NCF Nation: Blaine Gabbert

Ex-Irish teammates back Crist's KU call

December, 22, 2011
12/22/11
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It is this time of the year when Twitter is the most useful and the most dangerous tool we have as sportswriters. The layoff between the regular season and bowl games is when coaches are hired and fired, transfers are decided upon and the rumor mill kicks into full swing.

It is through social media that much of the speculation and reaction is made upon such news, with nearly every move throwing a portion of the Twittersphere up in arms.

That is, of course, unless you are Dayne Crist and you just decided where you will play your final year of college ball.

"After a long & difficult decision making process, I'm incredibly excited to join the Kansas football team. Rock Chalk Jayhawk!" Crist posted at 11:59 a.m. ET.

That was the news. Within minutes, the reaction would have made you think Crist was taking all of Notre Dame with him:
  • Tight end Jake Golic: "Congrats to my long lost brother @dcrist10 for committing to Kansas!"
  • Nose guard Brandon Newman: "My man @dcrist10 made the best decision for himself & thats why I am super proud of him! Go win some football games buddy! #RockChalkJayHawk"
  • Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore: "Happy for my guy @dcrist10 and his decision. High character guy that will fit in perfectly. Great leader on and off the field. #rockchalk"
  • Center and Braxston Cave: "Just became a huge Kansas football fan for a year! Nothing but love for my bro @dcrist10"
  • Nose guard Louis Nix: "@dcrist10 Hell Yea…im going to miss u alot bro. Congrats!"
  • Center Mike Golic Jr.: "But I do love @dcrist10 and am very happy he's made the best decision for himself. Know he's gonna kill it next year."

Reading what Crist had to say to Douglas Farmer of the student paper Wednesday, it's easy to see why his former teammates felt this way.

The hiring of former Irish coach Charlie Weis no doubt helped with the decision immensely, as Crist will get one final shot with the coach who recruited him and in a system he is familiar with. Kansas was a two-win team last year and is a basketball school, so expectations will be tamed.

Wisconsin, believed to be the other finalist, would have been in better position to win its third straight Big Ten title after Tuesday's bowl ban placed on Ohio State, but it may have lost its hope as offensive coordinator Paul Chryst leaves to become Pitt's head coach.

Regardless, this is one final shot for Crist, who committed to Notre Dame as ESPNU's No. 2 quarterback from the Class of 2008. As colleague David Ubben points out, Landry Jones, Blaine Gabbert and Andrew Luck were all ranked behind him. Only Terrelle Pryor was ranked ahead of Crist.

Season-ending injuries in each knee and bad breaks on the field have spoiled Crist's opportunities, leaving many to wonder whether this last chance will actually provide a happy ending. That remains to be seen. For now, all it takes is a brief glance at Twitter to know nobody deserves one more than him.

Big 12: Preseason polls vs. final finish

December, 20, 2011
12/20/11
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You hear it every year, but let's take an official look back at the Big 12 preseason media poll, compared to actual finish by season's end.

Each team's finish is compared with its preseason projection in parentheses.

1. Oklahoma (-3): Oklahoma received 41 of 43 first-place votes, but suffered its first loss at home against Texas Tech on Oct. 22, in its fourth conference game. It finished 6-3 in Big 12 play and 9-3 overall, tied for third with Baylor, but Baylor held the tiebreaker over the Sooners via its 45-38 win on Nov. 19. The Sooners had one final chance to win the Big 12, but lost 44-10 to Oklahoma State on Dec. 3.

2. Texas A&M (-5): Texas A&M earned one first-place vote and was just two total points ahead of Oklahoma State. Essentially, if one more voter had placed A&M No. 3 and OSU No. 2, the teams would have tied for second. The Aggies lost the inside track to what they hoped was a Big 12 title when Oklahoma State erased a 17-point halftime deficit to win at Kyle Field. That was just the start of a season-long trend. A&M would lose four more games with a double-digit halftime lead and another (Texas) with a double-digit first-half lead. The Aggies finished 6-6 and 4-5 in the Big 12, good for seventh in the Big 12.

3. Oklahoma State (+2): The Cowboys were a contender in the preseason, but Texas A&M and Oklahoma looked like more complete teams. Nope. OSU ascended to an outright Big 12 title, beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M in the process. The lone loss to Iowa State (on the road in double overtime) kept them out of the BCS National Championship Game, but didn't keep them from making history.

4. Missouri (-1): Missouri's defense was good, but perhaps not as good as expected in the preseason. Offensively, the passing game missed Blaine Gabbert's arm, but James Franklin's legs filled in nicely. Kansas State and Baylor overachieved, and kept the Tigers from landing right where most expected. The Tigers' 4-1 finish put them fifth in the conference at 7-5 and 5-4.

5. Texas (-1): This was no 5-7 campaign, but Texas slid to a 1-3 finish in part due to offensive injuries. The defense was solid once again, leading the Big 12 in total defense for a fifth consecutive season, and by a wide margin (67 yards per game) this year. Texas got a win against A&M, but finished sixth in the Big 12 with its 7-5 record and 4-5 mark in conference play.

6. Baylor (+3): Robert Griffin III and the Bears did things few thought possible. I was one of a few who had the Bears fifth (Texas was 71 points ahead of Baylor in the preseason poll) and thought they'd finish above the Longhorns, but a third-place finish in the Big 12 surprised just about everyone. That's what happens when you have a Heisman winner at quarterback, and the Big 12's leading receiver and rusher.

7. Texas Tech (-2): The Red Raiders looked like a seven-win team to me in preseason, but injuries knocked them down to a 5-7 team, the first losing season since 1992. Texas Tech amazingly finished just three total points below Baylor in the preseason poll, but then again, Tech had never lost to Baylor in Big 12 play. The Red Raiders bring back a lot next season, but this season was just short of a disaster.

8. Kansas State (+6): Here is your big overachiever this season. The Wildcats lost a heartbreaker in Stillwater to OSU and were blown out at home by Oklahoma. They won the other 10 games for the first double-digit win season since 2003 and an outright second-place finish in the Big 12. They nearly won a share of the Big 12 title, but Oklahoma's Bedlam loss stuck Kansas State in second. The Wildcats will be Big 12 title contenders next season, but will try and shake off a BCS snub to beat Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

9. Iowa State (+1): Iowa State is the big testament to the Big 12's depth. The Cyclones knocked off No. 2 Oklahoma State in the biggest win in school history, storming the field to celebrate bowl eligibility along with the nationally televised upset. Three seasons under Paul Rhoads could have equaled three bowl trips if not for one failed fake extra point that was this close to working. Unbelievable run for the Cyclones, who once again, were given no shot to go 6-6 this season.

