NCF Nation: Sean Weatherspoon

Missouri defense savoring improvement

October, 13, 2010
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Missouri captain and cornerback Kevin Rutland has gotten plenty of compliments and kudos on campus and elsewhere in Columbia. That's because he is the head of a unit that leads the Big 12 in scoring defense and his 14 forced turnovers is tied for second in the conference.

"It's been special so far, and you take note of it and would like it to keep going," Rutland said. "But we take it with a grain of salt. We know things can change, but we know if we keep our play at the level it’s been, we’ll be just fine."

[+] EnlargeKevin Rutland
John Rieger/US PresswireMissouri coach Gary Pinkel has put his trust in cornerback Kevin Rutland and the Tigers defense.
He would know. Rutland played corner for a defense that ranked outside the top 100 in pass defense a year ago, frustrating fans with its penchant for giving up backbreaking big plays.

This season, limiting those big plays has been goal No. 1.

"That’s always gotten us, whether it’s the big pass play or big run play, and not that we haven’t experienced those things because we have, but we're trying to keep those things to a minimum," he said.

There was a 93-yard touchdown run by San Diego State's Ronnie Hillman and a 42-yard run by Illinois running back Mikel Leshoure this year. None of those cost Missouri a game, unlike the 400-plus yards Baylor quarterback Nick Florence racked up in the Bears' lone conference win in 2009, highlighted by a 59-yard touchdown pass to Kendall Wright.

Missouri was never better this year than on Saturday when they shut out Colorado in a 26-0 win. Rodney Stewart's 22-yard run and a Scotty McKnight's 22-yard catch were the only sizeable chunks of yardage the defense gave up. Missouri is 5-0, thanks largely to its defense, and is headed to College Station for its first game outside the state this season.

"We’re getting better each week and with a lot of the little things, attention to detail things that we need to do and we haven’t arrived in any way, I’m not implying that, we’ve got some great tests ahead of us, including this week, but it seems like we’re playing real well as a team, together, as a unit," said coach Gary Pinkel.

They've had to do it without a full squad. Suspensions and injuries have kept contributors at every level of the defense off the field. Star defensive end Aldon Smith, who had 11.5 sacks a year ago, is out with a broken fibula and is expected to miss Saturday's game against Texas A&M.

"I’ll give some of the credit to experience and some of it to trust between coaches and players," Rutland said. "We go out there and we know what’s expected of us. The coaches have enough faith in us and enough trust in us to get job done, whatever the call may be. Whether we’re blitzing or we’re in zone coverage or man coverage. The coaches have so much trust in us, from the secondary down on to D-line, that it’s really opened up the playbook."

Rutland, a senior, has been one of the reasons why the coaches trust the unit. Rutland has adjusted to the team's more aggressive style under coordinator Dave Steckel and life as a team captain.

"My role is a lot more important than it’s been," Rutland said. "When there's a time to step up and say something, I enjoy being that guy. That’s the biggest thing, but even in practice or before a game or after the game, during the game, anything I can do. I like to go out there, make sure I’m doing my best and send a positive message with a great example to my teammates."

Texas A&M will be the toughest test yet for Missouri, and it won't get any easier. The Tigers host Oklahoma next week and travel to Lincoln for what could be a de facto Big 12 North championship game on Oct. 30. They will face the Huskers dynamic running game spearheaded by freshman quarterback Taylor Martinez.

So far a defense that returned nine starters from last year's team, but lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and defensive tackle Jaron Baston, has been as good or better than anyone might have expected.

"Players, athletes get better, if they’re good athletes and they keep working hard to improve and get better. People say they have so many starters back, but if the starters aren’t very good, it’s not going to matter," Pinkel said. "We have many tests to go here, but very pleased with the progress so far."

What we learned in the Big 12: Week 6

October, 10, 2010
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1. Taylor Martinez is a Heisman candidate. We're five games into the season. Martinez is a redshirt freshman who's played one conference game. Yes. It's a little early. He's going to make mistakes. But as it stands right now, Martinez has given the Big 12 its first legitimate candidate for the Heisman Trophy. When Nebraska's defense plays well like it did against Kansas State, Nebraska looks very scary, knowing that it may only be a matter of time before Martinez gets loose. He's going to get his carries every week, and when he gets in the open field, he's probably going to outrun whoever meets him there.

2. It's time to take Missouri's defense seriously. Talk all you want about strength of schedule, but so far, this defense looks like one of Gary Pinkel's best. The loss of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon hurts in the leadership department, but the other nine starters have forged together a defense that looks like one of the Big 12's best midway through the season. We'll find out more when the Tigers see the best offense they've faced all season in Texas A&M next weekend, but Missouri is giving up just more than 11 points a game -- good for a spot in the top five nationally. I don't care who you're playing, shutouts are hard to come by in conference play. And the ballhawking Tigers entered the week in the top 10 in turnover margin. Like Missouri's defensive coaches love to emphasize, "It's all about the ball!" And all of a sudden, that leaky secondary that ranked outside the national top 100 last year is stocked with experienced juniors and seniors tired of giving up big plays.

[+] EnlargeCollin Klein
Denny Medley/US PresswireCollin Klein's performance Saturday reopened the quarterback competition at Kansas State.
3. Quarterbacks who lose preseason competitions should keep the faith. First, we had Jordan Webb at Kansas, who took over for Kale Pick after a season-opening loss and got the Jayhawks a win over Georgia Tech. This week, two more quarterbacks got their chance. Collin Klein stepped in for Carson Coffman at Kansas State, and coach Bill Snyder says the job is back up for grabs. Colorado's Cody Hawkins stepped in for Tyler Hansen, but didn't manage to put any points on the board for the Buffs in a 26-0 loss to Missouri. Coach Dan Hawkins insisted after the game that Hansen was still his starter, but hey, you never know. A slow start next week for Buffs against Baylor may mean another appearance for the senior backup.

4. Texas A&M's season is in serious jeopardy. It has to be frustrating for Texas A&M, who isn't that far from being 5-0, but they have two one-possession losses to ranked teams, Oklahoma State and Arkansas. That's not to say the Aggies don't have major issues on offense--quarterback Jerrod Johnson only managed to complete 15-of-40 passes against Arkansas--but that much-needed defensive improvement has arrived. Now that it's here, turnovers and poor execution have landed the Aggies at 3-2, staring down the barrel at 3-3 with a ranked Missouri team carrying lots of momentum into College Station next week. As one Texas A&M scribe said in the press box after Saturday's loss, "Now if that 2009 offense could come play with the 2010 defense, this team might have something." But alas, despite the best efforts of Doc Brown, they can't. Texas A&M needs badly to beat the Tigers next week.

