NCF Nation: Trent Hunter

Early 2012 SEC power rankings

January, 10, 2012
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We officially said goodbye to the 2011 season Monday night and crowned the Alabama Crimson Tide as college football's new champions. Now, it's time to shift our focus to 2012. Here's to hoping the Mayans were wrong:

1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.

2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.

4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.

5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.

6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.

7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.

8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.

9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.

11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.

13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.

14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.

New A&M coach Sumlin has plenty to prove

December, 10, 2011
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Texas A&M has its man.

Kevin Sumlin is ready to get started in College Station, but he'll have to get his hands dirty very early.

Sumlin's become one of the hottest names in coaching after a 12-1 season in 2011, but he'll have a laundry list of things to prove during his first big-time job after leaving Houston.

The Cougars were his first head-coaching job after stops around the Big 12 at Texas A&M, his new home, and in a variety of positions (including offensive coordinator) in five seasons at Oklahoma under coach Bob Stoops.

Every coach with a résumé comparable to Sumlin's faces the same question: Can that small-conference success translate to a bigger pond with bigger fish?

For Sumlin, it's tough to imagine a more difficult scenario for a coach taking over a major program for the first time, especially as a coach who has yet to guide a team to a conference title.

Texas A&M will head into the torture chamber that is the SEC West, where Arkansas finished third after going 10-2, with both losses against teams that will meet for the national title.

Mississippi State? It won nine games in 2010 and finished fifth in the division.

[+] EnlargeKevin Sumlin
AP Photo/David J. PhillipKevin Sumlin spent four seasons guiding the Houston Cougars in Conference USA, and now he'll tackle the SEC as Texas A&M's newest head coach.
Sumlin knows Texas. He's recruited it for a decade and will continue to do so at Texas A&M, where he'll go head to head with former Big 12 rivals Texas and Oklahoma to convince players to help the Aggies ascend the SEC totem pole after going 6-6 in their final Big 12 season.

Sumlin's a man with spread sensibilities, though. He'll have to prove he can adjust that system as necessary to succeed in the SEC.

Success in the SEC, as national title participants Alabama and LSU can attest, correlates with defensive success, with rare exceptions for 6-foot-5, 250-pound Heisman-winning quarterbacks/No. 1 picks who can throw for 30 touchdowns, run for 20 more and rack up 1,400 yards rushing.

Sumlin's job in that department will be finding the right man to coordinate his defense. Current interim coach Tim DeRuyter could certainly stay in that role, despite a rough 2011 season in which the Aggies at one point went 22 quarters without forcing a turnover and finished 66th nationally in total defense and 76th in scoring defense.

The Aggies' linebacker-rich roster suits DeRuyter's 3-4 scheme well, and is better suited to defend the power running games in the SEC versus the pass-happy quarterbacks' league that is the Big 12.

If DeRuyter's not the right man, Sumlin better find the right one.

Can he carry over his success without Case Keenum? He threw an outlandish 45 touchdowns to five interceptions this year, including one game with nine scoring tosses.

Two of those interceptions came in the conference championship game loss to Southern Miss, where Sumlin was denied a league title for the second time in four seasons. Last year, when Keenum tore his ACL, the Cougars went 5-7.

The Aggies brass believed Sumlin could succeed without Keenum, and now, Sumlin will have to convince plenty of others.

Sumlin's personnel will look much different at Texas A&M. In the immediate future, his best player on offense will be former blue-chip recruit and 221-pound power back Christine Michael, who packs plenty of speed but will be coming off ACL surgery on his knee in 2012.

Sumlin will have a first-year starter at quarterback and loses his most physically gifted receiver, Jeff Fuller, while he'll retain his most productive receiver, Ryan Swope.

Defensively, the Aggies will lose top talents like four-year starting safety Trent Hunter. Cornerbacks Coryell Judie and Terrence Frederick will be gone. Defensive linemen Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown will say goodbye, too.

Sumlin will have to adjust his wide-open passing attack at Houston that shredded Conference USA defenses to life among speedier, more instinctive SEC defenses.

He'll have the resources at Texas A&M, which built some recruiting momentum under Mike Sherman and will welcome a top-10 recruiting class in 2012 to some of the best facilities around.

Sherman proved that facilities and lots of talent don't equal wins. The Aggies were 1-5 in games decided by less than a touchdown in 2011.

Sumlin will set out to prove he's the right guy to fix that number and lots of others.

It won't be easy.

Aggies players react to Sherman firing

December, 2, 2011
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Texas A&M players weighed in on the Thursday firing of coach Mike Sherman. Some did so through a school release, and others vented through social-media outlets.

"I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to play for such a great coach and great man as Mike Sherman," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "As a coach and person, he reflected everything that's great about Texas A&M's traditions and values. He helped us become not only better football players but better men. I wish him and his family the very best as they move forward. He will be missed."

Texas A&M
AP Photo/Eric GayThe firing of coach Mike Sherman -- here celebrating after beating Texas in 2010 -- has prompted strong reactions from several current and former Texas A&M players.
Safety Trent Hunter, a senior captain and four-year starter, said Sherman was "a father figure."

"He's a guy that really taught us core values that I will take with me for the rest of my life," Hunter said. "He is a man of integrity, character and honesty. There's not much more that you can ask for in a man than what Coach Sherman brings to the table. His door was always open to us and you could count on him being brutally honest with you no matter what. That's one of the things that I will always respect him for."

On Twitter, more Texas A&M players weighed in, and did so in much more pointed terms.

"What I'm reading better be fake. Not kidding," receiver Uzoma Nwachukwu wrote in a series of tweets as news broke Thursday evening. "Way way wayyyy beyond livid. Furious. Funny how all these decisions are made without thinking of the players. Funny how things work."

Offensive lineman Cedric Ogbuehi was angry, too.

"Everybody in the front office are so fake I swear, come to us smiling all the time n (expletive) then do this," he tweeted. "People told me its all a business they dont care about the players, but damn! (I don't know) what to think anymore."

Former quarterback Stephen McGee, who played under Sherman and is now with the Dallas Cowboys, weighed in, too.

"Disappointed of news that Coach Sherman will be released. Was a great football coach and an even better man! A&M has lost a really good one!" he wrote on Twitter. "I find it extremely difficult to point to Sherman for the seasons' shortcomings.. He put his team in situations to win every game and at some point players have to make plays.. A&M has made some bold long term decisions. All that being said I will always love and support Texas A&M! Special place, great people and an unmatched spirit!"

