NCF Nation: Zac Robinson

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 14

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
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Here's what I've got my eye on in the Big 12 in the final week of the regular season.

1. Reach for the stars. If you fail, you'll still land among the Heismans ... or something. Collin Klein needs an absolute monster of a game to catch front-runner Johnny Manziel after Klein's awful outing against Baylor two weeks ago. He hasn't been himself after suffering an injury against Oklahoma State, having his two worst games of the season since. Can he bounce back?

[+] EnlargeLandry Jones
Brett Deering/Getty ImagesOklahoma's Landry Jones takes a string of two straight 500-yard passing games to TCU.
2. Shoot for three. Why not? Landry Jones, if you haven't been paying attention, has been tearing it up of late. Oklahoma has only had three 500-yard passing performances in school history; two have come in the last two weeks, and all three are from Jones. Jones has 1,054 passing yards, nine touchdowns and two picks in his past two games. Can he keep it rolling against a really good TCU pass defense that loves to disrupt in the backfield and force interceptions downfield?

3. No time to pout. Kansas State is the Big 12's No. 2 rush defense. Only three teams had managed to top 100 yards on the ground against the Wildcats before the Baylor loss. The Bears managed, uh, 342. Kansas State has a lot left to play for, but Texas excels on the ground, and may rely more on its running backs without David Ash starting. Can the Wildcats D answer the bell?

4. Make 'em do something else. TCU jumped out to an early lead against Texas, and the Longhorns never forced the Frogs to do anything special on offense. Quarterback Trevone Boykin threw just nine passes and ran 10 times against the Horns. If his pass attempts are that low again this week against the Sooners, Oklahoma's in big trouble.

5. Return of the MAC. Hey, if you're not doing anything else on Friday night, you really might want to tune into the MAC championship game at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2. I usually wouldn't sanction such an action, but it's quite relevant for Big 12 fans. If No. 17 Kent State beats No. 21 Northern Illinois (the Huskies are favored), the Golden Flashes will be heading to the BCS -- likely at Oklahoma's expense. If the Huskies win, the Big 12 should be fine and place two teams in the BCS for the first time since 2008, barring upset losses by K-State or Oklahoma.

6. There's a first half too, guys. Oklahoma State has outscored Baylor 59-0 in the first half of its past two meetings. Those games were over before they even started. Can the Bears hang around in the first half this time and give themselves a decent shot in the second half?

7. Closing arguments, gentlemen? Alex Okafor and Devonte Fields are Nos. 1 and 2 in my defensive-player-of-the-year race. They both take on great offenses this week, offenses that love to get physical. A big performance by each might help his team grab an upset. Can either one make a strong case to close the season and take home the award? And on the offensive side of the ball, another off day by Collin Klein might open the race. Can Terrance Williams, Tavon Austin or perhaps Landry Jones step in there?

8. The Choo Choo keeps rolling and running. Clint Chelf hadn't done a ton of running before last week, but he looked a whole lot like Zac Robinson in the Cowboys' near-upset of Oklahoma. His 12 carries were more than he'd had in his previous three games combined. Some of them were on scrambles, but a few were designed. Does he look to run again against the Bears?

9. This might just be unfair. Kansas plays good team defense, but so do Iowa State and Oklahoma. And those teams have much better individual talents all over the field than the Jayhawks. Tavon Austin didn't play as much running back last week, but he still was all over the place for West Virginia. What does he have in store for a KU defense that ranks eighth in the league in total defense?

10. Is there hope? Kansas is sitting on a 20-game loisng streak in Big 12 play. If the Jayhawks win this game, it will be on the back of James Sims and Tony Pierson, controlling the clock and keeping West Virginia's offense on the sidelines. I don't believe the defense has any shot to slow them down otherwise. It's within reason. Can KU close the first year under Charlie Weis in style?
Dana HolgorsenPatrick McDermott/Getty ImagesDana Holgorsen returns to Stillwater to face an offense he installed two years ago.
Oklahoma State and West Virginia will meet Saturday. One team has to win.

Even if the Cowboys win Oklahoma may have to, at least in part, thank Dana Holgorsen. He has helped take both programs to where they want to be, and on Saturday the former offensive coordinator will be back in Stillwater for the first time as a head coach.

At the end of 2009 Oklahoma State scored a total of seven points combined in a pair of embarrassing losses to close the season. Quarterback Zac Robinson was dealing with a bum shoulder, but seven points isn't enough to do much else but rack up frustrating losses that leave point-loving fans unfulfilled.

Coach Mike Gundy was designing his offense and decided to take a different approach to begin the following spring.

Robinson, a dual-threat quarterback built to run and take hits, was being succeeded by Brandon Weeden, a 6-foot-4, 218-pound junior with a big arm and we'll say ... hesitant legs.

With Gundy looking to take on a different role for his team, hiring Holgorsen made sense.

"I had a tremendous amount of respect for him for what he had done with the program," Holgorsen said. "His question to me was how [former Houston coach and current Texas A&M head coach] Kevin Sumlin did things from a CEO standpoint. I think Mike wanted to be more of a CEO type head coach, as opposed to being in the offensive room for 18 hours a day trying to get the offense better. I think he’s done a tremendous job of that.

"Since he’s gone back and made that switch, they’ve won a tremendous amount of ball games. Good for him."

