NCF Nation: Jamar Wall
1. Texas (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Garrett Gilbert got a head start on replacing Colt McCoy with his considerable playing time in the national title game, an invaluable learning experience for a young player. The Longhorns return most of the defense that improved in its second season under Will Muschamp. The biggest chores will be for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has to boost running game production and find a replacement for record-breaking wide receiver Jordan Shipley.
2. Nebraska (18 starters back: 8 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 special teams). Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers positioned for a potential top-10 preseason ranking. Most of the offensive weapons will be back from a unit that sputtered down the stretch before breaking out in the Holiday Bowl victory. Quarterback Zac Lee will miss some of spring practice as he recovers from postseason surgery. Cody Green and Kody Spano will get most of the work until Lee returns. Nebraska coaches think the defense can be better this season, even without the up-the-middle strength of Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon.
3. Oklahoma (15 starters back: 9 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Sooners overcame a debilitating run of injuries last season to finish with a flourish, knocking Oklahoma State out of a BCS game and winning the Sun Bowl in their final two games. Landry Jones will be infinitely better in his second season as a starter and Ryan Broyles and DeMarco Murray may be the best one-two receiving/running back combination in the conference. Bob Stoops will be facing a big renovation on defense where key players like Gerald McCoy and Dominique Franks left early for the NFL draft. Look for Travis Lewis to be the key to a defense that will need to improve by the time Big 12 play begins if the Sooners are to have any hope of claiming a seventh Big 12 title this season.
4. Missouri (19 starters back: 9 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 special teams). The Tigers will miss Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who were arguably the best players at their positions in the conference last season. But Blaine Gabbert is back for a second season as starting quarterback and some talented recruits are expected to emerge on defense. A key for the Tigers’ success will be a more productive running game and consistency from the offensive line. Improvement on both will be critical for coordinator David Yost during the spring.
5. Texas Tech (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Tommy Tuberville immediately will have to sort through a potentially difficult decision at quarterback between Taylor Potts and fan favorite Steven Sheffield. New coordinator James Willis hopes to install a 3-4 defense that should be a haven for athletic linebackers. But the group’s success will hinge on replacing Jamar Wall at cornerback and finding some pass-rushing threats to replace Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones and Daniel Howard along the front.
6. Texas A&M (19 starters back: 8 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 special teams). With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Christine Michael back, the Aggies shouldn’t have trouble scoring points, although the line needs to do a better job of protecting Johnson. But the Aggies’ success will depend on the returning starters quickly taking to new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s teachings. The group was blistered for at least 35 points in seven games last season and allowed at least 30 points in two other games. So needless to say that even with nine starters back, DeRuyter has his work cut out.
7. Kansas (16 starters back: 7 offensive, 7 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Turner Gill inherits an uncertain quarterback situation, but has the framework for a strong running attack with all of his starting linemen back, along with Toben Opurum and heralded back Brandon Bourbon as running threats. The Jayhawks will need to fill in for the loss of Darrell Stuckey in the secondary, but new coordinator Carl Torbush should find the elements for a blitzing, attacking defense among the returnees. But the biggest reason the Jayhawks might be bound for a bowl game in Gill’s first season is swapping Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor in their cross-divisional schedule.
8. Iowa State (13 starters back: 8 offensive, 4 defensive, 1 special teams). Paul Rhoads returns most of the offensive weapons that led the Cyclones to the Insight Bowl, most notably quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson. But the team loses all of its starting linebackers; veteran coordinator Wally Burnham will be challenged to cobble together a serviceable unit. The Cyclones could actually be a better team in 2010 but post a worse record. A tougher schedule featuring nonconference games against Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois and the addition of South Division powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech will make last season’s bowl trip much tougher to duplicate.
9. Oklahoma State (10 starters back: 4 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Cowboys must find replacements for key players like Zac Robinson, Keith Tosten, four offensive linemen (including Outland finalist Russell Okung) and six of their back seven on defense. New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen finds an uncertain quarterback situation but will lean heavily on a healthy Kendall Hunter. A manageable nonconference schedule should have them in bowl contention, but this should be a step back from Mike Gundy’s last two teams.
10. Kansas State (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip last season only because they scheduled two FCS teams, but they surprisingly challenged for the Big 12 North title up to their last game of the season. It might be tougher to do that this season, although Daniel Thomas will provide the foundation on offense. Carson Coffman has the inside track at quarterback, but keep an eye out for Oregon transfer Chris Harper at either that position or wide receiver. Players like Jeffrey Fitzgerald and John Houlik will be missed on defense, but all four starters are back in the secondary.