Linebacker Von Miller was one of the best Aggies of all time, winning the Butkus Award last season and being selected No. 2 overall in last year's NFL draft.

"It's unfortunate to see Coach Sherm go He is like another father to me He helped me become the person I am today I will never forget, never," he tweeted on his verified account. "Integrity, honor, accountability, faith, brotherhood, and my definition of the aggie spirit all came to me playing for Coach Sherman. gig em"

Big 12 weekend rewind

November, 28, 2011
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Here's our look back at the weekend that was in the Big 12, which set up a de facto Big 12 Championship game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.

Best offensive player: Terrance Ganaway, RB, Baylor. Ganaway quite literally "put da team on his back, doe." The 250-pounder rumbled for 247 yards and two touchdowns on a school-record 42 carries. Robert Griffin III was out with a concussion and Baylor needed somebody to step up. Ganaway did it in spectacular fashion, helping the Bears hold off Texas

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Acho
Brett Davis/US PresswireQB Case McCoy, 6, celebrates with Emmanuel Acho after Texas defeated Texas A&M last week.
Best defensive player: Emmanuel Acho, LB, Texas. Acho was everywhere for the Longhorns in their 27-25 win against Texas A&M. He made 14 tackles (10 solo) and had a tackle for loss in the win.

Best play: Texas kicker Justin Tucker's 40-yard game-winner to beat Texas A&M. No pressure, man. Just the bragging rights of one of America's quintessential football states for a long, long time. Tucker's kick was perfect. A no-doubter as soon as he kicked it. No matter what happens in the future, Tucker will always hold a special place in burnt orange lore. An ugly game with a gorgeous finish for the Longhorns.

Best game: Baylor 66, Texas Tech 42. So, Texas and Texas A&M had all the drama, but it was a pretty unattractive game. The Bears and Red Raiders in Cowboys Stadium was a ton of fun and had a different kind of drama. We had a crazy trick play, a team trying to rally without perhaps the nation's best player, big plays by his replacement, tons of turnovers and lots of offensive talent that put a ton of points on the board. This one was just fun to watch. A lot more fun than the Lone Star Finale.

Coolest play: Texas Tech's mistaken identity TD. Texas Tech backup quarterback Jacob Karam's No. 3 jersey was torn in pregame, and the Red Raiders gave him a nameless No. 85 jersey instead. Quarterback Seth Doege faked a handoff to the running back and tossed it to Karam on the end around, and we can only assume Baylor had no idea who No. 85 was. Karam slung it downfield to Darrin Moore, who caught it over a defender, stayed on his feet and trotted in the last few yards for a 43-yard score that cut Baylor's lead to 24-21 midway through the second quarter.

Best fashion sense: Texas A&M. The Aggies broke out maroon jerseys, maroon pants and maroon helmets for the first time since 2006 in their rivalry finale against Texas. A solid look.

Craziest statistic: Texas A&M. I heard it on Thursday and double-checked it. In the Aggies' six losses this season, they've been outscored 83-0 in the third quarter.

Best team performance: Texas. The Longhorns didn't do it pretty, but the defense kept them in it with a defensive touchdown, and Quandre Diggs added a huge 81-yard punt return to help Texas outscore the Aggies 17-0 in the third quarter. Texas played in one of the most frenzied atmospheres in the league this year, and strung together a huge late drive after the Aggies snatched the lead with 1:48 to play. Texas showed a lot of guts in this one.

Best appearance in relief: Nick Florence, QB, Baylor. RG3 came back in after taking a hit to the head and having it slammed against the turf. He looked dazed, but returned to the game and ran for a touchdown. When the Bears returned from halftime, though, the Bears announced that Griffin was done. Enter Florence. He made plays and threw two 40-plus yard touchdown passes, completing 9-of-12 passes for 151 yards and two scores.

Worst moment: The clock running out in Texas' and Missouri's victories. To me, it's nothing but sad. I watched games like Ohio State and Michigan on Saturday. It's rivalry weekend. The idea of never playing that game again is insanity. In the Big 12, though, it's accepted. The Border Showdown and Lone Star Showdown are done for awhile, and to me, it's the worst aspect of the recent realignment moves.

Best tweets: Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M. Gray was hurt and stuck on the sidelines in a letter jacket after suffering a stress fracture in his shoulder against Kansas. Gray, though, was tweeting and taking photos from the sideline and giving some love to his replacement, Ben Malena, who played outstanding against the Aggies.

One last A&M loss on the way to the SEC

November, 25, 2011
11/25/11
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The deed was done.

Amidst a stream of long-faced Aggies fans filing out of the Kyle Field bleachers, a single hand flashed the most famous hand signal in Texas -- the hook 'em Horns -- and let out a primal "Yeah!"

Minutes earlier, the Aggies watched Justin Tucker flutter a 40-yard kick through the uprights for a 27-25 Texas win, leaving the worst phrase in sports behind for the A&M faithful.

"Better luck next year."

Or not.

The deepest burn in the Aggies' self-inflicted wound on Thursday night was the Longhorns' absence a year from now, and likely many years in the future. Thanksgiving will come and go. The Longhorns won't be coming to College Station. The Aggies won't march to Austin.

These bitter rivals have undergone this joyous ritual 118 times in their history dating back to 1894. They won't again for the foreseeable future when Texas A&M kicks off its SEC schedule next fall and the Longhorns stay behind in the Big 12.

[+] EnlargeCase McCoy
AP Photo/David J. PhillipA 25-yard run by quarterback Case McCoy helped set up the Longhorns for the game-winning field goal.
On Thursday night, the Aggies' biggest flaw flashed its face one more time, and Texas A&M will be forced to live with it for years to come.

"Seems like it's the same comment I've made before," coach Mike Sherman said before being asked a single question after the loss.

Another double-digit first-half lead -- nine at halftime -- and another crushing loss.

"Probably the hardest loss I've had since I've been here," said senior receiver Jeff Fuller.

Thursday marked the fifth time this season the Aggies controlled the game's first 30 minutes before ceding to chaos in the final stanza. In 12 outings this season, the Aggies were favored to win 11 times. They finish 6-6. A middling December bowl game awaits. For all the pain and frustration of this season -- losses at home to Oklahoma State, Missouri and a loss to future SEC foe Arkansas at Cowboys Stadium were among the worst -- a win against hated Texas would have made a disappointing 2011 season feel a bit more complete.