Oklahoma State won a school-record 11 games the next season. Holgorsen left for West Virginia, a team that scored just seven points in a frustrating bowl loss of its own to close the 2010 season and wanted a new head coach.

Once he left, Gundy hired former OSU receivers coach Todd Monken to run the same offense Holgorsen installed in one spring.

"I knew a whole lot about it prior to going there, from a facilities standpoint, a coaching staff standpoint, culture and recruiting standpoint, knew a lot about it," Holgorsen said. "There wasn’t any surprises."

He spent nearly a decade at Texas Tech before coordinating Sumlin's offense at Houston, where the Cougars played Oklahoma State in each of Holgorsen's seasons. In 2009, the Cougars even upset a top five Oklahoma State team in Stillwater.

His first season as head coach at West Virginia -- which only came after scandal led to an early exit for the late Bill Stewart -- was his only season in the past 12 in which he didn't face the Cowboys.

"We were just a typical spread offense. Run/pass, no-huddle offense," Gundy said. "The impact it had was we changed our style of quarterback, so we brought in a scheme that could best fit what Brandon Weeden could have success with, which was pocket-style passing."

It worked. The Cowboys ranked No. 3 nationally in total offense in 2010, up from 70th in a nine-win campaign in 2009. A year later, using Holgorsen's system under Monken, the Cowboys won their first Big 12 title and once again ranked third nationally in total offense.

Meanwhile, Holgorsen was helping build West Virginia, who won the Big East in Year 1 and won a BCS bowl for the first time since 2007 -- Rich Rodriguez's final season in Morgantown.

West Virginia ranked 15th in total offense last season, a year after ranking 67th, despite possessing offensive talent like Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and speedster Tavon Austin.

"[Gundy] was with Pat Jones there for a long time, played for Pat Jones, which is old-school football, tough, hard-nosed physical football and incorporated it into our style of spread offense," Holgorsen said, "keeping it as physical as it can possibly be."

Holgorsen's fingerprints will be all over both sidelines, but without a stop at Oklahoma State and proof he could run his offense at a major conference away from mentor Mike Leach and away from a minor league like Conference USA, a high-profile head job like West Virginia might never have come along.

"It worked out good for everybody," Holgorsen said.
STILLWATER, Okla. -- The similarities? Well, they're almost too uncanny.

A record-setting quarterback? Gone.

The best receiver in school history? Gone.

And that was in the spring of 2010.

Dez Bryant took a trek south after being drafted in the first round by the Dallas Cowboys. Zac Robinson took his ball and left for the NFL, too.

In the fall, Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State squad was picked to finish fifth out of six teams in something called the Big 12 South.

Instead, the Cowboys won 11 games for the first time, coming a defensive stop or two away from knocking off Oklahoma and playing for the Big 12 title, which also would have been unprecedented for the program.

There are more new faces in the spring of 2012. Could Oklahoma State overachieve again?

"I feel like it’s kind of the same. Gundy said that spring we were so good because we were scared," said sixth-year offensive lineman Jonathan Rush. "I wouldn’t exactly agree that we were scared, but I feel that urgency."

[+] EnlargeMike Gundy
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiMike Gundy's 2012 team has plenty of parallels to the 2010 unit that won a surprising 11 games.
How could he not? Two-time All-Big 12 first-team quarterback Brandon Weeden is headed to the NFL. Two-time Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon is likely to hear his name called in the top 10 of tonight's first round of the NFL draft.

Oklahoma State's 23 victories in the past two years were the highest total of any two-year period in school history, and Weeden and Blackmon were the two biggest pieces of a team that captured the Cowboy's first Big 12 title.

"It’s real similar, except Weeden was an older guy. Weeden was 26 years old or however old he was back then," Gundy said.

Now, Oklahoma State is left to rely on three inexperienced quarterbacks without the minor league baseball experience that helped shape Weeden's even-tempered demeanor.

The similarities don't end at what's gone, either.

"We’ve got good running backs, good receivers and we’ll be as good on the offensive line as we’ve been," Gundy said.

All-American Kendall Hunter helped carry the 2010 team with a 1,500-yard season, the second of his career. In 2012, Joseph Randle is ready to carry the offense after rushing for 1,200 yards and 24 touchdowns in 2011. Jeremy Smith and Herschel Sims fill out the rest of the Pokes' deepest unit, which also features a fourth underrated, powerful runner in Desmond Roland.

"We’re further along on defense, because we recruited well the '09, '10, '11 and '12 seasons, so we’re further along athletically," Gundy said. "But offensively, it’s about the same."

Gundy is entering his eighth season in Stillwater this fall. In 2010, he credited a system that had been drilled into players for the surprising success. Knowing what was expected helped to soothe some of the growing pains new players would experience in a new system.

That's been drilled only deeper into this year's squad.

"They realize what they have to do personally. How to practice. They realize those things that are essential to be a good team. You have to work hard, show up on time. It’s not even so much a big thing," Rush said of the team's younger players. "They realize how essential little things are. Working hard, not quitting. Finishing."

Said receiver Isaiah Anderson: "I feel like we have a lot more leaders now than people know. It’s not just up to the seniors to lead. The young guys can step in and lead if they need to."

The biggest talents are gone. This year, OSU won't be picked near the bottom of the Big 12. Instead, it will be near the bottom of the top 25.

With the spotlight on teams above OSU, will 2012 be yet another Stillwater surprise for the Big 12?