11. Colorado (16 starters back: 8 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Dan Hawkins’ seat is the hottest in the Big 12 and arguably in college football after missing a bowl for a second straight season last year. Tyler Hansen returns as the starting quarterback, but the Buffaloes need to find some help in the backfield with only three scholarship backs in spring practice. The defense was young last season and should be improved, but will miss the leadership provided by Jeff Smart and Cha’pelle Brown. A bowl trip likely will be necessary to save Hawkins’ job and a tough nonconference schedule featuring games at California and against Hawaii and Georgia will prove troublesome even before Big 12 play begins.
12. Baylor (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Bears’ hopes of stopping the conference’s longest bowl drought will hinge largely on the health of Robert Griffin, who is recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss the final nine games of the 2009 season. New offensive lineman “Big” Robert Griffin will have to protect his quarterback if coach Art Briles has any hope of making a bowl trip. Jay Finley and Kendall Wright are underrated offensive threats, but the Bears will miss key defensive leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake who were stalwarts for several years.
But there were still enough top producers to fill out a team of top performers from the conference's 4-4 bowl season.
Here's a look at my top performers:
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Passed for career-best 418 yards and added three passing TDs to direct Sooners’ Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
RB Alexander Robinson, Iowa State: Rushed for 137 yards -- his sixth 100-yard game of the season -- to pace Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
RB Baron Batch, Texas Tech: Rushed for 100 yards, scored two TDs and produced six receptions for 85 yards in Red Raiders’ comeback victory in the Alamo Bowl over Michigan State.
WR Jordan Shipley, Texas: Overcame slow start to produce 10 catches for 122 yards and two TDs against Alabama, becoming Texas’ leading career receiver.
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma: Produced career-best totals of 13 receptions, 156 receiving yards and also matched career high with three TD receptions to help beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
TE Trent Ratterree, Oklahoma: Grabbed three receptions for 86 yards, including pivotal 38-yard catch that was Jones’ longest pass of game in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
OL Ricky Henry, Nebraska: Helped Cornhuskers dominate in the trenches in biggest Cornhuskers' bowl victory since 2000.
OL Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State: Dominant effort helped Cyclones claim first bowl victory since 2004 and only third bowl victory in school history.
OL Jacob Hickman, Nebraska: Cornhuskers’ center set the tone for easy victory over Arizona.
OL Brandon Carter, Texas Tech: Colorful lineman helped Tech roll up school bowl-record 31 first downs, 579 total yards against Michigan State.
OL Trent Williams, Oklahoma: All-American moved from tackle to center and didn’t miss a beat in the Sooners’ Sun Bowl triumph.
DL Sergio Kindle, Texas: Had his best game of the season with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses against Alabama.
DL Pierre Allen, Nebraska: Set the tone for Nebraska’s pass rush with two sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and notched a quarterback hurry in the Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona -- first for a Big 12 team in a bowl game in conference history.
DL Christopher Lyle, Iowa State: Insight Bowl defensive MVP produced five tackles, including two for losses and one sack to lead Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota.
DL Rajon Henley, Texas Tech: Four tackles, four quarterback hurries, one sack against Michigan State.
LB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Produced team-high seven stops, broke up one pass in Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona.
LB Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma: Produced 12 tackles (three solo, nine assists), two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Stanford.
LB Andre Sexton, Oklahoma State: Produced 10 tackles, two interceptions and one tackle for a loss in Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi.
DB Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska: Earned Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors with five stops, a 37-yard interception and a pass broken up against Arizona.
DB Ter’ran Benton, Iowa State: In his first game back after recovering from mid-season broken leg, notched five tackles and game-clinching fumble recovery in Cyclones’ Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota.
DB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Produced six tackles, broke up two passes and one interception against Michigan State.
DB Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: Notched eight stops (five tackles, three assists) and added an interception in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: Averaged 50.2 yards per punt on his eight punts, including four punts inside 20 in Cotton Bowl.
K Alex Henery, Nebraska: Converted all four field goals of 47, 50, 43 and 22 yards to set the Holiday Bowl record. His big night gave him a Nebraska single-season record of 24 for the season.
RET Niles Paul, Nebraska: The Holiday Bowl offensive MVP amassed 94 yards in returns, including a 49-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He also added four catches for 123 yards, including a clinching 74-yard TD grab from Zac Lee.
