NCF Nation: Ryan Reynolds
But there were still enough top producers to fill out a team of top performers from the conference's 4-4 bowl season.
Here's a look at my top performers:
QB Landry Jones, Oklahoma: Passed for career-best 418 yards and added three passing TDs to direct Sooners’ Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
RB Alexander Robinson, Iowa State: Rushed for 137 yards -- his sixth 100-yard game of the season -- to pace Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.
RB Baron Batch, Texas Tech: Rushed for 100 yards, scored two TDs and produced six receptions for 85 yards in Red Raiders’ comeback victory in the Alamo Bowl over Michigan State.
WR Jordan Shipley, Texas: Overcame slow start to produce 10 catches for 122 yards and two TDs against Alabama, becoming Texas’ leading career receiver.
WR Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma: Produced career-best totals of 13 receptions, 156 receiving yards and also matched career high with three TD receptions to help beat Stanford in the Sun Bowl.
TE Trent Ratterree, Oklahoma: Grabbed three receptions for 86 yards, including pivotal 38-yard catch that was Jones’ longest pass of game in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
OL Ricky Henry, Nebraska: Helped Cornhuskers dominate in the trenches in biggest Cornhuskers' bowl victory since 2000.
OL Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State: Dominant effort helped Cyclones claim first bowl victory since 2004 and only third bowl victory in school history.
OL Jacob Hickman, Nebraska: Cornhuskers’ center set the tone for easy victory over Arizona.
OL Brandon Carter, Texas Tech: Colorful lineman helped Tech roll up school bowl-record 31 first downs, 579 total yards against Michigan State.
OL Trent Williams, Oklahoma: All-American moved from tackle to center and didn’t miss a beat in the Sooners’ Sun Bowl triumph.
DL Sergio Kindle, Texas: Had his best game of the season with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for losses against Alabama.
DL Pierre Allen, Nebraska: Set the tone for Nebraska’s pass rush with two sacks, four tackles, forced a fumble and notched a quarterback hurry in the Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona -- first for a Big 12 team in a bowl game in conference history.
DL Christopher Lyle, Iowa State: Insight Bowl defensive MVP produced five tackles, including two for losses and one sack to lead Cyclones’ victory over Minnesota.
DL Rajon Henley, Texas Tech: Four tackles, four quarterback hurries, one sack against Michigan State.
LB Phillip Dillard, Nebraska: Produced team-high seven stops, broke up one pass in Cornhuskers’ shutout over Arizona.
LB Ryan Reynolds, Oklahoma: Produced 12 tackles (three solo, nine assists), two quarterback hurries and one tackle for loss against Stanford.
LB Andre Sexton, Oklahoma State: Produced 10 tackles, two interceptions and one tackle for a loss in Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi.
DB Matt O’Hanlon, Nebraska: Earned Holiday Bowl defensive MVP honors with five stops, a 37-yard interception and a pass broken up against Arizona.
DB Ter’ran Benton, Iowa State: In his first game back after recovering from mid-season broken leg, notched five tackles and game-clinching fumble recovery in Cyclones’ Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota.
DB Jamar Wall, Texas Tech: Produced six tackles, broke up two passes and one interception against Michigan State.
DB Quinton Carter, Oklahoma: Notched eight stops (five tackles, three assists) and added an interception in Sun Bowl victory over Stanford.
P Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State: Averaged 50.2 yards per punt on his eight punts, including four punts inside 20 in Cotton Bowl.
K Alex Henery, Nebraska: Converted all four field goals of 47, 50, 43 and 22 yards to set the Holiday Bowl record. His big night gave him a Nebraska single-season record of 24 for the season.
RET Niles Paul, Nebraska: The Holiday Bowl offensive MVP amassed 94 yards in returns, including a 49-yard kickoff return and a 28-yard punt return. He also added four catches for 123 yards, including a clinching 74-yard TD grab from Zac Lee.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Some Big 12 position groups are clearly above others as far as raw talent and athleticism. Here's a look at some of the most dominant in the conference.
Oklahoma's front seven: The Sooners go two-deep in talent in the defensive line and linebackers. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy anchors the defensive front and is an Outland Trophy candidate. Adrian Taylor and Cordero Moore also are capable players. The Sooners have the best collection of defensive ends in college football with Frank Alexander, Jeremy Beal, R.J. Washington and Auston English. Travis Lewis could develop into one of the finest linebackers in Oklahoma history and Mike Balogun, Brandon Crow and Keenan Clayton all are expected to contribute. If heady team leader Ryan Reynolds comes back from his knee injury, this group could rival any in the country -- if it doesn't already.
Texas' secondary: After producing only six interceptions last season, Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp ratcheted up competition among defensive backs. The results were seen in the spring, when the group was the best defensive backfield group I saw in the conference. Aaron Williams and Chykie Brown have emerged as starters at the corners with Curtis Brown and Deon Beasley providing backup. Safeties Blake Gideon and Christian Scott both are emerging, but the key player might be sophomore safety Earl Thomas, who played the nickel position with tenacity and abandon. It's not a stretch to say that two Thorpe Award winners could emerge out of this group in the next several years.
Colorado's running backs: The Buffaloes seemingly have a back for every situation with the deepest backfield in the conference. Darrell Scott appears intent on making a comeback after a disappointing freshman season. Rodney Stewart looks recovered from a broken leg sustained last season that kept him from rushing for 1,000 yards. Sophomore Brian Lockridge appears to be the fastest back and 215-pound Demetrius Sumler is the biggest back with the best inside running ability among the group. This group will serve as the backbone for the Buffaloes' hopes of returning to a bowl game and perhaps their dark horse challenge for the Big 12 North title.
