NCF Nation: Robert Griffin

Big 12 word cloudESPN.comIt's obvious outsiders view the Big 12 as a league that values speed and scoring above all else.
The Big 12 Conference is known for offense.

One glimpse at the image above makes it clear offensive firepower leads the way when the perception of the conference comes up. During various media days around the country, talked to players from each conference to get a feel for how the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC are perceived by players from other BCS conferences.

Several words stood out among the various responses, and the absence of others shouldn’t go unnoticed:

No-huddle offense: The Big 12 is known for its up-tempo, high-scoring offenses. Five Big 12 teams ranked among the nation’s top 25 in total snaps in 2012 with Baylor leading the way with 1072 offensive plays, according to ESPN Stats and Info. The relentless nature of the Big 12’s no-huddle offenses leads to the big plays, individual award winners, and recognition that makes playing in the conference a dream come true for skill players across the nation.

Baylor: The Bears' inclusion shows just how far Baylor has come thanks to Robert Griffin III and coach Art Briles. Baylor’s name recognition is as high as its ever been, and the Bears have been backing it up in recent years with bowl appearances in each of the past three seasons. They’ve been making a strong impression on the recruiting trail as well, evidenced by the recent commitment of ESPN300 receiver K.D. Cannon (Mount Pleasant, Texas/Mount Pleasant), who spurned offers from Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and others.

Competitive conference: Everyone took notice as nine of the ten teams in the conference participated in a bowl in 2012. Baylor finished 4-5 in Big 12 play, but hammered then-BCS No. 1 and eventual conference co-champion Kansas State, 52-24, to knock the Wildcats out of BCS title contention. From top to bottom, it’s tough to beat the overall competitiveness of the Big 12, which features good games and great players on a weekly basis.

Noticeably absent: While some words jumped out, the absence of others is just as captivating. Texas joined Baylor as the lone individual schools named (other than an rather odd dislike of Kansas), while Oklahoma was nowhere to be found. There was a time when thoughts of the Big 12 immediately brought the Sooners to mind.

Defense is another word that could be considered missing, and some would argue that actual defense is nowhere to be found in the league either. True or not, it's clear the national perception of the Big 12 Conference is all offense, no defense.

The 2011 Pac-12 All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
Our All-Pac-12 bowl team has two quarterbacks and a position we made up. And it wasn't easy to pick the defense, because many of the conference defenses underwhelmed during a 2-5 bowl run.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireEven Andrew Luck would admire Washington QB Keith Price's seven-touchdown effort in the Alamo Bowl.
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
: Luck completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
QB II Keith Price, Washington: It's impossible to leave Price or Luck out. Price completed 23 of 37 passes for 438 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions in the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. He also rushed for 39 yards and three scores. Those numbers typically would eclipse what Luck did, but Baylor might have the worst defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon: James rushed for 159 yards on 25 carries with a TD in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Taylor rushed for 177 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: Robinson caught 13 passes for 241 yards with a TD in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State.
WR Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon: Tuinei caught eight passes for 158 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl victory.
TE Zach Ertz, Stanford: Ertz caught four passes for 38 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinal's Rose Bowl loss.
OL David DeCastro, Stanford: The unanimous All-American dominated Oklahoma State's D-linemen in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal rushed for 243 yards.
OL Mark Asper, Oregon: Asper is the senior cornerstone of a line that led the way for 345 yards rushing in the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory.
OL Tony Bergstrom, Utah: The senior tackle helped RB John White gain 115 tough yards against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: The Ducks freshman center made all the right line calls against Wisconsin.
OL Senio Kelemete, Washington: The Huskies gained 620 yards and didn't allow a sack in the loss to Baylor.
Freak: Our special position for De'Anthony Thomas, who scored TDs on runs of 91 and 64 yards in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. The Black Mamba also caught four passes for 34 yards and returned five kickoffs for 125 yards.

