NCF Nation: Nick Florence

Bryce PettyJerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsPhilip Montgomery's Baylor offense has been something to behold, as quarterback Bryce Petty and company are averaging a mind-boggling 70.5 points and 779.5 yards per game.
Philip Montgomery doesn’t do many interviews.

It’s not a matter of the Baylor offensive coordinator trying to avoid them; he just leaves that responsibility to Art Briles. Makes things easy for him, he says, and they don’t matter much.

“I think that’s definitely his style,” former Baylor quarterback Nick Florence said. “He likes being in the background, doing his part and running the machine.”

Philip Montgomery
Philip Montgomery
He doesn’t seek the fame, Florence said, because Montgomery gets enough satisfaction out of calling games and coaching players. He’s simple like that.

While fame has quickly found Dana Holgorsen, Gus Malzahn, Chad Morris and so many other of college football’s spread offense gurus, Montgomery remains a bit of a mystery man nationally. Maybe that’s what he prefers.

“I don’t know how he hasn’t gotten attention nationally,” Florence said. “But at the same time, I know he doesn’t like it. He’s definitely deserving.”

Perhaps he’s just busy plotting what comes next for perhaps the best offense in college football. For all the reverence Briles receives, Montgomery is the one calling the plays, the guy who decides when it’s time for Lache Seastrunk to carve up a defense and when the time is right for Bryce Petty to go deep to Antwan Goodley or Tevin Reese.

He will take little credit and won’t accept much praise for this offense. Most offensive coordinators -- at any level of football -- can only dream of achieving what Baylor did last week against West Virginia: 73 points and a Big 12-record 872 yards.

Here’s how Montgomery summed it up: Line played well. Skill guys played well. Petty played well. Running backs played well. Went in with a good plan. Good things happened.

“Those guys on the field, they make plays,” Montgomery said.

He’s staying humble, and there’s no doubt the greatest influence on how Montgomery perceives offensive football has been Briles. This is the 15th season they’ve spent coaching together, starting in 1996 when Montgomery joined Briles' coaching staff at Stephenville (Texas) High School.

“I think a lot of that starts with Coach,” Montgomery said. “Even when we were back in Stephenville, we were kind of progressive offensively and started spreading it out before a lot of people did. All of that has really got to lay at his feet.”

But don’t underestimate the third member of this coaching trio. Randy Clements has been coaching with Montgomery for 17 seasons and first began working with Briles at Stephenville in 1990. He’s tasked with overseeing the Baylor run game and offensive line.

Perhaps Montgomery doesn’t take the credit simply because this has always been a team effort, with all three serving as the idea men behind the evolution of their scheme.

“It’s a special bond that we have,” Montgomery said. “When you’ve worked with those guys for as long as we’ve worked together, you kind of have a good feel of what you’re doing in that room when it comes to preparation and starting a game plan. There’s not much that can replace that type of camaraderie and the unit that’s formed there.”

Montgomery coached Baylor receivers coach Kendal Briles, Art’s son, at Stephenville and at the University of Houston. Running backs coach Jeff Lebby is married to Art’s daughter and has been on the staff since 2008.

“When you start putting all those factors together, it’s a tight unit that is pretty special in college football,” Montgomery said.

When Briles landed the head job at Houston in 2003, Montgomery and Clements were two of his first hires. They turned the Cougars offense into one of the nation’s 10 best in passing yards, total yards and explosive plays during their tenure.

And they’ve done it again at Baylor, once again ranking among the top 10 in those same categories since 2008 while averaging a run-pass balance of 55-45.

Having elite quarterbacks has certainly helped. Three of Montgomery’s pupils -- Robert Griffin III, Case Keenum and Kevin Kolb -- are in the NFL. Florence followed Griffin and was the Big 12’s leading passer in 2012. Of course, he’ll take no credit.

“The good Lord has blessed us with good guys,” Montgomery said. “We’ve done a decent job of helping them and making sure we’re giving them a chance to make plays and grow within what we do offensively.

Florence believes it’s Montgomery’s coaching style that has helped beget so much success. He’s a player’s coach, a hands-on mentor who doesn’t chew out his quarterbacks. It’s about being straightforward, honest and open. Plus, he’s pretty good at calling plays.

“I think he’s got good schemes, and him and Coach Briles together is dynamite,” Florence said. “Coach Montgomery is an outstanding playcaller. He’s always looking out for the QB and takes shots when it’s good to take shots. He has great balance with playcalling, and you can see that on the field. It’s not a science -- he has a great feel for the game.”

[+] EnlargeTevin Reese
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTevin Reese set a Baylor record with 21 career touchdowns of 40-plus yards.
Good luck engaging Montgomery in a discussion on what makes this offense so successful, or why the Baylor spread is unlike most offensive attacks in college football. He’s not sharing the recipe.

“Well, there’s some things you talk about, and then there’s some things you don’t,” he said with a chuckle.

He’s proud of how far his offense has come and the product the Bears are putting on the field today. Montgomery was the lead recruiter for Petty and Goodley, the two breakout stars of this year’s Baylor offense. He knew how good they could eventually become, but this is just the start.

Baylor running back Glasco Martin said Saturday this is the best and most dangerous BU offense he’s been a part of in four seasons. Montgomery isn’t ready to go that far.

“As far as the best one, you know, it’s still real early in this season,” Montgomery said. “So as the paint keeps getting painted, we’ll see what it comes out to.

“The offense we had in 2011 with Robert was pretty dang special. Last year with Nick, it was pretty dang special. There are some standards that have been set that those guys are striving to make sure we try to exceed those every year.”

If they pull that off, the nation just might start figuring out who Montgomery is -- whether he likes it or not.
WACO, Texas -- Art Briles can think back on all the quarterbacks he's pushed and prodded to greatness and recall countless great moments.