Kansas' wide receivers: Dezmon Briscoe missed all of spring practice for an undisclosed violation of team rules, but is back to serve as one of the nation's most explosive deep talents. Coach Mark Mangino hopes to be able to permanently switch Kerry Meier to receiver for his senior season after a breakout season in 2008. Meier and Briscoe were two of the nation's top-15 receivers last season when they combined for 189 catches, 2,452 yards and 23 touchdown grabs. And Wilson emerged as quarterback Todd Reesing's go-to receiver in the spring when Briscoe was gone, notching six catches in the spring game. Add Rod Harris, Tertavian Ingram and Raimond Pendleton and it might be among the most potent pass-catching groups in the nation.
Nebraska's running backs: With unproven Zac Lee starting at quarterback, look for Shawn Watson to lean heavily on a pair of talented returning backs. Quentin Castille trimmed about 20 pounds to get into better shape and leading returning rusher Roy Helu Jr. boosted his weight by 24 pounds to become a more powerful rusher between the tackles. Together, it wouldn't be a stretch that the two backs could combine for 2,000 rushing yards and 20 rushing touchdowns if both can stay healthy.
Iowa State's running backs: With new offensive coordinator Tom Herman taking over with a spread offensive attack, a talented array of running backs still will have frequent opportunities to contribute. Leading returning rusher Alexander Robinson could be poised to become one of the most underrated rusher/receiver combination backs in the conference. But Robinson will have to fight for playing time with a stacked group that also includes bruising redshirt freshman Jeremiah Schwartz and heralded University of Florida transfer Bo Williams. Herman will be able to utilize all three backs in a variety of roles.
Missouri's defensive ends: The Tigers appeared loaded before spring practice with Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith back, but redshirt freshman Aldon Smith has developed into an immediate contributor. Converted offensive tackle Brad Madison and redshirt Marcus Marlbrough also had strong springs, leading Gary Pinkel to say it was his best group of defensive ends he's ever had at Missouri.
Texas Tech's wide receivers: Even after losing two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree and Eric Morris, the Red Raiders developed several potential playmakers during the spring. Edward Britton appeared to have crawled out of Mike Leach's doghouse with strong late production. New quarterback Taylor Potts should have many productive targets including Detron Lewis, Tramain Swindall, Lyle Leong, walk-on flanker Adam Torres, 6-foot-7 Adrian Reese and redshirt freshmen Austin Zouzalik and Eric Ward. The Red Raiders won't have two players grab the majority of balls like Crabtree and Morris did in recent seasons. Instead, they will feature a more balanced attack featuring eight to 10 receivers capable of thriving in a tag-team approach.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
After spring practice, there's been a little movement in my pre-spring power rankings. Here's where I think schools are slotted heading into the summer.
|Kenny Felt/Icon SMI|
|Sergio Kindle was switched to defensive end this spring and dominated early practices.|
1. Texas: Colt McCoy is back bigger and stronger than ever. But the real improvement during the spring for the Longhorns came in the secondary, where they have legitimate two-deep talent. Sergio Kindle was a natural at defensive end and incoming freshman Alex Okafor was better than advertised as a prime pass-rusher. The running game is still a question and depth at defensive tackle could be iffy. But the Longhorns still remember how 2008 played out -- at least if the asterisk-marked Big 12 championship hung in their team room is any indication. February pre-spring ranking: 1.
2. Oklahoma: Gerald McCoy talks about the Oklahoma defense being the best in the nation and they could be with nine returning starters. And the Sooners could improve even more if Auston English and Ryan Reynolds make strong comebacks from injuries. The biggest question remains the four new starters along the offensive line who will be charged with blocking for Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford. That turnover remains the primary question that could stymie the Sooners' hopes of an unprecedented fourth straight Big 12 title. February pre-spring ranking: 2.
3. Oklahoma State: Mike Gundy looks to have the conference's most balanced offense -- even as Dez Bryant recovered from knee surgery this spring. The big question remains the defense. New coordinator Bill Young started work on the defensive line as his first order of business before branching out to the rest of the unit. The Cowboys can score with anybody, but Young's work improving the defense will determine whether OSU can contend for its first Big 12 South title and be a legitimate factor in the BCS race. February pre-spring ranking: 3.
4. Nebraska: Quarterback Zac Lee's early grasp of the offense looked impressive this spring, but he'll have to build on that quick study if the Cornhuskers are to contend for Bo Pelini's first North title. There are still some holes at wide receiver and along the right side of the offensive line, but the Cornhuskers are improving their talent level -- particularly on defense. I make them a slight favorite in the North Division, mainly because of a more favorable schedule of cross-division rivals. February pre-spring ranking: 4.
5. Kansas: Anticipation is soaring for the Jayhawks, who finish the spring with legitimate hopes of their first undisputed Big 12 North title. Todd Reesing is the North's best quarterback and the return of Dezmon Briscoe from his suspension would give Reesing his best offensive weapon. The line will have less experience than any team in the conference, but has some heralded talent in place. The biggest defensive question will be replacing three starting linebackers who were the heart of last season's defense. Mark Mangino has hinted at a 4-2-5 defense that may be better suited for combating the Big 12's explosive offenses. Their hopes will depend on navigating the North's toughest stretch of South Division opponents. February pre-spring ranking: 5.