K: Giorgio Tavecchio, California: Tavecchio capped a strong senior season with a 47-yard field goal in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas.
RET: Rashad Ross, Arizona State: Ross returned the third-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a TD against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

DL Josh Shirley, Washington
: While it's difficult to recognize anyone from the Huskies defense against Baylor, Shirley did sack Robert Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner, three times.
DL Trevor Guyton, California: Guyton had five tackles, with two coming for losses, and a sack in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DL Star Lotulelei, Utah: The Utes DT had six tackles and a fumble recovery and generally blew up the middle of the Georgia Tech line in the Utes' Sun Bowl victory. He was named Most Valuable Lineman.
LB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: Zumwalt had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and an interception in the Bruins' loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon: The Ducks LB had five tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, with a sack and a key interception in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win. He was named Defensive MVP.
LB Michael Clay, Oregon: The Ducks LB had 13 tackles, including two for a loss, and a critical fumble recovery in the Rose Bowl victory.
LB Mychal Kendricks, California: Kendricks had 10 tackles, including 1.5 for losses, in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DB Terrance Mitchell, Oregon: Mitchell had five tackles in the Rose Bowl, but his most important contribution was forcing a Wisconsin fumble on the Ducks 27-yard line with four minutes left in the game. Perhaps even more important than that, he inspired coach Chip Kelly to jump up and down in a wonderful -- and slightly goofy -- show of spontaneous emotion (search YouTube for "Chip Kelly jumping").
DB Clint Floyd, Arizona State: Floyd had seven tackles -- two for a loss -- and an interception in the Sun Devils' loss to Boise State.
DB John Boyett, Oregon: Boyett had a bowl-high 17 tackles and half a sack in the Ducks' win over Wisconsin.
DB Marc Anthony, California: Anthony had four tackles, one coming for a loss, and two pass breakups against Texas.

P Sean Sellwood, Utah: Sellwood averaged 49.5 yards on eight punts against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.

Alamo Bowl: Three keys for Washington

December, 29, 2011
Three keys for Washington in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Baylor.

1. Chris Polk, Chris Polk, Chris Polk: Baylor ranks 102nd in the nation in run defense, giving up nearly 200 yards per game. Huskies running back Polk is 16th in the nation in rushing with 112 yards per game. Polk is a tough, physical runner who could wear down a defense. His goal should be to hit the Bears' season average all by himself. And while Polk is carrying the ball, Baylor QB Robert Griffin III is not.

2. Bend, don't break: Baylor averages 571 yards per game. That number isn't a concern. The Bears average 43.5 points per game. That one is. The Huskies can give up yards, but they need to try to squeeze the Bears when it comes to points. Here's a surprising factoid: Baylor isn't great in the red zone, ranking 91st in the nation. The Bears have 36 TDs on 58 red zone trips. By way of comparison, the Huskies have 36 TDs on 45 trips. If those TDs-to-red zone trips ratios hold true, Washington wins.

3. Hit Griffin: Washington wasn't particularly good rushing the passer this season, ranking eighth in the Pac-12 with 24 sacks. But it had some extra time to get creative with blitzes in advance of facing Griffin, and it needs to come after him. Though Griffin is a dangerous runner, he was sacked 25 times. The Huskies' defense will need to take some chances because Griffin sitting back, comfortable in the pocket, is just not what you want. The nation's most efficient passer, he threw 36 TD passes with just six interceptions and completed 72.4 percent of his throws. Yeah, that's scary good. The Huskies have to pressure him and then deliver hard blows if he opts to run. Anything to get Griffin out of sorts.

Pac-12 power rankings: Week 14

November, 28, 2011
If you don't like where you are in the power rankings.... you should have played better.

Note: These are not final. They merely reflect the short-term positioning. The final power rankings will include the entire body of work.

See last week's power rankings here.

1. USC: It's been a good two weeks for the Trojans. They are playing as well as any team in the country, and that includes LSU and Alabama. Just imagine if quarterback Matt Barkley shocks the world and decides to return for his senior season. Can you say 2012 preseason top-5?

2. Oregon: Oregon just needs to avoid tripping over itself against UCLA on Friday and it will go to its third consecutive BCS bowl game after winning its third consecutive conference title. Life is good, eh Ducks?

3. Stanford: While Andrew Luck might not win the Heisman, it's hard to consider a second-consecutive 11-1 season anything but a raving success on the Farm. It's extremely likely the Cardinal will head to the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl opposite the Big 12 champion.

4. Washington: The Huskies, by virtue of winning their final game and owning victories over California and Utah, rise to the No. 4 spot, which likely means an invitation to the Valero Alamo Bowl. Also, good news that quarterback Keith Price looked all Keith Price-y against Washington State.

5. California: Shhh. Come closer. I don't want the Bears to hear this. Cal has quietly put together a nice run in November, winning three of four, the lone loss coming 31-28 at Stanford. If they were to beat a quality Big 12 team in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday, perhaps Baylor and Robert Griffin III, the Bears would post a pretty darn good season. Hey, keep it down. Don't want Cal to go all Cal on us again.

