NCF Nation: West Virginia Mountaineers
West Virginia opened a catastrophic day for the Big 12 with a 45-37 loss to Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. The Mountaineers started out fast offensively, but fizzled in the second half. The defense, meanwhile, struggled to slow the Aggies all day. Here are three thoughts from the game:
1. The QB competition for next season is actually wide open: After relieving Clint Trickett the final two games of the regular season, sophomore Skyler Howard generated excitement as the possible -- if not probable -- heir apparent at quarterback in Morgantown. But against an Aggie defense that had been hapless at times this year, Howard struggled severely in the second half. He finished with three touchdown passes, but overthrew and underthrew open receivers all game. He also completed just 9 of 26 passes in the second half, which allowed Texas A&M to take command of the game. Howard has talent, the ability to inflict damage with his wheels and a fervor that could conceivably galvanize a team. But his accuracy will have to improve significantly if he is to beat out talented freshman William Crest Jr. for the starting job in 2015.
2. The defense takes a step back: The West Virginia defense had been one of the most improved units in the Big 12 this season, ranking second in the league in yards per played allowed (5.28) and third in points per drive surrendered (1.65). But in Memphis, Texas A&M true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen shredded the West Virginia secondary with four touchdown passes. The Mountaineers were also inept with their tackling, giving up a season-high 6.9 yards per play. And Dana Holgorsen even called the defensive line "terrible," as the Aggies controlled the line of scrimmage. With up to nine starters returning, coordinator Tony Gibson's group has a chance to be solid, if not stout in 2015. But the bowl performance showed this defense is still a work in progress.
3. The Mountaineers are going to really miss Kevin White and Mario Alford: Even though the Mountaineers lost, White and Alford were spectacular again in their West Virginia swan songs. White had seven receptions for 129 yards and a 49-yard touchdown. Alford took a swing pass 45 yards to the house and was a handful for Texas A&M on returns the entire game. The two All-Americans were special all season and helped fuel West Virginia's return to bowl eligibility in 2014. And while the Mountaineers will have several key starters returning, playmakers the caliber of White and Alford are never easily replaced.
TCU took a giant step toward playoff inclusion Tuesday night as the College Football Playoff committee bumped the Horned Frogs all the way up to No. 3 in the fifth update to the rankings.
Committee chairman Jeff Long has said that Baylor's head-to-head edge over TCU would only come into effect as a tiebreaker if the teams were close in the rankings. With Baylor being three spots behind TCU at No. 6, the Bears would seemingly have a long way to go before pushing that tiebreaker into effect. The good news for Baylor is that its next opponent, Kansas State, moved up three spots to No. 9. That gives the Bears at least a shot at a statement, top-10 victory to give the committee.
Either way, it should be a fun weekend in Fort Worth and Waco.
K-State remains in line for the Valero Alamo Bowl, though the Wildcats could play their way into one of the New Year's Six bowls with a win over Baylor. There's even a scenario in which K-State could emerge onto the precipice of the playoff with a series of upsets. On the other hand, if the Wildcats get blown out in Waco, Oklahoma could still get scooped up by the Alamo Bowl, where the Sooners have never played before.
Oklahoma State remains the only non-bowl team in the Big 12 at the moment that can still play its way to bowl eligibility. But the Cowboys are almost three-touchdown underdogs at Oklahoma this weekend.
College Football Playoff semifinal (Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual): TCU
Goodyear Cotton Bowl: Baylor
Valero Alamo Bowl: Kansas State
Russell Athletic Bowl: Oklahoma
AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl: Texas
AutoZone Liberty Bowl: West Virginia
Cactus Bowl: None eligible
Those, among others, will be the storylines to watch this week in the Big 12:
Kansas State at Iowa State, Noon ET (FS1): Farmageddon lost much of its luster when Iowa State fell at home to North Dakota State last weekend. The Wildcats know what it's like to get popped by the Bison, who toppled K-State in last year’s opener. The Wildcats, however, have rapidly improved since that defeat, thanks to the development of quarterback Jake Waters. The Cyclones have to hope quarterback Sam B. Richardson can likewise bounce back after a rocky 2014 debut.
Oklahoma at Tulsa, Noon ET (ABC/ESPN2): Last year when the Sooners took on Tulsa, Blake Bell was making his first career start at quarterback. Bell was spectacular, too, throwing for 413 yards and four touchdowns while delivering a QBR of 96.7. The quarterback job is now Trevor Knight’s, but Bell remains a big part of the Oklahoma offense as a starting tight end.