What I'm looking for from Oklahoma State:
- Will Zac Robinson be ready to play? Only five days after a vicious head-to-head shot from Texas Tech defensive back Jamar Wall, Robinson’s condition is questionable coming into tonight’s game. Robinson has displayed a lot of toughness and moxie over his career and undoubtedly would like to play on his Senior Night. But the Cowboys likely won’t need him to beat the struggling Buffaloes. Backup Alex Cate would be ready to play if needed and the Cowboys have a consistent running game keyed by Keith Toston, Kendall Hunter and Beau Johnson to carry the team. It might not be really fancy, but that ground game could take a lot of pressure of a first-time starting quarterback -- if it was needed.
- Oklahoma State’s shot at the national spotlight: Tonight’s game provides the Cowboys and the Big 12 with a rare shot at Thursday night exposure. And a big performance is important as OSU attempts to prove its worthiness for the first BCS at-large berth in school history. If the 8-2 Cowboys can beat Colorado tonight and then defeat Oklahoma in Norman next week, their argument for an at-large berth would be strong. But in order to cement those hopes and likely make a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, Mike Gundy’s team needs a strong performance.
- Bill Young’s emerging OSU defense: Oklahoma State’s defense under veteran coordinator Bill Young has really made strides in recent weeks. The Cowboys will attempt to handcuff a Colorado offense that has sputtered with the exception of wide receiver Markques Simas, who has produced 14 catches in his last two games. All-Big 12 candidate Perrish Cox, the Big 12’s current defensive player of the week, will get the first shot at stopping Simas. It should be an intriguing battle between an emerging receiver and one of the nation’s most underrated lockdown cornerbacks.
- The play from streaky quarterback Tyler Hansen: Colorado's starting sophomore quarterback appeared to be headed for a redshirt season earlier this year as he rode the bench behind Cody Hawkins. But Hansen got the call midway through the season and has been alternately strong and struggling. He provides the Buffaloes more of a run-pass option than Hawkins and his teammates appear to gravitate to his inspirational leadership. But he’s thrown more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) and will likely face a huge amount of pressure from the underrated OSU defensive front.
- Can Colorado get anything from its offense? The Buffaloes have sputtered all season long, ranking 105th in total offense, 112th in rushing and 94th in scoring. They will need to produce something from their running game, particularly fumble-prone starter Rodney "Speedy" Stewart to keep OSU honest. And nothing from the past few weeks is indicative they will be able to do that. If they don’t start fast, this one could turn ugly for the Buffaloes.
- How Dan Hawkins approaches the game: With speculation swirling about potential replacements, the Colorado coach is coaching to keep his job. His teams have been one of the most penalized groups in the country, ranking 119th among the 120 FBS teams. He even had members of his operations staff dress in striped shirts at practice throwing penalty flags. The Buffaloes are at a huge competitive disadvantage as they try to stem a 10-game road losing streak against a team that is fighting for a spot in the BCS. The Buffaloes are the only team in the conference to already be eliminated from bowl contention. It will be a massive coaching effort to keep this group involved if they have some early problems. Can Hawkins keep his team close in the game? We’ll have to see.
Will Zac Robinson play tonight for Oklahoma State? Robinson has made 34 consecutive starts for the Cowboys and is their unquestioned team leader. He’s developed into more of a running threat in recent weeks, reverting to the form that he showed earlier in his career. But his condition is iffy after a brutal head-to-head collision with Texas Tech cornerback Jamar Wall at the end of last week’s game. Robinson’s return to the lineup will be critical as the Cowboys try to win their way into the BCS this season. And if he can’t go tonight, junior Alex Cate would get the first start of his career against Colorado in a huge game in the national spotlight for the Cowboys.
Colorado responds to its role as a spoiler: The Buffaloes are the only Big 12 team without any bowl hopes heading into this week's games. Dan Hawkins predicted before the season that his team would “win 10 games with no excuses.” That dream has long been dashed, but can the Buffaloes ruin Oklahoma State’s BCS at-large hopes before a national television audience? In order to do so, they will have to play their best game of the season.
Big 12 title game or bust for Kansas State: It’s all or nothing for the Wildcats heading into their winner-take-all showdown with Nebraska for the North Division championship Saturday in Lincoln. If the Wildcats can notch an upset, they will qualify for their first championship game berth since 2003 and would qualify for a bowl. If they lose, they are through for the season. KSU coach Bill Snyder said he’s never had a team in these circumstances in his 41-season career as a coach. The Wildcats have won only once at Nebraska since 1968 and will be battling huge odds to extend their season.
Can Roy Helu Jr. continue his recent running binge? Helu has bounced back from an earlier shoulder injury to become the Cornhuskers' most consistent offensive threat, averaging 147 rushing yards per game in his last two games. His strong effort last week seemed to perk up the Cornhuskers’ entire offense in a 31-17 triumph over Kansas. Another big game will be important as the Cornhuskers attempt to claim their first championship game berth since 2006.