Nick Florence's redemption from a rough start in 2012 to knocking off No. 1 Kansas State followed Robert Griffin III's two nights in 2011 that left a mark on college football: Firing deep balls to knock off TCU and Oklahoma on the way to Baylor's first Heisman trophy.

Before that, he and an NFL-bound Kevin Kolb led Houston from an 0-11 squad to a Conference USA championship. Kolb was the conference's Offensive Player of the Year that season. In 2007, he kickstarted Case Keenum's career with an eight-win season. Keenum developed into the FBS all-time leader in touchdown passes while Briles got to work building Baylor's program.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsProjected starter Bryce Petty is the next quarterback project for Baylor coach Art Briles.
Now, it's 2013, and Briles is getting ready to groom another quarterback, his third in three seasons at Baylor. His name is Bryce Petty, and you might see him zooming around Baylor's Waco campus on a moped, hunching his NFL-quarterback frame over the handlebars.

"His skill set is off the charts," Briles said.

"He’s Tim Tebow," running back Lache Seastrunk added, "He's like 6-foot-5, 245 pounds!"

Well, more like 6-3 and 231 according to Briles, but you might get a similar scouting report from opposing linebackers soon if Petty gets his way, but more on that later. The skill set Briles refers to is an NFL-quality arm and 4.6 speed with four years of experience in an offensive system that has seen Baylor ranked No. 2 nationally in total offense each of the past two seasons, and No. 13 back in 2010.

"Physically, he has a chance to be a very dominant quarterback, but it’s a very mental game, so what you have to do is match it all together, your physicalness and your intellectualness and creativeness and instinctiveness," Briles said. "It all has to come together."

For now, Briles draws a blank when he thinks back on Petty's greatest moments at Baylor. That might change very soon.

"That moment hasn’t come," Briles said. "That chapter hasn’t been written, and that’s good. It hasn’t been his time. It’s his time to prove it’s his time."

Petty's road to Baylor came after a commitment to Tennessee followed by a coaching change by the Vols from Phil Fulmer to the in-and-out tenure of Lane Kiffin, whose arrival spelled trouble for Petty's future in Knoxville. Before long, Baylor offensive coordinator Philip Montgomery, who had recruited Petty throughout, came calling with a Baylor logo on his shirt.

"It was so cool, because (Briles) reminded me so much of coach Fulmer in that he’s a player’s coach. He wants to be here with you," Petty said. "Succeed on the field and as a man. That’s huge for me."

Once Petty was at Baylor, he watched Griffin win a Heisman. Then last season Petty watched as another experienced backup like himself, Florence, broke Griffin's school record for passing yards and kept Baylor near the top of the national rankings for offense.

The waiting wasn't easy. It wasn't fun.

"As a competitor, it’s hard to sit and watch. You know you can do it. Griff, he won the Heisman. It’s faith. It’s knowing that God has a plan. That plan is coming through right now," Petty said. "You have to be able to seize your opportunity."

That opportunity brings with it mammoth expectations, too.

"No dropoff from Robert. No dropoff from Nick. We have to stay strong at that position," Briles said of his quarterbacks.

Briles says there was no learning curve -- as expected -- for a passer starting his fourth spring in Waco, even though it was his first spring working almost exclusively with the first team. He's not a new face to anyone on the team, and that has paid off as Petty has tried to cement his status as a leader.

" Getting guys to fight for you, at the end of the day, is what it takes to win. You can be as athletically gifted as Griff, but you’ve got to have guys fight for you. That’s something that I want from my guys," Petty said.

How has he approached that goal?

"Being the first one in and last one out. Always watching film and being on your guard. That just comes with an every-day kind of process," he said. "This whole starting thing and this whole season is not a one-day thing. It’s a process. It’s an every-day thing. I’d like to think of myself as a hard worker. It’s no struggle for me to get up out of bed and work."

We can't know until the fall whether or not Petty will be the next great quarterback under Briles or a forgettable chapter of Bears history. The last season in Floyd Casey Stadium will be Petty's first as the Bears' starter, though that status isn't official yet.

It's not hard to see it being a memorable season in Waco.
The first Saturday of April kicks off spring football scrimmages around the country.

Baylor will unveil its new quarterback, while Georgia and Nebraska might need name tags on defense with so many new starters.

Most spring games are nothing more than glorified controlled scrimmages, and Florida's figures to be even less exciting because of injuries.

Here's a closer look at a few of Saturday's spring games:

Baylor Bears: Baylor fans will get their first chance to see if the Bears' transition to a new quarterback will go as smoothly as the last one.

Junior Bryce Petty is the heir apparent to replace Nick Florence, who threw for 4,309 yards with 33 touchdowns last season after replacing Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

Petty, who was headed to Tennessee until coach Phillip Fulmer was fired, completed seven of 10 passes for 97 yards with one touchdown in six games last season.

The Bears also bring back eight defensive starters, after allowing 37.2 points per game last season.

Florida Gators: Because of myriad injuries along the offensive line, the Gators won't have a traditional spring game on Saturday at The Swamp. Florida coach Will Muschamp said the Gators will still have some team scrimmage work, but they'll also compete in individual coverage, pass rush and blocking drills.

"I can't ask these guys to line up and go 80 straight plays," Muschamp said. "Actually, it's going to be more beneficial for us to get the individual work, instead of just putting the ball down and scrimmaging."

Because of injuries, Florida is down to only six scholarship offensive linemen available for the spring. Four returning linemen are hurt and one is suspended; five more freshmen linemen will join the team this summer.

Among the walking wounded: starting guard Jon Halapio (shoulder), right tackle Chaz Green (ankle), guard Ian Silberman (shoulder), and guard Max Garcia (back). Guard Jessamen Dunker has been suspended since Jan. 16 after he was arrested for stealing a motor scooter.

Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are back, but much of the focus in Saturday's G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium will be on UGA's defense.

The Bulldogs have to replace star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alex Ogletree, as well as nose tackle John Jenkins and free safety Bacarri Rambo. In all, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has to identify seven new starters on defense.

Freshman Tray Matthews, a mid-year enrollee, has raised a lot of eyebrows during spring practice and might emerge as a starting free safety this fall. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, another big hitter, appears set as the starting strong safety. Senior end Garrison Smith and sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins have emerged as two of the most consistent pass-rushers.

UGA fans won't see receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who will miss the spring game because of torn cartilage in his knee. He's expected to be ready for the start of preseason camp.

Nebraska Cornhuskers: Like Georgia, the Cornhuskers are undergoing a complete facelift on defense, after ranking 58th nationally in scoring defense (27.5 points per game) and 90th in run defense (192.5 yards per game). Nebraska lost end Cameron Meredith, tackle Baker Steinkuhler, linebacker Will Compton, along with five other starters on defense. The Cornhuskers will unveil their new-look defense in Saturday's spring game at Memorial Stadium.

A lot of eyes will be on freshman tackle Vincent Valentine, who might be the Cornhuskers' most physically imposing lineman since Ndamukong Suh. At 6 feet 3, 325 pounds, the Cornhuskers really need Valentine to contribute this coming season. Fans are also excited to see end Greg McMullen, and JUCO end Randy Gregory is expected to help when he gets on campus this summer.

Thomas Brown, Michael Rose and Jared Afalava are freshmen to watch at linebacker.

Cornhuskers coach Bo Pelini is expected to play it safe with quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will probably only see a couple of series. I-back Ameer Abdullah, linebacker David Santos and cornerback Daniel Davie have already been ruled out.

Virginia Cavaliers: Virginia fans will get an up-close look at the Cavaliers' revamped coaching staff in Saturday's Orange-Blue spring game. After the Cavaliers went 4-8 for the second time in coach Mike London's three-year tenure, he hired four new assistants.

Longtime defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta spent the spring installing an aggressive, blitz-heavy scheme, and former Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild was hired to take over the offense. Former NC State coach Tom O'Brien was hired to coach tight ends and serve as associate head coach for offense, and former Idaho State coach Larry Lewis is the new special teams coordinator/running backs coach.

On the field, sophomore David Watford is battling Greyson Lambert and Phillip Sims for the starting quarterback job. Sims, an Alabama transfer who started four games for the Cavaliers last season, went into the spring at No. 3 on the depth chart.
Baylor coach Art Briles' track record gives any bystander reason to have faith that despite losing talented receivers like Lanear Sampson and Terrance Williams, the Bears will find others on their roster to fill the void.

If Saturday's scrimmage is any indication, Briles is getting ready to reward that faith.

Quarterback Bryce Petty, the likely heir to Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence's throne -- both set the school record for passing yards in consecutive seasons -- completed 22 of 32 passes for 326 yards and a pair of touchdowns with an interception.

He's not officially the starter, and Seth Russell completed 20 of 29 passes for 220 yards.

Still, a pair of receivers had strong days, and the safe bet is you haven't heard of either of them. Sophomore Jay Lee had seven grabs for 111 yards, highlighted by a 50-yard score from Petty.

"It kind of translates from the way he's been working out," Briles told reporters. "He's been exceptional in workouts, exceptional all winter in the weight room in strength and conditioning, and he was exceptional today. It just shows that if you do things right for a long time, pretty soon it pays off for you."

Lee didn't have a catch last season and redshirted in 2011, and Brandon Brown is still looking for his first career catch, too. The former minor league baseball player is a walk-on but caught a game-high eight balls for 116 yards.

Running back Lache Seastrunk broke loose for a 28-yard touchdown run but finished with just 24 yards on six carries.

Ultimately, you've got to be pleased with Petty's progress, and his completion percentage and production have to be encouraging moving forward.

"Every time I get out here, my confidence is growing," Petty told reporters. "Every day is something new, something to get better at, something to grow on. I'm starting from the bottom and trying to work my way up."

Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman, a 6-foot-8, 250-pound sophomore, had two sacks to lead all defenders.

The offense gave up eight sacks, which could mean one of two things: The quarterbacks don't quite feel comfortable making decisions quickly enough just yet, or the pass rush is improving. I'm betting it's a little bit of both, but there's only so much stock you can put in a spring scrimmage.

Earlier in the week, the Bears debuted some pretty sharp-looking uniforms, too. I'm loving these. Here's a look:
I love everything about those, and I'm glad to finally see the terrible bear claw mark gone from the pants, replaced by a more tasteful, subtle bear paw on the shoulder.

Gotta love what's in store for Baylor next season.
Baylor quarterback Nick Florence stepped in for Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III and led the Big 12 in passing yards and finished second nationally in total offense while leading the Bears to an eight-win season as a senior.

After all that, though, he's not going to pursue a future in the NFL. His career is over, he told the Waco Tribune-Herald.

"I’ve decided to hang up my cleats and finish my master’s in December," Florence told the paper. "My wife and I have spent the last 1 1/2 months talking about it, and it all came down to what we wanted in life, and it didn’t include playing football."

Florence, a native of Garland, Texas, in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, threw for 4,309 yards, 33 touchdowns and ran for 568 yards with 10 scores for the Bears this past season, breaking Griffin's school record for passing yards.

He says he wants to do something in sports and business after finishing up his degree with a pair of 13-hour semesters through December.

"Oh yeah, I’m going to miss it," Florence said. "I’ve been doing it my whole life. I don’t know whether I would have been drafted, but I have no doubt that I could have made a team. But I’ll look back and have a lot of great memories."