"Be on the lookout, but they know we’re coming now," Anderson said. "We all know what it takes to get there and willing to do what it takes to get there again."
For so long, it was so cruel. This "rivalry," if you could even call it that.

Colt McCoy and Vince Young tormented Oklahoma State, rescuing Texas from 28, 19 and 21-point deficits in a span of just four years.

OSU had beaten Texas just once in Big 12 history, back in 1997 in a harmless game in Stillwater between two teams that would combine for 12 wins that year, the last time Texas (4-8) saw a losing season.

The Cowboys program rose, winning as many or more games than the previous year in each season under Gundy. But no wins over Texas as Zac Robinson, Kendall Hunter and Dez Bryant tried to help OSU climb among the nation's elite.

[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon and Oklahoma State
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireTexas hopes the scene will be different after this year's game against Oklahoma State as the Longhorns look to avoid another loss to the Cowboys
Until last season, when OSU took its biggest leap into national relevance with 11 wins and Texas plummeted to its first losing season under Mack Brown.

Oklahoma State was the better team, by far. The Cowboys won easily, racing to an early 33-3 lead and beating Texas in Austin for the first time since 1944.

"When you have played at a high level like we had over the last few years, having so many close games and not being able to get over the hump. It made it a good win for our team and the university," Gundy told reporters this week. "For everyone involved it was very positive. I am sure it had some effects on our recruiting. It also changed the way we were perceived across the country. The win was another step in our goal, to hopefully win a championship."

A kink in switching 12-team Big 12 schedules to 10-team schedules means Oklahoma State travels to Texas again and hosts Oklahoma to close the season.

Once again, Oklahoma State is the better team.

This time, Oklahoma State stands in the way of Texas' attempts to re-join the nation's best. The Longhorns were embarrassed a week ago by No. 3 Oklahoma.

"Things are always better when you watch the video. It’s hard to make a 55-17 loss to a good team where you played poorly good, but what you do as a coaching staff is you go back and find the things that are good," Brown said. "They did try hard. They did a lot of things good, but we made so many mistakes, we never had a chance in the game. You can’t lose five turnovers to a great team."

That's the first goal. With an opponent like Oklahoma State -- the Cowboys are ranked No. 2 in total offense, even higher than Oklahoma -- the Longhorns will need more from their offense than a late touchdown if 45 points are separating the teams.

"You use caution when talking about Texas football and needing to get better. I think Oklahoma played very well. Once the game got rolling, the momentum changed," Gundy said. "I cannot speak for Texas, or their staff. I do know that there is some youth in key positions. That can factor in situations when things do not go well."

Texas' secondary will have to grow up fast.

So will quarterbacks Case McCoy and David Ash.

If not, another beating like last week is waiting, and a chance to country's top squads may prove to be another season away.

The Big 12's annual tease teams

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
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Today, we're taking a look at the tease teams across the Big 12, and the past three seasons, we've seen a good number of cases in the Big 12.

These three programs find themselves in the top 10 again this year, but here's what's happened lately. Is one of these squads simply a tease in 2011?

2010: Texas A&M

The Aggies, coming off a 6-7 season in 2009, weren't convincing enough to earn preseason top 25 honors, but the potential for a big year was there, and anyone paying attention knew it. The offense was loaded, led by the league's preseason offensive player of the year, Jerrod Johnson. Johnson, however, struggled early, throwing four interceptions in consecutive games against Florida International and Oklahoma State, turning the ball over five times in a loss to the Cowboys. The Aggies were embarrassed on their home field by Missouri to fall to 3-3, and despite a late-season rally, couldn't qualify for the Big 12 championship game.

2009: Oklahoma State

The offseason crescendo built to a pressure-packed season opener against SEC foe Georgia, but Dez Bryant and the Cowboys knocked off the Bulldogs to land in the top 5 and on the cover of Sports Illustrated. A week later, however, Case Keenum (and Dana Holgorsen, by the way) waltzed into Stillwater and gave the Cowboys a nasty buzzkill in the form of a 45-35 upset, officially derailing a championship season. OSU also suffered a pair of embarrassing 27-point losses to Big 12 South rivals Oklahoma and Texas, including a 27-0 shutout loss to Oklahoma. Kendall Hunter (ankle), Zac Robinson (shoulder) and Dez Bryant (NCAA suspension) were all forced off the field at times, but there's no doubt: That team was a tease.

2008: Missouri

The Tigers reached No. 1 heading into the Big 12 championship game in 2007, but a loss sent them to the Cotton Bowl and hoping for better luck next year. Chase Daniel and Co. opened the season at No. 6 and ran off a 5-0 start, including a 52-17 obliteration of Nebraska in Lincoln, the first win for the Tigers there since 1978. A week later, though? A program-defining win for Oklahoma State on Missouri's field, followed by an absolute undressing by Colt McCoy and Texas in Austin a week later, featuring a 35-3 halftime deficit. The Tigers were upset by Kansas before being rolled over 62-21 by Oklahoma and settling for an appearance in the Alamo Bowl. Quite the tease, Tigers.

So, which of the Big 12 teams ranked this year looks like a tease?
Mike Gundy has been through this before.

After a 9-4 season in 2008, Oklahoma State brought back quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant, one of the nation's best. The team also had an All-America running back coming off a 1,500-yard season.

The Cowboys opened the season at No. 8 and rose to the top five after a season-opening victory over Georgia in one of the most anticipated season openers in school history.