5. Texas Tech is back off the mat. No team had their proverbial backs against the wall more than Texas Tech this week, facing Baylor in the Cotton Bowl. But for the Red Raiders, 45-38 winners, it's amazing how much better 1-2 looks than 0-3, isn't it? Texas Tech now has to ready themselves for a gigantic showdown in Lubbock with a red-hot Oklahoma State offense coordinated by familiar face Dana Holgorsen, who spent eight years in Lubbock as a coordinator for Mike Leach. A win means a lot remains on the table, with a 2-2 record holding the tiebreaker against Oklahoma State. But if Texas Tech hadn't won on Saturday, a season without a bowl game would have been a possibility.
1. Texas

The defending champs will have one of the nation’s best defenses again, and perhaps its best secondary. Garrett Gilbert spent the spring validating his performance in the national title game, showing some of his near-limitless potential. The Longhorns won’t be easy to unseat in 2010, especially if they finally discover a running game.

2. Oklahoma

Here’s why the Sooners are here: The gap between Oklahoma’s offense and Nebraska’s offense is wider than the one between the Sooners’ defense and the Huskers’ defense. If Oklahoma’s offensive line can show improvement next season, the Sooners won’t have trouble scoring with the amount of talent they have at the skill positions, talent that’s much better than Nebraska’s.

3. Nebraska

The Huskers get Missouri and Texas in Lincoln and don’t see the Sooners, which has Big Red looking for a big season, but don’t count on another 10-win season if the offense doesn’t improve. The offense previewed its fall reopening in the 33-0 bowl win over Arizona, but if the quarterback play isn’t solid, the reopening could be a bad thing. With what could be the best defense in football again, and two solid backs in Roy Helu Jr. and Rex Burkhead, the Huskers’ floor is pretty high and the ceiling is even higher.

4. Missouri

Home losses to Nebraska and Baylor ended any chance the Tigers had of winning the North in 2009, but they bring back a lot from last year’s eight-win team and have a lot of experienced talent at linebacker and receiver ready to replace the big names -- Sean Weatherspoon and Danario Alexander -- they lost from last year’s team. Blaine Gabbert has to show he’s ready to become a household name, and if he does, the Tigers could make a serious run at the North.

5. Texas A&M

The Aggies kept almost the entire core from last year’s team, but remember, A&M still only won six games last season. It’ll be replacing three offensive linemen who could stop the Aggies' skill position players -- cumulatively the best in the conference -- from being as productive as they could be. One of those replacements should be true freshman Luke Joeckel, but if the defense improves and the line re-establishes itself, the Aggies are South contenders. If not, they won’t be much better than a seven-win team.

6. Kansas State

The Wildcats aren’t built to win 10 games just yet, but if Nebraska and Missouri stumble, they’ll be there to slip into the North conversation just like last season, when they were one upset win over the Huskers from a trip to Arlington. Carson Coffman took hold of the starting quarterback job in the spring, but he’ll need to keep it in the fall and be productive with his three new receivers to lighten the load on running back Daniel Thomas. If that happens, there’ll be more happy Saturdays than sad ones in Aggieville.

7. Texas Tech

Injuries kept the Sticks vs. Potts debate from really heating up this spring, but the switch to a higher risk/reward strategy with an aggressive defense could be fun to watch next season. The Red Raiders are deep at running back and receiver, but look for the former to get more touches this fall than they have in over a decade.

8. Oklahoma State

The Cowboys grabbed hold of Dana Holgorsen’s offense this spring, and Brandon Weeden grabbed hold of the starting role. Oklahoma State should have an impact player at each level of the defense in defensive end Ugo Chinasa, safety Markelle Martin and linebacker Orie Lemon, but they’ll need the rest of the D to solidify for the Cowboys to climb to a higher rung of the South ladder.

9. Iowa State

Iowa State is getting better, but the tough schedule and young defense will make it difficult for the Cyclones to improve on their 7-6 record in 2009. Five linebackers from last year’s team graduated, and the three likely starters this year, sophomore A.J. Klein, Jake Knott and juco transfer Matt Tau’fo’ou have a combined 41 career tackles. Iowa State is solid in the secondary, but with the amount of quality running backs in the North, a good defense up front is more important. It's also replacing two starters on the defensive line.

10. Baylor

A bowl game isn’t out of reach for the Bears, but they’ll have to prove something before they move out of the South’s cellar. Robert Griffin gives Waco hope, but the other 21 guys have to provide substance for Baylor to succeed. Replacing two safeties, two linebackers who combined for 190 tackles last season and an offensive line shift to replace All-American center J.D. Walton could make Baylor’s early road a bumpy one.

11. Kansas

Kansas will be short on talent this year, but expectations are measured after losing plenty on both sides of the ball. The Jayhawks are a team that could get a lot better as the season progresses, but when it starts, they’ll have a lot of work to do. They’ll be competitive in the bottom half of the North, but slipping past rival Kansas State to finish in the top half of the division is about as good as it could get for the Jayhawks in Turner Gill’s first season. Not having Texas or Oklahoma on the schedule could help make that happen.

12. Colorado

Transfer Toney Clemons infuses some excitement into the Colorado faithful, and alongside Markques Simas and leading receiver Scotty McKnight, the Buffaloes could have one of the more underrated receiving corps in the conference, helping loosen things up for Rodney Stewart. But the defense gave up the second-most points in the conference last season, and there’s little reason to think they’ll be a lot better in 2010. Scoring 22 points a game and allowing just under 29 is the opposite of a recipe for success.
Sam Bradford/Ndamukong Suh/Gerald McCoyUS PresswireSam Bradford, Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy are expected to be the first three players selected in tonight's first round of the NFL draft.
We're only a few hours away from tonight's first round of the NFL draft, one that could be unprecedented for the conference.

As many as five of the first six picks could come from the Big 12.

Oklahoma's Sam Bradford is the assumed first pick. Defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy should follow. As will offensive tackles Trent Williams (Oklahoma) and Russell Okung (Oklahoma State).

Considering where the conference has been in recent years, that's not a surprise to the coaches sending those players to the next level.

"I don’t think there’s any question it’s been excellent, evidenced by what, us and Texas in the last couple national championship games," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops, who was forced to play most of 2009 without Bradford, the 2008 Heisman winner. "And year in and year out we’ve been there. I’ve known that for a long time and it’s obvious the talent in this league is second to none and its throughout the league and it’s exciting."

Texas coach Mack Brown could also have a pair of Longhorns go in the first round: defensive back Earl Thomas and defensive end/linebacker Sergio Kindle. Both are Texas natives, with Thomas hailing from Orange and Kindle from Dallas.

"More of the kids are staying at home and wanting to play in the Big 12 area, where one of our schools is traditionally playing for the national championship, so we’re in the mix each year," Brown said. "And I also feel like since we’ve won in this league and we’ve been in the final game more often, that more national kids are starting to look at our schools more readily than before."

Missouri's program has reached new heights in the last few years, winning 12 games in 2007 and another 10 in 2008. Missouri's two first-round draft picks last season, receiver Jeremy Maclin and defensive tackle Ziggy Hood, helped make those seasons possible. The Tigers also had safety William Moore drafted in the second round of last year's draft.