Colt McCoy’s last home game: It will be an emotional game Saturday in Austin when McCoy concludes his home career at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium against Kansas with the rest of his senior class. McCoy also can notch his 43rd career victory, giving him the NCAA record over David Greene. And the Longhorns can clinch a title game appearance this week with either an Oklahoma State loss or their own victory over the reeling Jayhawks.
Kansas responds to all of the off-the-field dramatics around the program this week: Coach Mark Mangino’s job appears to be in serious jeopardy after reports surfaced of an internal investigation by the school of Mangino’s coaching methods. The slumping Jayhawks have dropped their last five games after starting the season 5-0 and soaring as high as No. 16 in the national polls. A victory would qualify the team for its third straight bowl appearance under Mangino -- a feat that has never occurred in the 120-season history of the program. But a loss would mean Kansas would have to qualify for a bowl game next week with a victory over Missouri, or stay home from the bowls entirely.
Can Oklahoma halt its road woes? The Sooners are 1-4 away from Owen Field this season and have seen their scoring average plunge from 49.8 points at home to 16.8 points in games away from home. They need a big effort and a more consistent running game in order to beat Texas Tech in Lubbock for the first time since 2003. Bob Stoops will try to avoid his first three-game losing streak in any conference facility. Stoops has lost three consecutive games in the Orange Bowl, but has never endured a streak like that inside any rival Big 12 home stadium.
Who starts at quarterback for Texas Tech? Mike Leach admitted earlier this week that he made a mistake by taking Taylor Potts out of the game last week when he removed him for Steven Sheffield midway through the Red Raiders’ loss at Oklahoma State. Sheffield was game, but showed the effects of foot surgery he underwent only a month earlier. Will Leach start Potts against the talented Oklahoma defense and will he show more patience in sticking with him after an early mistake or two? Or will he prefer a lift from Sheffield, who seems to provide his team with a boost with his running abilities when he enters the game?
The Battle of the Brazos -- with legitimate bowl ramifications for a change: It’s been a long time since both Baylor and Texas A&M both had bowl hopes in a game between the two old rivals late in the season. The Aggies can wrap up their first bowl berth since 2007 with a victory. And the Bears can grab an improbable bowl berth -- thought to be an impossibility after the earlier season-ending injury to Robert Griffin -- by winning against the Aggies and beating Texas Tech next week in Arlington. Baylor will be facing some long odds as it attempts to beat A&M at Kyle Field for the first time since 1984. A victory here would clearly be Art Briles' biggest triumph since his arrival at Baylor.
Can Danario Alexander do it again? Missouri's talented senior wide receiver has developed into the league’s biggest offensive weapon in recent weeks after posting back-to-back 200-yard receiving games against Baylor and Kansas State. He will be gunning for a third straight 200-yard game -- a feat that would tie him with Tulsa’s Howard Twilley and Nevada’s Trevor Insley for an NCAA record. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert will be leaning on Alexander a little more with the injury to starting wide receiver Jared Perry. But the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Alexander’s hopes should be boosted by the fact he will be playing against an undersized Iowa State starting secondary that averages only 5-foot-9.
Here's a viewer guide to all of them. A four-star game means must-see television, and maybe even a game tape to be saved for posterity. Three-star games bear close observation. Two-star games are worth a quick glimpse or two for occasional score updates, but little more. And one-star games are indications that your time might be better spent getting your house ready for the in-laws to make their annual Thanksgiving Day appearance next week.
All starting times are Eastern for Saturday games, unless otherwise noted. Set your DVRs accordingly.
Kansas State at Nebraska (7:45 p.m., ESPN 360): The battle for all of the North Division marbles has some intriguing stakes even bigger than just the game. Kansas State and Nebraska were the two strongest Northern powers in the early history of the league. Bill Snyder and Bo Pelini had that celebrated dust-up after the 2003 game. And Snyder's team has been the surprise of the North this season. Snyder is a wily coach but will have a tough challenge against the fierce Nebraska defense.
Oklahoma at Texas Tech (12:30 p.m.): Oklahoma has struggled in its last two trips to Lubbock and will be playing to try to stop some recent bad karma on the road. Texas Tech's fluid quarterback situation might involve several playing again. Winner of this game likely is headed to the Alamo Bowl. Loser could drop to the Sun Bowl -- or below.
Kansas at Texas (8 p.m., ABC 360): This will be a sentimental game for Colt McCoy, Sergio Kindle, Jordan Shipley and the rest of the Texas seniors because it will be their last home game. Todd Reesing is coming home, too, after growing up in Austin. But this game might be most interesting to see how the "Fighting Manginos," as my colleague Rece Davis likes to call them, respond to all of the dysfunction around the program this week.