6. Texas Tech: Coach Mike Leach has a new five-year contract but will be facing some heavy lifting. This will be his most significant offensive rebuilding job during his coaching tenure as he replaces the prime weapons of last season's South Division tri-champion. Taylor Potts won't be as productive as Graham Harrell, but he has more experience coming into the position than most of Leach's previous starting quarterbacks. The star power at wide receiver will be lacking without Michael Crabtree, but the spring showed the Red Raiders still have much talent and should be deeper throughout the receiver rotation. McKinner Dixon's spring suspension, coupled with Brandon Williams' defection to the NFL, makes pass rushing iffy. And the Red Raiders are looking for two new safeties from an inexperienced group. It all adds up to a challenging rebuilding job for Leach. February pre-spring ranking: 6.
7. Colorado: The Buffaloes remain the Big 12's mystery team and Tyler Hansen's thumb injury only accentuates that uncertainty. New offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau will be taking over this summer. And while he's been around the program for three years, it's still a concern taking the top job. The offense looked fine in the spring game, particularly a bruising rushing game keyed by Darrell Scott and Rodney Stewart. The defensive line remains the biggest question on the other side of the ball and we won't know how that group will play until the season begins. Dan Hawkins confidently picked the Buffaloes to go 10-2 after last season. They'll be better than last season's 5-7, but I'm not sure they will live up to their coach's optimism. February pre-spring ranking: 8.
8. Missouri: It was tough to get a handle on the Tigers during the spring. Blaine Gabbert had some moments, but his numbers weren't that impressive. But those struggles were understandable considering he was throwing to some inexperienced receivers while Danario Alexander and Jared Perry recovered from injuries. The turnover in both coordinators from last season will be interesting to watch. And with all of the thoughts about the huge personnel losses on offense, the Tigers also will lose a lot on defense. I still think the Tigers will go bowling this year, but will be better suited for a run at the 2010 North title than this season. February pre-spring ranking: 7.
9. Baylor: Optimism is flowing along the Brazos with Bears backers -- with good reason if Robert Griffin can duplicate his freshman success. The biggest offensive question remains his protection with two new offensive tackles. On defense, the Bears have a lot of talent returning and Phil Taylor looks like the real deal at
defensive tackle -- their biggest defensive need. Art Briles is changing the culture at Baylor, but it will be interesting to see if he can really push them into bowl contention -- not an easy task in the Big 12 South. February pre-spring ranking: 9.
10. Texas A&M: Credit Mike Sherman for thinking outside the box. The idea to move Von Miller to the "jack" position on defense was a master stroke -- if Miller can hold up to the pounding he'll face in the trenches. It was hard to get a gauge on A&M's running game with so many injuries in their offensive line. When healthy -- and with the arrival of heralded freshman Christine Michael -- the Aggies should be much better than last season. Same for a secondary that appeared overmatched in the spring, but was crippled by injuries at cornerback. It will be a long road back to Big 12 contention, but look for A&M to be more respectable this season. February pre-spring ranking: 11.
11. Kansas State: I wonder if Bill Snyder has ever had second thoughts since returning to coaching. His rebuilding job with this team pales next to what he originally faced back in 1989, but the Big 12 is a more difficult challenge than that old Big Eight was. Carson Coffman claimed the starting job with a late push in the spring, but will be challenged by Grant Gregory and Daniel Thomas later in the summer. The running game needs somebody to emerge as Keithen Valentine and Jarell Childs alternated spring work. The defense has a long way to go, although Vic Koenning's 4-2-5 appears to better suit the talent on hand. Snyder's acumen should help them in some close games, but it still will be a huge challenge to get them back into bowl contention. February pre-spring ranking: 10.
12. Iowa State: Paul Rhoads is a realist. It's hard not to be after he took a look at his defensive players and realized how far the Cyclones have to come in order to be a force in the North. Look for them to make steps this season thanks to his enthusiasm, but still facing a huge climb in order to be competitive with all of the explosive Big 12 offenses. The Cyclones should be productive on offense with new coordinator Tom Herman. Backup quarterback Jerome Tiller looks like he's ready to push Austen Arnaud after a strong spring game. And Alexander Robinson could emerge as one of the Big 12's most underrated players as a versatile run-catch option. February pre-spring ranking: 12.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Earlier this season, Travis Lewis didn't know if he would ever learn the intricacies of Oklahoma's defense.
Understand that Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables' concepts are sometimes difficult to comprehend for even the most seasoned of veteran players. So some growing pains were to be expected for a redshirt freshman like Lewis who had seldom played the position before coming to college.
|Jerry Lai/US Presswire|
|Travis Lewis (28) is looking forward to trying to slow down Florida's offense Thursday night.|
But when injuries and the struggles of others contributed to Lewis moving forward on the depth chart, he still burned with fury because he thought he hadn't won the starting job because of his play.
"Things contributed to me starting ... it wasn't me being the best option," Lewis said. "But I wouldn't have it any other way. Going through that taught me how to play with a chip on my shoulder.
"I still treat every day like I'm third on the depth chart. I think about it every day when I wake up and every day before I go to practice."
That rage has fueled a remarkable debut season for Lewis, who has developed into the most productive freshman linebacker in Oklahoma history despite his lack of playing experience at the position.
