10 things to watch in the Big 12

September, 17, 2009
9/17/09
9:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are 10 trends I'll be watching across the Big 12 on Saturday.

1. How Texas’ secondary counters Texas Tech’s passing offense: Although they’ve been careful not to mention the revenge angle, Texas defensive players clearly want the test of stopping Texas Tech after the Red Raiders’ dramatic comeback victory in Lubbock last season -- a loss that eventually cost them a shot at playing for the national championship. I imagine that Blake Gideon has had flashbacks of his dropped interception on the play before Michael Crabtree’s game-winning TD grab. And Earl Thomas has probably replayed his coverage bust on Crabtree on the game-winning play on countless occasions. The Texas defense is back and more experienced and will be challenged by a retooled Texas Tech offense that includes new quarterback Taylor Potts and new featured receivers Lyle Leong and Tramain Swindall. Graham Harrell and Crabtree won’t be there, but it will still be a big challenge for the Longhorns.

2. How Taylor Potts and Zac Lee fare in their first road games as starters: Potts and Lee have looked invincible at home in their first two starts, ranking 1-2 in the Big 12 in touchdown passes. Both will be facing huge challenges this week in their first games away from home. Potts’ Red Raiders will be facing the challenge of winning in Austin, a location where they haven’t won since 1997. And Lee and Nebraska will be looking to snap Virginia Tech’s streak of 31 straight nonleague wins. I don’t expect either of the young gunslingers to pull off an upset, but both will learn some invaluable lessons that will prepare them for the rest of their careers.

3. The special-teams battle between Nebraska and Virginia Tech: The Hokies have one of the most vaunted special teams in college football, the foundation of “Beamer Ball” over the years. It will be telling to see how Nebraska’s special teams of new punter Alex Henery and new long-snapper P.J. Mangieri, a freshman walk-on who was recruited specifically to snap, will play in the intense cauldron of emotion at Virginia Tech against the Hokies’ storied special-teams unit.

4. Can it get any worse for Colorado? Coach Dan Hawkins’ team has been one of the nation’s biggest early disappointments. Hawkins brashly predicted “10 wins and no excuses” before the season. They might not make that prediction at this point if they played 50 games. Expect some fans at Folsom Field to be wearing paper bags over their head in shame after the Buffaloes’ disappointing 0-2 start that included losses five days apart to Colorado State and Toledo. Hawkins’ seat already is blistering and he’ll be facing a Wyoming team directed by Dave Christensen, a former Missouri offensive coordinator who helped outscore the Buffaloes by a combined margin of 113-10 in the last two seasons he was there. Christenson’s offenses have a current run of 106 straight points against the Buffaloes after those two games. If that streak continues, Hawkins’ tenuous job status may bubble over.

5. Can Kansas State muster enough offense to challenge injury-depleted UCLA? Bill Snyder is looking for a statement victory at the Rose Bowl against the Bruins, who will play without starting quarterback Kevin Prince. In order to capitalize on that loss, the Wildcats will have to show much improvement offensively against a tough UCLA unit that ranks 27th in scoring defense and 33rd in total defense.

6. Baylor’s “Royal Canadian Tackle Patrol” against Connecticut’s Lindsey Witten: Baylor’s inexperienced pair of starting tackles -- former Canadian fireman Danny Watkins and Toronto native Phillip Blake -- will be challenged to protect against Witten, who leads the nation with seven sacks. The two young tackles were praised for their strong play in their first career starts against Wake Forest. But they need to come up with another big effort to protect Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin.

7. Landry Jones and his second career start: Oklahoma backup quarterback Landry Jones looked strong in his first start in what amounted to a glorified scrimmage against Idaho State. He’ll face a bigger challenge Saturday against an underrated Tulsa defense that ranks second nationally in sacks, second in tackles for loss and tied for fifth nationally in turnover margin. The blitz-happy Golden Hurricane will present many more problems than in his Jones’ first start.

8. Iowa State’s attempt to snap the nation’s longest road losing streak: Paul Rhoads will be gunning to end Iowa State’s 17-game road losing streak as the Cyclones visit Kent State. Truthfully, this might be the Cyclones’ best chance to win on the road this season. Iowa State didn’t show much in a 35-3 loss to Iowa last week that was punctuated by four interceptions thrown by Austen Arnaud. But the Cyclones’ defense should be able to stick with a Kent State offense that ranks 96th in rushing offense, 97th in passing offense, 106th in total offense and 111th in scoring offense nationally.

9. Zac Robinson’s hopes to rebound: Oklahoma State’s starting quarterback has struggled in his first two games. He threw a critical late interception that was returned for a clinching touchdown last week by Houston and hasn’t played to his previous level. His 54.7 percent completion percentage is down significantly from last season, when he completed 65 percent of his passes for more than 3,000 yards. And he’ll have to operate this week against Rice without leading 2008 Big 12 rusher Kendall Hunter, idled this week with an ankle injury.

10. How Blaine Gabbert reacts to the first dose of adversity as a college starter: Missouri’s starting quarterback had a strong career start against Illinois. His second start last week against Bowling Green was a marked contrast as the Tigers sputtered early before finally charging back for a 27-20 triumph. Gabbert and the Tigers shouldn’t be challenged by FCS opponent Furman, but the game will provide an opportunity to see if Gabbert learned much from last week’s struggles.

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