"I remember Don James, my mentor who I worked for at Washington, he told me about three or four years ago, he says, ‘When you start getting more players drafted, a lot more high draft choices, you’re going to win a lot more games.’ And at this level, as it was at Washington, that’s the way it is," Pinkel said. "You’re not going to get six drafted every year, but certainly, if you’re going to win at this level, you’re going to get more players that go on and play in the NFL."

He could add another first-round pick, his third in two seasons, tonight in linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, giving the Big 12 as many as 10 selections among the first 32 picks.

"It shows schools are recruiting quality young men and good football players," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.

Big 12 pre-spring power rankings

February, 10, 2010
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With spring practice set to begin soon -- Texas opens its camp on March 2 -- here’s a quick look at how I have the teams ranked heading into spring practice. In formulating my rankings, I took into account returning players, transfers, arriving freshmen and a teams’ schedules.

1. Texas (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Garrett Gilbert got a head start on replacing Colt McCoy with his considerable playing time in the national title game, an invaluable learning experience for a young player. The Longhorns return most of the defense that improved in its second season under Will Muschamp. The biggest chores will be for offensive coordinator Greg Davis, who has to boost running game production and find a replacement for record-breaking wide receiver Jordan Shipley.

2. Nebraska (18 starters back: 8 offensive, 8 defensive, 2 special teams). Bo Pelini has the Cornhuskers positioned for a potential top-10 preseason ranking. Most of the offensive weapons will be back from a unit that sputtered down the stretch before breaking out in the Holiday Bowl victory. Quarterback Zac Lee will miss some of spring practice as he recovers from postseason surgery. Cody Green and Kody Spano will get most of the work until Lee returns. Nebraska coaches think the defense can be better this season, even without the up-the-middle strength of Ndamukong Suh, Phillip Dillard, Larry Asante and Matt O’Hanlon.

3. Oklahoma (15 starters back: 9 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Sooners overcame a debilitating run of injuries last season to finish with a flourish, knocking Oklahoma State out of a BCS game and winning the Sun Bowl in their final two games. Landry Jones will be infinitely better in his second season as a starter and Ryan Broyles and DeMarco Murray may be the best one-two receiving/running back combination in the conference. Bob Stoops will be facing a big renovation on defense where key players like Gerald McCoy and Dominique Franks left early for the NFL draft. Look for Travis Lewis to be the key to a defense that will need to improve by the time Big 12 play begins if the Sooners are to have any hope of claiming a seventh Big 12 title this season.

4. Missouri (19 starters back: 9 offensive, 9 defensive, 1 special teams). The Tigers will miss Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who were arguably the best players at their positions in the conference last season. But Blaine Gabbert is back for a second season as starting quarterback and some talented recruits are expected to emerge on defense. A key for the Tigers’ success will be a more productive running game and consistency from the offensive line. Improvement on both will be critical for coordinator David Yost during the spring.

5. Texas Tech (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Tommy Tuberville immediately will have to sort through a potentially difficult decision at quarterback between Taylor Potts and fan favorite Steven Sheffield. New coordinator James Willis hopes to install a 3-4 defense that should be a haven for athletic linebackers. But the group’s success will hinge on replacing Jamar Wall at cornerback and finding some pass-rushing threats to replace Brandon Sharpe, Richard Jones and Daniel Howard along the front.

6. Texas A&M (19 starters back: 8 offensive, 9 defensive, 2 special teams). With Jerrod Johnson, Jeff Fuller, Uzoma Nwachukwu and Christine Michael back, the Aggies shouldn’t have trouble scoring points, although the line needs to do a better job of protecting Johnson. But the Aggies’ success will depend on the returning starters quickly taking to new coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s teachings. The group was blistered for at least 35 points in seven games last season and allowed at least 30 points in two other games. So needless to say that even with nine starters back, DeRuyter has his work cut out.

7. Kansas (16 starters back: 7 offensive, 7 defensive, 2 special teams). New coach Turner Gill inherits an uncertain quarterback situation, but has the framework for a strong running attack with all of his starting linemen back, along with Toben Opurum and heralded back Brandon Bourbon as running threats. The Jayhawks will need to fill in for the loss of Darrell Stuckey in the secondary, but new coordinator Carl Torbush should find the elements for a blitzing, attacking defense among the returnees. But the biggest reason the Jayhawks might be bound for a bowl game in Gill’s first season is swapping Texas, Texas Tech and Oklahoma for Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Baylor in their cross-divisional schedule.

8. Iowa State (13 starters back: 8 offensive, 4 defensive, 1 special teams). Paul Rhoads returns most of the offensive weapons that led the Cyclones to the Insight Bowl, most notably quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson. But the team loses all of its starting linebackers; veteran coordinator Wally Burnham will be challenged to cobble together a serviceable unit. The Cyclones could actually be a better team in 2010 but post a worse record. A tougher schedule featuring nonconference games against Utah, Iowa and Northern Illinois and the addition of South Division powers Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech will make last season’s bowl trip much tougher to duplicate.

9. Oklahoma State (10 starters back: 4 offensive, 4 defensive, 2 special teams). The Cowboys must find replacements for key players like Zac Robinson, Keith Tosten, four offensive linemen (including Outland finalist Russell Okung) and six of their back seven on defense. New offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen finds an uncertain quarterback situation but will lean heavily on a healthy Kendall Hunter. A manageable nonconference schedule should have them in bowl contention, but this should be a step back from Mike Gundy’s last two teams.

10. Kansas State (15 starters back: 7 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip last season only because they scheduled two FCS teams, but they surprisingly challenged for the Big 12 North title up to their last game of the season. It might be tougher to do that this season, although Daniel Thomas will provide the foundation on offense. Carson Coffman has the inside track at quarterback, but keep an eye out for Oregon transfer Chris Harper at either that position or wide receiver. Players like Jeffrey Fitzgerald and John Houlik will be missed on defense, but all four starters are back in the secondary.

11. Colorado (16 starters back: 8 offensive, 7 defensive, 1 special teams). Dan Hawkins’ seat is the hottest in the Big 12 and arguably in college football after missing a bowl for a second straight season last year. Tyler Hansen returns as the starting quarterback, but the Buffaloes need to find some help in the backfield with only three scholarship backs in spring practice. The defense was young last season and should be improved, but will miss the leadership provided by Jeff Smart and Cha’pelle Brown. A bowl trip likely will be necessary to save Hawkins’ job and a tough nonconference schedule featuring games at California and against Hawaii and Georgia will prove troublesome even before Big 12 play begins.

12. Baylor (14 starters back: 6 offensive, 6 defensive, 2 special teams). The Bears’ hopes of stopping the conference’s longest bowl drought will hinge largely on the health of Robert Griffin, who is recovering from knee surgery that forced him to miss the final nine games of the 2009 season. New offensive lineman “Big” Robert Griffin will have to protect his quarterback if coach Art Briles has any hope of making a bowl trip. Jay Finley and Kendall Wright are underrated offensive threats, but the Bears will miss key defensive leaders like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake who were stalwarts for several years.

