NCF Nation: Geneo Grissom

NORMAN, Okla. -- It was a single play in a single game that signaled the imminent return of the Oklahoma defense to levels of its former glorious past.

With one minute to go in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Sooner linebacker Eric Striker came barreling around the line. After beating left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who might be a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft, Striker leveled Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron and stripped the ball loose. Flying in from the other side, Sooner end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled in for the game-clinching touchdown.

After several seasons of relative mediocrity, the Oklahoma defense finally rediscovered its swagger in that 45-31 Sugar Bowl win over the two-time defending national champs.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Sean Gardner/Getty ImagesEric Striker celebrated after sacking AJ McCarron in the Sugar Bowl.
And buoyed by nine returning starters, several rising stars and one giant feather in a houndstooth cap, the Sooners have carried that swagger into the spring.

“The Sugar Bowl gave us a good boost,” said defensive end Charles Tapper, who was the only defensive underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last year. “Knowing we kinda dominated Alabama’s offensive line, that the whole defense just dominated Alabama a little bit -- just a great way to come into the 2014 season.”

It wasn’t long ago the swagger of the Selmon Brothers and “Superman” Roy Williams and “The Boz” seemed lost forever.

The Sooners ended the 2012 season capitulating to Heisman winner Johnny Manziel, who humiliated them in the Cotton Bowl while becoming just the second player ever to rush and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game (Vince Young in the 2006 Rose Bowl was the other). The final month that season, Oklahoma couldn’t pressure the passer. Couldn’t stop the run. And couldn’t win without getting a half-a-hundred from its offense.

But thanks a scheme change from four to three down linemen last offseason that commanded a more blitz-oriented style, as well as a successful bid to bring Michigan defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery to Norman, the Sooners rapidly improved defensively last season despite playing several new starters.

Spurred by the emergence of underclassmen like Striker, Tapper and the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, linebacker Dominique Alexander, that improvement finally culminated in New Orleans.

The Sooners didn’t play perfectly against Alabama. But they sacked the Heisman runner-up seven times, and forced three turnovers that all led to Oklahoma touchdowns, capped with Grissom’s fumble return.

“As a team, things started to come together,” said coordinator Mike Stoops, who resuscitated the Sooner defense at the turn of the millennium 14 years ago and has done it again in the present in his second stint in Norman. “I think our team came together in that last game. That let us play with more confidence and swagger in the second half. Even when things got tough, I felt like our players were in control.”

With the return of almost all those players, the Sooners figure to storm into 2014 with one of the best defenses in the country.

Who knows, maybe the best.

Virtually the entire defensive line comes back, including Grissom and Tapper, who team up to give the Sooners a destructive duo off the edge.

Inside, Oklahoma will also welcome back Jordan Phillips, who was playing at an All-Big 12 level before suffering a season-ending back injury, and redshirt freshman Charles Walker, who has been turning heads for months during closed practices. During the winter, Walker ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds, shattering the Bob Stoops-era defensive tackle record at Oklahoma set by All-American Tommie Harris (4.80) in 2003.

“We’re starting to gain quality players in our backup positions that can play a lot of different places trying to earn their way onto the field,” Mike Stoops said.

That hasn’t just manifested along the defensive line, either.

Oklahoma’s entire linebacking corps returns, including Striker, who has become the Big 12 version of Lawrence Taylor. The secondary is brimming with young talent, too, led by cornerback Zack Sanchez, who intercepted McCarron in the Sugar Bowl to set up a late Oklahoma touchdown at the end of the first half and give the Sooners a 31-17 lead.

“We’re so far ahead from where we were last year,” Striker said. “We got chemistry with each other. We know how to play off each other.”

That’s a scary thought for the rest of the Big 12, and maybe all of college football.

Especially if Oklahoma can keep getting to the quarterback the way it did late last season. In their final four games, the Sooners sacked opposing quarterbacks 16 times. According to ESPN Stats & Info, South Alabama’s was the only FBS defense with more during the same stretch.

“We like to get to that quarterback,” Tapper said. “On third down, we let the dogs loose. Like the cops let the dogs loose to get them bad guys, we let the dogs loose on third down.”

Though it wasn’t a third down, that’s exactly what Oklahoma did to McCarron at the end of the Sugar Bowl.

The play won the game for the Sooners. While sending a message that defensive swagger is finally back at Oklahoma.

“I feel like this is going to be a big year for us,” Tapper said. “Dominating every team in the Big 12 and just all over the country.”

Best and worst of the Big 12 bowls

January, 10, 2014
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Below, we break down the best and the worst of the Big 12’s bowl season:

Best win: The Oklahoma Sooners have been searching for a victory that would signal their return to the nation’s elite. They finally got such a victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, as Oklahoma smoked the two-time defending national champs from Alabama, 45-31. With tons of young talent returning, notably quarterback Trevor Knight and linebacker Eric Striker, the Alabama victory could propel Oklahoma toward a national title run in 2014.

Worst loss: Baylor had a chance to put the finishing touches on a fabulous season. Instead, the Bears lost to UCF, one of the biggest underdogs in BCS history, 52-42 in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl as the conference champion Bears ended their season on a sour note. It was still a great season for Baylor, yet one that didn’t end so great.