"He came from out of nowhere," Venables said. "Travis has been able to overcome his lack of experience and technique and fundamentals because he plays so incredibly hard. He's been able to cover up his mistakes because of that."
The Sooners' program has been dotted by playmaking linebackers during the era that Venables has served as the Sooners' linebackers coach and defensive coordinator. Playmakers like Rocky Calmus, Teddy Lehman, Curtis Lofton and Rufus Alexander all have turned the position into one of the biggest strengths throughout the Bob Stoops era.
But none of them has had as quick a start as Lewis, who was a consensus All-Big 12 player and was named defensive newcomer of the year by the Associated Press and the league's coaches.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Breaking in four different starting middle linebackers during a four-game span earlier this season provided some trying moments for Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
The Sooners' instability in the middle came after starter Ryan Reynolds sustained a season-ending knee injury against Texas. The Sooners started safety Nic Harris as a stopgap the following week before inserting Austin Box into the lineup for their next game.
But Box was injured on the opening kickoff, sending Mike Balogun into the game. Box started the following week and finished the season before he was hurt again against Oklahoma State, providing more instability in the middle than in any of Venables' 10-year tenure with the Sooners.
The confusion was exhibited against Kansas State after Box's early injury.
"I thought I made it simple when I told them for two days I was going to call a zone blitz," Venables said. "Then Austin gets hurt and I've got a new starter. The field was to the left and we made it to the right call. But we had the Keystone Cops running into each other out there good for plus-18 (an 18-yard gain) on the first play. That was indicative of how it's gone."
But the Sooners have settled down to become an opportunistic unit as the season progressed with Box's return to the lineup. And while the defense isn't as productive as some of Venables' previous units in terms of points allowed and yards allowed, it has developed a knack for making big plays.
The Sooners rank second nationally in turnover margin (+1.69 per game) and have produced 26 takeaways in the last seven games. Oklahoma also has produced 42 sacks this season to rank third nationally, including 19 sacks in the last five games.
"It took us about two games to figure out where we were, who was going to call things and who was comfortable," Venables said. "But after that it allowed us to go where we are."
The transformation has been one of the most remarkable that Venables has seen during the course of a season.
"Since the Nebraska game, you've seen a maturation take place in the unit," Venables said. "There's a comfort level there. The aggressiveness has gone up with the guys getting more and more comfortable. A lot of young guys are figuring things out. In money situations, our guys have been successful."
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops is comfortable with his rotation at middle linebacker. Box is set to return to action and Balogun is becoming more comfortable with additional work at the position as the Sooners prepare for Thursday's FedEx BCS National Championship Game against Florida.
Stoops said Sunday that Box is becoming more ready for action with each practice.
"He's loosening up and moving around pretty well," Stoops said. "He will play, we'll see how much."
And Balogun, who was seldom used before he was thrust into the lineup against Kansas State, also is becoming more proficient in Oklahoma's defense with a month of practice since the season ended.
"He's doing really well," Stoops said. "Naturally, the more snaps you get, the better and more comfortable you are. Mike is doing that and he's quite a bit further along than he was at the championship game."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Oklahoma will go into the Big 12 Championship Game against Missouri with several key injuries, according to Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops.
Quarterback Sam Bradford suffered torn ligaments on his non-throwing hand early in the Sooners' 61-41 victory over Oklahoma State Saturday night. It left him having to take his snaps from shotgun formations for most of the game last night because he couldn't adequately handle a direct snap from center Jon Cooper.
The injury really didn't appear to both Bradford too much, considering he directed Oklahoma on nine scoring drives to finish the game -- eight touchdowns and a field goal -- in the Sooners fourth-straight game with 60 or more points.
Of more pressing concern is the status of starting middle linebacker Austin Box, who will miss Saturday's game against the Tigers with a sprained left knee. Box was forced into the lineup after starting middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds was lost for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Texas on Oct. 11.
Box's injury means that third-stringer Mike Balogun, a heralded junior-college recruit who has had trouble earning much playing time, will be the starter against Missouri.
Balogun showed flashes of promise late in the Oklahoma State game on Saturday, making three tackles.
"He was pretty good," Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "It looked like he wanted to hit something to take some aggression out there on something when he was playing."
Stoops also said that English, the pre-season Big 12 defensive player of the year, is "possible" to return for the championship game. Since his departure in the Nov. 1 game against Nebraska, Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal have played well as the Sooners' starting defensive ends.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
STILLWATER, Okla. -- Here are a few late factoids with kickoff of Oklahoma-Oklahoma State about 30 minutes away.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: An Oklahoma victory will force a three-way tie for the Big 12 South Division title that will be decided by the BCS standings tomorrow. It also likely wraps up a BCS bowl berth for Oklahoma, no matter if the Sooners play in the championship game or not.
Oklahoma State is gunning for a victory that would boost them to a 10-win regular season for the first time in school history.
The Sooners have won five-straight games in the series and Bob Stoops is 3-1 in previous games against the Cowboys in Stillwater. But none of those margins of victory are more than six points.
And Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy is 3-13-1 in his career against Oklahoma, as a coach, assistant coach and player.
WEATHER: It's a cold, cloudy night with temperatures in the mid-40s. Humidity is 52 percent and there is no wind. Even though a front is expected to blow through late this evening, there is only about a 10 percent chance of precipitation.