Southeast Missouri State at Kansas, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN3): Charlie Weis scouted Southeast Missouri State by streaming its game with Missouri Baptist over the Internet. There wasn’t much else to do, as the Jayhawks were the only Big 12 team with the opening weekend off.
BYU at Texas, 7:30 p.m. ET (FS1): The Longhorns have been talking BYU revenge all offseason. But they’ll have to try and get it without quarterback David Ash, who is suffering concussion-related symptoms again. While BYU will be starting veteran Taysom Hill, who gashed Texas with 259 rushing yards last year, the Longhorns will be rolling the dice at quarterback with sophomore Tyrone Swoopes, who enters the weekend with just five completions in his career.
Northwestern State at Baylor, 7:30 p.m. ET (Fox Sports Regional): Apparently, not even a pair of cracked transverse processes in his back can sideline Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty, who said he plans to play against Northwestern State. The Bears won’t need him or wideout Antwan Goodley, who is nursing a strained quadriceps muscle, in this game. But they’ll need both to be healthy again before the schedule picks up next month.
Towson at West Virginia, 7:30 p.m. ET (ROOT): The Mountaineers should carry plenty of swagger into this home opener after going toe-to-toe with Alabama in Atlanta. No Mountaineer should be more confident than quarterback Clint Trickett, who is coming off passing for 365 yards –- the second-highest total an Alabama defense has allowed under Nick Saban. West Virginia, however, can't overlook Towson, a team coming off an appearance in the FCS national title game last season.
Texas Tech at UTEP, 11 p.m. ET (FS1): The late kickoff time is not a misprint. Kliff Kingsbury will have to hope his team won’t sleepwalk again the way the Red Raiders did Saturday in the narrow victory over Central Arkansas. Tech, which finished 124th out of 125 teams in penalty yardage last year, committed 15 penalties in its opener. That was not the start Kingsbury was looking for in his second season.
That judgment? Things worked out well for the SEC and Big Ten. Not so much for the Pac-12 and Big 12.
The Big Ten added Nebraska three seasons ago to give it 12 teams. The Cornhuskers, despite not satisfying their demanding fans, have gone 17-7 in league play and won 28 games overall.
The Big 12 replaced those two with TCU and West Virginia, teams that had won BCS bowl games as members of the Mountain West and Big East conferences, respectively. Yet neither has posted a winning record in Big 12 play, and both regressed to 4-8 overall and 2-7 in the conference last year.
The Pac-12? It raided the Big 12 for Colorado, which went 5-7 and 2-6 in 2010, and the Mountain West for Utah, which went 10-3, 7-1 that year. Neither has matched its 2010 records in the Pac-12 nor posted a winning record in conference play. The Buffaloes have gone a meager 4-23 against Pac-12 foes, while the Utes have gone from 4-5 to 3-6 to 2-7 in conference games.
Nebraska has been to three consecutive New Year's Day bowls, beating Georgia in the Gator Bowl last year, while Texas A&M has won a Heisman Trophy and two bowl games. Like the Aggies, Missouri has won a Cotton Bowl against the Big 12. Both have produced top-five rankings over the past two years.
The lone badge of postseason honor for the Pac-12 newbies? Utah's victory over Georgia Tech in the 2011 Sun Bowl. To the Utes' credit, they have gone 9-1 in games outside the Pac-12 over the past three seasons, including 3-0 versus their bitter rival BYU.
Although the Pac-12 has surged after realignment in terms of national perception, gaining ground on the SEC, and the Big Ten has stagnated by comparison, that's had nothing to do with expansion. While Pac-12 folks aren't going to whine about the fruits of expansion -- Exhibit A being a $3 billion TV deal -- or even grouse about poor-to-middling results from the new members, it's fair to say the short-term gain in terms of assets on Saturdays has been slight.
As assets, Colorado and Utah don't attract national eyeballs at present as they would if they were winning 10 games and were nationally ranked. The Utes' nail-biter with Arizona State in November was an interesting game, but it would have been featured prominently in highlight shows that night if it were a battle of ranked teams eyeballing the South Division title.
That said, other Pac-12 coaches might enjoy not having two more teams threatening to play at a Top 25 -- or better -- level. The conference, even with the Utes and Buffs slumping, is deeper than it's ever been. In fact, if both were playing at a high level, the conference's chances to put two teams in BCS bowl games, as it did in two of the previous three years, would have been reduced, costing each team about $1 million since 2011. That holds true looking forward to a potential berth -- or berths -- in the College Football Playoff.