10. Kansas (0): The Jayhawks were amazingly the only team in the Big 12 that finished where it was picked in the preseason, though they did underachieve by a bit. Kansas started 2-0 before losing its final 10 games, including six losses by at least 30 points. Not pretty. New coach Charlie Weis' first task is simple: Get the Jayhawks out of the basement. Right now, they're buried way, way down there.
Henry Josey and Malcolm BrownUS PresswireTexas' Malcolm Brown and Missouri's Henry Josey have revitalized rushing attacks.
Missouri and Texas made their living with NFL quarterbacks behind center over the last half decade. Vince Young and Colt McCoy at Texas and Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert at Missouri took the program to new heights and did so with thousands of pass attempts.

This season? Both programs are grounded.

"There’s a little bit of a contrast there with all the wide-open offenses and the quarterbacks and the passing yards we’ve had this year and traditionally in this league the last few years," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. "Both of us run the ball here pretty good."

A bit of an understatement, perhaps.

While a pair of wide-eyed, first-year starters in David Ash and James Franklin take snaps, Missouri and Texas have developed the Big 12's top two running games.

"We can throw it well, but we’d like to be at least 50-50 or 60-40 run to pass," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "And if you can run the ball and and stop the run in college football, you’ve got a chance."

Texas has averaged better than 246 yards a game on the ground this year, enjoying the fruits of consecutive 400-yard weeks on the ground for the first time since 1977.

Missouri, meanwhile, averages just fewer than 245 yards a game this year. The Big 12's next best, Kansas State, averages just 217 yards a game.

Both teams, best known for slinging it this decade, rank outside the Big 12's top half in passing offense.

"We didn’t need the passing game much the last two weeks. We threw it some and threw it downfield," Brown said. "But we do feel like over the next four weeks here, we’re going to have to be more balanced. We’ll still be physical. We’ll still run the ball, because that’s what we’re doing best right now, but we also feel like when people are stacking the box, it’ll alleviate some of the pressure in the passing game."

Both have the advantage of running quarterbacks. Ash ripped off runs of 47 and 18 yards against Texas Tech and Missouri's Franklin is 11th in the Big 12 with 599 rushing yards, second among quarterbacks behind Kansas State's Collin Klein.

Franklin also leads the team with 10 touchdowns, third in the Big 12. The Tigers' Henry Josey leads the Big 12 in rushing with 1,149 yards, fifth nationally and 234 more yards than any Big 12 back.

The Longhorns are led by freshman Malcolm Brown and his 635 yards, but even though he was sidelined in Saturday's game, fellow freshman Joe Bergeron exploded for 191 yards and three touchdowns on 29 carries.

"We’re doing a pretty consistent job of running the football, but I don’t think our offense is very consistent," Pinkel said of his 4-5 team. "We’re very hot and cold. We’re having to work through that, and we’re not working through it fast enough."

For both coaches, the aim is balance. Brown cited his Rose Bowl champion team in 2004 that was outside the top 100 in passing and second nationally in rushing. With McCoy at the helm, those numbers were reversed.

Texas has shown the ability to do both with its offense, just rarely in the same season.

"We’d like to get back to where we do both really well," Brown said.

The Longhorns finally have the physical running game they looked for last year, but outside of handing it over to offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin and offensive line coach Stacy Searels, Brown couldn't venture a guess as to why it's worked this year and didn't in 2010, when the Longhorns won just five games.

But expect this game to look markedly different than the Big 12 matchups the league has become known for.

"It will be a great test," Brown said, "a real physical game and a fun game to watch."
Kansas State gave up 12 plays of longer than 10 yards to Baylor. It gave up five touchdown passes, including four that were longer than 34 yards.

But the Wildcats won, and bulled their way into the Top 25. Despite the struggles, they did it with defense.

"We played really well when we had to play really well," said coach Bill Snyder, "and you’d like to think that’s the entirety of the ballgame, but you know, when our defense had their backs to the wall, they responded extremely well."

[+] EnlargeTysyn Hartman
Scott Sewell/US PresswireTysyn Hartman and the defense have been a big reason for Kansas State's 4-0 start.
Trailing by two, it forced the first interception of the season by the Big 12's most prolific passer, Robert Griffin III. With a one-point lead, it shut down the Bears' offense to win the game.

"The key was getting stops when we need them," said safety Tysyn Hartman.

How'd that happen? The Wildcats had experience under pressure. A late goal-line stand preserved a shutout against Kent State. The Wildcats beat Miami a week later with a goal-line stand.

A bigger, badder opponent on a bigger stage? Same result.

"When the game’s on the line, when the shutout was on the line, we were getting stops," Hartman said. "Whether it be on the goal line or in a key situation, we’re playing well."

The Wildcats are still just 12 total yards behind the Big 12's leader in total defense (Texas), and give up an average of 56 fewer yards per game than the Big 12's No. 3 defense, Oklahoma.

This week, a new challenge: Missouri, whose quarterback racked up almost 400 yards against the Sooners.

"He’s a good quarterback. I know he had a lot of pressure and big shoes to fill behind Blaine Gabbert, and he’s done a great job so far," Hartman said. "Griffin has a lot of speed -- he’s a track guy -- but I think they’re going to use Franklin to run the ball more. He’s a big guy and he can take those hits."

Franklin already has 260 yards rushing and four touchdowns, which ranks 12th in the Big 12.

Last week's win wasn't enough. The defense still enters Saturday's game angry. The Wildcats are ranked and at home, but are 2.5-point underdogs.

"I told our coaches [Sunday] night, these people spend a lot of money and make a lot of money, and they don’t just do it off the cuff. They have ample information to make those decisions," Snyder said. "I told the team I was quite certain we would be the underdog in this ballgame."

If Kansas State hasn't been fully validated by wins over Baylor and Miami, Missouri would be a nice next step to assuming the Tigers' previous status as Big 12 title dark horse.