INJURIES: Oklahoma is still missing top pass rusher Auston English (sprained knee) and starting defensive end Alan Davis (sprained knee). Their lack of depth at the position will mean that starters Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal will play more snaps than usual. And Ryan Reynolds, the Sooners' steady middle linebacker, has been lost since the Texas game with a knee injury.
Oklahoma State's biggest injury question is tailback Kendall Hunter, the Big 12's leading rusher, who sustained a quadriceps injury against Colorado in the Cowboys' most recent game. But after eyeing him during workouts, Hunter appears ready to go. If he's hampered, Keith Toston would replace him.
Earlier this season, the Cowboys lost free safety Lucien Antoine with a knee injury. He's been their only other major injury this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few last-minute tidbits before tonight's Texas Tech-Oklahoma game.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Something has to give tonight. The Sooners have a nation-best 23 game winning streak. But Texas Tech is 10-0 for the first time since 1938 and will carry a 12-game winning streak that is the longest in the country to start the day.
A Texas Tech victory would give the Red Raiders their first birth in the Big 12 championship game against Missouri on Dec. 6.
An Oklahoma victory would throw the South Division into a three-way tie for the lead. Next week, Oklahoma travels to Oklahoma State, Texas hosts Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night and Baylor will visit Texas Tech. If there's a three-way tie at the end of that day, the Bowl Championship Series standings will be used to determine which team will advance to the championship game.
INJURIES: Oklahoma's banged-up defense will have some replacements. Starting defensive ends Auston English and Alan Davis both are out with sprained knees. That will mean that redshirt freshman Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal will get the starts, with converted linebacker J.R. Bryant and Pryce Macon thrust into key reserve roles. Steady middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds has been out since the Texas game with a torn ACL. Redshirt freshman Austin Box will get the start in his place. Tight end Brody Eldridge (ankle) and wide receiver Manny Johnson (dislocated elbow) both are expected to play.
Texas Tech is in pretty good shape in terms of injuries. The extra week gave Michael Crabtree time to rest and he told reporters earlier this week he's ready to play at 100 percent.
WEATHER CONDITIONS: It's an almost ideal football night at Owen Field, with one exception. A gusting south wind of up to 20 mph could play havoc with teams' passing strategies and the kicking game. But other than that, you couldn't ask for a better night in mid-November. Temperatures will start at kickoff in the mid-40s and should slide into the high-30s by the time the game finishes up.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
There are only two games in the Big 12 on Saturday, the lightest scheduling day of the season. But there's still plenty to watch for, highlighted by this week's "Game of the Century" involving Texas Tech and Oklahoma.
Here are some items I'll be watching tomorrow.
1. The performance of Oklahoma's banged-up defense: The Sooners will be playing without top pass-rusher Auston English (sprained knee), starting middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds (season-ending torn ACL) and defensive end Alan Davis (sprained knee.) The Sooners have struggled with those personnel losses, allowing at least 28 points in the last five games for the first time in the 114-season history of the program. And they should be supremely challenged by Tech's explosive offense, which leads the nation in passing.
Even with those dire circumstances, the Sooners have been effective in other ways since the Texas loss. Oklahoma has forced 15 turnovers over the last four games which is the most in the nation over that span, even including a bye week. And in their last game, the Sooners caused four turnovers as they shackled Texas A&M, limiting the Aggies to 278 yards.
2. Oklahoma's much-maligned special teams: The Sooners have struggled covering kicks all season, ranking 108th among teams in kickoff coverage and allowing three touchdowns. Bob Stoops has worked on improving his unit during the team's week off and believes it will be ready. But can the unit come up with enough big plays that will keep the Red Raiders bottled up in poor field position?
3. Michael Crabtree's health: Tech's top receiver has been hobbled with a sprained ankle during the last several weeks and has been noticeably slowed since he was hurt returning a kickoff against Texas A&M. He's told reporters this week that the extra week of rest has rejuvenated him and he'll be ready to go at kickoff. He blistered the Sooners for 12 catches and 154 yards last season. The Red Raiders will need another big game from him on Saturday.
4. Sam Bradford's shot at retribution: Last year's loss to Tech is a blur for Bradford, who sustained a concussion and missed most of the game after throwing only three passes. His departure paved the way for Tech's 34-27 victory, which ended the Sooners' BCS title game hopes. That disappointment has sparked Bradford to a huge sophomore season, as he's leading the nation with 38 touchdown passes coming into Saturday's game. Those struggles last season have left him with extra determination to play well in Saturday's game.
5. Huge stakes for the Red Raiders: The Red Raiders are the nation's hottest team with a nation-best 12-game winning streak and are 10-0 for the first time since 1938. But most importantly, they can wrap up their first Big 12 title-game appearance and a chance to meet Missouri in the conference championship game with a victory over the Sooners on Saturday.
6. Heisman ramifications: Ballots were sent out to 926 voters earlier this week. Bradford, Crabtree and Tech quarterback Graham Harrell all are among the favorites. Whoever has the biggest game Saturday night in the nationally televised game will go a long way toward perhaps hoisting the trophy when it's presented in New York City on Dec. 13.
7. Senior night for Oklahoma's seniors: Saturday will be the final game for Oklahoma's senior class, which lost its first game back in 2005 and hasn't lost at home since -- a nation-best winning streak of 23 games that is the longest among all FBS teams. The Sooners haven't lost a home conference game since falling in the regular-season finale against Oklahoma State on Nov. 24, 2001. Bob Stoops is 59-2 at home in his coaching tenure with the Sooners.