Missouri first from Big 12 with all letters in

February, 3, 2010
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Gary Pinkel put a bow on his strongest recruiting class yet and he did it quickly.

The Tigers were the first Big 12 school to have all of their letters in.

Missouri has 23 commitments from 22 high school players and junior college transfer, Kenronte Walker of City College of San Francisco.

Pinkel has done a masterful job in the past of taking underrecruited players, particularly those from Texas, and turning them into stars once they hit college.

The Tigers again have dipped heavily in Texas with nine recruits. This group has a high benchmark to reach, considering the development of Texas players such as Chase Daniel, Danario Alexander and Sean Weatherspoon.

I like prospects like defensive linemen Kony Ealy and Lucas Vincent and running backs Greg White and Marcus Murphy.

This is Pinkel's strongest class yet. It should keep the Tigers in contention in the North Division for the next several seasons.

Big 12 led nation in scoring, but stats were down

January, 27, 2010
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All season long, I heard offensive coordinators across the Big 12 talk about how much more difficult it was to move the ball in the conference last season than it was in 2008.

[+] EnlargeBradford
Tim Heitman/US PresswireInjuries to key playmakers, such as Sam Bradford, hurt the Big 12's offensive output.
The conference still leads the nation in scoring when compared to other conferences with a per-game, per-team average of 28.39 points per game.

But the Big 12's average in yards per play was down to 5.47 yards per snap. That figure ranks ninth among the 12 FBS conferences and worst among the conferences that receive automatic berths in the Bowl Championship Series.

As shown on Tuesday, most every team in the Big 12 saw a noticeable reduction in offensive production and scoring last season compared to the previous year.

That trend didn't necessarily correlate across the rest of the country, when individual conferences are analyzed.

The number of plays remained the same from 2008 to 2009, but total yards and yards per play increased across the nation. Rushing yardage and passing yardage was up a little bit across the board as well. Scoring did drop, but not by the 20.3 percent reduction that we saw in the Big 12 in 2009.

Obviously, the graduation of top players like Michael Crabtree, Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Graham Harrell, Quan Cosby, Josh Freeman and Joe Ganz had something to do with it. The conference also struggled with injuries to many of its top stars as Jermaine Gresham missed the entire season, Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin, Dez Bryant and Kendall Hunter all were gone for most of the season. Even Colt McCoy's injury came at a critical time to limit his team's offensive efficiency when it really could have used him.

Most importantly, the Big 12 had a wealth of top defensive players last season. We'll see that in the NFL draft when Ndamukong Suh is the likely first pick of the draft. Gerald McCoy should follow soon thereafter -- perhaps as quickly as the next pick. It wouldn't surprise me to see Earl Thomas and Sean Weatherspoon both as high first-round picks as well.

For a closer examination, I looked at every conference and compared offensive numbers from 2008 to 2009. The Big 12's figures were noteworthy, when compared to the rest of the nation.


It's interesting to note that the Big 12's per-team averages were down in yards per game, yards per play and scoring from 2008. The only other conferences where this trend occurred were in Conference USA and the Mid-American Conference.

And contrasting with this trend, the Southeastern Conference's figures in all three categories went up in 2009.

These figures are cyclical. But with the departure of so many dominant defensive players in 2010, along with the return of eight of 12 starting quarterbacks next season, we might see an increase from the numbers of this year.

If that happens, maybe we won't hear as much whining from the offensive coordinators, either.

Big 12's teams of the decade

January, 20, 2010
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The Big 12 had two national championship teams and five others that played in the BCS title game in the decade.

The two championship teams were the best of the conference's last 10 years. Some of the other BCS title participants were good, but not necessarily among the very best teams during the conference's recent history.

Here's how I rank the Big 12's top 10 teams over the last decade.

1. 2005 Texas: A star-studded team paced by All-Americans Michael Huff, Jonathan Scott, Rodrique Wright and Vince Young ran off 13 straight victories, capping the season with a BCS title-game victory over USC. The team averaged 50.2 points per game en route to a then-NCAA record 652 total points, earning Texas’ first undisputed national championship since 1969. It was the greatest team that Mack Brown ever coached and arguably the best team in the rich football history of Texas.

2. 2000 Oklahoma: Bob Stoops claimed a national championship in his second season coaching the Trojans behind Josh Heupel, who finished second in the Heisman race that season. All-Americans Heupel, linebacker Rocky Calmus and J.T. Thatcher helped the Sooners notch the first undefeated season and national championship in Big 12 history. After winning three of their final four regular-season games by less than five points, the Sooners dominated Florida State in a 13-2 triumph in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.

3. 2008 Oklahoma: Sam Bradford won the Heisman Trophy with this team, which overcame a midseason loss to Texas and still claimed the Big 12 title in a 12-2 season that was marred by a 24-14 loss to Florida in the national championship game. The Sooners rolled-up a record 702 points as Bradford passed for 50 touchdowns, Chris Brown and DeMarco Murray each rushed for 1,000 yards and Juaquin Iglesias topped 1,000 yards receiving. The Sooners scored 35 points in each regular-season game and finished the regular season with five straight games of at least 60 points before the BCS title-game loss.

4. 2004 Oklahoma: The Sooners charged to 12 straight victories before a dropping a 55-19 decision to USC in the Orange Bowl for the national title. Freshman running back Adrian Peterson rushed for an NCAA freshman record 1,925 yards to finish second in the Heisman. Jason White claimed the Heisman the previous season and his numbers were down with Peterson's arrival, but he still passed for 3,205 yards and 35 touchdowns. This group had strength in the trenches with All-Americans like Vince Carter, Dan Cody, Jammal Brown and Mark Clayton as it claimed Bob Stoops’ third Big 12 title.

5. 2009 Texas: After streaking to a school-record 13-0 mark through the Big 12 title game, the Longhorns dropped a 37-21 decision to Alabama in the national title game in a contest that changed when Colt McCoy was hurt on the fifth play of the game. McCoy became the winningest quarterback in NCAA history during this season, repeatedly hooking up with favorite target Jordan Shipley, who snagged a school-record 116 receptions, 1,485 yards and 13 touchdowns. The Longhorns led the nation in rush defense, and All-American safety Earl Thomas tied a school record with eight interceptions. Lamarr Houston and Sergio Kindle also added playmaking abilities to the defense.

6. 2004 Texas: The Longhorns overcame a midseason 12-0 loss to Oklahoma to finish the season with seven straight victories in a season capped by a dramatic 38-37 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Longhorns ranked second nationally in rushing offense and seventh in total offense as Young gradually found his confidence as a passer late in the season. Cedric Benson rushed for 1,834 yards and 19 touchdowns, and Young chipped in with 1,079 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. This team showed a knack for comebacks, overcoming an early 35-7 deficit against Oklahoma State and also coming from behind in an early-season victory at Arkansas.