Fuller's 16-yard touchdown catch to snatch back the lead with 1:48 left made it feel oh so close.

"I didn't notice anybody panicking," said Sherman, now 25-25 in four seasons at Texas A&M. "If you look at our sideline, it's not a panicked sideline. It never has been. It never will be. We pretty much keep our composure."

Texas' offense, better than just two Big 12 teams, patching together a game-winning drive? Don't count on it.

In the cruelest of fashions, the improbable silenced the nearly hoarse 12th Man. Sophomore Case McCoy -- brother of perennial Aggie-annoyance Colt -- slipped past a pass rush for a 25-yard scramble to bring a second comeback in a single half near its completion.

This was the way it's always been. In many ways, it was how it had to end. The Longhorns, aka Big Brother, getting the best of the Aggies, ripping out a heart flush with hope from a touchdown pass to Fuller that embodied clutch.

Land grant versus the flagship. All too cruel. All too poetic.

"The young guys aren't going to get a chance to come back in the spring, work as hard as they can and avenge this loss," safety Trent Hunter said.

A loss that fit the mold of nearly every other defeat this season left Sherman saying words of frustration that were exceeded only by their familiarity.

"This was a game that we should have won," he said. "And we didn't."

Turnovers, an offense gone cold and a defense that looked lost let the Longhorns back into the game and kept the Aggies from scratching a seventh satisfying notch in the win column, even when so many more -- 10 wins? Eleven? -- could have gone the Aggies' way.

"We set our standards high and we didn't achieve what we wanted to. It's always difficult," Hunter said.

Instead, a tearful, silent locker room with nothing left to say and a future that's looking all the more imposing by the day. One of Texas A&M's most talented teams in recent history, forced to write 6-6 in the record books, complete with a loss to Texas.

"The Texas-Texas A&M game speaks for itself," said running back Ben Malena. "But we're going to the SEC next year, so we've got bigger and better things to worry about."

Indeed you do, Aggies.

3-point stance: NCAA angers Muschamp

September, 9, 2011
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1. The NCAA can say all it wants about reform and putting student-athletes first. But as long as the NCAA comes down on the wrong side of cases like that of Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, it will continue to harm its message and its mission. The NCAA suspended Floyd two games for taking $2,500 from a non-profit foundation with no ties to Florida. Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley couched his anger in diplomatic terms. Head coach Will Muschamp (“angered, disgusted”) did not. Good for Muschamp.

2. Tired of greedy schools out for anything but the good of the game? Check out the story in the Houston Chronicle on Thursday about SMU center Blake McJunkin in the loss to Texas A&M on Sunday. McJunkin helped tackle Aggie safety Trent Hunter after an interception. When Hunter lost his helmet, McJunkin raised his arm above Hunter’s head to shield him in the pileup. “It was the right thing to do, no matter the color of his jersey,” McJunkin said. The right thing to do? Hope he inspires a few college presidents.

3. The hardest thing to do in college football is drive the length of the field for a touchdown. It’s even harder early in the season. Defenses, penalties, turnovers and mistakes all can end a possession prematurely. When No. 9 Oklahoma State went more than 70 yards for a touchdown on each of its first three drives against Arizona on Thursday night, the Cowboys served notice that this is the year to take them seriously as a contender for the Big 12 title and a BCS berth.
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Mike Sherman just finished watching his top-10 team scrimmage on its home field for two hours. He's concerned.

"We’re still looking for that third running back," the Aggies coach says without a hint of sarcasm.

Safety Trent Hunter has worries of his own, and encounters it every time he steps on the practice field.

"Our receivers right now, I’d put up against any team in the nation," the senior says.

Life is good for the Texas A&M offense in preseason camp, which is stocked with perhaps the best collection of skill-position talent in the Big 12.

There are plenty of reasons for the Aggies faithful to lose a little sleep these days. Will a move to the SEC eventually happen? Does Texas A&M have what it takes to win in Norman against an Oklahoma team that might carry a No. 1 ranking into the matchup?

One question that doesn't need an answer: Will the Aggies be able to put points on the board?

Why is Sherman searching for a third running back?

That's the problem a coach discovers when he has the top two running backs in his conference.

Christine Michael rushed for 844 yards as a freshman in 2009 and looked headed for his first 1,000-yard season as a sophomore in 2010 (631 yards in just over seven games) before breaking his leg and missing the rest of the season.

[+] EnlargeCyrus Gray
Thomas Campbell/US PresswireCyrus Gray piled up 938 yards and 10 touchdowns over the season's final seven games.
That's when Cyrus Gray took over, rushing for 938 yards and 10 touchdowns in the season's final seven games.

Both return. And that third running back? Whoever ends up earning the spot (this blogger casts his vote for Mister Jones), he'll have a lot to live up to.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill has just six career starts, but he won five of them (all conference games, including wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma) and is throwing to one of the deepest receiving corps in the game today. Tannehill began his A&M career as a receiver and actually led the group in receiving in 2008 and 2009 before ceding to Jeff Fuller, who emerged as one of the nation's top receivers in 2010 with the first 1,000-yard season in Aggies history.

"He’s on another level," Hunter said of Fuller's fall camp performance. "All of our receivers are."

Slot man Ryan Swope equaled Fuller's 72 receptions, amassing 825 yards and four touchdowns. Uzoma Nwachukwu, affectionately known as "Eazy," caught 36 passes for 407 yards and four scores.

Others such as Kenric McNeal and Brandal Jackson could be poised for big years and add even more depth to the squad.

"They’re just multitalented guys. You can put them anywhere. You can put Jeff at the slot. You can put Ryan outside. Eazy. All our skill guys right now our interchangeable," Hunter said. "All our guys did punt returns and kick returns in high school, played quarterback or running back, and they all played so many different positions, that their skill sets aren’t trapped at one position right now. They’re interchangeable and can go at any position."

And for guys like Hunter, the additional plus for the Aggies is obvious.

"Playing in the Big 12 this year, they have a lot of talent year in and year out, and going against guys that can compete with the best of them will really help us this year," he said. "Especially as a secondary going against receivers like we have."