8. Mike Leach squares off with his mentor: Leach worked with Bob Stoops during the 1999 season -- Stoops' first coaching the Sooners -- before assuming the Tech job the following season. Since then, he's never won at Owen, going 0-4 in those games. But he has turned the rivalry around a little, winning two of the last three games in the series. Tech is 1-6 in previous games at Owen Field, notching its only win there in 1996. And Stoops needs a big win to regain some of his luster. "Big Game Bob" started his career with an 8-1 record against top 10 opponents, but is only 3-7 against top 10 foes since then.
9. Ron Prince's finale: Kansas State's coach finishes his career with the Wildcats against Iowa State. A victory would keep Kansas State out of a tie for the Big 12 North Division cellar with the Cyclones. Something has to give in Saturday's game between two teams already eliminated from bowl eligibility. The Wildcats have lost five-straight games -- longest since Bill Snyder's final season in 2005 -- and Iowa State enters the game with a 16-game road losing streak that is the longest in the nation after UAB's win at Tulane last week.
10. Austen Arnaud's strong finish: The sophomore Iowa State quarterback is coming off a big game after passing for 326 yards and setting the school's single-game record with 36 completions last week against Missouri. He'll be playing against a struggling Kansas State defense that ranks 114th in total defense, has been singed for at least 30 points in eight of its last nine games and has allowed an average of 51.8 points in its last four games. A big effort could provide Arnaud with confidence heading into next season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Only two games this week, but one of them will be as big as any gets in college football this season. Here are my picks.
Oklahoma 45, Texas Tech 42 -- Two teams with legitimate Big 12 title hopes and Bowl Championship Series aspirations will meet in the biggest game at Owen Field since 2000 . The Oklahoma defense is banged-up without key producers like Auston English and Ryan Reynolds. And Texas Tech has been on this stage for the last several weeks and still hasn't blinked. But I still like the home-field advantage to provide the slimmest of margins to the Sooners, who are 59-2 at home, have the nation's longest active home winning streak at 23 games and haven't lost there since the opening game of the 2005 season. Keep an eye on the Sooners' kick coverage after Bob Stoops has had an extra week to work out the kinks. The difference will be an aggressive Oklahoma defense that leads the nation in turnover margin and will come up with a couple of big plays that will boost them to a victory. I'm still a little dubious about Texas Tech's ability to make a clutch long field goal when it really needs one. And despite offensive weapons like Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree, I believe the Oklahoma defense will rise up with a strong performance that powers them to the win. The Sooners' victory will mean we will carry the regular-season excitement over for one more week. Would we really have it any other way?
Kansas State 38, Iowa State 28 -- Something's got to give at Bill Snyder Family Stadium as Kansas State brings a five-game losing streak and Iowa State will try to stem a nation's-worst 16-game road losing streak. It will be Ron Prince's final game as Kansas State's head coach and it will be interesting to see how his team reacts. The Wildcats were atrocious defensively last week against Nebraska and even Josh Freeman floundered enough to get himself benched early in the second half. Even with those struggles, the Wildcats still will have an edge against Iowa State's weak pass defense. The clincher could be their propensity to make big plays on the special teams. Look for Prince to go out a winner in his final game with the Wildcats.
My picks last week: 5-0 (100 percent)
My picks for the season: 77-12 (86.9 percent)
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few tidbits from around the Big 12 this week.
The biggest change in recent weeks is that Nebraska coach Bo Pelini is trusting in his scheme and the players who are operating it. Earlier this season, Pelini crafted a gimmick defense when he played Missouri. Now, he's more willing to let his talent play. Of course, the recent surge by the Nebraska front four is helping him feel that way, too. The Cornhuskers have notched nine sacks in their last two games after producing only five in the first five Big 12 conference games.
Two recent losses to Texas A&M has Texas coach Mack Brown searching for ways to better prepare for his traditional rival. One change that will help will be enthusiasm from his young players. Brown has been pleased with the contribution of young players in recent weeks. The list includes safety Christian Scott, center David Snow, defensive tackle Kheeston Randall and defensive ends Sam Acho and Eddie Jones. All had big games in the Longhorns' 35-7 triumph over Kansas last week. And the excitement of playing next week for a possible BCS berth should do the trick, too.
Oklahoma will be scrambling against Texas Tech's massive offensive line without two key pass rushers this week as defensive ends Auston English and Alan Davis both will be out with knee sprains. To build depth at the position, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has moved converted linebacker J.R. Bryant to one backup spot and seldom-used Pryce Macon will serve at the other position behind starters Frank Alexander and Jeremy Beal. The Sooners are also bracing to use the nickel formation as their base against Tech's collection of wide receivers. That would mean extensive use for backup safety Quinton Carter, who made his first career start against Kansas last month. And Nic Harris will likely remain at safety with redshirt freshman Austin Box continuing to start at middle linebacker for Ryan Reynolds, out for the season with a knee injury.
Chase Coffman is unquestionably one of the most valuable receivers in the conference, but does the Missouri system play just a little part in his success? Freshman backup Andrew Jones produced seven catches last week against Iowa State as the Cyclones hardly missed Coffman, who was out with a sprained toe.