[+] EnlargeMike Gundy
Chuck Cook/US PresswireCoach Mike Gundy hopes the experiences from the 2009 season will help his players stay focused despite the hype around the program.
Oklahoma State's opener isn't quite as attractive this year, but the build-up to the season?

"Very similar," Gundy said.

Oklahoma State won a school-record 11 games in 2010 and returns one of the nation's best quarterbacks, Brandon Weeden. Justin Blackmon exceeded anything Bryant ever did, leading the nation with 20 receiving touchdowns. He also had 1,782 yards on 111 catches to win the Biletnikoff Award.

Hunter is gone, but in his place, a capable duo with loads of potential in Jeremy Smith and Joseph Randle.

In a recent preseason poll by "College Football Live," the Cowboys rolled in at No. 8.

"We’re so well-received across the country right now and hopefully, the experience we had in the summer prior to 2009 will help our players understand the importance of staying focused and getting ready for a good season," Gundy said.

But back in 2009, after the win over Georgia, the Cowboys' lofty hopes of a title crumbled with a series of setbacks. First, they suffered a loss to Houston the following week. An ankle injury slowed Hunter, and forced senior Keith Toston to fill his role. The NCAA suspended Bryant for the remainder of the season after three games for lying about his relationship with Deion Sanders.

Late in the year, a shoulder injury to Robinson contributed to the Cowboys getting shut out in a loss to Oklahoma and scoring just seven points in a Cotton Bowl loss to Ole Miss.

Two years later, they're trying to avoid the problems that arose during that 9-4 season in 2009, and apply the lessons learned.

"It takes a lot to maintain. They’ve worked extremely hard to raise the level to where they’re at now, but they have to stay focused and have a great offseason," Gundy said. "There’s so many distractions out there nowadays, and it’s important to avoid distractions and take care of everything that’s important off the field as well as on the field."

Last year, the Cowboys were picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 South after losing Robinson, Bryant and four offensive linemen, but with the hype of this offseason, things will be different this fall.

"We’re not going to have the opportunity to sneak up on anybody," Gundy said. "People are obviously aware of who we are, and so we have to go back and earn our stripes each summer and prepare for kicking it off in September."
Blaine Gabbert made the right decision by declaring for the NFL draft. ESPN's Scouts, Inc. has Gabbert as the No. 20 overall prospect in April's draft, and Gabbert received a first-round grade from the NFL draft advisory committee after he submitted his paperwork.

For every Jake Locker and Jevan Snead, there's a Sam Bradford: There's nothing wrong with sticking around another year if you're projected as a first-rounder, and the risk of injury is somewhat overrated.

[+] EnlargeBlaine Gabbert
Scott Rovak/US PresswireBlaine Gabbert is leaving Missouri to enter the NFL draft.
Gabbert is a bit different. In Missouri's spread offense, he wouldn't have been much further along as an NFL prospect this time next year, and his size (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) and arm strength (ridiculous) are exactly what NFL teams want in a prospective future starter. His capability to make NFL reads and develop footwork on dropbacks wouldn't have been much further along, and for a guy with a promising future looming like Gabbert, he might as well get a head start. Now was the time.

The lack of an elite receiver like Jeremy Maclin or Danario Alexander kept Gabbert from posting jaw-dropping numbers in 2010, but he played well and notched Missouri's fourth 10-win season in school history. To Gabbert's credit, he didn't force very many plays this year, and did what he needed to do for Missouri to win games. Missouri notched 10 wins because of it.

Gabbert is a competitive guy, and he'd surely like to achieve more than he did -- he never played in a Big 12 Championship or won a bowl game -- but he still had a great career and will go down as one of the best quarterbacks in Tigers history. He'll lack the legacy of Heisman finalist and three-year starter Chase Daniel, but don't be surprised if Gabbert is better in the NFL than in college. He's an Academic All-Big 12 performer and a smart, coachable player who made clear strides for all three of his seasons at Missouri. I'd expect that to continue in the NFL.

For the Tigers, things get a bit complicated.

The knee-jerk reaction for some will write off Missouri as a Big 12 contender in 2011, but that's not necessarily what should happen. It'll be tough for Missouri to win, but they bring back plenty of talent, especially on defense and in a more experienced receiving corps with a stable of young running backs who all got experience this year. Talk about replacing starters all you'd like, but Oklahoma State lost a "franchise" quarterback in Zac Robinson and played a first-year quarterback in Brandon Weeden who had not made a start in nine years. His last start was in high school. That worked out pretty well for them. I'd say 11 wins is a pretty good season.

Replacing Gabbert will be crucial for Missouri not just in 2011, but in retaining its stability as a winner in the Big 12. Tommy Tuberville said it last week at the TicketCity Bowl: In the SEC, you win with running backs and defense. In the Big 12, you win with quarterbacks. That's exactly how Missouri has done it.

In the last four years, Oklahoma is the only team with more Big 12 wins than Missouri.

Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Chase Daniel, Zac Robinson, Graham Harrell, Todd Reesing -- the bar has been set high in this league, even in just the most recent few years.

And for Missouri, any hope they have of being a legitimate Big 12 contender hinges on the guy who steps in for Gabbert. And unlike Daniel and Gabbert were, choosing the next starting quarterback won't be a formality this spring.

James Franklin played more than any of Missouri's other young quarterbacks, but he was used mostly as a runner. He was a miniature version of Brad Smith, at the risk of Missourian heresy.

