, all the games will be played on neutral sites. Additionally, these games will be played riiiiight ... now!
That means no incoming freshmen unless they enrolled early, and no time to settle position battles, get players healthy or improve.
Wrenches being thrown everywhere! The humanity!
So ... here we go.
No. 7 Texas Tech vs. No. 10 Kansas: Texas Tech may be breaking in a new quarterback, trying to work with new receivers and giving the ball to inexperienced running backs (albeit backs loaded with potential) but the Red Raiders should win this one easily. Kansas doesn't have the skill position talent to exploit the Red Raiders' defensive weaknesses and won't be able to stop them. Seth Doege has shown signs of being far better than competent, but the same can't be said for Kansas' quarterbacks. The Red Raiders should be pretty good up front and slow the Jayhawks' running backs. Texas Tech 34, Kansas 13
No. 8 Kansas State vs. No. 9 Iowa State: Last year's Farmageddon was an underrated game in terms of entertainment, but both teams lost their workhorses. Alexander Robinson and Daniel Thomas won't face off in this one, but Kansas State is the only team in the Big 12 who hasn't started spring practice yet. Undone by unforeseen scheduling! The Wildcats' revolving door of quarterbacks can't find a rhythm against the Cyclones, who use Jerome Tiller like Nebraska used Taylor Martinez last year and zone read the Wildcats with Tiller and Shontrelle Johnson for the upset win. Iowa State 21, Kansas State 17
No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 9 Iowa State: Last year, Oklahoma beat these guys 52-0 in Norman. It won't be that bad this time, but the Sooners return just about everybody (save the secondary) and Iowa State lost its two best players, Austen Arnaud and Robinson. Sometimes, it's just that simple. Oklahoma 48, Iowa State 13
No. 2 Texas A&M vs. No. 7 Texas Tech: Texas A&M's deep receiving corps has worked together for awhile and can definitely take advantage of Texas Tech's youth in the secondary. The Red Raiders' safeties had a nice spring and did a nice job grasping new defensive coordinator Chad Glasgow's system from TCU, but the Aggies just have too many offensive weapons. Another big day for Tannehill, who won't touch his school-record 449 yards like he did last time against Tech in his first career start, but he clears 300 yards. Texas A&M 31, Texas Tech 21
No. 3 Oklahoma State vs. No. 6 Baylor: Baylor got steamrolled in their first big test once they climbed atop the Big 12 South standings, falling behind 34-0 in Stillwater. Both teams bring back loads of talent, and Baylor's defense should be slightly improved, but still learning. Baylor learns from the big-game failures from last year, but Oklahoma State is still the better, more balanced team. Oklahoma State 38, Baylor 35
No. 4: Missouri vs. No. 5 Texas: The one game this round that didn't happen last year, Texas will have a tough time capitalizing on Missouri's two big question marks: Quarterback and secondary. Missouri goes with Tyler Gabbert for most of the game and mixes in James Franklin for a few series with good results. Texas tests the Tigers' deep with a newly aggressive offense, but none of the quarterbacks even came close to completing a deep ball on Sunday. Kip Edwards grabs a couple picks on balls forced into Mike Davis and the Tigers get enough offense for the win. Missouri 27, Texas 14
No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 4 Missouri: Missouri won't have a raucous crowd or a locker room bent on beating OU for the first time under their current coach this time around. Missouri hangs around early, but the Tigers don't have enough offense. Although Oklahoma is playing without All-Big 12 corner Jamell Fleming, Missouri still doesn't have a deep threat or a quarterback quite comfortable with trying to find one. The Sooners zero in on T.J. Moe and the running game and knock off the Tigers. Oklahoma 31, Missouri 24
No. 2 Texas A&M vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State: These two weren't separated by much last year, and I'd have loved to see them play one more time. Their 38-35 classic last year was one of the league's best games and both teams look loaded up for another big year. A&M still has defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, but Oklahoma State lost Dana Holgorsen. Bad news? Yes. But the good news for Oklahoma State is Texas A&M is missing three starters from the secondary this spring. Play this thing in July and we might have another classic. But now? Another heartbreak for the Aggies. Oklahoma State 34, Texas A&M 31
No. 1 Oklahoma vs. No. 3 Oklahoma State: Bedlam may very well decide the Big 12 title next November, and it decides our little bracket party here with a spring tournament. Both offenses are breaking in new offensive coordinators, but Oklahoma's Josh Heupel is much more ingrained in the system than Oklahoma State's Todd Monken, who was being taught the offense by the current Cowboys this spring. Both offenses lost big-name running backs, and both have solid replacements in line with depth. Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle at Oklahoma State match up well with Oklahoma's Roy Finch, Brandon Williams and Brennan Clay. Both have receiver depth and Oklahoma State should have an advantage against a young OU secondary. The league's co-Defensive Players of the Year, S Tony Jefferson of Oklahoma and LB Shaun Lewis of Oklahoma State, validate the award with big nights. But Oklahoma State has to convince me that it can win a big game with so much (humor me, here) on the line. It played well in last year's Bedlam but came up short. They're even closer this time, but Oklahoma takes home the title in another classic. Oklahoma 41, Oklahoma State 38 (OT)
Luther, take it away!