6. Utah: Utah! You were supposed to be different. The new guy who didn't know Pac-12 teams often go belly-up at unexpected times. The loss to Colorado certainly tripped up what looked like a nice run at the end of the Pac-12 schedule. You now are likely headed to the Hyundai Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas instead of the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio. Hey, once you've seen one Riverwalk, you've seen them all.

7. Arizona: The Wildcats finished their season with consecutive wins -- beating their hated rival Arizona State along the way -- and have hired a good coach in Rich Rodriguez. Successful two weeks.

8. Arizona State: Not much to say. It looked like a potentially special season, then things collapsed, and it's going to cost Dennis Erickson his job. Hugely disappointing turn in Tempe.

9. UCLA: Not much different than Arizona State. The Bruins simply never arrived at any consistently solid level of play with Rick Neuheisel. UCLA fans and administrators need to ante up: This program needs a great hire, and that means spending money. If the Bruins don't invest, things won't get better.

10. Colorado: The Buffaloes showed heart on the season's final weekend at Utah, and 26 seniors go out as winners after ending a 24-game losing streak outside of their home state. That's a nice building block for the offseason, though it's clear this program has a ways to go.

11. Oregon State: A second consecutive losing season punctuated by getting flicked aside by rival Oregon has folks grumpy in Corvallis. There will be pressure on Mike Riley to turn things around next fall. And will he need to make tough decisions with his coaching staff, to which he has been extremely loyal?

12. Washington State: It appeared the Cougars had crawled out of the conference basement, but they then lost seven of their final eight games and almost certainly cost coach Paul Wulff his job. Hiring Mike Leach, we will quickly note, would cause a nice uptick in sentiment in Pullman.

Weekend rewind: Pac-12

October, 17, 2011
Taking stock of the seventh week of games in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: Oregon. The Ducks overcame injuries to running back LaMichael James -- before the game -- and quarterback Darron Thomas -- in the third quarter -- to beat No. 18 Arizona State 41-27. The Ducks won with backups and the defense stepping up, which is what happens with good teams.

[+] EnlargeKenjon Barner
AP Photo/Don RyanTailback Kenjon Barner and Oregon held on to beat Arizona State.
Best game: Oregon-Arizona State. While the final margin was fairly decisive, Arizona State took a 24-21 lead just after Thomas went down. The game was a back-and-forth affair before the Sun Devils' defense seemed to wear down. And the Ducks didn't.

Biggest play: Late in the second quarter at Oregon, Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler completed a 12-yard pass to Gerell Robinson on the Ducks 22-yard line. It appeared to set up the Sun Devils, leading 17-14 at the time, for more points. But Robinson took issue with safety John Boyett, who tackled him, and kicked him as he stood up. That earned a personal foul flag and pushed ASU back to the 37. Osweiler's next pass -- the receiver ran the wrong route --was intercepted by Cliff Harris in the end zone and returned 50 yards. Three plays later, the Ducks scored a TD and went up 21-17. That 10- or perhaps 14-point swing could have come in handy for the Sun Devils.

Offensive standout: Washington quarterback Keith Price completed 21 of 28 passes for 257 yards with four TDs and no interceptions in the 52-24 blowout win against Colorado. His 21 TD passes this season, already tied for fourth most in program history, rank second in the nation, tied with Boise State's Kellen Moore, just one behind Baylor's Robert Griffin. So his company is, you know, good.

Defensive standout: Utah's senior defensive end Derrick Shelby, the Walter Camp Football Foundation defensive player of the week, had a team-high seven tackles (six solo), including 2.5 for losses and 1.5 quarterback sacks. He also intercepted a pass and returned it 21 yards for a touchdown.

Special teams standout: Utah kicker Coleman Petersen was 4-4 field goals with a long of 45 in the win at Pittsburgh. He also was 2 for 2 on PATs.

Smiley face: You must give credit to Oregon's backup quarterback Bryan Bennett for playing smart and showing poise coming off the bench in the third quarter against the Sun Devils. It seems like it's been taken for granted that Bennett would be fine, but he was a redshirt freshman taking his first meaningful snaps, trailing a ranked team. Said coach Chip Kelly, "You get a look at him and see how he is. But he didn't look like he was panicked at all. I didn't have to give him the speech about you have to do this and this. I was like, 'Alright, here you go, this is what we're calling."