He has the arm strength, but his decision making ability is a question mark. His coaches probably have only a bit more information from what they've seen in practices. That's what Missouri has to figure out when spring practice kicks off in a couple months.

The true freshman threw all of 14 passes in 2010. That's not much of a sample size.

I'd expect a fierce competition between Franklin and Gabbert's younger brother, freshman Tyler Gabbert, as well as redshirt freshman Ashton Glaser.

Franklin's experience, however limited, gives him the edge. And the Tigers have a few proven playmakers in receiver T.J. Moe, tight end Michael Egnew and receivers Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson.

Franklin's legs produced a valuable change of pace, especially in the red zone. He ran 23 times for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

But those legs won't win him the job in 2011. He has to prove it as a passer. Maybe he's Missouri's most accurate passer. Maybe it's the younger Gabbert or Glaser.

We'll find out soon. It should be an interesting spring in Columbia.

Oklahoma State makes program history

November, 20, 2010
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The win won't look like much for Oklahoma State at the end of the year, a did-what-they-should-have 48-14 win over Kansas, but the Cowboys did plenty to hang their ten-gallon hats on in this one.

First off, it's the team's 10th regular-season win, a first in program history. In the win, Brandon Weeden also broke Zac Robinson's single-season record for total offense.

But on the small scale, the Cowboys rebounded from a rough start and played a complete second half on both sides of the ball. After falling behind 14-10, Oklahoma State scored the game's final 38 points, and the defense, which was gashed in the first half for two early touchdowns, held the Jayhawks to 80 total yards in the second half and prompted a quarterback change from Quinn Mecham to Jordan Webb.

You learn more from struggling than you do from dominating, and that first-half game tape should provide plenty of homework for the defense heading into next week's game against Oklahoma with the Big 12 South on the line. The defense's play in the second half should give coaches plenty of confidence that they've got a big head start on preventing those mistakes from surfacing again.

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All the pieces were in place. Zac Robinson was the senior franchise quarterback who would eventually leave as the program's all-time leader in total offense. Kendall Hunter was the running back coming off the All-American season and ready to run past his 1,555 yards as a sophomore. Receiver Dez Bryant was the playmaker like no other, one that would eventually leave as a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.

Best of all, they'd be operating behind an experienced offensive line headlined by a four-year starter protecting Robinson's blind side, Russell Okung, who eventually was selected sixth in the NFL Draft.

The next in a line of triplets at Oklahoma State that have included greats like Barry Sanders, Rashaun Woods and Mike Gundy looked ready to compete for a Big 12 title -- maybe more.

But Hunter suffered an ankle injury early on and didn't look like the same back until the season's final game. Bryant was suspended for the season after the third game for lying to NCAA officials about a visit with Deion Sanders. Robinson suffered a shoulder injury and wasn't himself in a shutout loss to Oklahoma to close the regular season, when a win would have sent the Cowboys to a BCS bowl.

They settled for 2nd in the South, the highest finish ever for the program, and an appearance in the Cotton Bowl.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Weeden and Kendall Hunter
John Rieger/US PresswireBrandon Weeden and Kendall Hunter have given the Cowboys a shot at the Big 12 South title.
This year, a new group of unsuspecting triplets have emerged.

Brandon Weeden, a 27-year-old first-time starter, leads the Big 12 in passing yards, completion percentage, touchdowns (his 26 are tied for No. 1 nationally) and passer rating. Hunter is better than ever as a senior, leading the Big 12 in rushing and ranking third nationally.

And Justin Blackmon, a sophomore with 20 career catches that no one outside the Big 12 had ever heard of before the season, has emerged as the favorite for the Biletnikoff Award and a possible Heisman finalist. He leads the nation in receiving yards per game by a wide margin, and is tied for the most touchdowns with 15.

Together, they have the No. 10 Cowboys (8-1) on top of the Big 12 South and in position to reach the Big 12 title game for the first time ever. With a win at Texas on Saturday, Oklahoma State would come home from Austin as winners for the first time in 11 tries since 1944.

"This is what you play for. Every game gets bigger as you go and this one is a big one," Weeden said.

Even an offensive line with four new starters has become a strength.

"I thought we had a pretty good product to work with," said new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen. "You never know how kids are going to develop, but that’s why you get out there and practice every day and put guys in a position to improve."

The hype surrounding the team wasn't there when the season began, but attention on the Cowboys -- picked fifth in the Big 12 South in the preseason -- has grown as the wins have piled up.

"It’s only a factor if you start to listen to it," Gundy said. "I’ve said this for four or five weeks now. If you start to think you’re a pretty good player and that your team is better than they really are, you just need to look around the country every Saturday and you will see teams get knocked off. I’m a firm believer in that. We have some good players who have made a lot of good plays this year. And we have a good football team. But we’re not beyond practicing well and keeping the right frame of mind in order to win our football game."
Just call this one the Disrespect Bowl.

No. 21 Baylor and No. 17 Oklahoma State have flipped the Big 12's preseason media poll upside down. First-place Baylor (4-1 in conference) was picked sixth in the preseason, and Oklahoma State, tied for second at 3-1, was picked fifth.

"The parity in college football and in our league play is increasing and I think it’s going to level itself out more over the years to come, with us being in a league where we all play each other," said Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy.