"They’re so balanced," Hunter said. "I really can’t even pinpoint one thing they do best. They just do everything so well."
For the past decade, Oklahoma (and, until last year, Texas) had established a stranglehold on the top of the Big 12.

The Sooners won their seventh Big 12 title since 2000 in 2010, but did it after winning a three-team tiebreaker atop the Big 12 South and erasing a 17-point second-quarter deficit in the Big 12 title game.

The two teams that tied Oklahoma for the division title?

Mike Gundy
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtOklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has built his program into a consistent winner and a player on the national stage.
Texas A&M, which beat the Sooners by two touchdowns at Kyle Field, and Oklahoma State, which lost a heart-stopper to the Sooners in Stillwater with the South on the line and the Cowboys favored to win.

The result was a three-way tie for first place atop the division, the best finish in Oklahoma State history. Texas A&M was perched atop the division for the first time since 1998, though the Sooners were the league's representative in the title game.

Now, with the Big 12 2011 season set to kick off in two weeks, Oklahoma has company inside the top 10 of the national polls.

"I feel like slowly but surely we are gaining on the tradition-rich schools in this country," Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said of his team.

Gundy isn't emphasizing the comparison to the Sooners, but he's not running from it, either.

"Obviously, there’s always a comparison made to Oklahoma because they’re an hour and 20 minutes down the road and our goal is to win a league championship," Gundy said. "History tells you we have to go through Norman to do that."

The Sooners and Cowboys tangle in the league finale on Dec. 3 in Stillwater, actually. But you get the point.

The Cowboys' rise has been more gradual, never topping the heights of the 11-win season OSU fans celebrated in 2010, and never finishing higher than third in the division in the four seasons under Gundy before the 2009 season, when OSU finished second.

The divisions are gone now, but the growth in the program has remained.

"These guys know how to win," Gundy said. "They’ve won 29 games in three years and so there’s something to be said about players understanding and knowing how to win."

Texas A&M's rise happened over the course of just one half of a season. In two and a half seasons at Texas A&M, coach Mike Sherman carried a 13-18 record, and his Aggies looked headed for another disappointing season in 2010.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill
AP Photo/Dave EinselCoach Mike Sherman's move to quarterback Ryan Tannehill spurred a six-game Texas A&M winning streak.
Sherman made a switch at quarterback, ripped off a six-game conference winning streak and suddenly had the best season at the program in a decade -- and now the Aggies are knocking on the door of possible membership in the SEC.

"I always feel like competition brings out the best in everybody, and I feel like we have better competition at positions than maybe the first year, when a guy kind of knew he was the starter," Sherman said. "Realistically you say, 'Well, there’s competition,' but maybe there wasn't."

But those six wins instilled in Sherman's players the same sense that Gundy's players have learned over the past three years. And with efforts on the recruiting trail, Sherman has instilled more talent on his depth chart.

"You look around the locker room, you see some guys who can make some plays. I think they have a better belief system, believe that we can win a football game," Sherman said. "And that's real, real important."

Gundy and Sherman have built programs. Sherman's base and resources were greater than Gundy's. But the Cowboys coach drew inspiration from Mike Leach, who spent a decade in Lubbock making sure Texas Tech did things his way and won as a result.

"When I look across the country for someone that took a program from somewhere and built it into a consistent, successful program, he’s a guy that I recognize," Gundy said.

Gundy's "system" encompasses what players do on the field, in the weight room, off the field, in the classroom and in their communities. Older players make sure younger players know what's expected, and the cycle never ends as time passes.

"You have players go out early and go to the NFL and you’re going to have coaches leave to become head coaches and coordinators," Gundy said. "So the basic core unit of what we do here every day has to stay the same. If that stays the same, you’re allowed that flexibility with players and coaches."

Oklahoma State lost lots of star power before the 2010 season and was picked to finish fifth in the division with a new quarterback, no proven receivers and four new offensive linemen.

Gundy credits the unforeseen success to that system taking hold.

"It allows us to perform better than we should when maybe we’re not as talented or we’re not as experienced," he said. "We didn’t have hardly any experience coming back last year, and we stuck with what we believed in, and I am somewhat convinced that that’s the reason we were able to start playing pretty good and have a productive year in somewhat of a rebuilding phase."

The Aggies and Cowboys aren't rebuilding this year. The offseason was all about gearing up for a chase at a league title, a BCS game or more.

Oklahoma opens the season as the nation's No. 1 team, and while the Longhorns are searching for an identity, the Sooners won't have to look far to find a new rival bent on announcing its arrival on the national stage.

Notes from an up-close look at A&M

August, 15, 2011
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- There's only so much you can take from a 90-minute workout without pads, but here are a couple quick thoughts and observations from Sunday afternoon's workout inside the indoor facility at Texas A&M.