Colorado at Oklahoma State (7:30 p.m., Thursday, ESPN/360): It will be interesting to see if Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson can recover quickly enough from the massive head-to-head shot he took from Tech's Jamar Wall to be back out there this week. This is a giant opportunity for the Cowboys to show the nation their worthiness as a BCS at-large team. Colorado coach Dan Hawkins will be trying to show he deserves another season with the program.
Iowa State at Missouri (2 p.m.): Both these teams have qualified for bowl games, but both would like another victory to spruce up their bowl credentials. Iowa State's plucky, undersized secondary will be challenged to stick with Danario Alexander, who is playing like the second coming of Jerry Rice over the last several weeks. Alexander can tie an NCAA record with another 200-yard receiving game. I wouldn't bet against him -- especially considering he'll be playing against Iowa State's diminutive secondary.
Baylor at Texas A&M (3:30 p.m.): The winner of this "Battle of the Brazos" can take another step toward bowl eligibility with a victory. The Aggies will qualify outright with a triumph. Baylor needs to win this one and its game next week against Texas Tech to get there. The Bears will be battling two significant historic trends as they haven't been to a bowl game since 1994 and haven't won at Kyle Field since 1984. Both are pretty significant obstacles.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
So much for freedom of expression around Texas Tech.
Texas Tech coach Mike Leach has banned his players from using Twitter after several unflattering things about him and his program seeped out from players’ comments after the Red Raiders’ 29-28 loss to Houston Saturday night.
The self-styled “Pirate of the High Plains” might be facing a mutiny unless he can right his ship very quickly. Squelching their comments on social networks appears to be his first step.
The most surprising move came Sunday when senior offensive guard, Brandon Carter, a team captain and frequent team spokesman, was indefinitely suspended for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Leach left the door open -- barely -- for the return of Carter, a preseason All-America selection who didn’t allow a sack last season. Carter’s attitude was infectious with his tough playing disposition, tattoos, and spiked hair.
“Anything he needs to do to get back is pretty much between him and me,” Leach said.
The discord continued after the Red Raiders returned to Lubbock and Leach apparently was late for a meeting with his team Sunday afternoon. Senior linebacker Marlon Williams was especially vociferous about Leach's leadership on his Twitter account.
"Wondering why I'm still in this meeting room when the head coach can't even be on time to his on [sic] meeting," Williams wrote on his "Kos 39" Twitter account. The tweet has been taken down as silence has spread over the Red Raiders’ program.
Leach fired back at the disgruntled players Monday on the Big 12’s weekly coaches’ teleconference.
“Anyone who is a malcontent doesn’t stay around here long,” Leach said. “We’ve got a full group of players who are ready to take (his) place. And interestingly enough, he doesn’t have a Twitter page anymore.”
The sniping across Cyberspace is the last thing the Red Raiders needed after the disappointing losses to Texas and Houston -- their first back-to-back losses since midway through the 2007 season.
“That game left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth,” senior cornerback Jamar Wall said. “We’ve got to come back ready to go.”
The turnaround and the late loss came after Tech appeared to have dominated the early parts of the game. The Red Raiders’ seldom used rushing game kicked in and gave them a chance to mash the Cougars at the point of attack as they claimed an early 21-10 lead.
But the Red Raiders struggled moving the ball later in the game and were turned away on downs inside the Houston 5 early in the fourth quarter, including a pivotal fourth-down stop of quarterback Taylor Potts from inside the Houston 1.
“That series was extremely disappointing,” Tech center Shawn Byrnes said. “We had the ball four times inside their 5. We wanted to put on our shoulders and punch it in. And the fact we weren’t able to do was frustrating.”
Leach said Monday he probably would have elected to have kicked a field goal that would have given his team an eight-point lead if he had it to do over again.
“We only needed half a yard and we had been moving them around pretty good down there,” Leach said. “If I had to do it over again, I probably would do it different.”
It makes the Red Raiders 3-4 since a 10-0 start to start last season that pushed them to No. 3 in the country after victories over Texas and Oklahoma State late last season. Their victories during that period came over North Dakota, Rice and Baylor last season.
Their challenge to turn the season around will be daunting in a South Division that appears more competitive than ever this season. Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State all are among the nation’s top 14 teams nationally in the most recent Associated Press poll. Texas A&M appears to have a recharged offense and defense. Baylor has its strongest recent collection of talent, although the loss of Robert Griffin will be a tough one to overcome.
And any comments from the Red Raiders’ BlackBerries have been suppressed, Wall said his team has vowed to put aside the recent controversy as it tries to complete with their upcoming scheduling gauntlet.