[+] EnlargeRobert Griffin III
Brett Davis/US PresswireRobert Griffin III and coach Art Briles have Baylor in contention for the Big 12 South title.
He coaches a team that lost the school's all-time leader in total offense, quarterback Zac Robinson, along with a first-round pick in receiver Dez Bryant. Four offensive linemen and seven defenders also didn't return.

Yet here they are.

While Texas' attempt to establish a power running game floundered, the Cowboys' shift to Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid has flourished. No proven receivers and a first-year quarterback? Receiver Justin Blackmon and quarterback Brandon Weeden have emerged as two of the league's newest stars, both near the top of the nation statistically at their respective positions. Running back Kendall Hunter is even better than his All-American 2008 self, ranking third nationally in rushing yards and on track to speed past his 1,555 yards as a sophomore. Hunter has 1,174 yards through eight games as a senior.

"When you can use the length of the field the way teams do now, it allows players that may not be as big or as fast as other players, to have an opportunity to have success, to make plays with the ball in their hand and compared to years ago, when the game was played in between the hash marks. And so, the bigger and stronger opponent had an advantage," Gundy said. "Now, the game is played sideline to sideline, and so there are other teams that may have other players that may not be as athletic as the other schools, traditional schools, but they still have enough of an opportunity to make plays and score points and win games."

Baylor's 7-2 start overall is the product of a rebuilding (or, perhaps more accurately, building) project in its third year under Art Briles, centered around a transcendent talent in Robert Griffin III, who has reassumed his position as one of the league's premier stars after missing most of 2009 with a torn ACL. He's showcased a passing talent far surpassing what he had as a freshman in 2008, racking up 2,592 yards through the air, second-most nationally, though he's played nine games to others' eight.

"It’s just one of those deals, the old cliché: Any given Saturday. You used to have your tongue in your cheek when you said it. But now, it’s very much a reality," Briles said.

Baylor began the year with realistic bowl hopes that have blossomed into a realistic chance to win the division after clinching the program's first winning season in 15 years with a 30-22 victory over Texas in Austin.

Oklahoma State began 2010 as a season stamped "Rebuilding" by those on the outside. It appeared to be an imminent fall from a 9-3 season in 2009, when the Cowboys were a win over Oklahoma away from reaching a BCS bowl, and finished second in the South.

Both have reached the top with offenses that rank in the top 10 nationally, spurred by elite talents like Blackmon and Griffin. Neither defense ranks inside the top 75 nationally.

Oregon and Auburn (35th and 57th in total defense) sit atop the polls as the favorites to appear in the national title game.

Like the Ducks and Tigers, neither Baylor nor Oklahoma State would make the short list of traditional college football powers. For all the talk of defenses winning championships, offenses seem pretty good at taking programs to new levels.

"There’s just a number of players out there with spread offenses and people that can throw and make plays on offense and if you’re not prepared, you take a chance at getting beat on any given Saturday," Gundy said. "So, there’ll be more parity from this point on. I’m convinced that there’ll be teams that can beat schools that traditionally they wouldn’t have thought that they could beat."

Measuring up the Big 12's 'hot team'

August, 10, 2010
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Every conference has at least one. Each year, fans and media crown a team outside the current powers with a chance to upset the order.

Last season, Oklahoma State earned the tag, entering the season with a remarkably talented trio in running back Kendall Hunter, quarterback Zac Robinson and receiver Dez Bryant.

Injuries and eligibility afflicted all three, but the Cowboys still managed a second-place finish in the South.

This year, a similarly talented set of triplets will be on display for the Big 12's 2010 "hot team" in College Station: Texas A&M.

By now, non-Aggies fans are at least a little tired of hearing all the reasons a team that's won 10 games in two seasons and never finished higher than fifth in its six-team division is going to challenge for a South title in 2010. Call Texas A&M a dark horse, but the shade of the Aggies' coat has lightened with an avalanche of coverage and expectations from the media over the offseason.

Seventeen starters return, including linebacker Von Miller and quarterback Jerrod Johnson, two of the Big 12's best talents. Joining them are a highlight-making corps of receivers and two of the conference's best running backs in Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. They'll get a chance to build some early steam with a back-loaded schedule that saves the Aggies' toughest tests for November. Before then, they'll face very winnable games against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas, and against Oklahoma State in Stillwater before hosting Missouri and Texas Tech.

But Texas A&M has clear weaknesses that must be overcome if it wants to play in its first Big 12 title game since 1998. Chief among those is a defense that gave up a Big 12-worst 33.5 points per game in 2009, twice giving up 60 points and 40 points on three more occasions.

Additionally, the Aggies must plug three holes in the offensive line if they want to maintain their status as the Big 12's second-best offensive team at over 465 yards per game.

In the offseason, they made moves to fix both problems. We won't know how well either fix works until the Aggies are tested. New defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter comes to College Station via Air Force, where he coordinated the nation's 10th-best defense. Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews were among the best tackle prospects in the 2010 class. Both signed with coach Mike Sherman and could start when the opener against Stephen F. Austin arrives on Sept. 4.

The Big 12 championship game is exactly five months later. If Texas A&M keeps the heat on, it might be there, ending Texas' and Oklahoma's 11-year streak of representing the South on Championship Saturday.