Frowny face: California. While Arizona, Oregon State and Colorado are starting to look like the bottom third of the Pac-12, the Bears, nonetheless, are on the same beleaguered cruise ship to nowhere at 0-3 in conference play. The worst news is quarterback Zach Maynard seeming to regress, instead of progress, each week.

Thought of the week: Washington and Stanford finally get a game in which to make a Pac-12 and national statement. Neither has a win against a team with a winning record. The Huskies fell short in their only game with a ranked foe, falling at Nebraska. The Cardinal wants to win impressively to prove it belongs in the national title discussion. A Huskies victory would transform expectations in the North Division.

Questions for the week: If Huskies quarterback Price outplays Andrew Luck in an upset win at Stanford on Saturday -- say he throws three more TD passes -- does he become a Heisman Trophy candidate? He presently ranks fifth in the nation in passing efficiency, and the Huskies likely would climb into the top-15 of the BCS standings. Perhaps the question is: How could he not?

Halftime: Washington 38, Colorado 10

October, 15, 2011
Keith Price is putting on a show in Husky Stadium.

Washington's sophomore QB has thrown four first-half TD passes as the Huskies are stomping Colorado 38-10.

Price is 18 of 23 for 230 yards. Baylor's Robert Griffin, after throwing three TD passes in a loss to Texas A&M, presently leads the nation with 22 TD passes. Price now has 21.

So don't slack off in the second half, Keith.

The Huskies outgained the Buffaloes 379 yards to 104 and have 22 first downs compared to six for the Buffs.

At this pace, Washington will enter the national rankings before it heads to Stanford on Oct. 22.

What's the Big 12's power position?

August, 12, 2011
The Pac-12's quarterbacks are the class of the nation.

In the SEC, 2011 looks like it will be all about the running back.

The Big 12? There's no question what the best position is. Linebacker might have made a reasonable case a few months ago, but the best and deepest position in the Big 12 is wide receiver.

No league can duplicate its talent at the top.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State's Justin Blackmon
Mark D Smith/US PRESSWIREJustin Blackmon headlines a talented group of receivers in the Big 12 this season. Blackmon caught 111 passes for 1,782 yards and 20 TDs in 2010.
Justin Blackmon at Oklahoma State returns after winning the Biletnikoff Award a season ago as college football's best receiver.

He'll be one of the favorites for the award, and with his quarterback, Brandon Weeden, back on campus too, there's no reason to believe Blackmon can't win it again.

The league's second-best receiver? He's also arguably the nation's second-best receiver. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award and holds nearly every record in Oklahoma's school record book.

The two receivers were Nos. 1 and 3 nationally in receptions, combining to haul in a staggering 242 passes in a combined 26 starts last season.

Beyond the duo in the state of Oklahoma is physical, 6-foot-4, 215-pound Jeff Fuller at Texas A&M, who became the first Texas A&M receiver to ever record a 1,000-yard season.

Like Blackmon and Broyles, he turned down NFL money for another year in the college game and, you guessed it, he returns his quarterback, too.

Ryan Tannehill is back for the Aggies, who begin the season in the top 10, the program's highest ranking since 1999. Fuller is a huge reason why.

But past the talent at the top is a stable of fantastic receivers that could be set for even bigger seasons.

Missouri's T.J. Moe was the fourth receiver in the Big 12 to record a 1,000-yard season in 2010, and his teammate Michael Egnew (more a receiver than a tight end, anyway) could get close in 2011 after catching 90 passes for 762 yards alongside him.

Ryan Swope works the slot while Fuller dominates outside at Texas A&M, and Swope caught a handful of huge touchdowns, including a fourth-quarter, game-tying TD against Oklahoma State and a game-clinching score against Oklahoma. He finished with 72 catches for 825 yards and four touchdowns.

Baylor's Robert Griffin has a solid set of receivers to find, headlined by Kendall Wright, a speedy sub-6-footer who caught 78 passes for 952 yards and seven touchdowns, his third consecutive season leading the team in receiving.

Oklahoma State's Blackmon isn't alone. Josh Cooper worked the slot for the Cowboys last year and Hubert Anyiam could be in for a big year after battling through injuries in 2010, a year after leading the team in receiving in 2009.

Broyles is great at Oklahoma, but sophomore Kenny Stills broke both of Broyles' freshman records in 2010 with 61 catches for 786 yards. Could he be after more later in the season?