"We felt like we had a lot to prove last week, but it’s kind of still the same way," Hartman said. "People picked us to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 and we don’t finish there. We’ve had to get used to that underdog role and it’s no different this week."

The road to shedding that role is driven by the Wildcats' defense.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 2

September, 11, 2011
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A look back on the week that was.

Iowa State is once again the Big 12's most endearing program. The Cyclones trailed five times against in-state rival Iowa at Jake Trice Stadium on Saturday. But with a handful of brand-new faces on offense and some of the league's most underrated defensive talents, it rallied to beat the Hawkeyes in triple overtime. The second-biggest crowd ever at Iowa State showed up, and the Cyclones put on a heck of a show for the brand-new scoreboard towering above the Jacobson Building. Did we see Steele Jantz write the first chapter of what could be a legendary legacy at Iowa State? If so, you couldn't ask for a better start, giving coach Paul Rhoads his third landmark victory in three years at Iowa State. Shades of Seneca, no doubt. I had Iowa State last in my power rankings last week. Expect upward movement this week.

[+] EnlargeIowa State's Steele Jantz
Reese Strickland/US PRESSWIREIowa State quarterback Steele Jantz completed 25 of 37 passes for 279 yards and four touchdowns against Iowa.
Oklahoma State is all kinds of legit. Brandon Weeden was even better than he was last year, Justin Blackmon was his usual self and Joseph Randle emerged as a big time running back, nearly notching 100 yards rushing and receiving in a single game. The defense, too, looked great. Arizona isn't a great team, and yes, it was missing Juron Criner, but the Cowboys are looking the part of Big 12 contender. We'll see how they measure up to Tulsa next week (Oklahoma was up on the Golden Hurricane 44-7 entering the fourth quarter) before a huge game in College Station in Sept. 24 that is easily one of the most important games of the year in the Big 12.

Missouri might be a victim of its own success. The stars just haven't quite aligned for the Tigers. Blaine Gabbert absolutely should have left for the NFL, and he'll have success there. But Missouri's most experienced team in a long time is being led by a first-year quarterback in James Franklin. Franklin was big time more often than not in Friday night's OT loss to Arizona State, but Missouri is a top 10 team with Gabbert. Without Gabbert, it may tumble out of or toward the bottom of the top 25. Franklin's going to be very good, but Gabbert was already very good. Franklin took huge steps on Friday night, and showed lots of promise, but Missouri has to wonder what could have been. This isn't a rebuilding year. It could have been "The Year" for Missouri, despite obvious struggles at cornerback throughout the night. Missouri's going to be a very good team, but after Friday? It's pretty clear the Tigers are going to have to wait at least another year before being a major factor in the Big 12 title race. As the only Big 12 team with a loss two weeks into the season, I'll leave it up to you all to crack a "You are the weakest link" joke. There's nothing wrong with a flashback to 2003.

Kansas will be able to scare -- if not beat -- some Big 12 teams this year. Northern Illinois isn't a juggernaut, but last year's Kansas team doesn't win this game. The improvement is there for Turner Gill in Year 2, and it starts at quarterback. Jordan Webb had a big night (281 yards, 3 TD), but it doesn't end there. The Jayhawks are much more athletic everywhere, but especially at the skill positions. Darrian Miller and James Sims combined for 167 yards rushing and three touchdowns. Eight receivers caught passes, led by D.J. Beshears with seven catches for 70 yards and two scores, including the game-winner. Kansas is putting together the nuts and bolts of a team that has what it takes to win the Big 12. They've got a long way to go, but the Jayhawks are headed in the right direction.

Texas is ready to slop for wins. On the field, Texas looked pretty similar to what it had last year. Outside of a freed D.J. Monroe, Malcolm Brown doing a good job of living up to hype and Jaxon Shipley making Big 12 fans groan by catching passes from Case McCoy, Texas is a team with a strong defense and unremarkable offense. But something was obviously different on Saturday night, and it's toughness. Mack Brown drew on his team's experience last year against UCLA in a halftime speech players raved about after the game. Early in the season, it trailed 13-3 to a mediocre team. It was blown out, 34-12. Brown doesn't have to wonder if last year's team would have won Saturday's game. He knows it wouldn't. Why the difference? I'm chalking it up to humility from an awful 2010, and new strength and conditioning coach Bennie Wylie. "If you can get everybody to run up those bleachers at the very top, and everybody on the team finishes? That's how it is, man," said running back D.J. Monroe. Monroe compared losing at home last year -- which Texas did five times -- to having somebody take out his mother. Texas wants to "protect this house," which they spent the summer gaining an intimate knowledge of with a souped-up conditioning regimen from Wylie. "That's a shoutout to Coach Wylie," Monroe said of his comments. "After A&M, it was the worst feeling ever, and we don't want to experience that ever again. If we go out and play our hearts out every single night, I feel like that can be a result."

The Big 12 is the home for drama. And I'm not even talking about the realignment rumpus that dominated the week's headlines. OK, yeah I am. But when Baylor isn't spearheading a litigious standoff that may force Texas A&M's route to the SEC to take a detour through a courtroom, these teams make for some pretty outstanding theater on the field. Texas rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat BYU, 17-16, on a late touchdown. Missouri erased a 14-point, fourth-quarter deficit and missed a game-winning field goal with seconds remaining before losing in overtime to Arizona State. Kansas beat Northern Illinois on a six-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left that had to be reviewed--and was upheld. But Iowa State topped them all, knocking off rival Iowa in triple overtime, despite trailing on five different occasions throughout the day. Let's do it again next week. College football, we missed you this summer. Never leave us again.

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 1

September, 4, 2011
9/04/11
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[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiLandry Jones and Oklahoma opened the season with a strong performance against Tulsa.
1. Oklahoma is clicking, and deserves the No. 1 spot for now. Oklahoma was good everywhere and great in a few spots before racing to a 44-7 lead entering the fourth quarter against a 10-win team from a year ago. Bob Stoops is happy with all three phases of his team. Outside of Travis Lewis, the Sooners are pretty healthy and have two weeks to prepare for a showdown in Tallahassee with Florida State on Sept. 17. Life is good in Norman.