Weighing in on the rule changes

April, 16, 2010
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We touched on the issue briefly in Thursday's chat, but the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved three rules changes for college football. A quick review:

In 2010:

    [+] EnlargeZac Robinson
    Tim Heitman/US PresswireUnder rules just passed by the NCAA, eye-black tributes, like this one from Zac Robinson to his deceased grandfather, won't be allowed.
  • No wedge blocks on kickoffs, meaning no more than two players standing closer than two yards from each other. A 15-yard penalty will be assessed if they do, even if there is no contact.
  • No more messages on eye black.
In 2011:

  • Taunting in the field of play is a live-ball penalty, and if a player scores a touchdown, the points are erased and the ball is spotted 15 yards from the spot of the foul.

Obviously, the final rule change generated the most discussion, and Texas coach Mack Brown weighed in with a nice statement on Thursday that fell short of being overly critical of the rule change, while addressing the real concern. Said Brown in a release:
"I don't disagree with it, but I am worried about the consistency in how the rule is interpreted, especially when it can cost a team a touchdown. It can be looked at so differently by the various officiating groups around the country and a call would have such a major impact on games that in fairness, it's crucial that it is called the same way for everyone."

The idea, as stated by NCAA officials yesterday, is that the rule is reserved for only egregious examples, but Dave Parry, the NCAA's national coordinator of college football officiating, said yesterday this touchdown by Golden Tate (at the :35 mark) would have been flagged. That's hardly "teasing," as Parry called it.

He also said the penalty would be flagged "very rarely." To be fair, it's been flagged "never" as of right now, but I'll join Brown as a mild critic of the rule. Moves like Tate's happen far from "very rarely." Compare that to another example of a celebration that would be flagged: Quan Cosby's dive into the end zone to clinch the 2009 Fiesta Bowl.

While Tate's actions could be classified as mild "taunting," Cosby's are not. I can't imagine the reaction of fans if a core of that significance came off the board for a celebration as insignificant as Cosby's. And what about deciding whether or not a celebration came before or after a score? If it's close, do you go to a replay? How many eye rolls can we expect the first time that happens?

It's likely that after this week, discussion of the rule will go away. The first time it's flagged, especially if the flag is questionable, I'm sure we'll be right back here talking about it.

As for the eye black rule, it seems to eliminate a threat that wasn't really there. Tim Tebow and Reggie Bush aren't the only ones who did it. I don't recall anyone pushing real boundaries with it, and what about when people use it as a way to honor someone? Any chance for an exception to the rule?

A couple of examples that spring to mind are former Oklahoma State quarterback Zac Robinson's "Press On" after the death of his grandfather, and the Connecticut team honoring Jasper Howard with a "6" under one eye and "JH" under the other.

I understand wanting to prevent it from getting out of hand, but it seems a bit premature and unnecessary.

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.

OSU's Cox turning heads at Senior Bowl

January, 28, 2010
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Oklahoma State cornerback Perrish Cox needed a big week of work at Senior Bowl practice to help convince NFL scouts that he could become a viable top draft pick.

Cox is doing all of that and more in early practices for the South team as he prepares for Saturday's game in Mobile, Ala.

[+] EnlargePerrish Cox
Julianne Varacchi/ESPN.comPerrish Cox, left, was able to get his hands on the ball on multiple occasions on Wednesday.
Two interceptions on back-to-back plays in Wednesday's workout punctuated a huge day of work for Cox that has NFL talent evaluators raving about his work.

Here's what ESPN.com's evaluators from Scouts Inc. had to say about the 6-foot, 192-pounder's work this week:

"Cox did a nice job staying low in his backpedal and opening his hips during individual work. That allowed him to make interceptions on back-to-back plays during the team period. On the first play Cox stuck in UAB WR Joe Webb's back pocket, anticipating the route and making a nice catch in traffic. On the second he got good depth in his drop and read the eyes of college teammate Zac Robinson before closing on the ball quickly and snatching it out of the air. Cox looked smooth in and out of his cuts all day, showing fluidity and exploding out of his pedal when breaking on the ball."

Cox was one of the nation's most underrated players this past season. He tended to be forgotten when draftniks raved about players like Florida's Joe Haden and Florida State's Patrick Robinson at his position.

And his exposure was further limited when he was suspended before the Cowboys' game against Mississippi in the Cotton Bowl. If Cox had produced a big game against the Rebels, it might have given him a wider audience heading into the draft.

But as it is, a strong finish at the Senior Bowl and strong work at the NFL combine still could push Cox into the latter part of the first round.

Final 2009 Big 12 power rankings

January, 13, 2010
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Here's my final look at the Big 12 power rankings for this season.

1. Texas: Longhorn fans will always remember Colt McCoy’s injury in the national championship game and what could have been. Texas overcame every challenge during the regular season, but came up lacking without its leader in the biggest game of the year. The way the Alabama game played out will always haunt Texas fans. If they could have ever grabbed a touchdown lead or more over Alabama, was there any real indication that Alabama could have won with Greg McElroy and the Crimson Tide’s leaky offensive line? But it went the other way and the Longhorns were ground into submission by Alabama’s potent rushing attack to put a disappointing capper on an otherwise memorable season.

2. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers finished 10-4 and were only five or six plays removed from winning three of those games -- losses to Texas, Iowa State and Virginia Tech. If that had happened, it’s not out of the realm of possibility the Cornhuskers could have finished in the top five or six teams nationally. But the convincing victory over Arizona, especially with the unexpected offensive firepower, should build confidence and embolden Bo Pelini and his team for bigger and better things next season.