The biggest Big 12 offseason storylines

January, 17, 2013
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The offseason is under way, but offseasons are fun, too. Here are the storylines to keep an eye on until the teams are back on the field in 2013.

1. Can Casey Pachall get back on track? TCU's quarterback is officially back with the team after leaving school to go to an in-patient drug and alcohol treatment facility. Most people want to know if he'll be the same player, but what's even more important is whether he can avoid the same pitfalls and get his life back on track.

2. Expansion junction, what's your function? The odds seem strongly against it, but you know we're not getting through a college football offseason without talking expansion at some point. How much will it heat up? Will Florida State re-emerge as a Big 12 candidate?

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin and Art Briles
AP Photo/Darren AbateArt Briles, left, has done a great job developing quarterbacks at Houston and at Baylor.
3. Will the 'Quarterback Whisperer' do it again? Baylor coach Art Briles' last four quarterbacks have been absurd. Kevin Kolb and Case Keenum got it done at Houston, and Robert Griffin III won a Heisman as the best of the bunch at Baylor. Nick Florence led the Big 12 in passing yards last year. What does Briles have in store this season? Bryce Petty has better measurables than Florence, but can the redshirt junior show off his experience in the system and make good decisions?

4. Striking the fear back in Lubbock. Kliff Kingsbury is looking to bring swagger back to Lubbock. He's still piecing together his staff, but the 33-year-old has the pieces to put together a solid team on the field, too. Can Texas Tech break the string of late-season collapses the past two years?

5. Charlie Weis' juco revolution. Weis has made it clear that he wants quick fixes and to win now at KU. Will his juco recruiting haul do it? Defensive lineman Marquel Combs was the nation's No. 1 juco recruit, and Weis has done a heck of a job selling immediate playing time to these guys. The current recruiting class has 17 juco transfers among 25 commits. Will it pay off, and how will these guys look once they get on campus? Are wins just around the corner?

6. A quarterback competition for the ages. Was Oklahoma State the first team ever to have three 1,000-yard passers? Two of them were freshmen, too. The QB derby last spring was good. This year's will be even better, with all three showing they could win games in Big 12 play. Clint Chelf will have the inside track, but Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh will try to swipe it away. Could one transfer be imminent after the spring?

7. Are the Longhorns finally, officially, certifiably back? Texas looked like it was back after going up to Stillwater and winning a dramatic game that helped the Longhorns ascend to No. 11 in the polls. Then consecutive losses capped by a Red River Blowout made it obvious the Horns weren't quite back yet. David Ash's development and fixing Manny Diaz's surprisingly vulnerable defense will decide whether 2013 is the season Texas returns to the BCS stage.

8. What about the championship game? Bob Bowlsby turned some heads when he inquired with the NCAA about a waiver to hold a championship game with just 10 teams. I don't think there's much fire around that smoke, but how serious will any talk of a return of the Big 12 title game get? The coaches would hate it.

Best/Worst of the Pac-12 bowl season

January, 10, 2013
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We're taking a look at the best and worst of the Pac-12 bowl season.

Best player, offense: Washington RB Bishop Sankey was the best player on the field in the Huskies' 28-26 defeat in the MAACO Las Vegas Bowl. He gained 205 yards on 30 carries with a TD. He also caught six passes for 74 yards, giving him 279 of Washington's 447 yards from scrimmage.

Best player, defense: Arizona State DT Will Sutton had 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for a loss in the Sun Devils' 62-28 domination of Navy.

Best player, special teams: De'Anthony Thomas' 94-yard return of the opening kickoff of the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl set the tone for Oregon's 35-17 triumph over Kansas State. We'll also slip in that his 23-yard TD on a screen pass was perhaps even more spectacular.

Best game: It's still difficult to wrap one's mind around Arizona's comeback against Nevada in the Gildan New Mexico Bowl. The Wolf Pack led 48-35 with 1:48 remaining, but the Wildcats scored two touchdowns and recovered an onside kick in the final 46 seconds to steal a 49-48 victory. Arizona trailed 21-0 in the first quarter and was down 45-28 entering the final period, but still won.

Worst game: USC's 21-7 loss to a Georgia Tech team with seven defeats in the Hyundai Sun Bowl was not only the worst performance of the Pac-12's bowl season, it was the worst bowl performance in USC history. The Trojans, the preseason No. 1 team, managed to gain just 205 yards against a bad defense, one that had been shredded in a 49-28 loss to Middle Tennessee.

Best play: Arizona linebacker Marquis Flowers recovered the onside kick that set up the Wildcats' go-ahead drive against Nevada. He also grabbed the interception with 13 seconds left that ended the high drama.

Best goal-line stand: Stanford dominated Wisconsin's offense in the second half of the Rose Bowl, but that wasn't the case in the second quarter, when the Badgers scored 14 points and were gashing the Cardinal. Gashing, other than one critical play. On fourth-and-goal at the Stanford 1-yard line, Badgers RB James White was stonewalled by DE Ben Gardner.

Worst play: Baylor led UCLA 14-0, but UCLA looked poised to make a defensive stop in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. The Bears faced a third-and-9 from their 45-yard line. UCLA decided to blitz, and Bears QB Nick Florence made them pay with a 55-yard TD pass to Tevin Reese. It was a beautiful pass and catch for Baylor. But it was a crushing blow to the Bruins, who never mounted much of a challenge the rest of the evening.

Best stat(s): Arizona State QB Taylor Kelly was nearly perfect against Navy. He completed 17 of 19 passes for 277 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. That's a pass efficiency rating of 277.43. Alabama's AJ McCarron led the nation with a pass efficiency rating of 175.28 this season. Oh, and Kelly also rushed for 81 yards on seven carries -- 11.6 yards per rush -- and a TD.