It should be a good year in the Big 12 with plenty of talent. But it's deepest at receiver.
Phil Bennett was still coaching for Pittsburgh, but he glanced at a TV at an airport while he was on the road.

There was Baylor and Texas A&M, with the Bears attempting a field goal on the final play of the first half. The Aggies blocked it, and Texas A&M defensive back Terrence Frederick recovered. With time having already expired, Frederick raced toward the end zone with a few Bears making chase.

He caught a few blocks and cut across the field, looking more and more likely to score.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Brody Trahan
Courtesy of BaylorFormer Baylor reserve Brody Trahan could play a bigger role at his new position: linebacker.
But as Frederick neared the end zone, Baylor's Brody Trahan, a reserve quarterback, the team's holder and reserve punter, raced into view and took Frederick down at the 1-yard line to keep the Aggies off the board.

Bennett, thrilled by the play, liked what he saw.

A few months later, Bennett took a job as Baylor's defensive coordinator. He remembered Trahan, and knew his dad, a former Texas A&M quarterback. Bennett asked around, and the training staff told him Trahan's work ethic fit what he was looking for on his defense.

One of the first times they met in person, Bennett made his intentions clear.

"You need to switch to our side of the ball," he said.

"Let me know and I’ll be there," Trahan said.

He'd heard that before. During Baylor's bowl practices before facing Illinois, he played some safety, where he'd gotten some time back home in Dickinson, Texas, outside Hosuton. Some recruiting services had him rated higher as a safety than as a quarterback, despite his lack of experience.

When Trahan did line up on defense, he'd snagged a couple picks in high school.

"I want you to play linebacker for me," Bennett told him.

Trahan, anxious to get on the field, told him he'd do it.

"I didn’t know if he was being serious or what the deal was, but he kept coming up to me every other day and saying you’re going to be with me," Trahan said. "I was like, 'All right,' and then sure enough, when spring ball rolled around, I wasn’t in a red jersey anymore."

At 210 pounds, Trahan assumed he'd need to add some size, but Bennett told him not to bother. The coaching veteran loves speed, and he wanted Trahan, who says he runs a "high 4.6" 40 time, just the way he was.

The transition from quarterback/holder to linebacker wasn't a simple one. The amount of running -- "The most running I did in practice was dropping back or running to the running back and handing it off to him. Now I’m using the hips more, muscles I didn’t know I had, and running sideline to sideline," he said. -- might have been the easiest part.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Brody Trahan
Courtesy of Baylor UniversityBrody Trahan was Baylor's holder, as well as a reserve quarterback and punter, last season.
"I hadn’t played linebacker since 7th or 8th grade. Freakin’ sandlot football was about all the linebacker experience I had," Trahan said. "I didn’t know anything about the technique or anything."

That's where he still has to improve. His footwork, too, and understanding how to read offenses before a snap the same way he read defenses as a quarterback. Hip flexibility -- the ability to change direction quickly -- will come with time, too. Mostly, he'll just have to get a feel for what he's doing and keep the position from feeling foreign.

"A couple times on a screen, I’ll mistakenly have my eyes looking the wrong way, and I’ll cut back inside and there’s big ol’ 6-foot-8 or whatever he is Robert Griffin, and he just swallowed me," Trahan said of the Bears' 330-pound guard who shares a name with the team's quarterback.

Every offensive line starter pancaked him at least once this spring, Trahan said, but his athleticism allowed him to hold his own against the running backs.

And to most people's surprise, when the spring game began, Trahan trotted out with the first-team defense.

"It was kind of a joke at first. We weren’t really sure if I’d earn some playing time," he said. "It kind of shocked everyone."

Bennett's defense still doesn't have a true depth chart, but if Trahan improves during fall camp as much as he did in the spring, it'd be shocking if the Bears' third-team quarterback from 2010 didn't get plenty of playing time -- maybe as a starter -- in 2011.

"They know I’m a hard worker and I’ll do anything, I’ll lay my body on the line to help the team," Trahan said. "I’m hoping everyone accepted it, a quarterback moving to linebacker."
The Big Ten improves to 2-0 in the bowl season and 2-0 against the pesky Big 12 as Illinois held off Baylor in Houston.

Here's a look back at Illinois' 38-14 victory in the Texas Bowl.