3. Texas Tech: A roller-coaster season finished with Mike Leach and Ruffin McNeill looking for work despite an impressive 9-4 record where the Red Raiders overachieved to a Top 25 finish. Tommy Tuberville’s arrival will bring changes, but Tech returns with a strong nucleus starting of quarterbacks Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield and running back Baron Batch. If Tuberville can get the Red Raiders up and running quickly, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that his new team could challenge Texas and Oklahoma next season. But it will be tough as he tries to change the culture of the most memorable era of Tech football.

4. Oklahoma: A fast finish took some of the sting out of Bob Stoops’ most disappointing recent season. The Sooners’ hopes of a Big 12 four-peat were doomed as soon as Sam Bradford was lost for the season. And Jermaine Gresham’s injury before the season changed the way Kevin Wilson’s offense could operate. But at the end of the season, Landry Jones showed enough promise to give him a foothold for the starting position next season. The defense developed some young playmakers like David King and Demontre Hurst who showed promise in the bowl game for future growth. The Sooners will be back challenging for the Big 12 title next season if those players build on their late-season efforts.

5. Oklahoma State: All of the promise at the start of the season unraveled with a disappointing string of injuries and suspensions. And even with all of those struggles, the Cowboys still had a chance to play in a Bowl Championship Series game if they had beaten Oklahoma. Losses in the last two games of the season left a bad taste for what could have been Mike Gundy’s breakout season. The defense played much better than expected under new coordinator Bill Young, but the offense didn’t live up to the promise -- especially when Zac Robinson was hurt and his offensive weapons were stripped away. All things considered, a 9-4 record with everything the Cowboys overcame this season was better than could be expected.

6. Missouri: As well as the Tigers played at times during the season, their season was marked by their fourth-quarter home collapse against Nebraska and their confounding Texas Bowl upset loss to Navy. Truthfully, it was expected to be a rebuilding year after losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Co., but some of that was lost after a four-game winning streak to start the season. Blaine Gabbert surpassed expectations and is in line to become the conference’s best quarterback over the next couple of years. And Danario Alexander was the best receiver in the nation over the second half of the season. Defensive woes hurt them, but Gabbert’s return and some young defensive talent should have the Tigers pointed to improvement next season and maybe a challenge at the North title.

7. Iowa State: Was there a better moment in the 2009 Big 12 season than Paul Rhoads’ emotional response to his team’s upset victory over Nebraska which became a YouTube staple? Rhoads’ first season far surpassed expectations with a 7-6 record, the Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota and all of the other surprising accomplishments. Alexander Robinson was the most underrated player in the Big 12 and the gritty Iowa State defense played just like you would expect from a Rhoads-coached team. It won’t be easy for them to duplicate next year as they switch to the Texas-Texas Tech-Oklahoma gauntlet of South Division opponents. But it was a nice first step for Rhoads in building his program.

8. Kansas State: The Wildcats missed out on a bowl trip because of playing too many creampuffs during the nonconference season, but Bill Snyder’s first season was better than expected. The Wildcats received huge contributions from Grant Gregory and Daniel Thomas, who both arrived before summer practice with no real expectations coming into the season. Thomas developed into one of the conference’s best backs and should return for more next season. If Oregon transfer Chris Harper can develop into a playmaker at either quarterback or wide receiver and the defense comes together, the Wildcats might be a threat to make a bowl appearance in 2010.

9. Texas A&M: For all of their offensive weapons, the Aggies’ defense and special teams were the primary culprits in a 6-7 season capped by a disappointing Independence Bowl loss to Georgia. Jerrod Johnson posted the top statistical numbers ever produced by an A&M quarterback and he’s surrounded by a bevy of strong offensive weapons. But Mike Sherman’s new coordinator is going to need to produce more improvement from a young defense if the Aggies have any hopes of contending in the South Division next season and beyond.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks’ leaky defense did it with mirrors against a weak early schedule, but it all caught up with them during a seven-game losing streak to close the season that precipitated Mark Mangino’s resignation. Todd Reesing, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe all finished careers that will go down among the top players in Kansas history. But the challenge for new coach Turner Gill and defensive coordinator Carl Torbush will be to rebuild a defense that allowed at least 31 points in seven of eight conference games.

11. Colorado: Dan Hawkins popped off about challenging for a Big 12 North title at the end of last season. Instead, his team’s struggling performance ended his hopes of “10 wins and no excuses” before conference play even began. The season started off badly with embarrassing nationally televised losses to Colorado State, Toledo and West Virginia and didn’t get much better once conference play began. The Buffaloes did start Kansas’ losing streak and beat Texas A&M, but sputtered offensively as they ranked in the bottom 10 teams in rushing, passing efficiency and sacks allowed and in the bottom 20 teams in total offense. Tyler Hansen emerged as the quarterback of the future. His development will be critical in Hawkins’ hopes at a contract extension.

12. Baylor: The Bears started the season with a confidence-building upset at Wake Forest, but their season for all intents and purposes ended as soon as Robert Griffin sustained a season-ending injury in the third game. Griffin should be back next season but key defensive players like Joe Pawelek and Jordan Lake won’t be. The quarterback's return will be critical in rebuilding offensive confidence that was booming heading into the season. The Bears might have the opportunity to snap the conference's longest bowl drought next season in a more balanced Big 12 South, but the key for the season will be developing a defense that can better challenge the South Division’s powers.

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