Best offensive performance: Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters and Tyler Lockett were all terrific, but nobody had the bowl game Knight did. Oklahoma’s redshirt freshman quarterback completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. He did have one interception, but even that pass bounced off his receiver’s hands. Those would be great numbers against anybody, and Knight didn’t produce them against just anybody. He produced them against Alabama.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Eric Striker dominated Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
Best defensive performance: Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker was an absolute menace in the Sugar Bowl. On top of a team-high seven tackles, he sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron three times and forced a fumble in the game’s final minute that sealed the victory. Striker was virtually unblockable all night.

Best special teams performance: Texas Tech dominated most of the National University Holiday Bowl. But the game became tense early in the third quarter when Arizona State scored on a 44-yard run to cut Tech’s lead to 27-20. Those tense moments lasted for just moments. That’s because Reginald Davis returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, putting the Red Raiders back up by two scores. Arizona State never threatened again as the Red Raiders cruised to a 37-23 upset victory.

Best play: With just a minute to play, Alabama got the ball back at its 18-yard line with a chance for game-tying touchdown drive. Instead, on the first snap, Striker came barreling around the edge and crashed into McCarron’s blind side. The ball popped to the ground, and defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped it up and rumbled eight yards for a game-clinching touchdown. It was Oklahoma’s seventh sack of McCarron.

Worst play: The Big 12 had a similar play go the other way. Down 34-31, Oklahoma State drove into Missouri territory with a chance of – at worst – lining up for a game-tying field goal. Instead, the Cowboys called a pass on third-and-7, and before quarterback Clint Chelf could unload the ball, he was sacked from behind by SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam, who knocked the ball loose. Missouri’s Shane Ray gobbled up the fumble and raced 73 yards for the touchdown, as the Tigers won the game 41-31.

Best catch: On second-and-goal from the Michigan 8, Kansas State wideout Tyler Lockett was lined up across from Michigan cornerback Raymon Taylor. Lockett drove right into Taylor, then looked back to quarterback Jake Waters. The ball came sailing low, but Lockett went down to get his hands under the ball before it touched the ground, giving him his third touchdown catch of the game and putting K-State ahead 21-6.

Worst play-calling: The Cowboys were just 9 of 22 on third down against Missouri, and curious play-calling from offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich seemed to be a big reason why. Twice on third-and-3, Yurcich called running plays up the middle, which Missouri’s powerful defensive line stuffed to snuff promising Oklahoma State drives. Yurcich called another running play up the middle on third-and-1 at the end of the quarter, which the Tigers obliterated again. With the Cowboys defense dominating Missouri through the third quarter, Oklahoma State missed an opportunity to take command of the game. Third-down play-calling was a big reason why.

Best bounce-back performance: The Texas Tech defense had capitulated during a five-game losing streak, giving up 38, 52, 49, 63 and 41 points. But finally healthy again, Tech bucked up in the National University Holiday Bowl, holding Arizona State to 18 points below its season average.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesArt Briles and the Baylor defense had a nightmarish evening in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl.
Worst disappearing act: Baylor had claimed its defense was actually the best in the Big 12. But in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Bears were lit up by UCF for 52 points and 556 yards. UCF had six touchdown drives of 75 yards or longer, the most long drives Baylor gave up in a game all season.

Best quote: “So much for the big bad wolf, huh?” – coach Bob Stoops, after Oklahoma defeated the two-time defending national champion Crimson Tide.

Worst official’s call: With the AT&T Cotton Bowl knotted at 24-24 in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma State cornerback Tyler Patmon appeared to have delivered the play of the game. He stepped in front of Missouri's Dorial Green-Beckham to intercept James Franklin’s pass and returned it 37 yards into the end zone. Officials, however, flagged Patmon with pass interference – a ticky-tack call at best on Patmon, who on replays appeared to be going for the ball. With new life, Missouri capitalized to drive for a field goal, and the Tigers eventually won the game.

Best fan showing: The Longhorns didn’t have the kind of season they had hoped for. But in Mack Brown’s final game, burnt orange filled the Alamodome, turning the Valero Alamo Bowl into a sellout. The bowl game didn’t go the way the Longhorns had hoped, either -- a 30-7 loss to Oregon. But Texas fans sent out their coach in a classy way.

Big 12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
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The Big 12 had some memorable bowl performances, and some not-so-memorable ones. Below, we honor the memorable ones with the Big 12's all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters were marvelous, too, but Knight was simply incredible, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the two-time defending national champs.

RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas. Brown did everything he could to keep the Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries. Unfortunately, he had little help from the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett proved just as much a handful for Michigan as he does Big 12 teams.
RB: John Hubert, Kansas State. In his final game at K-State, Hubert went out with a bang, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats rolled Michigan.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. The Wolverines became the next team unable to guard Lockett, who had another stellar outing with 10 catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns. Big 12 defensive backs cannot be looking forward to this guy coming back next season.

WR: Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma. Saunders hauled in two of Knight’s touchdown passes, the second a 43-yarder coming off a gorgeous double move that gave OU the lead for good.

TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech. Amaro became the NCAA's all-time single season tight end record holder for receptions and receiving yards, reeling in eight catches for 112 yards against the Sun Devils before revealing he would be turning pro.

OT: Bronson Irwin, Oklahoma. Irwin held up remarkably well against Alabama’s mighty front in his first career start at right tackle, as Knight was sacked only once. Irwin, a guard his entire career, had to move outside because of an injury to Tyrus Thompson.

OT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech. Webb attempted 41 passes and wasn’t sacked once. Clark was a big reason.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State. The Wildcats moved the ball at will against Michigan. Along with Clark, Whitehair is one of the best young returning offensive linemen in the league.