2. Baylor is going to be tough to beat. Much tougher than in 2010. What part do you want to be most impressed by? Baylor's rapid-fire offense that racked up a 47-23 lead in the fourth quarter against TCU? Or the gutsiness it showed after a pair of three-and-outs and a fumble cost them that lead, and the Bears rallied? Harp on that rough fourth quarter if y0u must, but the real Baylor is a lot closer to what we saw the rest of the game, and the Bears answered a huge test. Impressive. I picked the Bears to finish fifth in the Big 12 and called them a sleeper to win 10 games. I'm still feeling good about that, and Baylor is on my top 25 ballot for Week 2.

3. James Franklin is a work in progress. Franklin doesn't have the raw skill that Chase Daniel or Blaine Gabbert had, but he's a smart player that will have to figure out what works for him as he goes along. His mechanics aren't pretty, which is a bit jarring at Missouri after watching Blaine Gabbert for two seasons, but he's got the ability to win a lot of games. For now, his decision-making and accuracy need a lot of work, but as long as he can avoid big mistakes, Missouri is good enough to go a long way with him running the show.

4. The bottom of the Big 12? Well, it's not very good. At least not yet. Goodness, Big 12 North. For facing an uncertain conference future, you're sure not playing like it. Kansas took care of business and looked good, but the Jayhawks have a historic hoops program that should keep them afloat if the Big 12 breaks up. But Iowa State and Kansas State both needed late-game heroics to beat FCS opponents. I don't know if anyone's told them yet, but it's going to get a lot tougher very quickly. All three have to be better.

5. There is hope for Texas' offense. The Longhorns racked up 506 yards of offense, including 277 through the air and 239 on the ground. Here's guessing Texas leans on more of a running identity this season, but I loved what Malcolm Brown was able to do. He might never win a Heisman, but he's heading for a solid career in Austin. Additionally, Jaxon Shipley is the real deal. The best news, though? This offense looks like it at least has a direction and knows what it wants to be, which last season's team couldn't claim at any point.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 1

September, 1, 2011
9/01/11
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Here are ten things I'm keeping an eye on in Week 1 of Big 12 football.

1. Garrett Gilbert. Everything else aside, Gilbert is ultimately the one guy who will decide how far Texas gets this season. Or, at least whoever Texas' quarterback is by midseason. Gilbert needs to play well to a) make sure he's that guy and b) help Texas rebound from last year's debacle.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Gilbert
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireThe success of Texas' season likely rides on the shoulders of Garrett Gilbert ... or his replacement.
2. Does Baylor have a second go-to receiver? Josh Gordon is a huge loss. Everything pointed to a breakout year for the big receiver, but who's going to emerge as Robert Griffin III's other top target. Baylor has talent at the position, but it's going to help if one receiver makes his presence clear. Terrance Williams? Tevin Reese? Lanear Sampson? Bueller?

3. Oklahoma's safeties. Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin have a ton of potential, but they've got a tough test in Week 1. Last year, Oklahoma broke in two brand new corners against Utah State and nearly was upset on its home field. G.J. Kinne is a stud, and with both of last year's safeties in the NFL, are Harris and Colvin up for the task?

4. Weeden2Blackmon. Here's the deal: This game won't be close. But I love watching these two play. And they're going to be putting up some big highlights for the first time in eight months. Football! Finally!

5. James Franklin's arm. We've seen Franklin run plenty as a freshman playing behind Blaine Gabbert. But Missouri will go about as far as Franklin's arm will take them. His teammates have been impressed with what he's down through the air in the offseason. Will he validate them in the opener?

6. Steele Jantz's legs. Nobody outside Ames has really seen Jantz, a transfer from a California junior college, do much. But he won the starting job over the more experienced Jerome Tiller (before he was ruled academically ineligible for the season) and has Cyclones fans excited. Is he the dynamic playmaker Iowa State's offense has been missing?

7. Kansas State's running backs. Bill Snyder called it the closest competition on the team. The WIldcats have three co-starters, and third on the list is the Big 12 transfer with the most hype: Bryce Brown. Will he establish himself as the clear replacement for Daniel Thomas, who led the Big 12 in rushing the past two seasons?

8. Kansas' point total. Kansas simply needs to show it can execute. It did it against New Mexico State last year and briefly against Colorado, but this is largely the same team from last year, with a handful of new faces added. How much better is the offense? Good enough to compete in the Big 12? Because the Jayhawks weren't close in 2010.

9. Texas A&M's linebackers. Most of the attention is paid to quarterback Kyle Padron, but the Mustangs' 230-pound, rumbling running back Zach Line is no joke, either. He had at least 94 yards rushing in six of the past seven games in 2010, and the Aggies have a big hole at middle linebacker that Jonathan Stewart will try to fill.

10. Texas Tech's playcalling. Tommy Tuberville wants a new commitment to the running game, but where will that show up? The Red Raiders have what I think will be a good QB, but lots of unanswered questions at receiver next to a deep stable of running backs and a good offensive line. I'm also excited to see what freshman tight end Jace Amaro can do.
We're taking a look around at the biggest debuts in college football today, and although Missouri's Week 1 opponent doesn't jump off the marquee, James Franklin's debut will have a profound impact on the Big 12 race.

Miami (Ohio) will be our first long look at the Tigers quarterback charged with replacing NFL first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert.

Since taking over as the starter after Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer, his teammates have lauded the sophomore's touch passing, ability to pick up the offense and growing leadership.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireAll eyes will be on James Franklin when the Tigers open their season on Saturday.
"I feel really prepared," Franklin told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I know the offense a lot better; now it’s just learning the other team’s defense and adjusting to what they run and the things they do so we can execute."

Franklin has the advantage of more talent around him than any other new quarterback in the league, which means more responsibility.

"Quarterback transitions are always the focal point, it always has been and it always will be," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told reporters on Monday. "Especially at our level with the quality of quarterbacks we've had here."

Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith didn't have the luxury of a more complete team, offensively and defensively, waiting for them when it was their turn to lead the Tigers.

Missouri will open the season in the top 25 but with the potential for a whole lot more.

How much more? That's ultimately up to Franklin. Helping him along are his two top pass-catchers, juniors T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew.

Miss a throw?

"Don't worry about it, James," they tell him.

Make a bad read or have a pass picked off?

"Forget about it," they tell him.