Iowa State has gotten to the final game without quarterback Austen Arnaud sustaining an injury, with only freshmen Jerome Tiller and Brett Bueker behind him as backups. If Arnaud should become injured against Kansas State, coach Gene Chizik has a plan. Chizik said he would insert freshman wide receiver Darius Darks, a converted high school quarterback and the team's leading receiver last week against Missouri, into the quarterback position. Chizik also said that the Cyclones have worked on an emergency package that includes direct snaps to the tailback. He remains adamant about saving the redshirts for both Tiller and Bueker after not playing either of them this season after the midseason departure of former backup quarterback Phillip Bates.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are some trends I'll be following across the Big 12 in Saturday's games.
1. Can Texas keep running the top-12 gauntlet? -- The Longhorns have already subdued No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 11 Missouri and No. 7 Oklahoma State in successive weeks and is now set to face No. 7 (BCS) Texas Tech on Saturday. With a win, the Longhorns will become only the second team in college football history to beat a top-12 squad four weeks in a row. Notre Dame did it in 1943. Easier said than done -- especially in its first true road test during the streak.
2. Nebraska's emerging ball-control attack -- Joe Ganz and the Cornhuskers have used a safe and effective strategy that has enabled them to control the ball, running off 101 more offensive plays than its first four Big 12 opponents. Can they employ a similar strategy on Saturday to keep the ball away from explosive Oklahoma? They might need to, considering that Nebraska ranks second in total defense in conference games (362.8 yards per game) but last in average yards per play allowed (6.8 ypp).
3. Missouri's Mac attack -- Missouri wide receiver/kick returner Jeremy Maclin needs only 98 yards to set the school record for all-purpose yards that was set by former quarterback Brad Smith in 2005. The way Maclin has been involved in the Tigers' offense the record might be broken in the first quarter of Saturday's game against Baylor.
4. Oklahoma State's response to its first loss -- The Cowboys played well but still lost last week at Texas. OSU can keep alive its slim hopes for its first South Division title and first BCS appearance by beating Iowa State. A key will be the performance of the Cowboys' defense, which has limited its last three opponents (Missouri, Baylor and Texas) to season-low totals in points. To do that against the Cyclones will be a challenge, considering the Cyclones scored only five points against UNLV earlier this season.
5. How much will Texas A&M's defense improve simply by playing Colorado? -- The Aggies' young defense has been gashed for an average of 567.5 yards in their last two games, including a season-worst total of 574 last week by Iowa State. How will the Aggies respond to facing a less-than-imposing Colorado offense unit that ranks 11th in the conference in rushing and last in passing, total offense and scoring?
6. Todd Reesing's response after his worst game of the season -- The diminutive Kansas quarterback passed for a season-worst 154 yards and was picked off three times during a five-play nightmare stretch last week against Texas Tech. A strong rebound will be key if the Jayhawks hope to stay alive in the Big 12 North title hunt with a victory over Kansas State. Reesing has a chance to break the school passing record of 6,410 set by Frank Seurer with 245 passing yards on Saturday.
7. Texas Tech's defense on third-down plays -- The biggest struggles during Tech's two most recent losses have been stopping Texas' offense on critical plays. Texas clicked on 17 of 27 third-down plays and was 5 for 5 on fourth-down plays against the Red Raiders in those two games. Tech's improving defense has to do a better job Saturday night in order to spark an upset performance.
8. Oklahoma's struggling defense -- The Sooners defense has been rudderless since losing middle linebacker Ryan Reynolds against Texas, sparking a collapse that has seen them allow 111 points in their last three games -- the most since the 1997 season coached by John Blake. If the Sooners allow 30 points or more Saturday against Nebraska, it will be the first time in program history they've allowed 30-plus points in four straight games.
9. Which team emerges this week in the North Division -- Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska all are tied for first place heading into Saturday. The Tigers appear to have the easiest route to the title and already have a tiebreaker in place over Nebraska. Can the Tigers continue their domination against the North Division after struggling with Big 12 South power teams? And how will Kansas and Nebraska fare Saturday in tougher games than the Tigers appear to be facing?
10. Kansas' reaction to the 'Sunflower Showdown' smack -- Kansas State might have provided some inspiration to its cross-state rival with its lively pregame discussion. Such talk was a little bold for a team that has lost three of its last four games and allowed at least 500 yards in five of its last six games. Maybe it was for inspiration, but it also likely served as a wake-up call for a Jayhawks team that has allowed 108 points in its last two games.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here's a lunchtime fix of the top stories from across the Big 12 this morning. Enjoy them.
- Another week, another monster Big 12 game. The Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff breaks downs the ramifications of the Texas-Texas Tech game on Saturday, as well as his always tasty package of conference nuggets.
- The Omaha World-Herald's Tom Shatel wonders why a special dinner Friday night honoring former Nebraska and Oklahoma players is being held behind closed doors.
- Texas cornerback Curtis Brown got the first start of his career last week against Dez Bryant of Oklahoma State. His reward this week, the Houston Chronicle's Joseph Duarte reports, is a date against Texas Tech Biletnikoff Award winner Michael Crabtree.
- Texas A&M is building for the future with seven freshman starters this season and nine freshmen who have seen substantial action, San Antonio Express-News beat writer Brent Zwerneman writes.
- The Tulsa World's Matt Doyle writes about how Oklahoma State tailback Kendall Hunter has been exceeding expectations all of his life. In high school, Hunter broke Earl Campbell's school record at John Tyler High School in Tyler, Texas. And this season, he's become only the second sophomore in OSU history to rush for 1,000 yards, joining Thurman Thomas.