Depth is good. It's fun to celebrate top-to-bottom quality. But it also makes it more difficult to go 12-0 or 11-1 in the regular season, records typically required for national title contention.
Still, the Pac-12 is better served by Utah and Colorado improving. The conference certainly would like the Denver and Salt Lake City markets to turn their attention to college football in large numbers.
Not to conclude with an outlandish assertion here, but here's a guess that the folks most eager for the Buffs and Utes to help the Pac-12 feel good about its expansion choices are the fans, administrators, players and coaches associated with both programs.
Here we go:
QB: Bryce Petty, Baylor
Easy choice. Petty is the reigning Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after he threw for 4,200 yards and 32 touchdowns with just three picks. He should be even better in Year 2 as a starter.
RB: Johnathan Gray, Texas
Malcolm Brown finished strong in place of Gray the past season, but there’s a reason Gray was Texas’ No. 1 back before he suffered an Achilles injury. Gray is healthy again, which gives Texas the best one-two punch at running back in the league.
RB: Shock Linwood, Baylor
Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back the past season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing. He’s the featured back now and could wind up the league’s top rusher.
WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State
Lockett was literally uncoverable at times last year. Just ask Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan, which surrendered a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns to Lockett. With Jake Waters settled in at quarterback, Lockett could put up even bigger numbers in 2014.
WR: Antwan Goodley, Baylor
Goodley might have been the most improved player in the league the past season. He was also one of the most dominant, with 1,339 receiving yards and a national-best five catches of 60 yards or more.
TE: E.J. Bibbs, Iowa State
With Jace Amaro gone, Bibbs takes over as the top receiving tight end threat in the league. Only Amaro had more catches and yards than Bibbs among Big 12 tight ends the past season.
OT: Spencer Drango, Baylor
With Drango in the lineup, Petty was sacked only eight times through the Bears’ first nine games last year. After Drango was sidelined with a back injury, Petty was sacked nine times in Baylor’s last four games. Suffice it to say, Petty is glad to have Drango back protecting his blindside.
OG: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech
The Red Raiders previously had plans to move Clark inside to guard, but they still have him manning left tackle this season. Whether he stays at the bookend or slides to guard, Clark is one of the most dominating offensive linemen in the league.
C: BJ Finney, Kansas State
Finney owns a Big 12-best 39 starts over the past three years. The former walk-on is also a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection and will be the favorite to garner such recognition again as the linchpin of the K-State offensive line.
OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State
Whitehair is capable of manning either guard or tackle, but the Wildcats will be showing their trust in him by asking him to protect Waters’ blindside this season.
OT: Daryl Williams, Oklahoma
Williams is the best piece on the league’s best offensive line, which returns four starters and plenty of capable backups.
AP: Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech
Grant finished sixth in the league in receiving yards per game, despite being the third option in Tech’s passing attack the past season. Grant is now the first option in the passing game, as well as an electric playmaker on special teams.
K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma
The Sooners have never had an All-American kicker before, but they have a strong candidate in Hunnicutt, who converted 24 of 27 field goals the past season.
DE: Ryan Mueller, Kansas State
In 2013, Mueller finished with 11.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss, which were second in the league only to Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat. Mueller, who also forced four fumbles, has one of the conference’s best noses for finding the ball.
DT: Chucky Hunter, TCU
The Horned Frogs still had a formidable front the past season, even without Devonte Fields, due in large part to Hunter. TCU won’t have Fields again. But Hunter is back to anchor a defensive line loaded with quality players.
DT: Malcom Brown, Texas
This former blue-chipper broke out the past season with 68 tackles, including 12 for loss. He and Cedric Reed team up to form the best inside-outside defensive line combination in the league.
DE: Cedric Reed, Texas
Reed was third in the Big 12 in 2013 with 10 sacks, fourth with 19 tackles for loss and tied for first with five forced fumbles. He gives the Longhorns a chance to feature the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.
LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma
When it comes to rushing the passer, there’s no one better in the league. Striker has spent this offseason refining other parts of his game to become a more complete player. But his pass rushing alone makes him one of the top players in the league.
LB: Ben Heeney, Kansas
Heeney was a tackling machine last year for a defense that performed valiantly despite getting little help from its offense. Heeney will get plenty of help from his defense, though, which returns eight other starters.
LB: Bryce Hager, Baylor
Hager has notched 195 tackles over the past two seasons, while twice earning second-team All-Big 12 honors. With Ahmad Dixon and Eddie Lackey gone, he takes over as the leader of a defense angling to prove it can be as good as the past year’s.