I'll be there this morning for a live scrimmage with pads, too.
  • Last year, when I visited College Station in the preseason, it was pretty obvious during team work that Jerrod Johnson had a ways to go before he was back to the same player he was in 2009. He obviously never quite got there. This year? Not the case. All the usual suspects looked great. Ryan Tannehill was as good as you'd expect, Jeff Fuller looked great, and Christine Michael showed some nice explosiveness and lateral movement. Cyrus Gray is limited after suffering a minor hamstring injury on the first day of camp, but he's expected to be 100 percent for the season opener against SMU on Sept. 4.
  • Every time I've come to a practice at College Station, I've been impressed with what Jameill Showers had to offer as a backup quarterback, and Sunday was no different. It's a limited sample size, sure, but he throws an outstanding ball, and he made good decisions throughout Sunday's workout in team drills.
  • An offseason arrest didn't put Damontre Moore in the good graces of the coaching staff, and as a result, the possible star had spent the first week of camp working primarily with the third and fourth groups, according to other A&M reporters who had attended earlier practices. On Sunday, however, he was back working with the first team at the Joker position. A good sign for his future, no doubt. The sophomore may have struggled off the field during the offseason, but remember: Von Miller infamously wasn't the personification of a leader early in his career, and left as one of the program's all-time greats -- on and off the field. There's plenty of time for Moore to shore up his act.
  • Inside linebacker is a primary concern for the Aggies this fall camp, especially after they got a preview of a grim future without Michael Hodges this year when Hodges missed the majority of the Cotton Bowl with a knee injury. Garrick Williams is one of the defense's leaders and a returning starter at one of the two spots in the 3-4 scheme, but Donnie Baggs and Jonathan Stewart have been earning lots of time together with the first team -- and without Williams. Coach Mike Sherman's explanation for the approach: "I always like to see guys with the first group, because that's when you get to evaluate them. When you're with the second group, you're going up against the second group of offense. So let's see how they do against the first group guys, so it's really a more accurate evaluation of where they stand. They could be killers in the second group but go to the first group and it's a little bit more challenging, so I want to see them against the better competition."
  • Sherman says he's still trying to sort out who his starter will be, but I like the approach to throw them in with the first-team and see who outperforms the other. Stewart is the more experienced player, but Baggs, a true freshman, has obviously impressed enough to even be in this position. Sherman expects the position to be more solidified early next week.
  • Sherman played it coy when asked about a "rumor" that Texas A&M's coaches met with university president R. Bowen Loftin about the possibility of a move to the SEC. "Rumors? Really? Are you saying it's a rumor? I don't comment on rumors," he said. "You led with a rumor, so..." A poor choice of words, sure, but a fruitless line of questioning, no doubt, regardless of word choice.
  • Safety Trent Hunter did discuss the prospect of the SEC, but only that the team has been told not to discuss it. "Our coaches made a point on the first day. Don't talk about it, don't tweet about it, don't Facebook about it," Hunter said, adding that it hasn't been difficult to focus on the field while rumors swirled. "It's not anything that's going to affect us playing SMU on that first week."
  • Today's scrimmage will be live with plenty of hitting, Sherman says. Should be exciting. I'll have some notes and stats up on the blog later.
The Big 12 has released its All-Big 12 preseason team as voted on by the media, including yours truly.

Here's my ballot, for reference.

And here's the preseason team, in all its glory.

OFFENSE

QB: Landry Jones, Oklahoma
RB: Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M
RB: Bryce Brown, Kansas State
RB: Roy Finch, Oklahoma
WR: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State
WR: Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma
TE: Michael Egnew, Missouri
OL: Levy Adcock, Oklahoma State
OL: Kelechi Osemele, Iowa State
C: Ben Habern, Oklahoma
OL: Lonnie Edwards, Texas Tech
OL: Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M

DEFENSE

DL: Brad Madison, Missouri
DL: Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma
DL: Kheeston Randall, Texas
DL: Frank Alexander, Oklahoma
LB: Travis Lewis, Oklahoma
LB: Jake Knott, Iowa State
LB: Keenan Robinson, Texas
DB: Coryell Judie, Texas A&M
DB: Markelle Martin, Oklahoma State
DB: Blake Gideon, Texas
DB: Demontre Hurst, Oklahoma

SPECIALISTS

K: Grant Ressel, Missouri
P: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State
KR: Coryell Judie, Texas A&M
PR: Ryan Broyles, Oklahoma

AWARDS

Offensive Player of the Year: Justin Blackmon, WR, OSU

Defensive Player of the Year: Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma

Newcomer of the Year: Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas

Selections by team: Oklahoma (9), Oklahoma State (4), Texas A&M (4), Missouri (3), Texas (3), Iowa State (2), Kansas State (1)

And a few thoughts:
  • Generally, I agree with most of the selections. Nothing was really shocking. Brandon Weeden vs. Landry Jones is pretty close to a coin flip, and let's not act surprised that the quarterback from the bigger program got the nod. Perception is reality, even if the numbers are so, so close. Jones has the Heisman hype coming into the season, certainly more than Weeden, based on little more than the possibility his team runs the table.
  • Running back is going to get a lot of attention, but let's not get riled up. This is going to sound bad, but believe me when I say I don't mean it to: Bryce Brown's selection is more an indictment of the returning talent at running back in the Big 12 than an endorsement of the hype surrounding Brown, who isn't even the clear-cut starter at K-State just yet. Here's what I wrote when I posted my ballot earlier this month. "The second running back spot is near impossible. Just about anyone might get it on the official vote when its revealed by the Big 12. You could realistically make a convincing case for James Sims, Eric Stephens, Joe Randle, Roy Finch and even newcomers like Malcolm Brown, Bryce Brown or Oklahoma's Brandon Williams. And that's the first team!" Well, there you go. For the record, I voted for Christine Michael, and still feel good about it.
  • Finch and Brown tied for votes, giving the Big 12 three running backs. There weren't three spots on the ballot. And it also explains how Malcolm Brown got Newcomer of the Year and Bryce Brown got first-team All-Big 12 running back, despite both being newcomers. It's a little confusing, I suppose, and maybe not everyone did it, but my guess is a lot of ballots had Finch as the first-team running back and Malcolm Brown as the Newcomer of the Year. Not all that surprising.
  • I originally had Luke Joeckel on my ballot, but took him off for Missouri's Elvis Fisher. I think Joeckel will end up being better, and maybe even by the end of this year, but right now, Fisher is the better lineman, and that's how I define the ballot. Perhaps others see it differently. There's no concrete rubric for this.
  • I'm not very surprised to see Ronnell Lewis and Blake Gideon grab spots on the team, though I voted for Tony Jerod-Eddie and Trent Hunter in those spots on my ballot. Second safety and defensive line were pretty tough for me to fill out. Neither spot is very deep in this league, and both Lewis and Gideon have two of the biggest names, which matters in a media vote.
  • Quite a huge gap between Oklahoma and the rest of the league. The Sooners had a lot of guys on my ballot that were close, but five more selections than anyone else in the league? That's impressive, and if ballot deadlines had been after Jamell Fleming's reinstatement, Oklahoma might have had 10 guys on the team. My ballot had Oklahoma State leading the way with seven selections, followed by Texas A&M with six and Oklahoma with five. My ballot also only had six teams represented. The media's Bryce Brown vote put Kansas State on the board, making it seven teams represented on the official team.

Big 12 position ranking: Safeties

June, 30, 2011
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We'll move on to the safeties today in our position rankings across the Big 12.

Here's what we've covered so far:
The group of safeties across the Big 12 isn't fantastic, without any truly elite groups, but it's decent. There aren't any teams that look really hopeless at the position in the immediate future.

I haven't given it real close examination so far on the positions we haven't covered yet, but this is by far the closest gap between 1-10 of any position so far.

Here's how I ranked them. (Remember, I lumped in nickel backs with linebackers, so Ahmad Dixon and Tony Jefferson won't be found anywhere in this post.)