Best stat(s) II: Stanford's defense shut out Wisconsin in the second half of the Rose Bowl, holding the Badgers to just four first downs and 82 total yards, including 13 yards rushing from All-American RB Montee Ball.

Worst stat: UCLA's feckless performance against Baylor was best summed up by the Bruins going 1-for-17 on third downs. That's bad against any defense, but making matters worse is this: Baylor ranked 119th in the nation in third-down conversions allowed.

Crazy stat: Texas' defense posted an Alamo Bowl-record 10 sacks for minus-81 yards against Oregon State. Alex Okafor alone set a bowl record with 4.5 sacks. Here's a guess that Beavers fans were wondering how a team that gave up 23 sacks in its previous 12 games couldn't make an adjustment, because Okafor doesn't rank in the top five of defensive linemen/outside linebackers Oregon State faced during the regular season.

Instant analysis: Baylor 49, UCLA 26

December, 28, 2012
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It was billed as a potentially high-scoring, exciting Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. Baylor got the memo. UCLA didn't. The Bears dominated, making an early statement for the Big 12 in the battle with the Pac-12 for the title of "second best conference."

UCLA was gifted a TD at the end they didn't actually score. The final score should have been 49-19.

It was over when: It was 35-10 at halftime, so there wasn't much tension at any point. Baylor dominated in every way from gun-to-gun, on both sides of the ball. That the Bears' offense was explosive wasn't a surprise. That the Bears' defense crushed UCLA, well, that was.

Turning point: UCLA wanted to blitz and pressure Baylor's offense. It seemed like a good idea. But in the second quarter, on third-and-9 from the Baylor 45, the Bruins blitzed Bears QB Nick Florence, and he connected on a 55-yard TD pass to Tevin Reese. It was a beautiful pass and catch. It made the score 21-zip, and it firmly established the direction of this game.

Baylor game ball goes to: Coordinator Phil Bennett and the Baylor defense. There was this guy who kept calling Baylor's defense "horrible" and "terrible" and "awful." He doesn't feel very smart at this moment. Of course, that was the take on Baylor's defense just about all season from everyone. Still, just as Baylor transformed after a 3-4 start, the defense posted its best game in its final outing of 2012.

UCLA game ball goes to: Let's hear it for the special teams! Bruins kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn was 2-for-2 on field goals, and punter Jeff Locke was his usual outstanding self. Shaquelle Evans had a 43-yard punt return, and Steven Manfro had a 51-yard kick return.

Unsung hero: Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk, who announced his Heisman Trophy candidacy before the game, had a nice performance with 16 carries for 138 yards. But backup running back Glasco Martin had 98 yards and three TDs.

Stat of the game: UCLA was 1-of-17 on third down. That's just horrible. The Bruins were also 3-of-8 on fourth down. Credit to Baylor. Discredit to UCLA.

Stat of the game II: Baylor outrushed UCLA 306 yards to 33. One word: dominant.

What it means: This was the first of three bowl games putting Big 12 and Pac-12 teams. Those conferences are competing for the mythical title of Second Best Conference. This was a decisive win for the Big 12, as a team that went 7-5 overall and 4-5 in Big 12 play whipped a Pac-12 team that went 9-4 overall and 6-3 in conference play. While it's probably silly to read too much into one bowl game, which can be fluid and surprising, the pressure certainly is now on Oregon State in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas and Oregon in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl against Kansas State.

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl keys

December, 27, 2012
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Here are three keys for tonight's Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl:

1. Johnathan Franklin versus Lache Seastrunk: Baylor's defense is bad, but it's better against the run than the pass. When we type "better," we mean less terrible. The Bears give up 189 yards rushing per game -- 4.74 yards per rush -- which ranks 89th in the nation. Franklin, who averages 6.3 yards per carry, needs 300 yards to hit the 2,000-yard mark this season. He probably won't get that, but he could cross the two bills mark. Meanwhile, Seastrunk's emergence in the final portion of the season was a key to the Bears' late surge. If he outrushes Franklin, the Bears probably are going to win.

2. Attack on defense: One of the great secrets this season was that Baylor QB Nick Florence was darned near as good as Robert Griffin III was during his Heisman Trophy campaign in 2011. He's a good runner and scrambler and was sacked only 1.42 times per game. He also only threw two interceptions over the final five games, both coming in the upset win over Kansas State. The Bruins ranked seventh in the nation with 3.31 sacks per game, and outside linebacker Anthony Barr is one of the nation's dominant pass-rushers. The first step is pressuring Florence. The second is hoping that pressure causes him to misfire. Against a spectacular offense that scores quickly, UCLA should be willing to take some chances to potentially create big plays.

3. Turnovers: It's a good bet that whoever wins the turnover battle wins the game, because with two prolific offenses scoring a lot of points, every possession is critical. Baylor's season turned around when it started protecting the football -- it won the turnover battle 13-3 over the final five games. UCLA committed six of its 25 turnovers in one game, its horrid 43-17 loss at California.

Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl keys

December, 27, 2012
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Let's take a look at three keys for tonight's Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl.

1. Win the ground battle. Johnathan Franklin is a more established force, but Lache Seastrunk proved he can be plenty productive on the ground late in the season. Simply put, the team that runs the ball more effectively in this game will win. Somebody's likely to break open a double-digit lead at some point, and if you can't run the ball consistently, that lead is going to disappear very quickly. Both of these offenses can hang points in a hurry, so you better be able to do so while also running the clock and minimizing risk.