7. 2007 Oklahoma: Bradford led the first of two consecutive Big 12 championships on a team that enabled the Sooners to become the first Big 12 school to win back-to-back titles. The Sooners dropped road games to Colorado and Texas Tech but still overcame Missouri in the Big 12 title game behind a huge defensive effort keyed by Big 12 defensive player of the year Rufus Alexander. Bradford led the nation in passing efficiency, but the Sooners' bowl struggles continued in an embarrassing 48-28 loss to West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl.

8. 2003 Kansas State: Don’t let the Wildcats’ 11-4 record fool you. After an early three-game losing streak to Marshall, Texas and Oklahoma State (by a combined margin of 15 points), Bill Snyder’s team won its final seven regular-season games by a combined margin of 271-66. That streak was culminated by a stunning 35-7 upset victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game -- the last victory by a North Division team in the title game. The Wildcats ranked in the top 10 nationally in rushing, scoring, total defense, scoring defense and pass defense as Darren Sproles rushed for 1,986 yards and 16 touchdowns. The Wildcats dropped a 35-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State in a game they fell into an early 21-0 deficit and had a chance to tie on the final play of the game after a frantic comeback directed by Ell Roberson.

9. 2007 Missouri: Chase Daniel led Missouri into the Big 12 title game for the first time in school history, taking the team to No. 1 nationally heading into the conference championship game. The Tigers lost twice to Oklahoma during a 12-2 season that was capped by 38-7 beatdown over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. Tony Temple made that game memorable by rushing for a record 281 yards and four TDs that pushed Missouri to No. 4 nationally at the end of the season. A star-studded collection of talent including Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Martin Rucker and Sean Weatherspoon helped the Tigers rank among the top-10 teams nationally in passing, total offense and scoring and 11th in turnover margin.

10. 2007 Kansas: The Jayhawks earned Mark Mangino the national coach of the year award by running to an 11-0 start before losing to Missouri in the regular-season finale. The Jayhawks rebounded for a 24-21 victory over Virginia Tech in their first BCS bowl appearance in school history, finishing a 12-1 season that set a school record for victories. Todd Reesing passed for 33 touchdowns to highlight a high-powered offense that scored 76 points against Nebraska and scored at least 43 points in eight games. The Jayhawks were a balanced team that ranked second nationally in scoring offense, fourth in scoring defense and in the top 10 nationally in eight different team statistics. Anthony Collins and Aqib Talib earned consensus All-America honors.

Texas Bowl: Missouri (8-4) vs. Navy (9-4)

December, 30, 2009
12/30/09
11:16
AM ET
Here’s all you need to know about the Texas Bowl matchup between Missouri (8-4) and Navy (9-4) on Thursday.

WHO TO WATCH: Danario Alexander, WR, Missouri

Biletnikoff Award voters made a dreadful mistake by not adding Alexander to their watch list late in the year after Alexander's one-man assault on Big 12 defenses over the last half of the season. Alexander nearly made history by becoming the first wide receiver in NCAA history to post four straight 200-yard receiving games after notching 214 yards against Baylor, 200 against Kansas State, 173 yards against Iowa State and 233 yards against Kansas in his final game. He produced 107 catches this season after recording 78 catches over his first three seasons at Missouri, finishing 2009 as the nation’s leader in receiving yards (1,644) and average receiving yards per game (137.0). The tall, angular Alexander will be difficult for the undersized Navy secondary to contain. And his breakaway speed will be a concern for Navy every time he touches the ball.

WHAT TO WATCH: Missouri’s run containment against Navy’s triple-option

Missouri defensive ends Aldon Smith and Brian Coulter will be challenged to stop Navy’s strong outside running game keyed by quarterback Ricky Dobbs and his pitches to running backs Marcus Curry and Bobby Doyle. Missouri doesn’t see this offense very often, but the Tigers have had a long time to prepare for Thursday’s game after ranking 15th in rush defense during the regular season. Missouri’s defensive linemen need to do a good job of staying on their feet against Navy’s undersized offensive linemen and its storied ability at cut-blocking. Missouri linebackers Andrew Gachkar and Sean Weatherspoon also need to maintain their lanes of pursuit as they try to stop Dobbs, who rushed for 1,037 yards and set an NCAA single-season record for a quarterback with 24 rushing touchdowns.

WHY WATCH: Contrasting offensive styles make for entertaining games

Navy and Missouri have two of the nation’s most intriguing offenses. They just account for their yards in different ways. The Midshipmen rank fourth nationally in rushing, but 119th in passing offense. Missouri is 14th passing, but are 81st rushing. Missouri’s quick-strike offense keyed by quarterback Blaine Gabbert and Alexander would appear to give the Tugers a firepower edge, although Navy has been effective this season and would have its first 10-win season since 2004 with an upset.

PREDICTION: This should be a classic battle of different offensive styles. Tiger fans have been vociferous about their disappointment in getting the Texas Bowl, their fourth Texas-based bowl in the last four seasons, despite other Big 12 teams with lesser records being snapped up ahead of them in the conference’s pecking order. Gary Pinkel’s team can’t afford to let those bad feelings linger, or it could be a long day against the underrated Midshipmen. But this game looks like a good draw for Missouri, whose big-play passing offense and strong rush defense appear well-suited to control Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo's plucky team. Missouri 42, Navy 24.

McCoy, Suh head All-Big 12 team

December, 8, 2009
12/08/09
3:12
PM ET
Here's a look at my All-Big 12 team. There were couple of late selections that were affected by the Big 12 championship game. If you look closely enough, you probably will see where I made my switches.

Oklahoma leads the team with five selections, Texas had four and Nebraska and Missouri three picks apiece.

Offense:

QB: Colt McCoy, Texas

RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

RB: Keith Toston, Oklahoma State

WR: Danario Alexander, Missouri

WR: Jordan Shipley, Texas

TE: Riar Geer, Colorado

OL: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State

OL: Brandon Carter, Texas Tech

OL: Trent Williams, Oklahoma

OL: Adam Ulatoski, Texas

C: Reggie Stephens, Iowa State

K: Grant Ressel, Missouri

KR: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

Defense:

DL: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

DL: Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma

DL: Jeremy Beal, Oklahoma

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Texas Tech

LB: Von Miller, Texas A&M

LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri

LB: Joe Pawelek, Baylor

DB: Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State

DB: Earl Thomas, Texas

DB: Brian Jackson, Oklahoma

DB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

P: Alex Henery, Nebraska

PR: Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma

Brown, McCoy, Suh are major award winners

December, 1, 2009
12/01/09
4:28
PM ET
Texas coach Mack Brown, Texas quarterback Colt McCoy and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh were announced today as the Big 12's coach of the year, offensive player of the year and defensive player of the year, respectively.

McCoy and Suh also were the only two unanimous first-team selections to the All-Big 12 team picked by coaches.

McCoy becomes the fourth Texas player to be selected as OPOY and the third Longhorn quarterback. Previous Texas selections included Ricky Williams (1997 and 1998), Major Applewhite (1999) and Vince Young (2005).