The real message is getting through.

"It meant a lot, because I know they’re trusting in me and encouraging me. They want me to get to greater heights," Franklin said. "We have a really good squad this year, and I think we can go far. That’s something they see that as well and they want it to happen and they want to move along faster so we can get there."

The ride starts Saturday.
James Franklin kept pleading. He kept hearing no.

First, he was too big.

"I was a little chubby, but I was taller than a lot of the other kids, too," he said.

In sixth grade, he weighed in at 185 pounds, 50 pounds over the 135-pound limit for his age group in Missouri, but was still allowed to play.

[+] EnlargeMissouri quarterback James Franklin
Mark J. Rebilas/US PRESSWIREJames Franklin is ready to prove he can be the next great Missouri quarterback.
He played everywhere but quarterback in the fifth grade, his first year playing the game, but his gig in sixth grade?

Right tackle and defensive end. He wanted to be a quarterback.

"I’d always ask about it and they’d never let me play," he said. He was better suited elsewhere, they told him.

He moved south to Texas before seventh grade and rotated between duties as center, guard, running back, receiver, linebacker and his background in soccer earned him a job punting.

But still no quarterback. Eventually his duties were trimmed to wide receiver and defensive end, but by his freshman year, he'd stopped asking.

That's when he finally got his shot.

After a year as the team's backup and a tight end, he took the starting job.

Just four years later, he's about to take hold of a Top-25 team.

Fall camp was supposed to be the stage for a big-time quarterback battle, but Tyler Gabbert's post-spring transfer abbreviated the race.

"When he said he was leaving, I was in shock," Franklin said. "At the same time, I was like, now I need to step it up, because guys are going to be looking to me."

Gabbert still hasn't found a permanent home, but Franklin felt he was robbed of a chance to prove he could win the job.

"My main competition left, so it was kind of like it was given to me in a way," he said. "It’s not like I earned it."

So Franklin, perhaps the next in a line of great Missouri quarterbacks under coach Gary Pinkel, didn't have a job to win, but he had (and still has) plenty to prove.

"What I did during the summer was try and work harder to prove that I have earned it," he said. "I wanted to come into fall camp and make it look like I had earned it and execute the plays and offense and not that it was just given to me."

Part of the transition from being the backup to NFL first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to the Tigers starter has been piping up.

He's a far cry from Gabbert and his predecessor, Chase Daniel, both of whom grew up with quarterback seemingly written all over their genes.

The naturally quiet Franklin has been prodded by teammates T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, among others, to be the voice of a team with a chance to make plenty of people across the Big 12 listen in 2011.

"It meant a lot, because I know they’re trusting in me and encouraging me. They want me to get to greater heights," Franklin said of his receivers' tutelage. "We have a really good squad this year and I think we can go far. That’s something they see that as well and they want it to happen and they want to move along faster so we can get there."

Call it the final step from a lifelong transition from right tackle to quarterback. He's not asking to play the position any more.

Franklin's time has come.
We're all about the Heisman race here on ESPN.com today, and here's your first look at the Big 12 contenders for the Heisman Trophy entering the 2011 season.

1. Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Jones joins Stanford's Andrew Luck as one of the prohibitive favorites for the award entering the season. Such is life for a guy quarterbacking the nation's No. 1 team coming off a 12-win season with 4,718 yards and a league-best 38 touchdown passes.

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLandry Jones passed for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns for Oklahoma last season.
2. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State: On the national stage, Weeden is a dark horse for the award. He'll likely put up the numbers necessary (4,277 yards, 34 TD in 2010) to win, but the Cowboys will have to win more than last year's 11 games.

3. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor: Griffin has entrenched himself as one of the league's most valuable players to his team, even as Baylor has quietly gotten more talented and deeper at every position since Griffin came to Waco with coach Art Briles. With Baylor's reputation, if the Bears rack up wins and flirt with being a Big 12 contender late in the season, it will work to Griffin's advantage.

4. Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M: Gray may not get the total touches necessary to win the trophy after the return of his running mate in the backfield, Christine Michael. If he does, though ... look out. Gray closed the season with seven consecutive games of 100 yards rushing against defenses like LSU, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and that could continue well into 2011.

5. James Franklin, QB, Missouri: Franklin is a big question mark entering 2011, but if he plays well, all the pieces are there for him to have a big year and sneak into the Heisman race late. Blaine Gabbert's stats in 2010 were modest, but Missouri is a team built to make a run at 10-plus wins and contend for a conference title. If Franklin controls the offense and nears what Gabbert did in 2010 (3,186 yards, 16 TDs), he could get some buzz for the trophy late in the season.
Today is all about the quarterback at ESPN.com, but it's time to introduce you to each of the Big 12's passers.

Best in class: Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State

Weeden is everything you want in a quarterback. He's a good decision-maker with a huge arm that's about as accurate as they come in the college game. He led the Big 12 with 8.4 yards per attempt in 2010, his first year as a starter, and helped Oklahoma State win a school-record 11 games.

Sorest postgame arm: Landry Jones, Oklahoma

Jones is a close, close second in the Big 12 and wouldn't surprise anyone by surpassing Weeden, but Jones threw 617 passes in 2010, more than any quarterback in the nation. Part of that number is the high volume of short passes in Oklahoma's offense that it views as an extension of the running game, but Jones piled up big numbers with those throws, leading the Big 12 with 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns to just 12 interceptions. Without workhorse DeMarco Murray in the fold this season, don't look for those pass attempts to dip much, if at all.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireBaylor quarterback Robert Griffin III completed 67 percent of his 454 passes in 2010.
Most misperceived: Robert Griffin III, Baylor

Griffin has a well-deserved rep as a dual-threat quarterback, but he also completed 67 percent of his 454 passes in 2010, good for eighth in the nation and second in the Big 12 behind Taylor Potts by one-tenth of a percentage point. Griffin can still giddy-up after knee surgery in 2009, but he's a much more mature passer than he gets credit for, and he's got one of the league's best receiving corps to help him out.

Most pressure: Garrett Gilbert, Texas

I'm going all-in with Gilbert as the Longhorns' opening-day starter against Rice, but Gilbert better perform and do it early, because if not, the hook that never arrived in 2010 will do exactly that, giving Case McCoy, Connor Wood or David Ash a chance. Gilbert's 10 touchdowns to 17 interceptions in 2010 were eye-popping, but he'll try to improve on that in a new offense under Bryan Harsin from Boise State.