2. Limit (or exploit) the big plays. Nobody in college football is more effective at throwing the ball downfield than Baylor. The Bears are at their best and very, very hard to beat when Nick Florence is hitting Biletnikoff Award finalist Terrance Williams downfield or finding Tevin Reese. Williams has 26 catches this season longer than 20 yards downfield and 14 grabs longer than 40 yards, both more than any other player in FBS. Florence's 19 touchdown passes longer than 20 yards lead the FBS (Robert Griffin III had 22 last season), and Baylor also had an FBS-best 19 touchdown drives of less than a minute this season. If Baylor can keep that pace, it's going to win. If UCLA slows down those quick strikes, Baylor's penchant for turnovers may surface on lengthy drives.

3. Battle of the UCLA backfield. Penetration and lots of bodies around the line of scrimmage is a good way to cover the zone read, and when Brett Hundley gets that going, the UCLA running game looks nearly impossible to stop. He rushed for a season-high 83 yards in a near upset of Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game. Ultimately, the zone read is all about the backside defensive end, but Baylor needs to slow that package down to keep UCLA's offense in check. Truthfully, I don't like Baylor's chances of slowing down Franklin much, but it's going to be a lot easier if the Bears get some help to that DE and keep UCLA running the ball in more traditional ways.

Pregame: Bridgepoint Holiday Bowl

December, 27, 2012
12/27/12
1:00
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UCLA (9-4, 6-3 Pac-12) vs. Baylor (7-5, 4-5 Big 12)

Who to watch: Baylor has been ridiculously good on offense all season, but it got even better over the homestretch when running back Lache Seastrunk, an Oregon transfer, asserted himself, eclipsing 100 yards rushing in four of his final five games (and the fifth was a 91 yards, three TD performance at Oklahoma). He's already popped off about winning the Heisman in 2013. With a good running game, life gets even easier for the high-flying pass-catch tandem of QB Nick Florence and receiver Terrance Williams. On the other side of the ball, UCLA QB Brett Hundley and running back Johnathan Franklin will be charged with keeping up. Franklin should eclipse 200 yards in this game.

What to watch: As noted, Baylor ranks among the nation's leaders in just about every offensive category. But on the other side of the ball, Baylor is among the nation's worst. The Bears rank 119th in the nation in total defense and 115th in scoring defense. They are really, really bad on defense. Think Colorado bad. UCLA is good on offense and solid-to-mediocre on defense. The question, really, is does the Bruins good-to-solid on both sides of the ball outperform the lopsided Bears, who entirely rely on their ludicrous speed offense to outscore foes.

Why to watch: Isn't it obvious? Do you recall the Baylor-Washington Alamo Bowl from a year ago? This could be a scoring fest. Both teams are talented on offense and like to play fast and both seemed to peak over the latter half of the season. Baylor's chances improved when UCLA safety Tevin McDonald was suspended for breaking team rules. It could come down to turnovers, as wasted possessions could prove critical. It's difficult to look at this matchup and not anticipate a highly-entertaining game.

Prediction: While losing McDonald is a significant blow to the pass defense, UCLA has enough talent on defense to slow the Bears down and perhaps to make any turnovers or miscues critical. The Bruins should get at handful of stops. The question is will it be enough for Franklin and Hundley? We expect this one to go deep into the fourth quarter. UCLA 42, Baylor 40.
Thanks for all the emails this week, everybody. Here's where you can reach me if you've got more to say.

Let's get to your mail.

Sam Brooks in Overland Park, Kan., writes: David, I saw in your Big 12 stock report that you have Kansas State's stock as going down, and your logic for this is very skewed. Sure, the Cats are losing two very important players with major leadership roles on both sides of the ball in Collin and Arthur, but don't think for a second that the quality of leadership will drop off. Tre Walker is more than ready to become the vocal leader of the 'Lynch Mob' (probably already was), and John Hubert and Daniel Sams have spent countless hours learning the intangibles from CK7. As for talent, they are taking a big hit on the defensive side pretty much only returning Zimmerman and Walker. However, as for the offense, look for them to be more explosive than this year. 5 returning on the O-Line, John Hubert, Tremaine Thompson, and Tyler Lockett all return, making it very plausible for D-Sams to ease into Snyder's system and put up huge numbers. The intense QB battle with Waters will only make both players better too. Combine that with a very favorable schedule (8 home games) and I believe K-State takes care of business in Austin early (as they did in Norman), and the Big 12 title will once again run through Manhattan, KS. (Cue November 16 hype [TCU])

David Ubben: It's possible, Sam, but I simply don't buy that K-State has pieces ready to just replace a guy as integral to the offense as Collin Klein and Arthur Brown. Both of those guys won their respective Big 12 Player of the Year awards on their side of the ball, and you don't simply replace Klein's experience and toughness or Brown's athleticism and instinct. Walker's a great player, but Brown held the defense together and missed so few tackles. The Sams/Waters quarterback derby in the spring will be interesting, but we'll see if Hubert continues his production without Klein and if Sams or Waters can prove to be a quarterback in the top half of the Big 12. That's a must if you're going to win the league.

Ask Oklahoma State how easy it is to replace pieces that are that important. OSU was a good team this year, but winning 11-12 games in this league is really difficult. The simple truth is next year's Kansas State team will not be as good as this year's team. Considering this year's team has a pretty solid case as the best in school history, I hardly think that's an insult.

K-State's a bowl team next year, but a Big 12 title contender? I don't buy that one bit, unless Sams or Waters just absolutely blows up next season. I expect one of them to be solid, but not one of the league's best.




Jamie Hoggatt in San Antonio writes: David,I really like Baylor's chances to get to 7 or 8 wins again next year. Tevin Reese will be the go to guy and will step up like TW did this year for the departed Kendall Wright. You have the Best Big 12 Lineman ( Cyril Richardson ) the best Big 12 back ( Lache Seastruck ) and Bryce Petty will do great. On defense you get all 3 LB's back ( Lackey, Hagar and Dixon ) plus 4 other starters return. The kicking game needs improvement. Art Briles is the glue and the last year in Floyd Casey should be promising.. 4 bowl games in a row for the Bears.