Spring practice starts: February 28
Spring game: April 2
What to watch:
- Big changes on defense. Baylor brought in Phil Bennett as its new defensive coordinator, and he says his scheme will be multiple, built to fit the Bears' personnel. Considering the Bears' recent recruiting successes in the secondary, look for a 4-2-5 type of look.
- Recruiting stars: time to shine. Both safeties, Tim Atchison and Byron Landor, are gone. Baylor, though, has two former ESPNU 150 recruits at safety who would be well served to start filling their potential. Prince Kent was a reserve last season and at one time, the nation's No. 51 overall recruit who originally signed with Miami. Ahmad Dixon, meanwhile, was the No. 15 overall prospect in the 2010 class. The opportunity is there. Baylor needs big talent at the position. Briles has recruited it. Can they develop into players who make Baylor a contender?
- Running back competition. Jay Finley topped 1,200 yards in 2010, but he's gone. Who steps into his void? Terrance Ganaway is a bowling ball at 5-foot-11, 235 pounds, but the shifty Jarred Salubi could get a good amount of carries, too. They could begin to share carries this spring.
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Quarterback competition. It should be a good one in Ames this spring. Jerome Tiller is the name most recognize after getting lots of meaningful time and starts because of injuries to Austen Arnaud over the past two seasons. But juco transfer Steele Jantz sounds confident he can win the job. Rising sophomore James Capello and redshirt freshman Jared Barnett will compete, too.
- Paging Cyclone receivers. Iowa State had one of the most underwhelming receiving corps in the league during the past season, and three of its top five pass-catchers won't return in 2011. Of those three, however, one is a tight end (Collin Franklin) and another is a running back (Alexander Robinson). The new quarterback will need some help, and Darius Darks and Darius Reynolds will need to provide it as seniors.
- Shontrelle's time or not? Freshman Shontrelle Johnson looked like the running back with the most pop behind Robinson for most of 2010, but two other freshmen running backs jockeyed for carries, too. Paul Rhoads is hardly handing the job over to Johnson, but spring could be the time when he really separates himself from the pack.
Spring practice starts: April 1
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- What are they doing behind center? Kansas never got much consistent play out of the quarterback position last year, but freshman Brock Berglund is one of the 2011 class' top recruits, and enrolled early to compete in the spring with Jordan Webb and Quinn Mecham. With a building program like Kansas, there's perhaps some value in handing the program to a younger player like Webb or Berglund, but they'll have to earn it. Doing so will start in the spring, but don't expect the Jayhawks to have a set-in-stone starter by spring's end.
- Top linebacker back on the field. Huldon Tharp missed all of 2010 with a foot injury, but he says he's 100 percent and ready to get back on the field. As a freshman in 2009, he was fifth on the team in tackles, with 59, and looked like one of the league's possible budding stars. Now, he'll get his chance to join fellow linebacker Steven Johnson as one of the team's top tacklers, and he'll do it as a sophomore after redshirting in 2010.