Suh becomes the second Nebraska defensive player to be honored, joining Grant Wistrom (1996 and 1997).

And Brown earns his second coach of the year honors after winning it in 2005.

One interesting note that shows the balance in the conference this season is that every team in the league was represented by at least one player on the first-team squad.

Coaches also announced their All-Big 12 teams. They were forbidden from voting for their own players.

Here's a list of the award winners, as selected by the league's coaches:

Coach of the Year: Mack Brown, Texas

Offensive Lineman of the Year: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State

Defensive Lineman of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

Offensive Freshman of the Year: Christine Michael, Texas A&M

Defensive Freshman of the Year: Aldon Smith, Missouri

Special Teams Player of the Year: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

Defensive Newcomer of the Year: David Sims, Iowa State

Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

Defensive Player of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

Offensive Player of the Year: Colt McCoy, Texas

And here's a look at who the coaches chose for their first-team offensive and defensive units.

OFFENSE:

QB: Colt McCoy, Texas

RB: Daniel Thomas, Kansas State

RB: Keith Toston, Oklahoma State

FB: Bryant Ward, Oklahoma State

WR: Dezmon Briscoe, Kansas

WR: Jordan Shipley, Texas

WR: Danario Alexander, Missouri

TE: Jeron Mastrud, Kansas State

OL: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State *

OL: Trent Williams, Oklahoma *

OL: Nick Stringer, Kansas State

OL: Brandon Carter, Texas Tech

OL: Nate Solder, Colorado

K: Grant Ressel, Missouri

KR/PR: Brandon Banks, Kansas State

DEFENSE

DL: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska

DL: Gerald McCoy, Oklahoma *

DL: Von Miller, Texas A&M

DL: Brandon Sharpe, Texas Tech

DL: Jared Crick, Nebraska

LB: Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri *

LB: Jesse Smith, Iowa State

LB: Travis Lewis, Oklahoma

DB: Earl Thomas, Texas

DB: Perrish Cox, Oklahoma State

DB: Larry Asante, Nebraska

DB: Prince Amukamara, Nebraska

P: Derek Epperson, Baylor

Note: Bold notations are unanimous selections. Those selections with an asterisk are repeat choices from last season.

I was a little disappointed that the coaches can make a decision to pick a fullback as a specific positional choice and then not designate one of the picks specifically for a center. Every team in the league has a center. Not every team in the Big 12 has a true fullback that plays the majority of his snaps.

Also, it's an age-old pet peeve of mine that they don't break down the defensive choices into specific positions like ends, tackles, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties.

Here's a link to the Big 12's Web site for a complete listing of the first-team, second-team and honorable mention choices.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin


Here are three things that Nebraska and Missouri need to tonight in order to win tonight at Faurot Field.

Three things Nebraska needs to do to win:

1. Dominate in the trenches. Nebraska’s front four has to dominate the Missouri offensive line and get to Blaine Gabbert often. Nebraska doesn’t necessarily need sacks, but they do need to knock him around. Ndamukong Suh, Barry Turner and Co. can’t let the sophomore get into a comfort zone or it could be a long night. Interestingly, Bo Pelini didn’t think his defensive line was good enough last season so he came up with a wrinkle of a stand-up lineman he thought would fool Missouri. Instead, it paved the way for a 52-17 Missouri win. The Cornhuskers are better and more experienced this season. No gimmicks needed. Just beat them with straight four-man pressure.

2. Have strong, mistake-free games from their cornerbacks. Missouri loves to spread its wide receivers, trying to get matchup advantages. Starting Nebraska cornerbacks Anthony West and Prince Amukamara often are on an island. They can’t get beat by the Tigers’ athletic bunch of receivers.

3. Run the ball effectively. If the Cornhuskers can climb onto Roy Helu Jr.’s back, they likely have a good shot of winning. That would enable them to keep Missouri’s high-powered team off the field and dominate the game. But remember, Nebraska averaged only 2.3 yards per carry against Missouri last season. It has to do a better job to win.

Three things Missouri needs to do to win

1. Early success by Gabbert. The sophomore has played as well as any Big 12 quarterback in the first month of the season, but he hasn’t played a defense anywhere like Nebraska’s. The Tigers like to beat opponents with short passes. Look for Nebraska to play Missouri’s receivers tight and challenge Gabbert to beat them deep.

2. Run the ball better than earlier this season. The Tigers during their Big 12 title seasons ran the ball effectively. But they’ve struggled this season, averaging only 3.8 yards per carry. Derrick Washington, who rushed for 1,000 yards last season, hasn’t played as well this season. He needs a big night against the Cornhuskers. The Tigers seem to have closed ranks this season from the wide splits that marked the Chase Daniel era. Maybe they need to go back to that strategy to provide some running lanes for Washington, Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore.

3. Play with the defensive intensity of the Illinois game. As predicted before the season opener, Missouri’s Sean Weatherspoon indeed “squeezed the pulp” out of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams. The Tigers haven’t played as well since, barely escaping against Bowling Green, allowing Furman to pass for 305 yards and Nevada to run for 218 yards. In order to beat Nebraska, the Nebraska front seven needs to turn up its intensity of that first game as it tries to contain Helu. If Missouri can control the ground game defensively and force Zac Lee to beat the Cornhuskers, it has a good shot at winning.

Big Ten picks for Week 1

September, 3, 2009
9/03/09
10:03
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


The games are back, and so are the picks. Hold your applause. Every Thursday this fall, I'll forecast what will happen in the Big Ten.

Last year, I went 71-17 (80.7 percent) during the regular season. That's all you need to know.


THURSDAY



Indiana 27, Eastern Kentucky 17:
The pistol offense gets off to a slow start, but Indiana's defense contains Eastern Kentucky and buys time for Ben Chappell and Co. to get going. Running backs Demetrius McCray and Darius Willis have a big night and the Hoosiers rack up five sacks as they open new-and-improved Memorial Stadium with a win.


SATURDAY



Ohio State 38, Navy 10:
The Mids receive the greeting they deserve from Buckeye Nation, but the reception on the field will be different. Ohio State's defensive line is disciplined enough to stop the triple option, and Navy doesn't appear to be as strong as it has been in past years. Buckeyes quarterback Terrelle Pryor has a nice debut in the win, and Dan Herron has a big day on the ground.


Penn State 45, Akron 17:
Joe Paterno returns to the sideline and enjoys the view as running back Evan Royster opens with a 150-yard effort in the opener. Akron quarterback Chris Jacquemain and his veteran wide receivers make some plays against an iffy Nittany Lions secondary, but Penn State pulls away in the second quarter and never looks back.


Northwestern 34, Towson 6:
Those expecting a drop-off from Northwestern forget that defense carried this team in 2008 and will do the same this fall. Towson's offense has major question marks and manages just two field goals against the Wildcats, who start slow on offense but pick things up in the second half behind quarterback Mike Kafka and freshman running back Arby Fields. Towson allowed more than 230 rush yards a game last fall.


