Thursday, November 12, 2009
What to watch in the Big 12, Week 11
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are some trends I'll be watching across the Big 12 in Saturday's games:
1. Bowl eligibility beckons: Six Big 12 teams can earn bowl eligibility by winning on Saturday. Kansas State needs a victory to get to seven wins because the Wildcats played two FCS schools in nonconference play. They can get there by beating Missouri, which also become bowl eligible with a win. Iowa State and Kansas can similarly earn their sixth wins of the season. And the winner of the Oklahoma-Texas A&M game will get their sixth win and a likely chance to go bowling. It would be the latest point of the season that Bob Stoops has ever earned his way into bowl eligibility and the first time for Mike Sherman.
2. Can Baylor’s surprising recent passing surge continue against Texas’ strong secondary? Baylor quarterback Nick Florence set a school record by passing for 427 yards last week and blistering Missouri for three touchdown passes -- more than the two TD passes he had thrown in his previous 147 pass attempts of his career. Can his burgeoning confidence continue against an emerging Texas pass defense that has limited opponents to an average of 106 passing yards in the last three weeks, including two touchdown passes and six interceptions?
3. Can Cody Johnson emerge in his first start at running back for Texas? All signs point to the bullish 240-pound sophomore getting his first starting opportunity against the Bears. He’s already emerged as the Longhorns’ most consistent running threat among those in their struggling backfield. Will that carry over from the start of the game against a Baylor unit that ranks 82nd nationally in rush defense but is coming off a season-best performance after limiting Missouri to 10 yards rushing last week?
4. Kansas redshirt freshman starting guard Trevor Marrongelli: He’ll get his second career start against Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It will be a tall order against Suh, who had 12 tackles, three tackles for losses and 2.5 sacks last season against a blocker with far more experience for Kansas. Suh even added a rushing touchdown late in the game last year to punctuate his breakout game. His candidacy for the Outland Trophy, other individual awards and maybe even the Heisman Trophy might hit overdrive Saturday competing against such a novice opponent.
5. Which Nebraska quarterback emerges against Kansas? Cody Green struggled in five three-and-out possessions against Oklahoma before he was pulled by Bo Pelini. Zac Lee wasn’t much better, but the Cornhuskers moved the ball well enough to score 10 points with him in control to claim the gritty victory. Will Pelini go back to Lee after starting Green for the last two games? Or will he continue to start the more athletic Green, who should be able to run better against the less-imposing Kansas defense than against the Sooners. Whoever starts will be vital as the Cornhuskers attempt to claim their fourth straight conference road game for the first time since 1999-2000 and take another step to their first Big 12 North title since 2006.
6. How much has Oklahoma State’s pass defense improved since last season? The Cowboys were singed for 516 passing yards and seven touchdown passes by Graham Harrell and Taylor Potts last season in Texas Tech’s 56-20 victory in Lubbock. But Harrell is gone and the Cowboys are much improved with an 11-to-11 touchdown pass to interception ratio and the nation’s 33rd ranked team in pass efficiency defense. Mike Leach isn’t saying who his starter will be, but whoever emerges will have a more difficult time against Bill Young’s retooled defense than last season.
7. Who will start and play for Texas Tech at quarterback? Leach has thrown out some not-so-subtle hints that Steven Sheffield might be ready to return to action after recovering from a broken foot in the Red Raiders’ Oct. 17 victory at Nebraska that originally was expected to sideline him for up to six weeks. Potts has received the majority of snaps this week at quarterback, making him appear to be the likely starter. But would Leach have a quick hook to replace him with Sheffield or Seth Doege if the Red Raiders sputter offensively?
8. Can Iowa State get its running game back against Colorado? The Cyclones were leading the league in rushing before producing a season-low 54 yards against Oklahoma State last week. They shouldn’t be as challenged against a Colorado defense that ranks 72nd nationally and ninth in the conference against the run. The Cyclones desperately need to get Alexander Robinson involved early to help boost a struggling offense that has produced only three touchdowns in its last 13 quarters. Bowl hopes might be riding on it.
9. How will Missouri contain Brandon Banks on kickoffs? The Tigers have struggled all season covering kickoffs, allowing 24.33 yards per return to rank 104th nationally. They will be supremely challenged against Kansas State’s Banks, who ranks sixth nationally with a 31.4 yard-per-return average and has already returned a Big 12-record four kicks for touchdowns this season. Banks is within one kick return for a touchdown of tying the NCAA single-season record of five, set by Tulsa’s Ashlan Davis in 2004. He also needs one more kick return for a TD to tie the national career record of six set by USC’s Anthony Davis from 1972-74 and Davis in 2004-05. Missouri has to do a better job against Banks, or it could be a long day for the Tigers -- especially as KSU coach Bill Snyder will be gunning for his 14th straight victory over the Tigers.
10. How will the makeshift Oklahoma offensive line play against Texas A&M? The loss of Brody Eldridge and Jarvis Jones to season-ending injuries further exacerbated the Sooners’ lack of depth along the offensive front. Oklahoma will likely have a rotation of only eight offensive linemen against the Aggies, who notched eight sacks against Colorado last week, are tied for third nationally in sacks and feature the nation’s sack leader in Von Miller. The Sooners’ line must do a better job of protecting Landry Jones, as well as staying away from the sloppy penalties that marked their loss to Nebraska last week.