DU: I definitely buy it. I think Baylor's got a lot of upside next season. The receivers won't be as good as they were the past two years, but they'll still be solid, and I think Petty will be better than Florence but not as good as RG3. I do think Seastrunk is better than any back Baylor's had under Briles, and he'll get a whole lot of touches next season. I would be absolutely shocked if Baylor didn't make a bowl next season, but in a wide-open Big 12 with tons of turnover on the offensive side of the ball, a 10-win season or a Big 12 title run would be far from shocking.

I don't think it's likely, and I do think Baylor looks more like a 7 to 8-win team, but the upside is big, and guys like Petty and Seastrunk may easily surpass expectations next year. The defense has to get better, obviously, but I think the offense can maintain yet again, despite losing Florence and Terrance Williams.




Tommy in Dallas writes: When will someone please come and take Paul Rhoads out of the conference? As an opposing team fan, I don't ever want to play his teams. I can't imagine why more teams haven't come and tried to take him away yet? Or am I overlooking how much him being an ISU alumn effects the situation?

DU: You're not alone, Tommy. It's all about finding the right fit, really. There was plenty of rumblings earlier this month that Wisconsin was interested after Bret Bielema checked out to my old stomping grounds at Arkansas, but that never really materialized into anything significant. I don't know if that's the right fit for him. Pittsburgh showed lots of interest last year but Iowa State kept Rhoads around with a contract extension and a raise.

When a truly big-time program comes after Rhoads, I do expect him to leave, but right now, that opportunity hasn't come around. Until then, he's loved at Iowa State. He loves it there, too. He's a native of the state. I don't get the feeling that he believes he can turn the program into a power like Art Briles believes at Baylor, but he's building for the future, and he's not going to leave unless he does so for a major, major step up.




Nick in Fort Smith, Ark., writes: TOP HEAVY SEC!? wow! you know, i expect BIG 12 fans to be delusional, but a sports writer? pathetic. Bama, Georgia, LSU, A&M, South Carolina, Florida. ALL ten wins or more!!! thats nearly have the league! Vandy is no push over and they AND Miss St. will possibly finish with NINE wins! Arkansas with Bobby as their coach would have challenged for the pathetic BIG-12 title this year! ALL they would have had to beat was K-State and OU!!! They already throttled K-State once this year. Get your head out of Bob Stoops rear.

DU: Hey, I respect those top six teams. They're all good. All top 15 teams, though? I think there's plenty of reason to doubt that, considering as a group, they don't have a ton of great wins out of conference play. They've inflated their ranking by beating up on the bottom eight teams in the SEC, who went 0-30 against the top six this season. That's a top-heavy league if there ever was one. K-State's probably not as good as Alabama or Georgia or maybe even Florida, but teams in the bottom half of the Big 12 like Baylor or West Virginia are far superior than the bottom half of the SEC. The Big 12 is a more balanced league, but the top half of the SEC ascended in the polls largely on the back of the league's success the past 5-6 years, not what they actually did this year.




Daniel La Frankie in Temple, Texas, writes: Dave, enjoy your columns very much.Quick question. Always hear about the "Grant of rights" like it's cement.If people can sue to get out of exit fees of 10, 20, 25, now maybe 50 million dollars, and lawyer it down to a lesser fee...............why couldn't a school sue to get out of "Grant of rights"???Thanks, Dan

DU: I'm not a lawyer, but it seems highly, highly unlikely. I'll explain. The "exit fees" are, in theory, based on recouping a conference the money that it would lose if a team left the conference. That's why the supposed $50 million exit fee in the ACC may not stand up in court. Granted, we don't know that yet. We'll see. That's only a small part of it, but that's my understanding on why some schools have gotten out of paying the full fees.

The grant of rights, however, isn't based on any losses. It's an agreement to hand over your media rights to the conference for "X" period of time. In the Big 12's case, it's three years. I suppose, in theory, you could sue to get out of that, but there's no doubt that those "handcuffs" are going to be a lot more strict than the Big 12's weak exit fees that Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M left in the dust.

Trending up or down: Big 12 in 2013

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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Colleague Phil Steele checked in with our ESPN Insider folks for a look at all 70 bowl teams Insider... in 2013.

What can they all expect next season? You'll need Insider to see his full comments, but he weighed in on the nine Big 12 bowl teams.

Baylor's stock: Down

My take: I'd lean more toward even for the Bears. They're losing Nick Florence and Terrance Williams, but Tevin Reese is a strong candidate to continue the receiver tradition at Baylor under Art Briles, and Lache Seastrunk might end up being the Big 12's best back next year. Don't be surprised if new QB Bryce Petty is even better than Florence. It's very easy for me to see Baylor winning seven (or more) games next year, and once again, it's hard to see the defense getting worse.

WVU's stock: Even

My take: The record might be the same (7-5) next year, but I would lean toward trending down for WVU, just because it won't have the upside or potential of this year's team. WVU was good enough to win 9-11 games this year, but with a new QB, no Tavon Austin and no Stedman Bailey, it's tough to see next year's team being able to make that claim.

Texas' stock: Up

My take: How up depends on David Ash's development, once again. When he played well early in the season, Texas looked like it could beat a whole lot of teams. When he struggled against KU and Oklahoma, Texas didn't look like it could beat anyone. The defense can't be any worse.

TCU's stock: Up

My take: Way, way, up. Maybe more up than any team in the country. TCU was 70 percent freshmen and sophomore this year and still managed to go 7-5. It has tons of talent on both sides of the ball, and running back Aaron Green, a blue-chip transfer from Nebraska, will be on the field. Quarterback Casey Pachall may return, too. Big 12 title contenders.