- John Helsley of the Oklahoman writes about the collapse of the Oklahoma defense since Ryan Reynolds was injured against Texas.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
Here are a few links for your lunchtime pleasure. Check out the last one especially. I think you'll enjoy it.
- Nebraska players credit coach Bo Pelini for keeping the team together after two rough early losses to start conference play, the Omaha World-Herald's Mitch Sherman writes.
- Texas has a developing team chemistry unique for a national championship challenger, the Austin American Statesman's Kirk Bohls writes.
- Injured Oklahoma linebacker Ryan Reynolds plans to petition the NCAA for an additional season of eligibility, the Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson writes.
- Mike Sherman is defending a decision to punt facing a fourth-and-15 situation with about five minutes left last week against Texas Tech. That conservative decision, the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle's Brent Zwerneman writes, has got Aggie fans talking. Meanwhile, coacheshotseat.com has Sherman No. 3 with a bullet this week among the listing of coaches most likely to be fired, trailing only Auburn's Tommy Tuberville and Washington's Ty Willingham.
- Missouri was expected to have a much improved defense this season with 10 starters back. Instead, the Tigers have struggled trying to use a complicated defense with more blitzes and stunts, Kansas City Star beat writer Mike DeArmond says.
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
NORMAN, Okla. -- Good afternoon from Owen Field, where the talk-show fodder coming into the stadium concerned the demise of the Sooner dynasty.
Oklahoma twice blew double-digit leads last week before falling to Texas. And the remnants of that collapse are still resonating -- and smoldering -- more than seven days later.
Truthfully, the 5-1 Sooners haven't fallen that far. They are still No. 4 nationally -- the highest ranking of any one-loss team -- and are in good position to make a BCS charge if the national run of upsets continues.
All of that makes today's game against No. 16 Kansas critical for coach Bob Stoops and the Sooners. He's never lost the contest following a Texas game in his previous nine seasons and, he is heavily favored to extend his streak to double digits today.
But he'll be facing a significant challenge in Kansas, which has quietly crept into first place of the North Division after two wins to the start the season. The Jayhawks have won 17 of their last 19 games and will control their own destiny in the North race even if they lose today.
Coach Mark Mangino was an assistant head coach earlier in his coaching career with Stoops. It's always a special day when he returns to his old stomping grounds.
But he likely shouldn't expect much mercy from the Sooners because of his past association here -- especially considering what happened last week.
Here are some things I'll be watching as the game progresses:
Who fills in for Ryan Reynolds at middle linebacker for Oklahoma? Reynolds was the most capable linebacker the Sooners had, a heady playmaker who made the rest of his team better because of his acumen. The defense fell apart last week when he was lost. The easiest solution would be the insert Brandon Crow into the position, but he struggled badly last week. Redshirt freshman Austin Box also might get some snaps, but don't be surprised to see the Sooners spin 230-pound nickelback Nic Harris into the position. It might be the Sooners' best move trying to combat Kansas' air-heavy attack keyed by quarterback Todd Reesing.
Can Jake Sharp continue to run effectively? After barely playing in the first four games, Sharp has blossomed with two big efforts to help spark Kansas' quick start in conference play. Mangino still had to be convinced that the 190-pound Sharp can be more than a complimentary player, but his last two weeks were a pretty good indicator.
What gives in the pillow fight between Oklahoma's kick coverage and Kansas' return game? The Sooners have struggled all year, allowing 25.3 yards per return and two touchdowns. Stoops has promised more starters playing on special teams in order to boost speed and tackling ability.
The Sooners, however, likely won't be challenged by Kansas' sputtering kick return game. The Jayhawks are averaging only 12.38 yards per return to rank last nationally. That average, even with preseason All-Big 12 kick returner Marcus Herford in the mix, is nearly three yards below the next-lowest team in the rankings -- Kent State.
Is Kansas really ready for the big boys? The Jayhawks get their first crack against a ranked South Division foe today. Later in the season, the Jayhawks will host Texas Tech and Texas. Kansas avoided all three teams in a school-record 12-1 season last year that was capped by an Orange Bowl victory. We'll see how the Jayhawks match up with a traditional power from the other division in Saturday's game.
Kansas wide receiver Kerry Meier vs. the young Oklahoma cornerbacks. First-year Oklahoma starters Dominique Franks and Brian Jackson have played well to this point of the season, but will face a big test against Meier, a versatile and experienced player who is still listed as Kansas' backup quarterback. Meier runs exquisite routes and will challenge both players even though he's been hobbled recently.
INJURIES: The biggest for Oklahoma is Reynolds, who was already rehabbing earlier in the week. DeMarco Murray hasn't been the same back as last season, although Sooner coaches say he's in good shape. Defensive tackle DeMarcus Granger was back for the game last week, although he hasn't cracked the two-deep yet.
Kansas doesn't release injuries, although it's been clear in the last several games and during warm-ups that Meier has been hobbled. He missed several plays last week, but still produced nine receptions. Nose tackle Caleb Billingsley left the Colorado game with a leg injury and is questionable. Jamal Green and Darius Parish would fill in if he can't go. And starting guard Adrian Mayes missed the second half with an undisclosed injury, but should be ready to go today, Mangino said.
WEATHER: It's an ideal day for football here with nary a cloud in the sky. Temperatures should be in the mid-70s at kickoff and remain in the 70s during the rest of the afternoon.