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State's Markelle Martin
John Rieger/US PRESSWIREOklahoma State's Markelle Martin is the Big 12's best overall safety.
1. Oklahoma State -- The Cowboys have Markelle Martin, the Big 12's best overall safety who's a big talent but a much better hitter than he is a cover man. Johnny Thomas is solid and both safeties got a lot better as the 2010 season progressed. OSU's depth lands them here, though. Daytawion Lowe could start for a few Big 12 teams and is slightly better than A&M and Texas' reserves, the other two teams with the deepest group of safeties.

2. Texas -- Blake Gideon takes his share of criticism, a good deal of it fair, but there's a reason he's starting for Texas for a fourth season this fall. He knows what he's doing. Kenny Vaccaro will challenge OSU's Martin, among others, for the title of the Big 12's biggest hitter and Nolan Brewster and Christian Scott are strong reserves at the position. The Longhorns lose a lot at corner, but all the safeties are back from a defense that allowed just over 170 yards a game through the air in conference play last season.

3. Texas A&M -- The Aggies' Steven Terrell and Trent Hunter are solid, and Hunter is a big playmaker who made 62 stops and picked off two passes last year. Toney Hurd Jr. is the backup and was one of the most impressive freshmen in fall camp last year, joined by Steven Campbell in the rotation.

4. Kansas State -- Tysyn Hartman has loads of experience and is one of the Wildcats that Bill Snyder loves to rave about. Ty Zimmerman was one of the Big 12's best freshman last year, and picked off three passes. They should be solid again next year, and for as much criticism as K-State's defense faced last year, they were fifth in the Big 12 in pass defense. Logan Dold should be in the rotation, too.

5. Oklahoma -- Reserve Sam Proctor has starting experience, but Javon Harris and Aaron Colvin enter fall camp as starters. That says plenty about how Bob Stoops and Brent Venables feel about them. In a word: confident. Colvin has the most potential in the group, but the two starters will have to learn on the go. Proctor, a senior, should be able to help. James Haynes will also be in the rotation.

6. Missouri -- Jasper Simmons is gone, but Missouri's safeties might be a bit underrated in this spot. Kenji Jackson has loads of experience and should be solid, and Tavon Bolden and Matt White are a pair of promising sophomores who should compete at free safety. Kenronte Walker should be in the rotation, too.

7. Texas Tech -- Injuries were a problem last year for the Tech secondary, but Cody Davis and D.J. Johnson will hold down the traditional safety spots away from the line of scrimmage in new coordinator Chad Glasgow's 4-2-5. The unit gave up lots of big plays in 2010 (151 over 10 yards, 46 over 20, and 25 over 30, all the most in the Big 12), but I'd expect that number to drop under Glasgow if the secondary stays healthy. Davis is the team's leading returning tackler, with 87 stops. Brett Dewhurst and Giorgio Durham should be in the rotation.

8. Kansas -- Keeston Terry and Bradley McDougald give Kansas a lot of speed and athletic ability at the position, but both of the team's safeties from 2010 graduated and Terry and McDougald are short on experience. Lubbock Smith should add some solid depth to the position.

9. Iowa State -- Iowa State loses their top playmaker at the position, David Sims, but returns starter Ter'Ran Benton. He'll be helped out by some combination of Jacques Washington, Earl Brooks and Deon Broomfield once the season starts. Iowa State's biggest weakness is on the defensive line, so it's hard to get a good read on how good the safeties really are with such a poor pass rush up front.

10. Baylor -- This group might move up the list during the year under Phil Bennett, but the two best raw athletes (Ahmad Dixon, Prince Kent) at the position moved to nickel back and linebacker, respectively. The team's leading tackler, Byron Landor, graduated, and that left Mike Hicks as the other starter. He'll be helped out at safety by Sam Holl, Josh Wilson and K.J. Morton. Last year, the Bears ranked last in the Big 12 in pass defense in conference play, giving up over 300 yards a game. That'll have to change or Baylor won't get past seven wins.
Heading into the season, I see five teams in the Big 12 with a realistic chance to win the league. I'll be breaking them down in order (which won't be the same as my post-spring power rankings) of their chances to leave the season with the Big 12 title.

No. 1 on the list was the favorites: Oklahoma

Today, we take a look at my No. 2: Texas A&M.

Why the Aggies will win the Big 12

[+] EnlargeRyan Tannehill
AP Photo/Rod AydelotteQuarterback Ryan Tannehill will be crucial to Texas A&M's success in 2011.
1. They've got the most complete offense.

Center Matt Allen is the only offensive starter not returning, but the Aggies have a solid line, headlined by a maturing, but already talented pair of bookends with big potential, tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. At the skill positions, you won't find anything close to a weakness. Texas A&M returns the best running back corps in the league and maybe the best 1-2 punch in the nation with Christine Michael and Cyrus Gray. All of the team's top five receivers return, and Jeff Fuller, who chose to return for his senior season, is arguably one of the five best in the country. Ryan Tannehill doesn't have a ton of starts (six) under his belt, but he was great in a tight spot last year, and led the team in receptions his first two years on the field.

2. They're especially strong in great places on defense.

Those places: Secondary and pass-rushers. That's huge in the Big 12. New joker Damontre Moore, defensive end Tony Jerod-Eddie and linebacker Sean Porter should combine for more than 15 sacks this year and tons of quarterback pressures that could result in some big plays for another defensive strength: the secondary. All four starters return, and Terrence Frederick, Coryell Judie are experienced seniors at corner, while Trent Hunter and Steven Campbell hold down the safety spots.

3. They made it hard to win nine games last year.

Texas A&M already won a share of the Big 12 South last year, despite ranking 10th in the Big 12 in turnover margin at minus-5. Its 30 turnovers (15 INTs, 15 fumbles lost) were the most in the Big 12 and 111th most in the nation. You'd have to think that number will drop this year with Tannehill at quarterback. He struggled in the loss to LSU, throwing three interceptions, but he had just three in his six previous games at quarterback, compared to 11 touchdowns. Five of those 30 turnovers came from Jerrod Johnson in a loss to Oklahoma State, and if the Aggies take care of the ball then, or this time around, they're likely Big 12 champions.