Most indecision: Iowa State

The Cyclones have an open gig after three-year starter Austen Arnaud left, but the job sounds like it's still wide open between junior Jerome Tiller, who played some during a few of Arnaud's injuries the past two seasons, and juco transfer Steele Jantz. Coach Paul Rhoads says Jared Barnett is still a factor in the race, but Iowa State plans to officially name its starter on Aug. 20, exactly two weeks before its season opener.

Best story: Seth Doege, Texas Tech

Doege grew up in West Texas and dreamed of becoming the next great passer in red and black. As soon as Texas Tech began recruiting him, he committed, but missed his final two seasons of high school football with knee injuries. The Red Raiders stuck with him during two frustrating runs of rehab while others took a pass, and five years after his last season as full-time starter, the junior is finally getting his shot to do what he wanted to do since well before high school.

Smartest quarterback: Ryan Tannehill, Texas A&M

Tannehill has just six starts under his belt, but they were memorable last season, helping rescue the Aggies from a 3-3 start, including an 0-2 start in conference play. The Aggies ended up co-Big 12 South champions, earning a berth in the Cotton Bowl. But Tannehill did it all despite missing parts of spring practice for labs for his biology major, which he hopes to use to eventually attend medical school and become an orthopedic surgeon. Tannehill graduated in May with a 3.59 GPA, and ask any of his teammates who the smartest guy on the team is. There's no contest.

Best supporting cast: James Franklin, Missouri

Franklin will fill the void left behind by Blaine Gabbert, but he'll do it with the most help of any first-year starter in the league, and any first-year starter Gary Pinkel has ever prepared. The Tigers return one of the league's best defenses, four offensive linemen, and every single receiver from last season's team. He also returned four running backs, but one of the reserves, Marcus Murphy, will likely redshirt after needing shoulder surgery. Still, the Tigers are ready-made contenders if Franklin can get the job done.

Biggest passer: Collin Klein, Kansas State

Klein used his legs to earn a solid chunk of playing time in 2010, but the 6-foot-5, 233-pounder (see him in real life here) will have to be more than just hard to tackle for the Wildcats to get back to the postseason in 2011 after reaching the Pinstripe Bowl in 2010. That was their first bowl appearance since 2006, but Klein has a lot to prove after throwing just 18 passes last season, compared to his 76 carries for 432 yards and six scores. Making matters more difficult: Workhorse back Daniel Thomas, who had a Big 12-high 595 carries over the past two seasons and led the league in rushing both years, is in the NFL now.

Most work to do: Jordan Webb, Kansas

The Jayhawks were the Big 12's worst passing team in 2010, failing to reach 2,000 yards, and Texas was the league's only other team to throw more interceptions than touchdowns. Webb earned the most time, and seized control of the starting job ahead of Quinn Mecham over the summer, but he completed just 56 percent of his passes last season, better than only Colorado's Cody Hawkins.
Yesterday, you saw our college football blog staff tab one player as the conference's next household name, but what do you think? I pegged Texas A&M running back Christine Michael as the next player folks will know well, but here's a few other suggestions.

Vote in the poll for who you're expecting to see a much bigger profile this time next year:

Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma

Stills caught 61 passes for 786 yards last year as a true freshman, the most of any freshman in Oklahoma history, even with the nation's leader (131) in receptions, Ryan Broyles, across from him on the field. He's got one of the best quarterbacks in the league tossing him the ball, and he'll be back in 2011 with a year of experience under his belt.

James Franklin, QB, Missouri

Franklin is the key to Missouri's rise in 2011. If he plays well, the Tigers should be a strong contender for the Big 12 title, something Blaine Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith could never win. This Tigers team might be the best under Gary Pinkel, but there's a gaping hole at quarterback where Gabbert used to be. Will Franklin fill it and become a star as the next in a long line of Missouri quarterbacks.

Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State

Randle caught more passes last year than any running back in the league, other than Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray, and figured to be a big piece of the backfield set to replace Kendall Hunter, who rushed for over 1,500 yards for the second time in his career last season. Randle has the advantage of a passing game that will require tons of attention and the Big 12's best offensive line. Will he hold off Jeremy Smith and become a 1,000-yard rusher?

Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech

Doege, a junior, hasn't been a full-time starter since his sophomore year of high school, but Texas Tech stayed committed to him through a pair of serious knee injuries, and Doege has done the same. Now, he'll get a chance to do what he grew up wanting to do, carry on the Texas Tech quarterback legacy that guys like Graham Harrell and Kliff Kingsbury helped build. He'll do it under a different coach, but can he still produce the big numbers?

Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas

Brown hasn't even gone through a practice yet, but hopes are high for the incoming freshman who was the nation's No. 7 recruit in the 2011 class. The Cibolo, Texas, native runs with big power and if Texas' offensive line can give him a few holes, should be able to punish defenders with his downhill style. A year from now, will he be the first 1,000-yard rusher at Texas since Jamaal Charles?

Anyone else deserve some consideration?
We'll kick off our look today at the position rankings for each team in the Big 12 before looping back around to rank the top 10 at every position in the Big 12.

We'll start at the most obvious position: Quarterback, a position that I'd argue is more important in the Big 12 than in any other conference.

Depth will be a huge factor in these rankings, though at quarterback, it's the toughest to gauge, considering how little we see of backup quarterbacks.

Here's how each Big 12 team ranks at the quarterback position:

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireLandry Jones leads the Big 12's deepest and best group of quarterbacks.
1. Oklahoma

Oklahoma learned the hard way in 2009 about the importance of the backup quarterback, but even in his limited experience, Drew Allen has impressed Bob Stoops after narrowly losing out on the backup job behind Sam Bradford in 2009. Landry Jones is a great one, and with his opportunities, has become a Heisman Trophy favorite. Could Allen have done the same if he had beaten out Jones in 2009? Blake Bell, the nation's No. 3 quarterback in the 2010 class, will likely be Oklahoma's No. 3 in 2011.