How the game was won: Nathan Scheelhaase's precision passing complemented a typically dominant rushing attack as Illinois steamrolled Baylor's overmatched defense for much of the game. The Illini came out firing and overcame a few defensive hiccups midway through the second half to hold off Robert Griffin III and the Bears. Running back Mikel Leshoure (29 carries, 184 rush yards, 3 TDs) was brilliant in what could be his final college game, and the Illini defensive line made enough big plays to contain Griffin. Illinois' specialists also stepped up nicely.

Player of the game: Scheelhaase. The redshirt freshman showed impressive growth between the end of the regular season and the bowl game, completing his first 13 pass attempts and finished the game 18-for-23 for 241 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. He wasn't a huge factor in the rushing game but he didn't need to be on this night, as he set a season high for completions. Honorable mentions go to Leshoure and Liuget, who commanded double and triple teams.

Turning point I: Baylor seemed to be rolling on the game's opening drive before Illinois' Travon Bellamy scooped up a backward pass by Griffin and raced 44 yards, setting up a field goal. The Illini defense played brilliantly the rest of the half and Illinois surged out to a 24-0 lead.

Turning point II: After the Bears had closed to within 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, Illinois' defense forced a three-and-out, stuffing Griffin on third-and-1. The Illini run game then took over, as Leshoure and teammate Jason Ford bowled over Baylor on a 7-play, 66-yard touchdown drive.

Stat of the game: Scheelhaase completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes in each of his final three regular-season games (21-for-50 combined) but connected on his first 13 attempts Wednesday night. The redshirt freshman had completed more than 13 passes in only five regular-season games.

Record performance: Leshoure set Illinois' single-season rushing record with 1,696 yards. He broke Rashard Mendenhall's mark of 1,681 yards set in 2007 with a fourth-quarter scamper.

What it means: Illinois can brand the 2010 season as both a success and a potential turning point for coach Ron Zook and his program. The Illini needed a winning season and a good finish after dropping three of their final four regular-season contests. Talent has never been the problem for Zook's crew, but the team made strides in all three phases after the 3-9 disaster in 2009. It'll be interesting to see what happens with NFL prospects Leshoure, Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson. While it's unrealistic to think all three juniors will return, Illinois could be a factor in the Leaders division next fall if it can reload.


Texas Bowl keys

December, 28, 2010
Here are three keys for Illinois for Wednesday afternoon's Texas Bowl matchup against Baylor.

1. Keep Robert Griffin off the field: A no-brainer here. Illinois has the type of rushing attack that, when clicking, can control an entire game. Illinois' offensive line needs to impose its will and create room for All-Big Ten selection Mikel Leshoure, bruising backup Jason Ford and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Leshoure certainly brings big-play ability to the table, but Illinois would really benefit from long, sustained scoring drives against Griffin and the Bears.

2. Get Corey Liuget into the backfield: Illinois looked like one of the Big Ten's top defenses for stretches this season, and the Illini were at their best when defensive tackle Corey Liuget bullied his way into the backfield. Liuget is a legit NFL prospect who can change games by blowing up the interior line. The junior has 10 tackles for loss, 10 quarterback hurries and 3.5 sacks. His ability to get after Griffin will be huge in this game.

3. Start the game with passion: The Illini came out flat against both Fresno State and Minnesota, and they paid the price with damaging November losses. We've seen this month that bowl games bring out different emotions in teams, and Illinois needs to be locked in from the get-go in what likely will resemble a road-game environment at Reliant Stadium. The Illini were a good first-half team for much of the season, and a quick start against Baylor will provide some confidence.
Illinois is back in the postseason for the first time since the 2008 Rose Bowl. Baylor? The Bears play in the first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo Bowl.

Here's a quick preview of the Illini-Baylor matchup in the Texas Bowl.

WHO TO WATCH: Illinois defenders Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson. The game plan is pretty simple for the Illini, who must contain Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Both Liuget and Wilson are All-Big Ten defenders who could be heading to the NFL draft after the bowl game. They need to penetrate the backfield, harass Griffin as often as possible and tackle the Bears star in the open field.

WHAT TO WATCH: Illinois' rushing attack. When the Illini have their ground game going, it's a thing of beauty. Junior running back Mikel Leshoure, another candidate to enter the NFL draft, needs 169 rush yards in the bowl game to break Rashard Mendenhall's single-season team record set in 2007. Baylor finished ninth in the Big 12 against the run, allowing 160.2 yards per game, so Illinois will have opportunities to spring Leshoure, backup Jason Ford and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

WHY TO WATCH: You never know which Illinois team will show up. If it's the one that crushed Penn State and Northwestern and gave Ohio State and Michigan State good tests, Baylor could be in trouble. If it's the one that looked lifeless for stretches against Fresno State and Minnesota, the Bears could run away with this one. Illinois boasts plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, but can coach Ron Zook's crew put it all together to cement a winning season?