“We need to forget about it, let it go,” he said. “What happened Saturday and yesterday, we’ve got to put it aside. We’ve got to pull tighter. We just need to put it behind us, play the next team and keep going from there.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
It may have been a surprise to most of the country.
|Vladimir Cherry/US Presswire|
|Texas Tech didn't have any answers for Jevan Snead, who threw for a career-high 292 yards and three TDs in the Cotton Bowl.|
But Mississippi might have proved a point about Southeastern Conference domination and the fallacy of Big 12 defenses when it lined up and whipped Texas Tech in the trenches to claim a convincing 47-34 victory in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
And the score might not have done justice to just how overpowering the Rebels' performance was. After spotting Tech a 14-0 lead in the first 10 minutes of the game, the Rebels blew the game open by erupting for 38 of the next 45 points.
The 30,000 Mississippi fans who attended the final Cotton Bowl game were doing the singing at the end, serenading the Red Raiders with chants of "overrated" and "SEC! SEC!"
It would be hard to argue with them after Tech's uninspired bowl performance, which put a sour ending to a 11-2 season which began with 10 straight victories.
After the early struggles, Mississippi's underrated offense took control and kept the ball for most of the first half. It paid dividends in the second half when a gasping Tech defense down several starters in the secondary simply couldn't keep up with the Rebels.
Tech's struggles were understandable considering starting cornerback L.A. Reed didn't dress due to an arm injury. Darcel McBath was removed for much of the game because of a hamstring injury. And Jamar Wall left the field limping in the first half.
McBath snagged his seventh interception of the year (tied for most in the country) and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown, which boosted Tech's early lead to 14-0. But his replacement, Jordy Rowland, was blistered after McBath was hobbled.
It paved the way for elusive Dexter McCluster to have a career game with 98 rushing yards and a team-best 83 receiving yards. Quarterback Jevan Snead did the rest as the Rebels seemingly gained confidence after their early struggles to convert five-straight third downs in the first half -- leading to three touchdown drives -- that shifted the game's momentum.
Harrell passed for a Cotton Bowl record 358 yards and four touchdowns, becoming the first player in college history to top 5,000 yards in two different seasons. And his touchdown binge enabled him to claim the FBS career record with 133 touchdown passes, jumping past Colt Brennan's previous record of 131.
But he also threw two interceptions caused by a relentless Mississippi blitzing defense. Rebels defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix repeatedly tormented Harrell with those blitzes, which came shooting through the Red Raiders' wide offensive splits.
The Rebels also did a strong job of tackling, keeping Tech from turning short passes into long gains. In fact, the longest Tech play of the game was a 44-yard scramble by Harrell on the last play of the first half that ended just short of the Mississippi end zone. Tech had only two passes of 20 yards or more.
That defensive pressure appeared to discombobulate the Red Raiders. That was best illustrated midway through the third quarter when Harrell unsuccessfully tried a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-4 in Tech territory. The play came up more than two yards short after a rare Red Raiders defensive stand had given them some momentum.
Crabtree was hobbled by an ankle injury that plagued him for most of the second half. He produced three catches in the first half, but only one after that and finished with a career-low 30 receiving yards.
Tech's struggling performance casts doubt on the Big 12's credibility, despite record-breaking offenses which piled up yards and points all season. It will be up to BCS participants Texas and Oklahoma to reclaim some of that respect in the conference's remaining bowl games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
As Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach surveys the scene outside Jones AT&T Stadium this week, he can't help but feel a little bit rewarded by what he has been able to accomplish over the last few seasons.
The winding line of student tents around the stadium is tangible proof of his school's appeal heading into Saturday's game against No. 1 Texas. It's a game many are calling the biggest game in the 84-season history of Tech's football program.
And Leach has been the biggest reason, turning this once sleepy school on the fringes of the South Plains on its ear during his nine-season coaching tenure.
His entertaining passing offense and quirky musings have gained the attention of admirers as diverse as Donald Trump -- sometimes even overshadowing what the Red Raiders have been able to accomplish on the field.
"People forget we're the third-best winning record in the conference over that time," Leach said.
Ah, but that's the rub. Mainly because the two schools in front of him have been Texas and Oklahoma, one of which has every South Division championship during Leach's coaching tenure.
That's why Saturday's game is so important for the No. 7 Red Raiders.
A victory would give the Red Raiders credibility and a chance to stand with the other BCS contenders as they play out a killer schedule that still includes games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Tech's 8-0 start is its best since 1976 and has stretched a 10-game winning streak that is tied for the best in the nation. The Red Raiders will be taking a perfect record into November for the first time since 1938. But the program will still have doubters until it can topple Texas and climb into the BCS discussion.