2. Oklahoma State

Brandon Weeden's profile spiked when he led the Cowboys to a comeback win over Colorado on a Thursday night game in 2009. He took over as the starter shortly after, but going into that game Weeden was a third-stringer. Alex Cate transferred after it became evident that Weeden would be the starter in 2010, and behind Weeden is Clint Chelf and two solid recruits: Johnny Deaton and J.W. Walsh, who was the nation's No. 10 QB (just outside the ESPNU 150) in 2011 and enrolled early.

3. Texas A&M

Ryan Tannehill is entrenched at the starting spot, with a lot of youth behind him. Matt Joeckel and Jameill Showers will try to hold off incoming freshman Johnny Manziel for the No. 2 spot this fall. Manziel was impressive during the spring, and will contend for the starting job in 2012, but he'll likely redshirt unless he wins the backup job.

4. Texas Tech

Seth Doege looks ready to grab the reins for two seasons, barring injury. Jacob Karam is probably ready to start in the Big 12 right now, he's just not as good as Doege. Behind them are two promising prospects with upside and development to do: Scotty Young and Michael Brewer. The Red Raiders are the last of the Big 12 teams who have truly solid depth at quarterback.

5. Baylor

Robert Griffin III will probably hold every school record for quarterbacks by the time he leaves Waco, but the Bears need to find a true replacement behind him. Nick Florence filled in well in 2009 when Griffin missed the final nine games with a knee injury, but he's a junior like Griffin and their eligibility will expire simultaneously. Redshirt freshman Bryce Petty and 2012 commit Jared Johnson could battle for the spot in 2013.

6. Missouri

The Tigers depth took a hit after Tyler Gabbert's transfer following spring practice, but expectations are high for sophomore James Franklin, who got a bit of experience in 2010 behind Blaine Gabbert. Senior Jimmy Costello quit the team after last season to focus on an impending fall enlistment in the Army, but rejoined after the Gabbert brothers' departures from Columbia. He's likely to be the backup, with Ashton Glaser and walk-on Ryan Howerton filling out the rest of the quarterback spots. Corbin Berkstresser, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback from Kansas City that ESPN ranked No. 43 at his position, will arrive in the fall, too.

7. Texas

How long until we see a quarterback make the kind of plays Garrett Gilbert made against Alabama in the national championship? Those kinds of long scores were rare last year, but the Longhorns will have a competition this fall that sounds like it's pretty open heading into camp. If Gilbert wins, he'll likely have a much shorter leash in 2011 than he did in 2010, before Case McCoy or Connor Wood gets a crack, and dark horse true freshman David Ash could make things interesting, too.

8. Kansas State

Collin Klein made a nice move toward winning the job with a strong spring game performance. But coach Bill Snyder says he still didn't see a ton of separation between Klein and his backups, Sammuel Lamur and Boston College transfer Justin Tuggle, who spent last year replacing Cam Newton at Blinn College in Texas.

9. Iowa State

James Capello transferred after the spring, but Iowa State's race has likely boiled down to two men: Jerome Tiller and Steele Jantz. Jantz, a juco transfer, is the wild card and Tiller will need to show that his struggles in spot duty last season were temporary. He didn't show the progress you'd expect from a maturing player when he played for an injured Austen Arnaud in a few games early and late in 2010. Jared Barnett is still battling in Ames, but him winning the job would be a huge upset.

10. Kansas

The Jayhawks could use a couple more years of Todd Reesing. The Jayhawks saw a huge drop off at the quarterback position in 2010, as Jordan Webb, Quinn Mecham and Kale Pick all got time under center. Kansas will likely run its offense through a strong group of running backs, but unless newcomer Brock Berglund shows potential and proves he's the best of the group, expect Kansas to remain near the bottom of the Big 12 by the end of 2011.
We'll have plenty of Heisman coverage as the season nears (and happens, eventually), but ESPN Stats & Info got the party started with a look at all the contenders, broken up by their classification.

The stats folk took a look at the system quarterbacks, the pro-style quarterbacks, and finally, the spread quarterbacks.

The top two contenders? Both from the Big 12 and both from Oklahoma schools.
Landry Jones, Oklahoma

The blueprint for a pocket passer to win the Heisman is simple: put up big numbers and win games. With the Sooners projected to be one of best teams in the country, Jones will have a chance to achieve both.

...

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Tim Heitman/US PresswireQuarterback Landry Jones should have the Big 12's best shot at winning the Heisman.
Jones could lead the nation in many passing categories because of Bob Stoops’ quick-strike offense. In 2010, Jones attempted more passes than any other quarterback, and almost 28 percent of his pass attempts were at or behind the line of scrimmage.

These slants and screen passes allowed Jones to increase his yards and completion percentage on relatively easy passes. It also allowed his receivers to make plays and gain yards after the catch.
My take: They're on point here. Jones is my frontrunner and the Big 12's best shot at a Heisman. I've taken a look at the value of those short passes on the blog before, and it was clear: they're a huge part of what Oklahoma does.

One more interesting point uncovered by the Stats & Info crew: Of Landry Jones 26 career interceptions, 20 have come on the road. That's astounding.
Brandon Weeden, Oklahoma State

If Weeden can replicate his 2010 performance, then he’ll put up the numbers necessary for Heisman consideration. Last season, Weeden ranked third in the nation in passing yards, and his career pass efficiency mark of 155.42 is fourth among active quarterbacks.

Yet Weeden may not even be the best bet for the Heisman Trophy on his team.

If he has a big year in 2011, then Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon probably will as well. In 2010, Blackmon was one of the best big-play receivers in the country and Weeden’s go-to guy on third down, in the red zone and when facing added pressure.
My take: I don't buy that Justin Blackmon is the biggest detriment to Weeden's Heisman chances. For me, the big question is will Oklahoma State win enough games for Weeden to take it home. If the Cowboys are undefeated, he's going to New York, at the very least. I'd bet quite a bit on that. One loss, it will be close. Two losses? No way, no matter what he does.

Is that right? Maybe not, but don't blame me. That's how the Heisman works. You should know this by now. I've got a vote for a handful of the CFB awards, but the Heisman isn't one of them. (Though I'd like one, Heisman Trust. Hint hint.)


One of the receivers from Oklahoma, Jones and Weeden's top targets, could end up in New York as a Heisman finalist, but the two Biletnikoff finalists from a year ago would shock me if they had a legitimate chance to win the Heisman when it came down to it.