OG: Beau Carpenter, Texas Tech. After missing three straight games with a concussion, Carpenter returned to help shut down Arizona State All-American DT Will Sutton, who basically was a non-factor.

C: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma. Even with a makeshift offensive line, OU somehow won the battle in the trenches against Alabama. Ikard, an All-American and quarterback of the line, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the line together.

DEFENSE

DE: Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma. Grissom was a man possessed against the Crimson Tide. The former tight end had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sooners’ victory.

DT: Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, Barnett tied a career high with five tackles and one sack and repeatedly found his way into the Missouri backfield.

DT: Dartwan Bush, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders desperately missed Bush late in the regular season. His performance against Arizona State underscored why, as Bush delivered three tackles and a sack and freed up Kerry Hyder to make plays, too.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSooners LB Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times in the Sugar Bowl.
DE: Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State. Bean had a breakout game in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, with a career-high seven tackles, including three for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma. Not even Alabama could block Striker off the edge. Striker had a monster performance against the Tide with seven tackles and three sacks, with his final sack forcing the game-clinching fumble in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

LB: Will Smith, Texas Tech. The senior had a National University Holiday Bowl-high 14 tackles, as the Red Raiders held Arizona State 17 points below its season average.

LB: Blake Slaughter, Kansas State. One of the better linebackers in the Big 12 all year, Slaughter had another fine game in the desert with seven tackles, including one for loss, as Michigan’s offense was held in check all night.

CB: Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up some big plays in the passing game, but Colvin was the exception. He also had a critical, touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter that resulted in Alabama having to settle for a field goal.

CB: Demetri Goodson, Baylor. The Bears gave up 52 points, but they might have given up more had Goodson not collected an acrobatic interception inside the Baylor 5-yard line.

S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Barnett led the Wildcats with eight tackles, and he delivered the exclamation point against Michigan with a 51-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

S: Tanner Jacobson, Texas Tech. In his last college game for a while, the walk-on freshman had a very solid performance with seven tackles. Jacobson is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission to Bolivia.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma. “Moneycutt” nailed a season-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter that allowed OU to keep momentum. It was the third-longest field goal of his career.

P: Spencer Roth, Baylor. One of the few bright spots for Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was its punter, who was busier than he had been all season. Roth averaged almost 44 yards on seven punts, and pinned UCF inside the 20-yard line three times.

Returner: Reginald Davis, Texas Tech. After Arizona State had trimmed Tech’s lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter, Davis answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 90-yard touchdown return down the sideline. The Sun Devils failed to retake the momentum again the rest of the game.

NEW ORLEANS -- After the confetti dropped and the band had belted “Boomer Sooner” one last time, the Oklahoma players huddled at midfield for a team photo and waited for coach Bob Stoops to join them.

They waited and waited. After several minutes, they could wait no more. They dashed over to the ESPN camera stage where Stoops and quarterback Trevor Knight still were. And continued the celebration together there.

The Sooners have been waiting and waiting for a program-affirming victory, to show the world they belong back among college football’s best.

That wait is finally over.

Thursday night in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, the Sooners bludgeoned Alabama, the game’s preeminent program of the past five years. With their 45-31 victory, they also sent a message.

Oklahoma football is back.

And armed with a young quarterback who just thoroughly outplayed the Heisman Trophy runner-up, the Sooners intend on staying.

“To come down here and show the Sooners are back,” Knight said, “it's something special.”

In New Orleans, Oklahoma was something special.

But this was no fluke. “Propaganda” had none to do with it, either. The Sooners might have been 17-point underdogs in Vegas, but in New Orleans, they were the better team.

“We played how we expected to play, to be quite honest,” Stoops said.

Defensively, Oklahoma sacked Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron seven times and forced four turnovers. On the Crimson Tide’s last drive and final chance to tie the game, the Sooners achieved both. Eric Striker, who is quickly developing into college football’s version of Lawrence Taylor, came barreling around the edge. He crashed into McCarron’s backside, popping the ball loose. Defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped up his second fumble of the night and bounded eight yards into the end zone to clinch the win.

“This game was huge,” said Grissom, who had two sacks to along with his two fumble recoveries. “We were ready to play.”

No one, however, came out more ready to play than Knight.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesThe Sooners react after scoring a TD against Alabama.
As a redshirting freshman last year, Knight impersonated Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel on the scout team during bowl practices to prepare the Sooners’ defense for Texas A&M. The impersonation came rather naturally. And the same way Manziel would in the game, Knight carved up Oklahoma’s defense on a daily basis.

Thursday, he carved up Alabama’s.

“He showed the whole country what we've been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages,” Stoops said. “He was just exceptional.”

In just his fifth career start, Knight connected on 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns, shredding Alabama’s secondary the way only Manziel has been able to. Knight threw one interception, but even that pass hit his receiver in the hands.

“We’ve been waiting for him to have this kind of performance,” said receiver Lacoltan Bester, who hauled in Knight’s first touchdown pass. “I feel like he can be one of the best quarterbacks in the country, and next year he’s going to show it.”

In the Sugar Bowl, he showed plenty. Especially during one pivotal sequence early in the fourth quarter. Clinging to a 31-24 lead and slowly losing momentum, Oklahoma faced first-and-30 after two straight penalties.

Even then, Knight delivered.

He lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to Bester for a 34-yard gain and a first down to the Alabama 9. Moments later, Knight rolled right, danced around when nobody was initially open, then flicked a pass across the coverage to Sterling Shepard in the end zone, putting the Sooners back up two scores.

“Yeah, that was a key moment,” Stoops said. “The game has started to slow down for him, where he's really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do and who he is.”

Going into the game, the Sooners were 17-point underdogs for a reason.

Not since 2008 had Oklahoma seriously contended for a national title past October. And after snagging six Big 12 championships over a span of nine seasons, the Sooners had captured only one outright conference title in five years. This season had been more of the same, as the Sooners lost to Texas by 16 points and to Baylor by 29.

But these Super Sooners of the Superdome were not the team of the past five years. And with Knight back to go along with several rising defensive stars, these Super Sooners figure to be the Oklahoma team of the next five years.

“Shows we can play with anybody,” said Stoops, who added he’ll no longer have to dodge punches for calling the SEC’s perceived depth as “propaganda.”

“I just watched them go through their entire conference and play pretty well,” Stoops said of the Tide. “So enough of that.”

Truth be told, Alabama had gone through pretty much everyone the past five years and fared pretty well with national championships.

But Thursday, the Crimson Tide couldn’t go through Oklahoma.

A program that’s been waiting to announce its return to college football’s national stage.

NEW ORLEANS -- Oklahoma exploded in the first half, then held on for a 45-31 victory over Alabama at the Allstate Sugar Bowl on Thursday in one of the biggest upsets in BCS history.

Here’s how it happened:

It was over when: Trailing by a touchdown with less than a minute to play, Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron dropped back to pass. But before he could unload the pass, Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker came swooping around his blindside to knock the ball loose. Sooners defensive end Geneo Grissom scooped up the fumble and rumbled 8 yards into the end zone to clinch the stunning victory.

Game ball goes to: Oklahoma freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, who was absolutely sensational in just his fifth career start. Against one of the top-ranked defenses in college football, Knight completed 32 of 44 passes for 348 yards and four touchdowns. All of those numbers were easily career highs. Knight threw one interception, but even that pass was on the money, as it bounced off the hands of receiver Jalen Saunders. Knight was special, outplaying a quarterback on the other side who finished second in the Heisman voting.

Stat of the game: Oklahoma’s 31 first-half points were the most the Sooners had scored in a first half all season, and the most Alabama had allowed in a first half this year, as well. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Alabama had given up 31 points over an entire game just seven times under coach Nick Saban before this Sugar Bowl. Oklahoma came into the night averaging 31 points a game.

Unsung hero: Grissom had a monster night to spearhead the Sooners defensively. He finished with two sacks, a third-down pass breakup and two fumble recoveries. The first fumble recovery came at the Oklahoma 8-yard line, thwarting a promising Alabama scoring drive in the second quarter. The second ended the game. It was easily the best game of Grissom’s career. He spent much of last season as a reserve tight end.

What Alabama learned: The Crimson Tide just aren’t quite as dominant as they’ve been in the recent past. Oklahoma might have played out of its mind, but this was also a team that lost to Texas by 16 points and to Baylor by 29. Even with McCarron gone, Alabama will be a national title contender again next season. But the Crimson Tide must shore up some weaknesses, specifically a secondary that got completely torched by a freshman quarterback.

What Oklahoma learned: The Sooners can play with anyone in the country. Alabama has been the preeminent program in college football the past five years, which includes three national titles. But this was no fluke. The Sooners outplayed the Crimson Tide in just about every facet of the game. It has been 13 years now since Oklahoma won a national championship. But with Knight back at quarterback and a couple rising stars on defense, the Sooners could be geared up for a special season in 2014.

Stats reveal Stoops' excellence at OU

November, 27, 2013
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Bob Stoops became the all-time winningest coach in Oklahoma history on Saturday. The Sooners’ veteran coach won his 158th game at OU with a 41-31 victory over Kansas State to pass Barry Switzer on the school’s win list.

His list of accomplishments reveal the standard of success Stoops has set in Norman, Okla. since he took over in 1999. He has reached all four BCS games and the BCS national title game with 14 bowl appearances, eight Big 12 titles, eight BCS bowls, four BCS title game appearances, one BCS national title.

With the help of the OU SID department and ESPN Stats & Information, a closer look at five key stats during the Stoops era points to the priorities of a program run by the 15-year coach and the foundation of his 158-39 record.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBob Stoops has been a defensive-minded coach with explosive offenses.
Third-down defense: OU’s defense has been the among the nation’s best under Stoops. The Sooners have held opponents to a 31.5 percent conversion rate on third down. OU ranks No. 2 among FBS teams in that category since Stoops took over. Making plays and winning individual battles on clutch plays have become trademarks of Stoops’ squads. The Sooners understand the importance of getting off the field on third down and have been able to consistently be among the nation’s best in those situations.

Third-down conversions: OU has 1,283 total third down conversions under Stoops, which is tied for first among FBS teams. OU consistently has a solid plan on third down attempts and secures the players -- like Heisman winners Sam Bradford and Jason White — to execute that plan consistently. Since 2004, the Sooners have converted 44.9 percent of their third down conversion attempts. The national average during that span is 39.8 percent.

Forced turnovers: Stoops knows the value of turnovers and he instills that belief into his teams. Since 1999, OU has forced 428 turnovers which is tied for third among FBS teams. That’s an average of 28.5 per season. OU has forced at least one turnover in 170 of 197 games (86.3 percent) in the last 15 years. Games between two evenly matched teams are often decided by turnovers but Stoops’ crew also uses them to dominate lesser opponents. A combination of talented defenders and aggressive schemes have put opponents into positions to make mistakes and OU tends to take advantage.

