Monday, October 1, 2012
Big 12: Looking back and forward
By David Ubben
Believe it or not, we're officially done with the first month of the season. Time to take a look back at the month that was and the new month that begins today.
Best of September
1. Geno Smith. The West Virginia passer has been arguably the biggest story of the season, and easily the game's best player. Smith capped his month with an absurd 656-yard, eight-touchdown performance in a 70-63 win over Baylor. Through four games, he's been nearly perfect. He has thrown 20 touchdowns, four more than any QB in the country. He's completing 83.4 percent of his passes, 5.3 percent more than any QB in the country. Only one QB has thrown more than Smith's 1,728 yards, and that guy (Rakeem Cato, Marshall) has almost 100 more attempts. Smith's 10.2 yards per attempt is third nationally. He's got a 24-point lead in the QB rating stat, 17 points higher than Russell Wilson, the nation's leader, finished last year.
2. Kansas State and Bill Snyder. The Wildcats are the most impressive team in the Big 12 through the first month. There's still a lot of football left to be played, but K-State has a blowout win over Miami on its résumé and went to Oklahoma and became the first ranked team to ever beat Bob Stoops in Norman. The old silver fox in Manhattan with his name on the stadium has still got it.
3. The Big 12 vs. everybody else. Kansas' hatred for holding leads in the fourth quarter aside, the Big 12 has racked up an impressive 26-3 record in nonconference play. Only one nonconference game remains, when Notre Dame travels to Oklahoma later this month, but the Big 12 has the nation's best record outside its own conference. The only disappointment? Oklahoma State's 59-38 loss to Arizona on the road that featured a school-record 167 penalty yards, and the Cowboys lost the turnover battle 4-0. Not much hope when you do that. You'll have a hard time finding a benchmark win among the 26 (Iowa State over Iowa? K-State over Miami? West Virginia over Maryland? Texas over Ole Miss? TCU over Virginia? Baylor over Louisiana-Monroe?), but there's something to be said for lining up and taking care of business. No Big 12 team has really had a serious scare in a game it should absolutely win.
Worst of September
1. Kansas. The rebuilding project in Lawrence hasn't quite gotten off the ground yet. While everybody else in the league is playing top-25 ball or close to it, the Jayhawks have been muddled in embarrassing losses. The weirdest thing about all this? KU is actually better than it was a year ago, but found a way to have a worse start. It's 1-3 instead of 2-2, with losses to Rice and Northern Illinois. KU had fourth-quarter leads in both of those games, but lost both, giving the Big 12 two nonconference losses that never should have happened and preventing the league from going 29-1. In a league with depth everywhere, Dayne Crist hasn't been as good as the Jayhawks had hoped, and KU is clearly the league's only weak link.
2. Landry Jones and/or Oklahoma. I don't mean to pile on here, but the Sooners are the only Big 12 team to take a major tumble down the polls, and they have yet to do anything of note. OU lost at home to Kansas State, and looked awful in a win over UTEP that required a late charge to make it convincing. Jones, meanwhile, has a passer rating better than exactly two Big 12 QBs: Dayne Crist and Steele Jantz. His completion percentage (63.6) is better than only Crist's.
3. TCU in the red zone. I'll be honest; there's not much to harp on in a league that's been pretty solid to this point. Still, TCU is dragging along in the first month with some really bad red zone performances. The Frogs have reached the final 20 yards before the end zone 20 times this year. That's good! They've come away with points just 12 times. That's bad! Only six teams in the country have been worse. The schedule toughens up now for TCU. Its nonconference slate is done. It's already played Kansas. Everybody else is fully capable of beating the Frogs, even if TCU plays pretty well. This stuff in the red zone has to change. We've seen a little bit of everything, from turnovers to missed field goals. Only nine of those 20 possessions have resulted in touchdowns.
What to watch in October
1. Where do the Sooners go from here? Oklahoma entered the season as the preseason Big 12 favorite. Through three games and two bye weeks, OU hasn't looked better than very many teams in the Big 12. In the meantime, the Sooners have hung around the Top 25, despite a loss to Kansas State and an unimpressive win over UTEP. Oklahoma has the talent to make it through December without a loss and win the league. It also has enough problems to fall and finish 6-6. The league is deep enough to make OU pay that way. How will the Sooners respond from a rough first month? A trip to Texas Tech awaits, followed by the Red River Classic. OU hosts Kansas before a showdown with No. 9 Notre Dame.
2. Can David Ash keep it up, and the Texas defense bounce back? We'll know exactly how good Texas is over the next month. It has looked good, and has one truly impressive win on its résumé: a road win over Oklahoma State, a team that was unranked when the Longhorns played them but likely is one of the nation's top 25 teams, all things considered. Texas' liability, though? Not David Ash, who's daring to peek his head into a Heisman race with eye-popping numbers. It's the defense, which hasn't had the pass rush most believed it would and has had major tackling issues that were on display in the dramatic win over Oklahoma State. This month? Texas hosts West Virginia, then meets Oklahoma at Red River. Then Baylor comes to Austin. All difficult tests for the defense, much more so than Ash.
3. Just keep on watching ... the cream will rise. There's no way around it right now: This league is impossibly muddled. From 1-8 (and maybe nine, we'll see), anybody is good enough to get through the next month without a loss. But in the same breath, unless you're playing Kansas, you're not good enough to be guaranteed any wins. How will this Big 12 race look a month from now? No joke, you could make an argument for literally any order. West Virginia and Kansas State are the favorites now, but Texas is right in the mix, and might be better than both of them. Are you ready to bury Oklahoma yet? You shouldn't be. And why can't Oklahoma State bounce back and make some noise? The Cowboys are good enough. Nothing is impossible in this wide-open race.