Here's what Stats & Info had to say:
Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma

This season, Broyles’ numbers could be mind boggling.

Last season, he averaged more than nine catches per game and did not drop one ball. In his last two seasons, Broyles has 29 touchdown receptions, 20 of them have been for 10 yards or more. Both figures are tops in college football.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
AP Photo/Stillwater News Press, Chelcey AdamiJustin Blackmon's big advantage over Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles is Blackmon's ability to go up and get jump balls.
Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State

Last season, Blackmon averaged 10.8 yards on receptions made at or behind the line of scrimmage. He also caught 63.6 percent of passes that targeted him 15 yards or more downfield. The ability to turn any throw into a big gain helped Blackmon lead FBS last season in receiving yards per game.

What could possibly haunt Blackmon in 2011? He dropped five passes last season, which may not seem like a lot. But it is when you consider that [South Carolina's Alshon] Jeffery had just one drop last season and Broyles had none.
My take: Those drop numbers are interesting, and I don't know about you, but I hadn't seen those stacked up against each other before. Stats & Info described Blackmon as a "monster," and I'd agree. The big advantage he has over Broyles is his ability to go up and get jump balls, but Broyles' experience (he's been a major contributor for three seasons already vs. Blackmon's one) may make him an even more difficult cover. I still consider Blackmon No. 1 and Broyles No. 2 nationally for receivers, but like I've said, it's a stretch to see either of these guys actually win the Heisman. Biletnikoff? Yeah, one of them will get it.


No Big 12 running backs made the list, but a big attraction? ESPN Insider's a look at a few dark horses. It's a fascinating list full of Big 12 talent. Most of these could, in theory win it. They're all dark horses for a reason, but I could see it happening for almost all these guys.
3. Jeff Fuller, WR, Texas A&M

If Aggies quarterback Ryan Tannehill continues to progress as he did after taking over in the middle of last season, Fuller could end up vaulting over Oklahoma wideout Ryan Broyles as the best pass-catcher in college football.
My take: Disagree! Fuller's great, and probably a top 5 receiver in the college game, but I don't see him overtaking Broyles in any scenario that involves both Broyles and Jones staying healthy. And what about Blackmon?
4. Roy Finch, RB, Oklahoma

Finch had a higher rushing yards per attempt (YPA) average last season than DeMarco Murray and, unlike Murray, all of his numbers were posted against Big 12 competition.
My take: Finch has already missed more games in one year than Murray did his entire career. Oklahoma is likely to employ a committee approach at running back, but if Finch proves he can handle 20-25 carries a game and stays healthy, he's got the best chance of any Big 12 back to win it. (If they're both healthy, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael will siphon too many carries from one another to have a realistic chance to win, even if A&M goes undefeated.)
6. James Franklin, QB, Missouri

This might seem like a complete long shot on its face, but consider this: Over the past five seasons, Missouri's two starting quarterbacks (Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert) averaged the following Heisman Trophy-caliber statistical line: 324 completions, 493 attempts, 3,789 yards, 28 touchdowns/11 interceptions (including more than 3,500 yards each in their debut seasons).
My take: This boils down to winning games. I doubt Missouri's ability to win the 11-12 necessary for Franklin to win it, but if they do, he'll be a big reason why. He'll have a lot of help with his entire receiving corps returning, all of his running backs and four offensive linemen back, and supporting casts can make quarterbacks look great.

Ask Garrett Gilbert.
The best players in football play with something to prove. But some have more to prove than others.

Tevin Elliot, DE, Baylor

Elliot is raw, but the versatile 6-foot-2, 245-pounder led the Bears in sacks as a freshman, with five. Baylor's defense held the team back from achieving much more than a bowl appearance last year, but Elliot could be a big piece of a defensive resurgence under Phil Bennett in 2011. A disruptive pass rush would be a huge help to a pass defense that struggled last season, and one player can make that happen. Can Elliot prove he's the guy to do it and help push the team further than the seven wins it reached in 2010?

Huldon Tharp, LB, Kansas

Tharp showed tons of promise as a freshman, making 59 tackles and landing on a freshman All-America team. He looked like he'd be one of the leaders on Turner Gill's first defense at Kansas, but his season cruelly ended in fall camp with a leg injury. Can he prove in 2011 that he's that leader, and that there's still reason to believe the potential he showed in 2009 is there?

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireThe Tigers need James Franklin to fill the void left at quarterback by Blaine Gabbert's departure.
James Franklin, QB, Missouri

The pressure is on for Franklin to continue Missouri's quarterback lineage after Tyler Gabbert transferred following the spring semester. Brad Smith started it, Chase Daniel took the Tigers to new heights and Blaine Gabbert looks like he'll make the biggest impact of the three in the NFL. Where is Franklin's place? This could be his team for the next three years, but he'll step into his new role with one of the Big 12's most complete teams surrounding him. He has sure-handed receivers, a solid running game, an experienced offensive line and one of the league's best defenses. Can he fill the void and help Missouri contend for a Big 12 title, proving that the bloodline will continue?

Hubert Anyiam, WR, Oklahoma State

Anyiam might be the guy who truly makes Oklahoma State's offense unstoppable. He led Oklahoma State in receptions during Dez Bryant's abbreviated 2009 season, catching 42 passes for 513 yards and three scores as a sophomore. Last year, though, he never got started and finished with 11 catches for 135 yards, thanks to an ankle injury similar to the one that ruined Kendall Hunter's 2009 season. The 6-foot, 198-pounder has the potential to be a second game-changing receiver in the Cowboys offense, but can he return to 2009 form and prove he's a dangerous complement to Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon?

Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M

Tannehill was a big reason for the Aggies' six-game winning streak to close the regular season, but so was Cyrus Gray's emergence, a rapidly maturing offensive line and a defense that played its best football in the second half of the season. All the pieces are there for Tannehill to lead the Aggies to the BCS, but last year it was obvious: without good quarterback play, the Aggies were not a great team. Tannehill has been on the field for three seasons, but he still has just six career starts at quarterback. And there's that nagging Texas A&M senior quarterback curse that he'll surely be asked about at least a few times next season. Can he prove that his play late last season will continue into 2011, all the way to a possible Big 12 title?

We'll tab a few more later today.

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