Michigan State 31, Montana State 13:
The Bobcats from Bozeman aren't pushovers, having upset Colorado in 2006 and keeping things close for a while against Minnesota last year. Standout defensive end Dane Fletcher makes some plays early, but Kirk Cousins eventually gets on track and uses his many weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Spartans backup quarterback Keith Nichol also logs time and performs well, keeping the competition tight heading into Week 2.


Minnesota 31, Syracuse 21
: One of the more intriguing Week 1 matchups goes to the Gophers, who struggle a bit early amid the hoopla over Doug Marrone's Syracuse debut and Greg Paulus' return to football. Paulus makes a play or two against the Minnesota defense, but Adam Weber and a dynamic group of Gophers wideouts steal the show. Eric Decker and Hayo Carpenter each catch two touchdowns as Minnesota pulls away in the third quarter.


Purdue 31, Toledo 24:
Some tense moments in head coach Danny Hope's debut at Purdue, but the Boilermakers prevail thanks to a solid rushing attack led by Ralph Bolden and Jaycen Taylor. Toledo's offense returns plenty of veterans and moves the ball against an iffy Purdue front seven. Bolden turns the tide early in the fourth quarter with a long touchdown run.


Iowa 28, Northern Iowa 9:
Iowa needs its defense to step up from the get-go, and the unit comes through against Northern Iowa, a formidable FCS opponent. Hawkeyes junior quarterback Ricky Stanzi displays obvious improvement and finds the rejuvenated Tony Moeaki for two touchdowns. The run game is so-so for Iowa, but it doesn't need much from Paki O'Meara and Adam Robinson in the win.


Michigan 28, Western Michigan 24:
Popular opinion is going against the Wolverines after everything that happened this week in Ann Arbor, but Rich Rodriguez's crew finds a way to start 1-0. Tim Hiller and the Broncos have their way with Michigan's secondary in the first half, but Wolverines defensive end Brandon Graham turns the game with a sack and a forced fumble early in the third quarter. Quarterbacks Tate Forcier, Nick Sheridan and Denard Robinson make enough plays against a vulnerable WMU defense.


Illinois 44, Missouri 38:
The Illinois-Missouri matchup usually oozes offense, and this year will be no exception. But Juice Williams gets the final say against Sean Weatherspoon and the Tigers, as he finds four different receivers for touchdowns. Sophomore running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure both show improvement as a dynamic Illini offense secures a big win in the Edward Jones Dome.


Wisconsin 30, Northern Illinois 23:
The Huskies are on the rise under second-year coach Jerry Kill and boast a dangerous quarterback in sophomore Chandler Harnish. Wisconsin worries me a bit on both sides of the ball, but running backs Zach Brown and John Clay should have a big day against an NIU defense that lost star Larry English. It'll be tight for a while, but I can't see the Badgers losing a night game at home.

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin



Iowa State 31, North Dakota State 17 (Thursday): The Paul Rhoads era begins Thursday in Ames against a tricky opponent in the Bison, who are 3-2 in their last five games against FBS opponents -- including a victory at Minnesota in 2007. They’ll challenge a young Iowa State team struggling to find its identity on defense. But even with those uncertainties, Craig Bohl’s team likely won’t have enough offense to stick with Austen Arnaud and Co. in their first game running Tom Herman’s no-huddle defense.


Baylor 31, Wake Forest 28: The Bears learned their lesson last season in Waco, falling into an early 17-0 deficit before losing a 41-13 blowout. Art Briles decided not to start Robert Griffin in that game, but he’s been in the Bears’ starting lineup ever since. The key will be the performance of new Baylor tackles Danny Watkins and Phillip Blake, who will protect Griffin from Wake Forest’s pass rush. Wake Forest starting defensive ends Tristan Dorty and Kyle Wilber have accounted for only seven career starts and will be outweighed by more than 50 pounds per man by the Baylor tackles. The Bears rushed for at least 200 yards in four of the last five games last season. If they can maintain that balance with Griffin’s passing on Saturday, they can steal an upset victory.


Oklahoma State 34, Georgia 31: Mike Gundy’s team comes into this game with more hype than any Oklahoma State team in history with the highest national ranking to start the season. The Cowboys will face a couple of potentially troubling personnel losses after starting tight end Jamal Mosley (quit team) and starting middle linebacker Orie Lemon (season-ending knee injury) were lost earlier this week. The Cowboys won’t be facing a team unaccustomed to road success as Mark Richt’s team is an incredible 30-4 on the road, including a 5-2 road record against top 10 teams. The Bulldogs will be a physical challenge and hammer away at the Oklahoma State defense that struggled late last season. But I’m expecting the Oklahoma State offensive triplets to prove too much for Georgia in a shootout.


Illinois 35, Missouri 31: The Illini are looking to turn the tables after losing four straight against the Tigers in the annual Arch Rivalry since it returned to St. Louis in 2002. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert will make his first career start, only a few long touchdowns passes from his old high school in the St. Louis area. Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has played big against the Illini in previous seasons with two interceptions last season. He’s promised to “squeeze the pulp” out of Illinois quarterback Juice Williams again this season. But in the end, Williams’ experience and play-making abilities will prove to be a little much for the Tigers to overcome.


Nebraska 45, Florida Atlantic 17: Zac Lee makes his first career start as the Cornhuskers attempt to build on momentum that saw them finish with a four-game winning streak, punctuating that with a Gator Bowl victory over Clemson. It will be important for the Cornhuskers to get a lot of work for an inexperienced set of running backs that features only two players -- Roy Helu Jr. and Marcus Mendoza -- with previous college experience. The Cornhuskers will face old rival Howard Schnellenberger, who claimed a memorable national championship while at Miami by beating them in the 1984 Orange Bowl. The Owls are coming off a victory over Central Michigan in the Motor City Bowl. Quarterback Rusty Smith was the MVP of that game and comes into the contest as the Sun Belt Conference’s leading career passer. But look for Nebraska’s talented defensive front to repeatedly pressure him and set the tone for the victory.


Oklahoma 48, BYU 20: The Sooners and Cougars christen the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium in Arlington, Texas, in its first college football game. Both teams are alike on offense as they have standout quarterbacks and tight ends and rebuilt offensive lines that are question marks coming into the game. Look for Oklahoma’s dominance along the defensive front to be the difference in this game, helping to extend BYU’s losing streak of 12 games to ranked nonconference opponents. BYU quarterback Max Hall struggled against better opponents last season and will be flummoxed by Oklahoma’s veteran defense that returns nine starters from last season.


Texas A&M 28, New Mexico 17: Mike Sherman and the Aggies will be looking for a better start than last season, when they dropped a season-opening loss to Arkansas State that deflated much of his momentum in starting the program. Look for the Aggies to play better Saturday with improved play in the trenches after their struggles last season. A&M running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael should be primed to dictate the pace.