Why the Aggies won't win the Big 12

1. The defensive losses will be too much.

Damontre Moore should slide in and replace Von Miller. I'd expect him to do well, but what about middle linebacker? Michael Hodges was the heart of the defense in 2010 and its leading tackler. When a knee injury forced him out of the Cotton Bowl against LSU, the Tigers gashed the Aggies' defense, which for the few weeks to end the season, looked like one of the Big 12's best and topped the league in rush defense. Hodges is gone for good now, and the Aggies left spring without a solid replacement. For now, it looks like Jonathan Stewart will slide in, but it could end up being true freshman Donnie Baggs. Either way, A&M won't be as strong there, and teams that can run the ball (i.e., OSU, OU) may take advantage. Lucas Patterson is the only other loss on the defensive side of the ball, but my money is on Hodges being missed the most on the field, even though Miller was the No. 2 pick in the NFL draft.

2. They have to travel to Norman.

Texas A&M has been outscored 107-24 in its last two trips to Norman, and Les Miles at Oklahoma State in 2001 is the only Big 12 coach to ever beat Bob Stoops at Owen Field. The odds are definitely against Mike Sherman becoming the second. The Aggies knocked off Oklahoma in College Station last year, but did it largely on the strength of the linebackers, and Hodges and Miller, who helped orchestrate those three goal-line stops to beat the Sooners, are gone.

3. Hype and the Aggies are not happy bedfellows.

Texas A&M looked like a possible Big 12 South contender last year, but the Aggies lost all three of their first real tests, and nearly lost to Florida International in College Station, erasing a 21-7 fourth-quarter deficit to avoid embarrassment. After being written off by most, they rallied for a share of the Big 12 South, but this year, the attention is back on the Aggies, who will likely be toting a top-15 ranking into the preseason. How will the team handle big games early in the season against Oklahoma State and an early trip to Lubbock before the showdown in Norman? Their recent history suggests "not well."

Big 12 weekend rewind: Week 12

November, 22, 2010
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Best offensive player: Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M. Other players had more yardage, but none had it against a tougher defense and in a more needed position than Gray. He racked up 202 yards of total offense in Texas A&M's 9-6 win over Nebraska, and is officially the first player to get this award from me without scoring a touchdown. Honorable mention: Rodney Stewart, Colorado.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M running back Cyrus Gray
AP Photo/David J. PhillipCyrus Gray rushed 37 times for 137 yards in Texas A&M's upset of Nebraska.
Best defensive player: Sam Acho, DT, Texas. Sure, it was against Florida Atlantic, but Acho turned in one of the Big 12's best games of the year against the Owls. He had three sacks, four tackles for loss, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and had four quarterback hurries. All six of his tackles were solo, as well. Honorable mention: Trent Hunter, Texas A&M

Best team performance: Texas A&M. The Aggies take home the award for the second week in a row after beating Nebraska 9-6 at home in one of the most physical games of the season. Honorable mention: Colorado.

Best offensive freshman: Ben McRoy, RB, Texas Tech. McRoy ran for 81 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns to help the Red Raiders get bowl eligible against Texas Tech. Honorable mention: Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma.

Best defensive freshman: Tom Wort, LB, Oklahoma. Wort made eight tackles -- six solo -- and had a sack for a loss of 11 yards in the Sooners' win over Baylor.

Best game: Texas A&M 9, Nebraska 6. No doubt about this one. There are plenty of people who don't like defensive battles. I'm not one of them. Both defenses protected the end zones for 60 minutes, hit hard and didn't give up any back-breaking plays, while delivering plenty of hard shots. And of course, any game that comes down to the final possession is a good one.

Gray is the difference in gritty A&M win

November, 21, 2010
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Cyrus Gray said earlier this week he was playing for two people.

He was way off. Like, 90,077 off -- and then some.

Gray was referencing himself and his teammate, friend and fellow running back Christine Michael, who is expected to miss the rest of the season with a broken leg after leading the Aggies in rushing in their first eight games.

On Saturday night, the 12th Man showed up in force, and Gray didn't disappoint the 90,079 in attendance, giving Texas A&M a 9-6 win over No. 8 Nebraska -- the Aggies' second signature win this season.

[+] EnlargeTexas A&M running back Cyrus Gray
Brett Davis/US PRESSWIRECyrus Gray rushed for 137 yards on 26 carries and caught nine passes for 65 yards against Nebraska.
"I thought he had an extraordinary night, with his catches, his runs, picking his holes," said coach Mike Sherman, whose team also beat then-No. 8 Oklahoma earlier this year. "If he didn't play the game he did, we wouldn't be able to do what we did."

No player in Saturday's slugfest came close to Gray's 202 yards of total offense. Texas A&M's entire team amassed only 310 yards against a stingy Nebraska defense.

Gray carried the ball 26 times for 137 yards. He caught nine passes -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill only completed 19 -- for 65 yards. On all three of Texas A&M's scoring drives, the Aggies leaned on Gray. He carried them.

"The defense we played was tough, they weren't giving much up," Tannehill said. "We knew we needed to run the ball, and Cyrus carried that load. He got so many tough yards today. It seemed like he was going to get a 3-yard gain, and he took it 15. Those are huge plays for us on offense, especially when times are tough and yards are tough. He fought for every yard."

Gray's longest run went for just 18 yards. Rare were his opportunities to reach the deeper levels of Nebraska's defense. But he punished Nebraska's linebackers with powerful runs, all while Michael coached him up on the sideline in street clothes.

"He was my eyes for the night," Gray said. "It was great to have him on the sidelines tonight. He was just telling me to be patient."

Without Gray's efforts, his teammates never could have posed for those postgame photo ops with fans who rushed the field. The well-deserved chants of "Wrecking Crew" as the defense left the field once again would have been non-existent.

"My face will hurt tomorrow from smiling so much," said defensive tackle Lucas Patterson.

The 12th Man would have gone home with its head in his chest after a legendary, relentless, towel-waving performance.

"The 12th Man was three-quarters of the victory," said safety Trent Hunter, who picked off two passes after snagging three in practice on Thursday. Sherman called the practice "an omen."

If the 12th Man was three-quarters of the win, Gray certainly accounted for most of the remaining 25 percent. Gray has racked up five consecutive games of at least 100 yards rushing since Michael went down, becoming the first Aggie to do so since 1990.

