NCF Nation: Marlon Williams
After all of the excitement from last season’s memorable South Division race, more of the same was expected this season in the Big 12.
The return of Heisman contenders like Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Dez Bryant would make this season perhaps even more exciting than last.
But that outlook hasn’t been fulfilled as the first half of the Big 12 season has been marked largely by what could have been. Instead of action on the field, the infirmary has been filled with Big 12 quarterbacks during a disappointing first half of the season.
|Ned Dishman/Getty Images|
|Ndamukong Suh Cornhuskers leads the Cornhuskers in solo and total tackles.|
No injury was bigger that Oklahoma’s loss of Bradford in the opening game of the season with a third-degree sprained shoulder. Bradford made it back for one game and part of another, but reinjured his shoulder and likely will never play college football again.
His injury, along with the season-ending loss before the season of preseason All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham and the loss of breakaway receiver Ryan Broyles for much of the season, has stripped the Sooners of much of their offensive firepower. It’s understandable why the Sooners have started 3-3, losing three games by five points.
But other injuries have also affected the Big 12’s national stature. Robert Griffin’s knee injury has made Baylor’s hopes of making a bowl game iffy. The league's leading rusher from a year ago, Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State, has missed most of the season with a cracked foot. Bryant has been idled for three games with eligibility issues from his suspension by the NCAA. Texas Tech has lost starting quarterback Taylor Potts and his productive backup Steven Sheffield also appears to have been knocked out of the lineup.
It’s made the first half of the season a battle of attrition. The South appears to be a two-team race between Texas and Oklahoma State. And every North Division team has at least one loss with surprising Kansas State in first place and perhaps headed for an unlikely North title.
The deflation of the Big 12’s image also came because of the conference’s struggles with opponents from other BCS conferences. A disappointing 4-7 record in the nonconference part of the season didn’t turn many heads -- especially with three of those wins coming on the opening weekend. The conference also lost a pair of tough one-point games to non-BCS schools when Texas Tech fell to Houston and BYU beat Oklahoma.
Texas at No. 3 is the highest-ranked Big 12 team in the BCS. Oklahoma State is ranked No.15 and Kansas is 25th. It’s a far cry from last season, when the Big 12 had three teams ranked among the top seven in the BCS’ final standings and four among the top 13 teams.
Here's a quick look at the first half of the season in the Big 12.
Offensive player of the first half: Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley. This multi-talented receiver/returner was the Longhorns’ biggest offensive weapon in the first half of the season with consistent play throughout. Shipley ranks second in the conference with 51 catches for 605 yards. But where he sets himself apart from players like Danario Alexander, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe is with his punt returns, accounting for 16.4 yards per return, including two TDs. Mack Brown advised him earlier in his career to give up because of frequent injuries. Today, Brown is glad that Shipley didn’t listen to him.
Defensive player of the first half: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. After his performance against Missouri, some pundits were hyping Suh for the Heisman Trophy. Some of that blather had died down since the Cornhuskers’ loss last week to Texas Tech, but Suh assuredly is the Big 12’s best defensive player. He leads the Cornhuskers in solo and total tackles, tackles for losses and hurries, and ranks second in sacks. Most amazingly, he paces the team with seven passes broken up, which is tied for second in the conference. NFL scouts are lining up to check him out.
Biggest surprise of the first half: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have struggled with injuries to Potts early and an apparent one to Sheffield last week. But after early growing-pain losses to Texas and Houston, the Red Raiders have rebounded with impressive wins over Kansas State and Nebraska to have them solidly in third place in the South Division. After the suspension of Brandon Carter and the Twitter controversy involving Marlon Williams, it would have been understandable if Tech had cratered. Instead, Mike Leach has kept his team afloat and likely headed to a nice bowl trip.
Biggest disappointment of the first half: Oklahoma. The Sooners came into the season with legitimate national title hopes that were killed by their season-opening loss to BYU along with the loss of Bradford. Another loss at Miami under backup Landry Jones continued the spiral downward. But the biggest capper was last week’s 16-13 loss to Texas in a game where the Sooners defense played well enough to win, but Bradford again was hurt early. Now, the Sooners' hopes of an unprecedented four-peat of conference championships look dim, considering their three losses to ranked opponents and tough upcoming schedule.
Best game: Houston 29, Texas Tech 28. This game had a little bit of everything as the two teams played a memorable game on a hot, sticky night in Houston. The two teams combined for 1,063 yards, 60 first downs and one memorable comeback, capped by Case Keenum’s game-winning 4-yard keeper with 49 seconds left that stamped him as a Heisman contender. Tech had its chances to put the game away earlier in the fourth quarter, but the momentum changed when Potts was stopped on a fourth-and-goal sneak from the 1.
Best coach: Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. The Cowboys were expected to challenge for the Big 12 South Division this season, but Gundy has done a nice job of keeping the Cowboys together despite the loss of top playmakers like Hunter and Bryant. Even after an early loss to Houston that was decided on two plays involving tipped passes, Gundy has the Cowboys pointed to a pivotal Oct. 31 showdown against Texas that likely will decide the Big 12 South title. Honorable mention has to go to Bill Snyder, who surprisingly has Kansas State in first place in the North Division despite a 66-14 loss at Texas Tech earlier this season.
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
|Brett Davis/US Presswire|
|Kansas LB Joe Mortensen had 15 tackles for a loss last season.|
There aren't many national standout linebackers in the Big 12 this season. The conference's proud history featuring key players like Derrick Johnson, Dat Nguyen and Mark Simoneau that dominated action from the position seems a long way away.
Part of that is because of the preponderance of spread offenses that have diminished some of the effectiveness of linebackers throughout college football. And good linebackers are becoming increasingly hard to find.
But there are still a few good ones left. Here are the players I think are the Big 12's top linebackers this season.
1. Joe Mortensen, Kansas -- Thrived after moving inside to middle linebacker to key Jayhawks' defense. He led the conference with 15 tackles for losses last season.
2. Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri -- Lightly regarded product from Jasper, Texas, has blossomed into one of conference's most consistent defensive playmakers. His 127 tackles led all of the Big 12's returning defensive players.
3. Mike Rivera, Kansas -- Produced three sacks, 7.5 tackles for a loss last season in first as starter outside.
4. Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma -- If he's healthy, he could blossom into one of OU's dominating middle linebackers like Curtis Lofton and Rufus Alexander before him.
5. Patrick Lavine, Oklahoma State -- Consistent producer who leads all Oklahoma State returnees with 81 tackles from last season. Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Tim Beckman hopes he will emerge as the Cowboys' key defender this season.
6. Marlon Williams, Texas Tech -- It will be interesting to see if his tackle numbers remain strong with the increasing defensive talent around him.
7. Joe Pawelek, Baylor -- Most valuable player on Bears' defensive team will be starting for his third-straight season.
8. James Holt, Kansas -- Underrated because he's sometimes overshadowed by Mortensen and Rivera on his own team.
9. Brock Christopher, Missouri -- Space-eating MLB who always seems to be around the ball.
10. Rashad Bobino, Texas -- Bruising 238-pounder will be counted for senior leadership and his hitting ability by new coordinator Will Muschamp.