- Toben rising? Turner Gill raised plenty of eyebrows when he moved his team's leading rusher in 2009, Toben Opurum, to linebacker in fall camp, and eventually slid him up to defensive end. But toward the end of 2010, Opurum started showing some major signs of growth at the position. We'll get a better idea this spring if he's one of the league's most unlikely new stars at defensive end.
Spring practice starts: April 6
Spring game: April 30
What to watch:
- Prodigal Kansan sons come home. There's no doubt that the Wichita native Brown brothers are the main attraction at Kansas State this spring, a season after transferring back home. Bryce Brown, the running back, was the nation's No. 8 prospect in the 2009 class. Arthur Brown, the linebacker, was the nation's No. 6 prospect in the 2008 class. Bryce transferred from Tennessee and Arthur from Miami. The Wildcats are pinning much of their hopes on the duo, and we'll get a good sense of what they can provide soon.
- Quarterback competition. Carson Coffman is gone, and two new faces will challenge for the job: juco transfer Justin Tuggle and Daniel Sams. Sammuel Lamur is also up for the gig. Collin Klein may or may not be; Bill Snyder hasn't explicitly confirmed a past comment from Sams saying Klein had moved to receiver. Don't expect a starter to be named by spring's end, but a general order could start to form.
- Can the defense show improvement? Kansas State had the Big 12's worst overall defense last year, and the worst rushing defense in college football, giving up 3,008 yards on the ground. Coordinator Chris Cosh looks like he'll still be around in 2011, and defensive backs David Garrett and Tysyn Hartman are solid pieces to try and build around. But this young maturing defense must get better to make a bowl game again with so many questions on offense. That starts in the spring.
Spring practice starts: March 8
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Franklin comes alive! Blaine Gabbert bolted to the NFL early, and Missouri has a gaping hole a quarterback. The position, however, is surrounded by a lot of quality talent that likely makes the Tigers a Top 25 team. There's no understating the importance of the position for the Tigers, and that will begin to be decided in the spring. James Franklin, a rising sophomore, saw spot duty in 2010 as more of a runner, and may have the inside track on the job, but Tyler Gabbert, Blaine's younger brother, and Ashton Glaser should make it an interesting competition in the spring. If neither of them impress early, don't count out incoming freshman Corbin Berkstresser.
- Here is the new secondary. Same as the old secondary? After years of pass defense being one of the Tigers' biggest weaknesses, it became a strength in 2010 behind the leadership of senior corners Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis. But the Tigers lose them and safety Jarrell Harrison. Rutland emerged as one of the team's most impressive players last spring, but was Missouri's success in the secondary a one-time thing or the beginning of a welcome trend?
- Time to dominate the trenches? Missouri played without likely first-round pick Aldon Smith for much of the previous season, but the defensive and offensive lines for the Tigers were as good as ever in 2010. How will they look in 2011? Impact juco transfer Sheldon Richardson won't be enrolled by the spring, but the four returning starters on the offensive line should get some solid work against Brad Madison, Jacquies Smith and Terrell Resonno.
Spring practice starts: March 21
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Freshmen on display. Coach Bob Stoops hasn't been shy about saying his 2010 recruiting class was his best ever, but it could look even better after this spring. Two of his best emerging recruits, Justin McCay and Geneo Grissom, didn't even play in 2010, and could start to make an impact. The same goes for Corey Nelson, who will try to earn some more time somewhere backing up star Travis Lewis.
- Is there a golden boot in Norman? Jimmy Stevens was much more accurate in 2010, finishing 19-for-23, but his attempts outside 45 yards were sparse. The good news is he missed none of his 53 extra points. Field goals have been a bit of an adventure for the past couple years, but continuing in the spring what he started last year would be a good sign for Oklahoma. The Sooners are strong everywhere and need good special teams play to reach their lofty title goals.
- Are the Sooners' backs back? Roy Finch missed the Fiesta Bowl with a stress fracture, and his durability is certainly questionable entering 2011. When he's healthy, he looks like the next star in the Sooners' backfield, but they'll need some depth behind the 5-foot-8, 173-pounder. Jermie Calhoun, Jonathan Miller and Brennan Clay have all looked good at times, but there should be some good competition from newcomers Brandon Wegher, an Iowa transfer who'll be in camp this spring and eligible next season, and blue-chip recruit Brandon Williams, who enrolled early.