To get there, Leach appears to have his best team.
The biggest area of improvement is defensively. The Red Raiders have developed depth in the trenches, which has been a significant problem in previous games against the Longhorns.
In the last four seasons, the Longhorns have never averaged fewer than 4.6 yards per carry against the Red Raiders as Texas has piled up an average of 266.5 yards per game. That has enabled them to dictate the tempo of the game, no matter how many yards Leach has been able to roll up with his passing game.
And the last two Texas-Texas Tech games have really encapsulated the Red Raiders' defensive challenges against the Longhorns.
Texas has clicked on 17 of 27 third downs against Texas Tech and a perfect 5 for 5 on fourth down plays. In essence, the Red Raiders have only produced five true stops against Texas in those two games.
At the same time, Tech has struggled running the ball, producing nine net yards in 20 carries in the two games.
Even as Graham Harrell has completed 78 of 110 passes for a staggering 985 yards in those two games alone, it hasn't been enough. And it's been the reason that Leach has had to tweak his team to stay up with the Longhorns.
Tech's defensive front is playing better than at any previous time, allowing opponents only 101 yards rushing per game, good for 14th nationally. They are also deeper, getting big performances from seven or eight players.
The Red Raiders secondary has been particularly strong in recent weeks. Darcel McBath and Daniel Charbonnet both had three-interceptions games earlier this season. And Jamar Wall's big pick against Nebraska sealed that overtime victory in Tech's biggest challenge to date.
"I hope we have enough depth," Tech defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill said. "Texas does such a great job. Our kids aren't worried about who they are playing next. And they'll be ready to play."
But recent second-half performances against Kansas and Texas A&M have convinced McNeill that this group might be different than some he has sent on the field against Texas.
Tech's defense has allowed only 23 points in the last six quarters. During a span of 19 defensive possessions during that span, the Red Raiders have allowed only three scoring plays and forced six turnovers.
"We hope we get to the point where we're playing as well as we can," McNeill said. "But we're still far away from that point. And we better get there quick because this is a pretty good team that will be coming in this week."
Harrell appears to be a more mature leader. Texas coach Mack Brown calls him the best quarterback he's seen at Tech during his time with the Longhorns.
The Tech running game is better with Shannon Woods and Baron Batch alternating at tailback. The Red Raiders are averaging 138.5 yards per game and rank 64th nationally. They've never produced more than 107.5 yards per game in any of Leach's previous eight seasons and they've never ranked higher than 104th nationally.
Will that be enough to beat Texas?
It might be, as long as Leach doesn't have to depend on a long field goal from his struggling kicking game.
And that's another story.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Mike Leach is one of the smartest coaches in college football, as his law degree and explosive, cutting-edge offensive strategies attest.
|L. Scott Mann/Icon SMI|
|Mike Leach's Red Raiders face a tough remaining schedule: at No. 23 Kansas, No. 1 Texas, No. 6 OSU and at No. 4 Oklahoma.|
Leach might know torts, slants and spread offenses. But he doesn't have much of a concept about computers or their place in society.
"I just try to avoid computers as much as I can," Leach said. "Obviously, you need somebody around that knows how to run a computer. And the video is on computers. But to me, anything involving computers is very frustrating, so I ignore it every step that I can."
But even with his cyberspace ignorance factored in, Leach still is mystified why the computer component of the most recent Bowl Championship Series standings has ranked his team so low.
The computer component of the BCS has the Red Raiders ranked 11th, helping explain why Tech is eighth in the latest BCS standings and fourth among the Big 12's teams despite placing in front of Oklahoma State and Georgia in all of the human-generated parts of the BCS.
"I don't have any control over them," Leach said about the computer's rankings. "It's not like I can send the repairman or somebody to go fix them."
He can't. But the next four weeks could serve as the ultimate visit by the IT department to help boost his team's national reputation.
The Red Raiders will be able to prove the legitimacy of their record Saturday at No. 23 Kansas. Despite the fast start, the Red Raiders are a slight underdog for the game.
It will begin a treacherous four-game stretch that will decide if the Red Raiders truly are worthy of their first Big 12 South championship. Saturday's game will be followed by upcoming home contests against No. 1 Texas and No. 6 Oklahoma State before closing at No. 4 Oklahoma.
Consider the gauntlet the ultimate opportunity to prove the worthiness of the Red Raiders, who are off to their best start in 32 seasons.
"This is the part of the season that's going to make or break us," Tech guard Brandon Carter said. "Nothing in the past really matters at this point. What's ahead of us is really our biggest competition."