Defensive touchdowns: OU has scored 46 defensive touchdowns and has scored at least one defensive TD in each of Stoops’ 15 seasons. Thus, not only do the Sooners make a concerted effort to take the ball away, they have the ability to turn it into points. Cornerback Zack Sanchez did it last weekend with his 74-yard interception return against Kansas State. He joined defensive end Geneo Grissom and linebacker Corey Nelson as Sooners with a defensive touchdown this season. The Sooners’ 28 defensive touchdowns since 2004 are tied for eighth among FBS teams.

Points per drive: While Stoops is a defensive-minded coach, the offenses have placed among the nation’s scoring leaders throughout his tenure. Since 2004, the Sooners have averaged 2.56 points per drive, ranking No. 8 among FBS teams. It’s a sign OU’s offenses under Stoops not only move the ball with success but also finish drives with points. The Sooners have brought in stars like Bradford, running back Adrian Peterson and receiver Ryan Broyles to help them become one of the most explosive offenses in college football during the past 15 years. Their 2.56-point per drive average is a full 0.5 point more than the national average of 2.02 during that span.

In the 15 seasons with Stoops in charge, his teams rank among the nation’s best in key moments on third down, finish offensive drives with points and force game-changing turnovers.

Sounds like a winning combination.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma football players aren't used to this scenario.

When the Sooners walk down the visitors tunnel Thursday night, they will emerge onto the turf at Floyd Casey Stadium as clear underdogs. Baylor hosts OU in Waco, Texas, in a battle of Top 10 teams that could end up as the game that decided the Big 12 title race when all is said and done.

[+] EnlargeAaron Colvin
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsSenior Aaron Colvin believes the Sooners play well when doubted, as long as they stay focused.
"It becomes a challenge, makes the game more exciting," safety Quentin Hayes said of being an underdog. "We just have to go out and play Sooner football. It is what it is."

Odds makers have made the Bears two touchdown favorites, as Baylor has looked as good as any team in the nation while reeling off a 7-0 start.

Even though they can count the number of times they've entered a game as underdogs on one hand, several Sooners seem to cherish the underdog role.

"I think this team thrives off the underdog role," defensive end Geneo Grissom said. "We almost feel disrespected being an underdog. We feel like we can play with anyone in this conference. It motivates us and helps us thrive."

Under Bob Stoops the Sooners have excelled in similar situations. OU is 4-2 in road games against AP top 10 teams under Stoops, including a 3-1 mark since 2010. The Sooners also are undefeated when facing back-to-back AP Top 10 opponents, having swept Kansas State and Nebraska in 2000 and Texas and Iowa State in 2002 under Stoops. OU defeated then-No. 10 Texas Tech 38-30 in its last game, Oct. 26.

Simply put, when questions about their chances to win arise, the Sooners tend to rise to the occasion.

"I think we do," cornerback Aaron Colvin said. "I feel like we play well when we're in that underdog role. Personally, I love the underdog role. I feel like I've been in it my whole life."

Several times in recent years, the Sooners have taken their game to another level when many doubted their chances to win. Florida State (2011), Oklahoma State (2009, 2010) and Kansas State (2011) are prime examples. OU won those four games by an average of 21 points.

Against No. 12 Oklahoma State in 2009, the unranked Sooners were winding down a five-loss regular season with a makeshift offensive line, yet they shut out the Cowboys in Norman, their 27-0 win dashing OSU's hopes of a BCS berth. In Bedlam 2010, No. 9 Oklahoma State was expected to win again before the No. 13 Sooners dashed their Big 12 title hopes with a 47-41 win in Stillwater. In 2011, top-ranked OU went to Doak Walker Stadium to earn a 23-13 win over No. 5 FSU in a matchup of Top 5 teams. Later that season, the team traveled to Manhattan, Kan., with a No. 9 ranking after having lost to Texas Tech and hammered No. 8 Kansas State, 58-17.

Don't go putting the much-anticipated matchup with Baylor in the win column, however. The past three times OU has been an underdog, they've proved their doubters right. In Bedlam 2011, No. 3 Oklahoma State got its revenge for the previous two seasons with a dominant, 44-10 win. Last year, No. 5 Notre Dame pulled away from the Sooners in the fourth quarter of a 30-13 win, and No. 9 Texas A&M dominated the second half of its 41-13 Cotton Bowl triumph to hand OU two of its three 2012 losses.

But make no mistake -- several Sooners feel disrespected by being the underdog heading into any game.

"I do feel pretty disrespected," Colvin said. "Not necessarily because of their opinion or them picking us to lose, but just some of the things they might say about us, or the point deficit they think we might lose by. Whatever it is, we can't worry about it, and that's my job as a leader to make sure we aren't worried about it."
NORMAN, Okla. -- Unpleasant would be a great word to describe Oklahoma's ride home after Texas hammered the Sooners 36-20 in the Red River Rivalry in Dallas last Saturday.

“Silence,” cornerback Zack Sanchez said of the 193-mile trip from the Cotton Bowl to Norman. “Guys were in their own zone, thinking about plays we could have made, should have made.”