Spring practice starts: March 7
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- Every piece of the offense. The spring in Stillwater is all about keeping or improving upon the status quo. Had it kept Dana Holgorsen, there'd be little doubt that would happen, but Oklahoma State must make the most of its five returning offensive linemen, quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon. The opportunity for a historic season is there, but they'll have to pick up the nuances of the new offense quickly in the spring like they did last year.
- What about the kicker? Dan Bailey won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's top kicker in 2010, but he's gone. Oklahoma State needs to fill that role quickly, and we'll likely know who will get the nod after the spring.
- Who steps up on the defensive line? The Cowboys lose three starters up front on defense, including All-Big 12 performer Ugo Chinasa and tackles Chris Donaldson and Shane Jarka. Can senior Richetti Jones become a star in the Big 12? We'll have a good idea if he, or any of the Cowboys' other defensive linemen, can by the end of April.
Spring practice starts: February 24
Spring game: April 3
What to watch:
- New coaches and their students/players. Texas has five new coaches. Although it's hard to get a good read early on, how they relate with the players on the field, in the film room and around the facilities will have a big impact on how the 2011 season plays out in Austin. The young-blooded coordinators could serve themselves well by relating to players and the players will need to spend plenty of extra time learning new schemes and plays.
- Quarterback competition ... or not? Mack Brown says the gig is open and it is, for now. Garrett Gilbert can close it with a strong spring. If Garrett struggles on the field or has difficulty grasping the new system, the door will be wide open for Connor Wood or Case McCoy to step in and close it. Gilbert didn't get much help, but he did very little in 2010 to inspire a lot of breathing room with McCoy and Wood clamoring for playing time.
- And you've got to defend the pass, too. Texas loses its top three cornerbacks to the NFL, and only Carrington Byndom and A.J. White got much meaningful playing time last season. Younger players can earn some rare early playing time with a strong spring. Will anyone step up?
Spring practice starts: March 22
Spring game: April 16
What to watch:
- New linebackers in the running. Spring isn't so scary when you bring back nine defensive starters, but the two Texas A&M lost were the heart of its defense. Linebackers Michael Hodges and Von Miller are gone. Kyle Mangan didn't look fantastic when forced into action during the Cotton Bowl, but the time is now for Damontre Moore and Dominique Patterson, a pair of sophomores, to make their impact.
- Tannehill's tuning things up. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill played about as well as anyone could have hoped late last season, but he'll need it to continue his performance with a solid spring nailing down the timing with his receivers, who all return. He's already got a leg up on last year's quarterback, Jerrod Johnson, who was held out of team drills last spring after shoulder surgery that eventually derailed his senior season.
- Christine's back. Christine Michael missed the second half of the season with a broken leg, giving way to Cyrus Gray's rise among Big 12 backs. It should make Texas A&M's depth at the position even more impressive, but we'll see how Michael looks coming back from the injury.
Spring practice starts: February 19
Spring game: March 26
What to watch:
- Past defending that pass defense. Texas Tech had the Big 12's worst pass defense last season, but has a pair of big potential players at cornerback in rising sophomores Tre Porter and Jarvis Phillips. Starters LaRon Moore and Franklin Mitchem are gone, but if returning starters Cody Davis and Will Ford can continue to mature, the defense should improve in the area most important for success in the Big 12.
- And they're off! There's a four-man quarterback derby set in Lubbock this spring between Seth Doege, Jacob Karam, Michael Brewer and Scotty Young. I don't expect it to be settled until midway through fall camp, similar to last season, but there should be a solid front-runner and more clarity after spring. Coach Tommy Tuberville was extremely impressed with Doege and Karam last spring after Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield went down with injuries.
- Time to find new stars. Most of the big names on Texas Tech's defense are gone. Colby Whitlock, Bront Bird, Brian Duncan will all continue their careers elsewhere. The leaders on the defense will have to begin to emerge in the spring. Is it Scott Smith? Cody Davis? A younger, unexpected player? We'll find out. Sometimes these types of situations aren't as easy to predict as they might seem, like Missouri's strength in 2010 emerging in the secondary.
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