Maybe the nonhuman parts of the BCS just aren't as forgiving to them as the human pollsters who have eyeballed Texas Tech this season. Sure, the 7-0 Red Raiders are one of nine remaining undefeated teams. But their resume is dotted with victories over two FCS teams and against opponents with a combined 22-28 mark so far this season.
And this is the same Tech program that has shown a maddening tendency in the past to stub its toes with defensive breakdowns.
But the last two weeks have indicated that Tech's defense has a knack for big plays that might have been missing in previous seasons.
After a missed extra point provided Nebraska with an opening in overtime two weeks ago, Jamar Wall's interception two plays later sealed the Red Raiders' 37-31 victory.
And after trailing at halftime last week against Texas A&M, the Red Raiders' defense rose up to limit the Aggies to 32 yards and without an offensive score in the second half to nail down a 43-25 victory in College Station.
Leach has done a good job of insulating his team from the BCS hype. Safety Darcel McBath didn't know where his team stood more than 24 hours after the initial release on Sunday. And Carter found out only because he learned from his sports management professor the following day in class.
"We've been through some highs and lows around here," McBath said. "We know what can happen when we've been distracted. I've been here for four years. Sometimes, we'd be ranked one week and then we'd lose. We know how it is."
Now, the onus is on the Red Raiders to utilize those lessons to take the Tech program where it has never gone before.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are my helmet stickers for Saturday.
Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley - Produced a career-best 11 receptions for 112 yards and a touchdown and also added a 96-yard kickoff return for another score to spark Texas' 45-35 victory over Oklahoma.
Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo - Notched six tackles, including four for losses, forced a fumble and produced two sacks in the Longhorns' upset over Oklahoma.
Oklahoma State safety/linebacker Andre Sexton - Amassed 13 tackles and an interception leading the Cowboys' 28-23 upset over Missouri.
Texas Tech safety Jamar Wall - Produced a game-saving interception, seven tackles and broke up a pass to help the Red Raiders escape with a 37-31 overtime victory over Nebraska.
Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman - Rushed for 95 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 234 yards to lead the Wildcats' 44-30 victory over Texas A&M.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
The Big 12 featured its top collection of talent last season with eight conference players selected to consensus All-America teams. It might be even more pronounced this season with another strong cast back.
Here's my list for all-conference players before the season:
QB: Chase Daniel, Missouri
RB: Marlon Lucky, Nebraska
RB: DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
WR: Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech
WR: Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
TE: Chase Coffman, Missouri
T: Phil Loadholt, Oklahoma
T: Ryan Miller, Colorado
G: Duke Robinson, Oklahoma
G: Louis Vasquez, Texas Tech
C: Jon Cooper, Oklahoma
K: Jeff Wolfert, Missouri
KR: DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma
DE: Auston English, Oklahoma
DT: George Hypolite, Colorado
DT: Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma
DE: Ian Campbell, Kansas State
LB: Mike Rivera, Kansas
LB: Joe Mortensen, Kansas
LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri
CB: Chris Harris, Kansas
CB: Jamar Wall, Texas Tech
S: William Moore, Missouri
S: Nic Harris, Oklahoma
P: Justin Brantly, Texas A&M
PR: Jeremy Maclin, Missouri
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Considering the spread passing offenses in the Big 12, the conference's defensive backs should receive an extensive workout this season. The Big 12 has some productive players. Here is my choice for the 10 best.
- William Moore, Missouri: Unquestioned heart and soul of Tigers' defense after leading conference with eight interceptions last season.
- Nic Harris, Oklahoma: Physical safety has knack for making big plays and delivering shivering hits.
- Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Closest thing that the Big 12 has to a lockdown cornerback.
- Jordan Lake, Baylor: Counted on for too many tackles in Baylor's sieve-like defense, produced 120 stops last season -- 30 more than any Big 12 secondary players.
- Darrell Stuckey, Kansas: Hard-hitting strong safety who led Kansas secondary in tackles; broke up six passes last season.
- Chris Harris, Kansas: Big 12 newcomer of the year last season after producing 65 tackles, two interceptions in 2007.
- Devin Gregg, Texas A&M: Workmanlike player who has started 32 straight games for the Aggies.
- Larry Asante, Nebraska: Once a special-teams tackling machine, he now is a disciplined pass defender after working with Bo Pelini.
- Chris Carney, Kansas State: Produced 64 tackles and four interceptions last season and should be even better with infusion of junior college talent around him.
- Lendy Holmes, Oklahoma: Can be torched deep occasionally, but Sooners have opted to move him around the secondary to help plug holes.