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
Jackson Laizure/Getty ImagesThe ineffectiveness of the Oklahoma passing game has Blake Bell's status as starting quarterback under scrutiny.
It’s not the first time the Sooners have been in this situation. At this time a year ago, the Sooners had already suffered a loss to Kansas State in Big 12 Conference play, yet they took the field in the regular season finale at TCU with the chance to win the conference outright if Kansas State were to lose to Texas. The Wildcats defeated the Longhorns the night after the Sooners' win over TCU, thus OU shared the conference title with KSU.

There’s no reason to think the Sooners can’t accomplish a similar result in 2013.

“The Big 12 is a great conference and you never know,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said. “We definitely think we are still in the running.”

But Oklahoma has work to do and it'll need help to make its goal of another Big 12 title a reality. Basically, its loss to Texas means its destiny is no longer in their hands.

“It was a reality check for everybody,” guard Adam Shead said. “The Big 12 is a pretty tough conference this year. You don’t have the big offenses anymore, the defenses are stepping up.”

All other conference results aside, if they have any hope of winning the Big 12 title, the Sooners' offense must put fear in Big 12 defenses again. The lackluster production of TCU’s offense has been a topic of conversation in Big 12 circles but the Sooners are averaging 0.7 more points per game in conference play than TCU (18.7 to 18.0). It’s a far cry from last season's squad which led the league with 41.9 points per game in conference play.

Even though OU spent the offseason disappointed with its ability to run the ball in key moments, the Sooners' running game isn’t the problem, as OU ranks second in the Big 12 with 216.33 rushing yards per game, averaging 5.07 yards per carry.

Its horrible passing game deserves the majority of the blame. OU has passed for 160 yards or less in conference play just 14 times since 2004 yet hasn’t been able to surpass 160 passing yards in any of its Big 12 games this season.

The Sooners’ offensive coaches insist they are close to having a breakout game through the air and are hopeful it starts this week against Kansas. Co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell believes quarterback Blake Bell and the receivers just need to find the in-game chemistry that results in big plays instead of narrow misses.

“That kind of chemistry comes from playing in games and making big plays,” Norvell said. “When guys make big plays in a game, they gain confidence in each other and that’s when it grows. That just doesn’t happen overnight, it happens from playing and throwing balls and making big plays on third down and having a guy you can trust. We’re building that.”

Make no mistake, Bell is under fire as the starting quarterback. Some people think Trevor Knight, who was originally named the starter, should get another chance while others think Kendal Thompson, the only one of the three quarterbacks who has not taken a snap this season, should get a shot.

The Sooners’ quarterback position is in flux, as OU coach Bob Stoops hinted this week that a change could be made if Bell’s play doesn’t improve -- and the junior knows it.

“All I can do is get in the film room, learn from my mistakes and get better,” Bell said.

If he does, OU will have the chance to get back into the Big 12 title race. If he doesn’t, the Sooners will have to turn to Knight or Thompson because, no matter what, OU will not compete for a Big 12 title without a improved passing game.

“In this league, you better be able to throw the ball and be balanced,” Norvell said. “We’ve got to do a good job at both [running and passing] to have the success we want to have going down the stretch.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- A statement from Oklahoma guard Adam Shead explains it all.

“Everybody is on edge.”

[+] EnlargeDemarco Cobbs
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireOklahoma knows it will face a higher intensity level in the Cotton Bowl Saturday.
Those words came from the mouth of the Sooners’ junior when he was asked how things change in the halls of the Switzer Center during OU-Texas week. The Sooners football facility is full of anticipation each October as OU prepares to battle its rival at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

“Everyone knows this is a big game, a big week and what this rivalry means to each one of these programs,” Shead said. “We all know the meaning of this game to Oklahoma fans, to this university, to recruitment and to Texas fans.”

The Sooners insist their focus and intensity is high every week but that’s just coaches’ speak. OU turns it up for the Longhorns and it has helped the Sooners win three straight Red River Rivalry contests. It’s been complete domination as the Sooners’ offense is averaging 48.7 points and 496.7 yards per game while holding UT to 19.3 points and 307 yards per game in the last three meetings.

“… You could say we’re a little more focused, because we know who it is and we don’t want to lose,” linebacker Aaron Franklin said.

This year’s senior class is trying to become the eighth senior class from either school to go 4-0 in the Red River Rivalry since 1970 and the sixth group of Sooners seniors to accomplish that feat. Yet that same group of seniors has suffered home losses to Texas Tech and Kansas State along with a road setback at Baylor, in games the Sooners were expected to win.

But the lead up to those games simply doesn’t compare to OU-Texas week. The atmosphere outside the facility among fans and students can’t help but seep into the halls of the Switzer Center.

“Five times today I had random people stop me and say things to me,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said earlier this week. “This game might as well be a bowl game for us. It’s one of the biggest games of the year. It’s a game where we practice at a different level, and it’s always an exciting week.”

Said Franklin: “It changes a lot, you see on social media and you feel it in the community. People just want us to beat Texas.”

And they have under Bob Stoops, with a 9-5 record against the Longhorns during the veteran head coach’s time in Norman. The Sooners insist their preparation remains consistent throughout the year but nothing is like OU-Texas week.

“We go hard every week but Texas-OU we go hard times ten,” Grissom said. “It’s Texas, our biggest rival, every year we come in and Texas is the underlined team. We want to play our very best against Texas. Texas-OU is a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
NORMAN, Okla. -- It wasn’t too long ago the reputation of the Big 12 Conference rested on the shoulders of Oklahoma and Texas.