PREDICTION: Baylor 31, Illinois 24. It's never easy to forecast what happens with Illinois, and this one certainly could go either way. But Griffin is the most dynamic player on the field, and Illinois' defense declined late in the regular season. Illinois doesn't have enough in the pass game to balance out Leshoure and the ground attack. Baylor will feel right at home in Houston, and the Bears will prevail.

Texas Bowl

December, 6, 2010
Illinois Fighting Illini (6-6) vs. Baylor Bears (7-5)

Dec. 29, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Illinois take by Big Ten blogger Adam Rittenberg: After doubling its wins total from 2009, Illinois enters somewhat unfamiliar territory Dec. 29 at Houston’s Reliant Stadium.

The Illini have been the nation’s ultimate all-or-nothing program the last decade, reaching two BCS bowls -- the 2002 Sugar and the 2008 Rose -- and enduring eight losing seasons. They haven’t played in a non-BCS bowl since the 1999 Bowl, which also marked the program’s last postseason victory. Illinois can take a step toward consistency in the Texas Bowl against Baylor.

Illinois has made strides in all three phases this season, although the Illini remain prone to erratic play.

Junior Mikel Leshoure emerged as the Big Ten’s best running back this season, ranking eighth nationally in rushing (126.1 ypg). Paul Petrino’s offense is built around the run, and Illinois boasts plenty of ball-carrying options with Leshoure, classmate Jason Ford and redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.

The Illini defense surged at the start of Big Ten play but backslid down the stretch. Illinois needs standouts like defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebackers Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey to perform at their peak against Baylor’s multitalented quarterback Robert Griffin.

The big question: Which Illinois team will show up in Houston? If it’s the one that pounded Penn State and Northwestern and beat a good Northern Illinois team, the Illini have a good shot to win. But if it’s the one we saw Friday night against Fresno State or Nov. 13 against Minnesota, it’ll be a long night.

Baylor take by Big 12 blogger David Ubben: You won't hear any complaints from Baylor on its bowl destination during the holidays. Bears fans stormed the field at Floyd Casey Stadium after a win over Kansas State in October gave the team its sixth win, officially qualifying for bowl eligibility for the first time since 1995. A three-game losing streak to end the season slowed some of the Bears' momentum after a 7-2 start, but the official announcement should serve as a jolt of energy and a reminder of the accomplishment's significance within the program.

The Bears boast an exciting set of skill position talent in quarterback Robert Griffin III, running back Jay Finley and five receivers with at least 40 catches this season. Baylor had to use that offense to outscore a handful of opponents this season, but they did it enough times to reach the team's ultimate goal when the season began: ending that infamous bowl drought.

The Bears bowl destination isn't exactly exotic -- just a short trip west to Houston -- but like I said, you won't hear them complaining.

Momentum shift for Bears?

November, 6, 2010
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy made the right call with an attempt to convert a 4th-and-3 at midfield late in the first quarter, but it might mean a chance for Baylor to get back into the game.

Quarterback Brandon Weeden was forced to his right and hit an open Justin Blackmon for what should have been a 45-yard touchdown catch, but Blackmon inexplicably dropped the ball, extinguishing the Oklahoma State fans' premature cheers and handing the ball back to Baylor, keeping a 10-0 lead.

Baylor nearly answered with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Josh Gordon, and almost had him again on 3rd-and-15, but Robert Griffin III underthrew the first attempt and overthrew the second.

The Bears haven't come back from a double-digit deficit to win this year, but they have an offense that can do it. Oklahoma State's defense has kept them from getting into scoring range so far, but the Bears have been close to breaking the big one.

They haven't been able to, but Baylor has to feel good about being down 10-0, rather than 17-0.

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 7

October, 18, 2010
Here's a look back at the best and worst of the week that was in the Big 12.

Best offensive player: Tie, Justin Blackmon (OSU), Landry Jones (OU), Ryan Broyles (OU), Robert Griffin (BU). Call it a cop out if you must, but there's really no way to differentiate between these guys. Blackmon had a career-high 207 yards receiving and a huge 62-yard score. Jones completed 30 of 34 passes in a 52-point conference win. Broyles had 10 catches for 131 yards and a score two minutes into the second quarter. Griffin engineered a conference road win, throwing for 234 yards and running for 137 more. I honestly just can't pick between these guys. You could make a solid case for any one of them.