Gray woke up at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning with a text from the defense's leader, Von Miller, that told him to "Play all out. Ball out and let's get this win." Gray, a junior, wanted nothing more than to send out Texas A&M's group of 12 seniors with a win.

"We knew going into the game that it would be a battle throwing the football. They're a heck of a defense," Sherman said. "We wanted to stay true to the run."

They did, thanks to Gray. After the game, the team huddled in the locker room and yelled "Family!" after a short count. Gray found Michael, and told him he loved him.

"There's nothing else to be said," Gray said.

After a performance that will be forever logged in Aggie lore, the feeling from the 12th Man is mutual.

Big 12 preseason power rankings

August, 10, 2010
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1. Texas: Texas' big-time freshmen receiving recruits Darius White and Mike Davis are on campus to compete with the remainder of the Longhorns receivers after the departures of Jordan Shipley and Dan Buckner. Whoever develops solid chemistry with quarterback Garrett Gilbert first should have a nice advantage heading into the season. Very few questions surround the Longhorns on defense, who also have exciting freshman Jordan Hicks competing for playing time at linebacker.

2. Oklahoma: Honestly, my gut tells me to slide the Sooners above the Longhorns based on coach Bob Stoops comments at media days, but I'll give the champs their due entering the preseason. Oklahoma loses its top three blockers from a season ago, and any growth from Oklahoma's eight-win team last season will have to start on the offensive line. Stoops believes it will. If it does, look for the Sooners and Longhorns to switch positions if Oklahoma earns wins against Florida State and Cincinnati while Texas beats up on Rice and Wyoming. A convincing win at Texas Tech might keep the Longhorns on top.

3. Nebraska: The Huskers quarterback issues can't end soon enough. The Big 12 blog's pick: Zac Lee. With its offensive line and quality running backs, Nebraska will be able to run the ball. If Lee can establish himself as the best passer of the group, his skills will better serve the offense than the more athletic Cody Green and Taylor Martinez. We won't know very much about how good the defense will be again this year until the Huskers' date with Jake Locker and the Washington Huskies on Sept. 18 in Seattle.

4. Missouri: A solid contender in the North, Missouri's key to hopping over the Huskers lies in the secondary. That group returns all four starters and has another experienced player in junior Kenji Jackson entering camp as a new starter at safety. If it solidifies, Missouri will be a force that spends most of the season in the top 25. Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp should share the spotlight catching balls from Blaine Gabbert along with slot man T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew.

5. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the conference's best player, but its worst defense. Both will need to improve for the Aggies to earn a South title. On defense, new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter will have to build around tackle Lucas Patterson, linebacker Von Miller and safety Trent Hunter. Three freed-up offensive line spots -- which might all be filled by freshman -- will have to be solid and consistent for the offense to remain one of the Big 12's best, despite the Aggies' talent at the skill positions.

6. Kansas State: Running back Daniel Thomas led the Big 12 in rushing with almost no help from the quarterback spot last season, so the competition between Carson Coffman, Collin Klein and Sammuel Lamurisn't immensely important to Kansas State's success. No doubt, they'll be a lot better with great play from one of those three, but they won't be a bad team without it. Two of the Wildcats' top four tacklers will be junior defensive backs in 2010, Emmanuel Lamur and Tysyn Hartman.

And yes, I am very proud that I'm still batting 1.000 in not mixing up Sammuel and Emmanuel Lamur. Stay tuned, though.

7. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders have a great chance to move up this poll after hosting Texas on Sept. 18. Whoever wins the quarterback competition between Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffieldshould excel, which not every team in the Big 12 with a quarterback battle can say. Tech's aggressive new defense will have to limit big plays to see success in the first year under coach Tommy Tuberville and defensive coordinator James Willis. A convincing opening-week win against SMU will look better in December than some Tech fans might think after the team's Sunday, Sept. 5 debut.

8. Oklahoma State: One of the conference's wildcards, the Cowboys bring back just eight starters from last season, and will showcase a radical new offense in Dana Holgorsen's version of the Air Raid. Oklahoma State's receiving corps, led by Hubert Anyiam and Tracy Moore, is extremely underrated and could surprise plenty of folks in 2010. Their first real test comes Sept. 30, when they'll get a chance to knock off media darling Texas A&M in Stillwater.

9. Iowa State: The Cyclones nonconference schedule has made plenty of headlines this offseason, and Iowa State isn't shying away from its dates with Northern Illinois, Iowa and Utah. The legal issues surrounding defensive star David Sims appear to be resolved with an opening-game suspension, and running back Alexander Robinson looks ready for another big season after rushing for over 1,000 yards in his 2009 breakout season. Iowa State will need to steal a few games like last season to qualify for a second consecutive bowl game.

10. Baylor: Freshman safety Ahmad Dixon is impressing early in camp with a few big hits, and is making good on his status as one of the best recruits in Baylor history. Another -- Robert Griffin -- is already dealing with the pressures of delivering a bowl game to Waco. Coach Art Briles will need more players like Dixon and Griffin to move the Bears goals past just making a bowl game.

11. Colorado: The only team to move up from its position in the post-spring power rankings, Colorado simply brings back more talent than Kansas, and added two new receivers in UCLA non-qualifier Paul Richardson and Travon Patterson, whose transfer from USC was finalized on Monday. The offensive line has a lot of talent in Nate Solder and Ryan Miller, but the other three members will have to improve if the Buffs are going to rush for more than 1,055 yards like in 2009 (11th in the Big 12) and give up fewer than 43 sacks, 11 more than any other team in the Big 12.

12. Kansas: Losing your three best players from a team that finished last in the Big 12 North a season ago -- plus implementing a new coaching philosophy -- is a recipe for a rebuilding year. That's where the Jayhawks sit to begin 2010. They've got good young talent in linebacker Huldon Tharp and receiver Johnathan Wilson, who are both sophomores, but they face major questions at quarterback with inexperienced candidates Jordan Webb and Kale Pick battling for the No. 1 spot. Last season's leading rusher, Toben Opurum, is also nowhere to be found on the depth chart after battling injuries throughout the spring. The Jayhawks were the only team in the conference to return all five starters on the offensive line, but a season-ending injury to tackle Jeff Spikeseliminated that status. Brad Thorson, who played both guard and tackle last season, is also recovering from a broken foot. A win against Southern Miss and a competitive loss to Georgia Tech would earn the Jayhawks some more respect.

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