Those two programs won every Big 12 football title from 2004 through 2010 as both the Sooners and Longhorns made two BCS title game appearances during that span, with Texas capturing the BCS title in 2005.

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Alonzo Adams/USA TODAY SportsBob Stoops has taken the Sooners to four national title games since becoming coach in 1999.
Clearly, they were the faces of the Big 12.

This season Oklahoma appears to be on its own when it comes to carrying the torch for the conference on the national stage. No other Big 12 school brings the combination of name recognition, championship pedigree, tradition and on-field production to match the Sooners.

“We don’t really worry about that too much,” defensive end Geneo Grissom said when asked if the Sooners have the league’s reputation on their shoulders. “But if anybody wants to say that, we’ll take it because it’s an honor. But we just want to play football because at the beginning of the year everybody wasn’t high on us so we still have a chip on our shoulder.”

Meanwhile, Texas has fallen by the wayside. The Red River Rivalry has traditionally been a game circled on the national calendar and both teams have been nationally ranked entering the game in every season since 2006. This season, the Longhorns are unranked and speculation about coach Mack Brown’s future has become the featured conversation piece when thinking of UT, not the actual football team.

So, there sit the Sooners, all alone on the Big 12 throne.

“That’s a residue of wanting to be the best,” co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. “We want to be that team every year in the Big 12. Quite frankly since Coach [Bob] Stoops has been here, we’ve been that team, that’s important to us. In the nonconference games like Notre Dame, we kind of carry the torch for the whole conference and we want to play well. We want to be the best team in this league and want to be recognized as a national power.”

Without question Baylor has a strong argument to stand beside the Sooners when it comes to carrying the torch for the conference in 2013. Yet the Sooners hold the edge, and are ranked higher, for three reasons: (1) They boast the best win of the two, with their 35-21 win at Notre Dame on Sept. 28. (2) Their winning reputation under Stoops for the past 15 seasons brings instant credibility the Bears cannot match simply by throttling opponents by half-a-hundred each Saturday. (3) They handed the Bears their last loss, a 42-34 win in Norman last November.

Thus, if things remain the same until November with OU and BU looking impressive while remaining undefeated, the Sooners will be the first Big 12 team to come to mind when discussions of BCS berths begin.

And the Big 12’s national reputation is setting up as a potential obstacle instead of an asset when the Sooners and Bears will be evaluated. If the league was strong, both teams might have an argument to earn a BCS berth.

But the Big 12 is not strong this season.

Oklahoma State -- the preseason Big 12 favorite -- couldn’t win a conference game before it already had a loss, Texas Tech is slowly gaining national respect but will have to shore up its quarterback situation, and TCU had its chance to make its mark in losses to LSU and OU. The league’s sub-par national reputation has taken a hit with Texas’ struggles and other teams' stumbles, but Norvell isn’t convinced the Sooners will stand alone on the national stage at the end of the season.

“When the traditional powers struggle, the conference looks like it’s not as strong,” Norvell said. “I don’t know that that is the case. Texas hasn’t been, maybe, what they have been in the past in the national spotlight but you have to look at Baylor, Texas Tech -- those are strong teams right now and we’ll see as the season goes along how it all unfolds, but I think by the end of the year we’ll get the feel that maybe the Big 12 is a little better than people give it credit for.”

Only time will tell.
NORMAN, Okla. -- Defensive end Geneo Grissom hopes the Oklahoma defensive line will ignite emotions within opponents this fall.

“I want to make sure when we step on the field, O-linemen are scared,” Grissom said. “I want our D-line to invoke fear in opposing O-lines.”

[+] EnlargeJordan Phillips
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesSophomore Jordan Phillips is entrenched as a starter at defensive tackle for the Sooners. Can he become a star in 2013?
The Sooners' defensive line took some positive steps in that direction during in the Red-White spring game at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium on Saturday. Defensive linemen accounted for four of the five sacks in the game including two from defensive tackle Rashod Favors and one apiece from Grissom and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips.

“I thought the D-line overall did a really good job,” coach Bob Stoops said. “I thought they got good pressure and for the most part, playing the run, I thought they did a pretty good job.”

The Sooners' quarterbacks spent a good part of the scrimmage on the run, evading pressure, a sign the defensive line is improving. And, in a game which featured 112 total offensive plays, OU’s defensive front limited the big run, with Brennan Clay’s 35-yard scamper ranking as the longest ground-gainer.

“We did what we had to do,” Grissom said. “You always feel you can get better and do better but we were completing our assignments and doing what we’re being taught to do. Overall it was a good day.”

The Sooners' defensive line isn’t quite there yet. While OU’s front was disruptive at times, it struggled to get pressure at other times and got off to a slow start in the first quarter.

“We still need to develop playmakers up front,” defensive coordinator Mike Stoops said. “But I thought they got better as the game went along.”

While he wasn’t dominant, Phillips showed the ability to be disruptive in the backfield, finishing with three tackles and one sack. The lone returning rotation player at defensive tackle, Phillips will be counted on to be a disruptive force in the middle for OU. His progression from a player with potential to a disruptive playmaker could make a difference for OU's defense.

“He’s a great player,” said linebacker Corey Nelson, who finished with three tackles. "He played well today, very physical, got after the O-line and made our jobs easier today.”

Grissom was also impressive with his speed and strength on the perimeter, showing the ability to get into the offensive backfield on passing plays. The junior appears to have finally found a permanent home at defensive end after playing some tight end in 2012.