Iowa State's stock: Even

My take: I'd agree. Sam Richardson showed some promise, but I don't know if I see a true impact player there. ISU still has to improve its skill position talent in a big way to truly make the jump from fringe bowl team.

Oklahoma State's stock: Up

My take: Other than TCU or Texas, no Big 12 team's stock should be more up next year. OSU can absorb the loss of Joseph Randle if he leaves, and if he stays, OSU will likely have the Big 12's best offense with a good O-line, maturing QBs and experienced backs. They'll go from seven wins to a Big 12 title contender.

KSU's stock: Down

My take: Agreed here. It's pretty simple. This is a very, very experienced team with two huge talents in Collin Klein and Arthur Brown that will be difficult to replace. K-State has a lot of potential at QB in Daniel Sams and juco commit Jake Waters, but Chris Harper will be gone, too. John Hubert and Tramaine Thompson will have to play big, and the offensive line will have to lead the way.
Baylor coach Art Briles is quickly becoming one of the hottest coaching names in college football. And his Bears just accomplished something that hasn’t been done in Waco, Texas, in over 60 years.

The Bears knocked off Oklahoma State 41-34 on Saturday to win their seventh game of the season (7-4 overall, 4-5 in conference play). Baylor has won seven games for three straight seasons for the first time since 1949-51. It was the Bears' third straight victory, Briles' first victory over OSU and Baylor's first win over the Cowboys since 2005.

With their performance in 2012, it’s become clear Baylor’s rise is built upon Briles’ brilliance more than Robert Griffin III’s excellence.

The Bears defense, which entered the game No. 119 in total defense, had one of its best performances of the season against the Cowboys' explosive offense. Baylor consistently rushed OSU quarterback Clint Chelf on third down, harassing him into bad decisions and leading to OSU converting just 7-of-15 third-down conversion attempts. The Bears also held the Cowboys, who averaged 45.64 points per game heading into Saturday, to just four offensive touchdowns including one with 1:16 left in the game.

BU’s offense lived up to its billing as one of the nation’s top offenses, finishing with 615 total yards thanks in large part to quarterback Nick Florence and running back Lache Seastrunk. Florence finished with 296 passing yards in the victory as the Bears spread OSU’s defense from sideline to sideline and the Cowboys simply couldn’t match up in coverage. And Seastrunk put the game away with a gutsy 76-yard touchdown run after suffering a cramped quad muscle midway to the end zone. He finished with 16 carries for 178 yards and one touchdown.

After knocking off Kansas State on Nov. 17, Saturday’s win means back-to-back home victories over teams among the top half of the Big 12 for BU and gives it terrific momentum heading into its third straight bowl game. The Bears, who won four of their final five games, could be headed to New York for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl or end up in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

The Cowboys (7-5, 5-4) will have to lick their wounds and recover heading into their bowl game as injuries and depth concerns appear to have finally caught up to them. The Pokes could be headed for the Valero Alamo Bowl or Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl despite back-to-back losses to end the regular season.
Art Briles had to be in a little disbelief looking up at the scoreboard during his last two dates with Oklahoma State, both in Stillwater.

"They’ve whooped us pretty good the last two years, unless my memory serves me wrong," Briles said. "They’ve kind of had their way with us."

The 56-year-old's memory is just fine. The Bears' fell behind Oklahoma State 49-3 after three quarters a year ago, despite possessing the nation's No. 2 offense and future Heisman winner Robert Griffin III. Baylor moved the ball, but turnovers and red zone failures combined with a hapless defense turned a pivotal Big 12 game into a laugher.

A year earlier, it was much of the same. Oklahoma State raced out to a 41-7 lead late in the third quarter against a ranked Bears team.

Baylor's had a historical run behind Briles, qualifying for three consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history and winning 23 games over that span. Still, Oklahoma State's held a hefty advantage over the Bears, winning six consecutive games in the series.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
AP Photo/LM OteroArt Briles' Bears have been outscored 114-52 by Oklahoma State during their past two meetings.
"It’s hard to explain why sometimes your players have really good weeks and then sometimes they don’t," coach Mike Gundy said of his team's recent dominance against Baylor. "We’ve played them later in the season, and our teams have practiced good and been healthy, but it’s hard to explain."

The Cowboys visit Waco this weekend for the first time since 2009 to close the season. Can Briles get his first win over a fellow Big 12 resurgent squad against OSU? He maintains the last two matchups won't affect this year's team or its confidence.

"One of those was what, 770 days ago or 800 days ago? The other one was 300 something days ago," he said.

Both teams are bowl eligible and out of the Big 12 title race heading into the final weekend, so they're playing for mostly bowl positioning and pride, but even a close loss might have Baylor feeling better about itself than it has the last two times the Cowboys have run the Bears out of Stillwater.

"With any great passing offense, you need to make them one-dimensional, so if you can limit their run game, which has been successful this year, you can get a better rush on the quarterback and make him throw some bad passes," linebacker Shaun Lewis said. "They kill teams with big plays, and if we can limit those big plays and make them drive the field, it might slow them down."

That's what happened the past two games. Before some garbage time scores in both games, OSU prevented the Bears' signature long touchdowns. Last year, a goal line stand, a fumble and an end zone interception left the Bears frustrated and out of the end zone until the game was well out of hand.

The Pokes will be looking for the same result against the Bears this week. Baylor doesn't have RG3 or Kendall Wright this time around, but Gundy's been impressed by his replacement, Nick Florence, who has the Bears back at No. 2 nationally in total offense.

"Coach Briles and their staff do a great job of getting him programmed for each game. He throws the ball, moves around and runs the ball effective enough to make some plays. He’s a very accurate passer. His numbers speak for themselves," Gundy said. "It’s extremely difficult what he’s done … I’m glad he’s a senior, to be honest with you."

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