CB: Quandre Diggs, Texas
Diggs, who has never been afraid to speak his mind, is the heart and soul of the Longhorns. If the rest of the team takes on his mentality, Texas could have one feisty team in Charlie Strong’s first season.
CB: Daryl Worley, West Virginia
Despite being just a second-year player, Worley has already taken over as one of the vocal leaders of the West Virginia defense. He’s also already one of the best cover corners in the league.
SS: Sam Carter, TCU
Carter has nine interceptions the past two years, the most of any returning Big 12 player. He leads arguably the best secondary in the league, too.
FS: Karl Joseph, West Virginia
Joseph has started all 25 games for the Mountaineers since he stepped foot in Morgantown. No other returning Big 12 defensive back has more career tackles than Joseph’s 170.
P: Nick O'Toole, West Virginia
The “Boomstache” ranked 15th nationally last year, with an average of 44.1 yards per punt. He also has the best mustache in the league, which has to count for something.
Heading into 2013, virtually no one viewed Duke as a possible threat in the ACC. But with the third-most career offensive line starts returning in the country, the Blue Devils won their first ACC Coastal Division title.
Of course, offensive line experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee a winning team.
And the lack of it doesn’t preclude success, either.
Baylor ranked 98th nationally in offensive line experience last year and wound up winning its first Big 12 title. Oklahoma State ranked 109th and won 10 games.
Yet examining an offensive line’s experience can be a useful indicator in determining how a team might fare.
Michigan State was ninth in career offensive line starts going into last season and won the Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl. Florida State was one spot behind the Spartans and captured the national title.
No team, actually, entered 2013 with more offensive line starts than Texas, which led the nation with 124. For all their issues elsewhere, which included losing starting QB David Ash for the year, the Longhorns still had a chance to win the Big 12 on the final day of the regular season.
Underscoring the strength of its veteran offensive line, Texas ranked third in the Big 12 in rushing and second in fewest sacks allowed.
This year, Oklahoma is the Big 12 leader in career offensive line starts coming back, and one reason why many people are picking the Sooners to open in the top 5 of the polls.
Guard Adam Shead and tackle Daryl Williams are entering their third seasons as starters. Oklahoma also will be returning guard Tyler Evans, who, before tearing his knee twice in successive years, was a three-year starter. Tackle Tyrus Thompson and guard Nila Kasitati also have a lot of starting experience, and round out what could be Oklahoma’s most imposing offensive line since 2008.
The team with the second-most returning starts up front in the league? That's Iowa State.
Because of injuries, the Cyclones had to use nine different starting offensive line combinations last season. But now, they return 87 career starts along the line, including six players with at least eight career starts. Four year-starting center Tom Farniok leads the way with 35 career starts. He joins Texas center Dominic Espinosa and Kansas State center B.J. Finney as the only three offensive linemen in the Big 12 with at least 30 career starts; Espinosa and Finney both have 39.
Below is a breakdown of career offensive line starts returning across the entire league, from most to least:
Tyler Evans 29, Adam Shead 28, Daryl Williams 24, Tyrus Thompson 16, Nila Kasitati 7, Ty Darlington 1, Dionte Savage 1, Derek Farniok 1
Iowa State: 87
Tom Farniok 35, Jacob Gannon 12 ,Brock Dagel 11, Oni Omoile 9, Jamison Lalk 8, Daniel Burton 8 ,Ben Loth 2, Jacob Dunning 1, Ben Boesen 1
Texas Tech: 75
Le'Raven Clark 26, Jared Kaster 13, Rashad Fortenberry 13, Alfredo Morales 13, James Polk 7, Baylen Brown 3
Kansas State: 70
B.J. Finney 39, Cody Whitehair 25, Boston Stiverson 6
Spencer Drango 22, Troy Baker 15, Desmine Hilliard 13, Blake Muir 12 (Hawaii), Pat Colbert 2
Aviante Collins 22, Joey Hunt 13, Tayo Fabuluje 12, Halapoulivaati Vaitai 7, Jamelle Naff 2, Patrick Morris 1
Dominic Espinosa 39, Kennedy Estelle 8, Sedrick Flowers 1, Kent Perkins 1
West Virginia: 45
Quinton Spain 26, Mark Glowinski 12, Marquis Lucas 4, Tyler Orlosky 3
Oklahoma State: 38
Daniel Koenig 22, Chris Grisbhy 8, Brandon Garrett 4, Devin Davis 2, Zac Veatch 1, Paul Lewis 1
Ngalu Fusimalohi 12, Mike Smithburg 8, Pat Lewandowski 6, Damon Martin 5, Zach Fondal 3
TCU’s future starting quarterback might have spent his spring in College Station, Texas.