“That’s a key player we need to step up, and he has been,” Nelson said. “He’s probably our best pass-rusher.”

Improving the play of its defensive line is high on the Sooners priority list this offseason. Stoops likes to play man-to-man defensive schemes, so having a disruptive defensive line could be the difference between stopping some of the explosive offenses in the Big 12 and having another disappointing defense this fall.

“We’re starting to show signs of consistency and that’s what we need,” Stoops said. “We need to continue to develop playmakers in our defensive front -- that’s going to be a premium moving forward.”

OU took steps forward this spring but will have to get much better to become a dominating unit in 2013.

“We’ve gotten a lot better but we have a long way to go to get where we need to be,” Grissom said. “We have guys who want to win, and that’s what it takes, so we’re going to get there but we’re not quite there yet.”
Springtime is almost here. And here's a look at what to expect across the Big 12 when it gets into full swing here in the next couple weeks.

BAYLOR BEARS

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.
IOWA STATE CYCLONES

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.
KANSAS JAYHAWKS

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.
KANSAS STATE WILDCATS

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.
MISSOURI TIGERS

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.
OKLAHOMA SOONERS

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.
OKLAHOMA STATE COWBOYS

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.
TEXAS LONGHORNS

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?
TEXAS A&M AGGIES

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.
TEXAS TECH RED RAIDERS

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.
Tags:

Baylor Bears, Iowa State Cyclones, Kansas State Wildcats, Missouri Tigers, Oklahoma Sooners, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Texas Longhorns, Texas A&M Aggies, Colby Whitlock, Brennan Clay, Christine Michael, Von Miller, Alexander Robinson, Chris Cosh, Steven Sheffield, Brandon Wegher, Turner Gill, James Franklin, Tysyn Hartman, Bill Snyder, Bront Bird, Case McCoy, Brandon Williams, Dan Bailey, Justin Blackmon, Franklin Mitchem, Richetti Jones, Connor Wood, Ryan Tannehill, Terrance Ganaway, Cody Davis, Travis Lewis, Cyrus Gray, Scotty Young, Chris Donaldson, Bryce Brown, Jerome Tiller, Brian Duncan, LaRon Moore, Justin Tuggle, Darius Darks, Paul Rhoads, Brad Madison, Art Briles, Sheldon Richardson, Bob Stoops, Jerrod Johnson, Blaine Gabbert, Jay Finley, Jared Barnett, Taylor Potts, Jimmy Stevens, Arthur Brown, Mack Brown, Garrett Gilbert, Jermie Calhoun, Collin Franklin, Phil Bennett, Jacquies Smith, Jarred Salubi, Collin Klein, Carl Gettis, Seth Doege, Scott Smith, Terrell Resonno, Carson Coffman, Aldon Smith, Brandon Weeden, Toben Opurum, Shane Jarka, Tyler Gabbert, Ahmad Dixon, Corey Nelson, Prince Kent, Shontrelle Johnson, Geneo Grissom, Quinn Mecham, Damontre Moore, Byron Landor, Darius Reynolds, Ugo Chinasa, Kevin Rutland, Roy Finch, Jacob Karam, Michael Brewer, Jordan Webb, A.J. White, Huldon Tharp, Ashton Glaser, Jarvis Phillips, Tim Atchison, Michael Hodges, Tre Porter, Kyle Mangan, Brock Berglund, David Garrett, Carrington Byndom, Justin McCay, Corbin Berkstresser, Daniel Sams, Dominique Patterson, James Capello, Jonathan Miller, Steele Jantz, Will Ford

Kansas recruiting capsule

February, 4, 2010
2/04/10
11:15
AM ET
Kansas Jayhawks

Total class: 18

ESPNU 150: 0

By position: DE 3, ATH 2, RB 2, WR 2, S 2, ILB 2, WR 1, TE 1, OT 1, QB 1, DT 1.

By state: Texas 8, Missouri 3, Kansas 1, Illinois 1, Iowa 1, Virginia 1, Florida 1, New Jersey 1, Utah 1.

Already enrolled in school: 1.

The big ones: Brandon Bourbon, the nation's No. 104 running back, is projected as a featured running threat after decommitting from Stanford for Kansas several days ago. WR Keeston Terry is a tall, skinny athlete who coaches feel will develop into a potent breakaway threat. He's listed as the nation's No. 129 athlete.

Sleeper: ATH Jake Farley could be a producer on offense and defense, although he’s expected to end up at safety where his heady play and physicality should help the Jayhawks’ secondary.

Needs met: Kansas added four potential receivers -- all of whom will provide the “breakaway ability” that coach Turner Gill has deemed so necessary. Junior college transfer quarterback Quinn Mecham is already in school and will push Kale Pick during spring practice. And Bourbon and James Sims should add pop to Kansas’ running game.

Analysis: Gill did a nice job of keeping the class together and adding a couple of impressive late gets in Bourbon and cornerback Dexter McDonald in the last days of recruiting. The loss of pass-rushing specialist Geneo Grissom was disappointing, but the Jayhawks regrouped and finished strong. They only signed one offensive lineman, but the Jayhawks have a lot of across-the-board young talent already in place.

What Turner Gill said: “I think the recruiting class has speed and length and playmakers. That’s the type of things we are looking for. We feel really good about the guys who are signing with us. We also feel good about the players who are here. We are trying to mesh together the talent that we have now, and then the talent that we bring in to make sure we move forward.”

Scouts Inc. grade/rankings: C-minus, 11th in Big 12.

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