Best defensive player: Brad Madison, DE, Missouri. Splitting time with Michael Sam in place of injured end Aldon Smith, Madison sacked Jerrod Johnson three times to help Missouri beat the Aggies 30-9. Honorable mention: Orie Lemon, LB, Oklahoma State.

[+] EnlargeTexas Longhorns players celebrate
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTexas surprised Nebraska in the Longhorns' upset victory over the Cornhuskers.
Best team performance: Texas. Shock the world is probably too strong, but the Longhorns mildly disturbed the majority of the population by knocking off the then-No. 4 Huskers in Lincoln, ruining one of the most anticipated games in Nebraska history.

Best offensive freshman: Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State. Randle carried the ball 17 times for 95 yards and a touchdown in the Cowboys 34-17 win over Texas Tech, providing a great second option to Kendall Hunter. Honorable mention: Baylor WR Tevin Reese and Oklahoma RB Roy Finch.

Best defensive freshman: Tre' Porter, CB, Texas Tech. Porter takes home the award for a second consecutive week, with eight tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup.

Best play: Eric Hagg, S, Nebraska. Yeah, it was in a losing effort, but Hagg's school-record, 95-yard touchdown return of Justin Tucker's pooch punt injected some unexpected late drama into a Nebraska-Texas game that needed it. He made plenty of guys miss, shook off a few tackles, and put Nebraska within a recovered onside kick of having a chance to send its game against Texas into overtime.

Worst play: Tie, Nebraska RB Rex Burkhead, WRs Niles Paul and Brandon Kinnie. All three dropped touchdown passes that weren't necessarily easy grabs, but trailing to Texas in a game of that magnitude, those are plays that have to be made. None of them did, and the team added a handful of other drops that added up to a frustrating day for the Huskers.

Worst call: Dan Hawkins, Colorado. If someone can explain to me the rationale behind going for two after first touchdown of the game late in the first quarter, I'm all ears. Going for it again (and failing again) only makes it worse.

"That is just the same thing that we did against Georgia. You get it and you`re feeling good," Dan Hawkins told reporters after the game. "And as it ended up it was kind of negligible anyway, so then we had to go for two in a sense the second time."

Maybe that's over my head, but the only teams in America that do that are dominant high school teams. Colorado would be a dominant high school team, no doubt. But this is the Big 12. Take the points and the Buffs Hail Mary to tie the game becomes a field goal to win it. That's not hindsight. That's common sense.

Worst quarter: Kansas' second quarter. Kansas let Carson Coffman run in a pair of touchdowns, throw for another and gave up a rushing touchdown to get outscored 28-0 in the quarter. The Jayhawks were in it after 15 minutes, down just 3-0. After the second quarter, it was officially ugly.

Worst team performance: Kansas. I said enough on Thursday night, but still. Almost two weeks to prepare. Rivalry game at home. 52-point loss. Can't do that.

Best game: Texas 20, Nebraska 13. Baylor's win over Colorado had the drama and late heroics, but Texas' masterful job covering Taylor Martinez provided a shock of its own: Martinez getting benched in favor of Zac Lee. Lee played well and led a lengthy drive that nearly ended in seven points. The shock of the Nebraska crowd, as well as that of everyone watching, provided somewhat of a surreal scene.

Rout is officially on in Waco

October, 2, 2010
Kansas showed some life with a second-quarter touchdown that brought the game to within 10 points, but Baylor is playing its most complete game of the season and dismantling the Jayhawks for the team's best win of 2010.

The Bears lead 48-7 after three quarters and have scored the game's past 31 points.

Up 34-7, Baylor scored two touchdowns in 12 seconds after Tim Atchison intercepted Kansas quarterback Jordan Webb and returned the ball 14 yards for the score. That interception came on the first play after Robert Griffin threw his third touchdown pass of the day.

The Jayhawks have no answer for Griffin, who has 380 yards and three scores on 26-of-36 passing. He's also run eight times for 64 yards.

Kansas was soundly beaten in its first road game against Southern Miss, and the Bears are doing the job even more decisively. Baylor is a good team, but Kansas will see better competition as the season progresses. If it doesn't fix the problems defending the pass that have arisen against Southern Miss and Baylor, it's going to be a long season in Lawrence.