It’s possible Texas' next starter hasn’t even moved to Austin yet.
And half the teams in the Big 12 still haven't officially named a starter for the 2014 season.
After losing the job last season, J.W. Walsh retook a commanding lead in Oklahoma State’s third quarterback derby in as many years.
Grant Rohach built off his strong finish last season to head into the summer as the clear frontrunner at Iowa State.
And even though Clint Trickett sat out the spring recovering from a shoulder injury, none of West Virginia’s other spring contenders could unseat him from the top of the depth chart.
Elsewhere, Kansas surprisingly named sophomore Montell Cozart as its starter days after he outshined incumbent Jake Heaps and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard in the Jayhawks’ spring game.
And Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb rode the momentum of their breakout bowl performances to spring improvement.
Even the two schools with the biggest quarterback questions received some possible panaceas this spring.
Matt Joeckel, Johnny Manziel’s backup at Texas A&M the last two seasons, revealed two weeks ago that he would be transferring to TCU, where he’ll be eligible immediately. The Horned Frogs, who are installing an up-tempo offense similar to one Joeckel played in with the Aggies, ended spring with Trevone Boykin as their No. 1 quarterback, even though Boykin finished last year as a receiver.
To the south, another high-profile transfer could soon be following Joeckel to the Big 12. Since announcing he was transferring from USC, Max Wittek has visited Texas three times, including the Longhorns’ spring game. Wittek would be eligible right away as well, and with David Ash out for now with a fractured foot, Wittek could viably challenge to become Texas’ opening game starter.
Such positive developments at the most critical of positions are welcome developments for a league that struggled and juggled at quarterback through much of the 2013 season. In fact, Baylor’s Bryce Petty was the only Big 12 quarterback to start every game for his team last season.
Petty, who was on the short list of Heisman contenders until November, will again be the class of the league at quarterback.
But he should have plenty more company this season, beginning with Kansas State's Jake Waters, who improved as much as any quarterback in the country did over the course of last season. In leading the Wildcats to victories in six of their final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder came away impressed with the confidence Waters carried throughout the spring, which included a crisp effort in the spring game minus his favorite receiver, Tyler Lockett, who sat out the scrimmage with a minor injury.
“He just understands things a lot better,” Snyder said. “He has gained more confidence, probably just because of going through the process of going through some growing pains.”
Both Walsh and Rohach also went through growing pains last season.
But after a jittery sophomore campaign in which he eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October, Walsh re-established himself this spring and performed with the poise he did two years ago as a freshman to emerge as the favorite to become the Cowboys' starter again.
“J.W. has become more of a leader,” offensive tackle Daniel Koenig said after Oklahoma State’s “Orange Blitz” scrimmage. “He’s staying in the pocket more, which is good. Maybe a year or two years ago, he’d get nervous back there and start scrambling. But now he’s sitting in there and throwing.”
Rohach, who finished off the 2013 season by leading Iowa State to a come-from-behind, triple-overtime victory at West Virginia, also showed more confidence this spring, leading Iowa State on three of its six scoring drives in the spring game. Coach Paul Rhoads said he’d wait until mid-August before declaring a starter, but Rohach seems to have the clear edge over Sam B. Richardson and Joel Lanning heading into the summer.
"To begin [the spring], coming off that huge game against West Virginia, putting pressure on myself, my first few practices weren't very good," Rohach said. "But as spring ball went on I shrugged off those mistakes, and I think I got a lot better."
Webb and Knight also used their final performances of last season to springboard into their second springs on campus.
Webb has been especially impressive since earning MVP honors in the Red Raiders' National University Holiday Bowl victory over Arizona State. In Texas Tech’s three spring open scrimmages, he tossed 13 touchdowns with no interceptions.
“He is night and day from what he was at this time last year,” Red Raiders coach Kliff Kingsbury said. “I am really impressed with him.”
With a limited playbook and a no-contact jersey, Knight had a lackluster showing in Oklahoma’s spring game, and was actually outplayed by Texas Tech transfer Baker Mayfield. But behind closed practices, the Sooners liked the development they saw from their sophomore quarterback, who last torched two-time defending national champ Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
“He’s continued to make strides,” Oklahoma offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “It’s not even like he played perfect in the Sugar Bowl -- there are things he missed in that game. He’s by no means a finished product.”
The quarterback position in the Big 12 is by no means a finished product, either, coming out of the spring. But the position looks better -- and clearer -- now than it did just two months ago.