Texas 51, Louisiana-Monroe 7: The Longhorns start off a pillow-soft nonconference schedule and shouldn’t face much of a challenge from the War Hawks, who finished 4-8 last season and were picked to finish seventh in the Sun Belt this season. Colt McCoy returns for his fourth season as starter and the Longhorns’ offense should prove multiple problems for the smaller Louisiana-Monroe team. Watch for Texas to try to feature Vondrell McGee as it hopes to give him a chance to grow into a comfortable role in the offense. The Longhorns have won their last nine openers by a margin of 43 points. This one should be right in that range.


Kansas 55, Northern Colorado 10: Mark Mangino’s team comes in with more hype about a potential Big 12 North title than in any previous season in school history. The Jayhawks shouldn’t be challenged much by a Northern Colorado team that was 1-10 last season and has lost its last two openers to FBS schools by an average of 44.5 points per game. Look for Todd Reesing and an explosive set of Kansas wide receivers to have a huge night against the outmanned Bears.


Texas Tech 56, North Dakota 10: It’s a name the margin game for the Red Raiders, who will be trying to build the confidence of a developing offense keyed by new quarterback Taylor Potts. Mike Leach has won six straight openers, scoring an average of 45.7 points per game. I’m expecting a big offensive showing by a group intent on showing it still has firepower even after Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are gone.


Kansas State 31, Massachusetts 14: It’s reunion weekend as Bill Snyder returns to the sideline to begin his second tour of duty after a three-season sabbatical. Carson Coffman will get the nod at quarterback and celebrated junior college transfer Daniel Thomas gets the start at running back. The Minutemen hope for better luck than their last game against a Big 12 team when they were blown out at Texas Tech last season. Look for them to stay closer, but they'll be facing too much emotion for them to overcome in Manhattan with Snyder’s return.


Colorado 24, Colorado State 14 (Sunday): Dan Hawkins plans to wait until game day to name his starter. It shouldn’t matter if the Buffaloes’ running attack plays to its level against a CSU defensive front that allowed 190 rushing yards last season and returns only one starter. Colorado State is inexperienced at quarterback and the Buffaloes should prevail -- no matter who is their quarterback.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg


A sense of pride splashed over Ron Zook Monday as the Illinois head coach stood in the back of the offensive meeting room.

Zook watched as senior quarterback Juice Williams and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz reviewed practice tape. Schultz quizzed Williams on his every move, and Williams countered with the right responses.
 
 Scott Boehm/Getty Images
 Juice Williams is looking forward to the Illini’s matchup with Missouri on Saturday.


"A lot of times Coach Schultz will say, ‘Why did you go there?’" Zook recalled. "And as you hear [Williams] regurgitate the answer, it makes you feel good, a little pride that, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who’s come an awful long way.’ He’s able to explain that this is why he went with the ball some particular place and why he did what he did with no hesitation.

"To me, that’s a guy who has a pretty good grasp on what we’re trying to do.”

It's a good sign for a player who often draws mixed reviews. Everyone has an opinion on Juice Williams.

They admire his natural gifts and question his decision-making skills. They laud his mobility but rip his passing mechanics. Some remember his brilliance at Ohio State in 2007, when he convinced Zook to go for a fourth-and-1 in Illinois territory late in the fourth quarter, moved the chains and then ran out the clock to upset the top-ranked Buckeyes. Others recall the total offense records he set in three different stadiums last fall, including the Big House.

He has been called a catalyst and an underachiever.

But Williams has made it difficult to totally buy into him. Take last season, for example.

In Illinois' first seven ballgames, he passed for 16 touchdowns, ran for five scores and threw seven interceptions. In the final five games, he passes for six touchdowns, ran for none and tossed nine picks.

“That’s just part of life and playing the position of quarterback," Williams said of the conflicting views on his play. "Everybody’s going to have things to say. Some things are going to be positive, some will be negative. You’ve got to take the good with the bad and try to make the best out of it.”

As Williams begins his final season Saturday against Missouri in St. Louis (ESPN, 3:40 p.m. ET), there's a growing sense that he'll finally put together all the pieces this fall. He's the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback, and he has the league's best wide receiving corps at his disposal.

Most importantly, a player who had no quarterbacks coach in high school and admits he was extremely raw when he arrived in Champaign has a much stronger hold on the position.

"Being a fourth-year senior, a guy who has been through this a few times, I’m probably more mentally prepared than ever before," Williams said. "That comes along with experience. The more mentally prepared you are, the better off you are in a game situation.

"I know what to expect for the most part, and we’ll see what I can do come Saturday.”

Williams will operate in more or less the same offense that led the Big Ten in passing (269.3 ypg) and ranked third in scoring (28.7 ppg) last fall. Rather than install a new scheme, Schultz adapted to what Illinois had used under previous coordinator Mike Locksley.

As Schultz learned the system, Williams was right there with him.

"It was my challenge to learn what they called everything," Schultz said. "They may call a four route a four route, and I might have called a four route a dry route. So we’d sit there and he’d tell me the terminology and how they called things. He helped me through that."

Zook has often said Williams took too much blame for Illinois' shortcomings last year, but the coach acknowledges that limiting turnovers is the top priority for the quarterback this fall. Illinois is deeper at both wide receiver and running back, with additions like wideout Jarred Fayson and the physical maturity of backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure.

Schultz wants to make sure Williams uses all of his weapons and manages the game the right way.

"Managing the offense to me means getting the ball to the right people, being in the right place with the ball, getting into the right play," Schultz said. "That’s basically what we’ve been trying to work on with Juice since I’ve been here, making sure we do a great job of managing the offense.

"There’s no doubt we have some kids that we feel have a chance to be good performers, but for them to be good performers, we need to get them the ball in the right situations."

The Missouri game has brought a mixed bag for Williams. Last year, he set the total offense record at Edward Jones Dome with 461 yards, racking up 451 pass yards and five touchdowns. But Illinois lost, 52-42.

In 2007, Williams was knocked out of the game after completing 6 of 9 passes in another Illini defeat.

"Somehow, we have to come up with a victory this time," he said. "It's one of the more anticipated games of the year for our program. The atmosphere of the crowd is probably second to none, playing in a pro stadium, you’ve got half [Illinois] and half [Missouri] fans out there, the trash-talking goes on."

Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon got an early start on the trash talking through his Twitter page. Not surprisingly, Williams was Weatherspoon's target.

"Squeeze the pulp out of Juice," Williams recalled. "That was very unique and original. It's what makes the game fun. You’ve got to have some trash-talking going on. I know, coming from him, it was nothing personal.

"I didn’t take it as disrespectful at all. I found it kind of funny.”

Having fun is a goal for Williams in his final season. He didn't have enough as an overmatched freshman, and last season brought more lows than highs.

But with an increased knowledge of the game, Williams expects to enjoy his final spin around the Big Ten.

"It’s a lot easier to have fun with the game because you know what you’re doing, you know what to expect," he said. "You have had some success in the past, and it’s a whole lot easier to go out there and have fun and do what you love to do.

"I realized that the more I smile, the more I enjoy myself out there, the better I play.”

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