The Stewards of the Big 12
The Big 12 has been getting in its own way to great effect lately. Last season, #3 Baylor lost to Oklahoma State, who rose up the standings to #6 before getting beaten by Bob Stoops and Oklahoma. A year before, it was Baylor upending #1 Kansas State, and in '11 Iowa State ruined #2 OSU's season. Despite seven Big 12 appearances in the national championship game in the 2000's (2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2009) including two wins, the conference has not had a serious contender since Alabama beat Texas in 2009. In fact, its level of play has started to fall below that of the other major conferences.
That trend line could be extremely temporary, as Oklahoma and Texas are pushing to return to the level of play they expect and that brought them six of those seven title appearances. Oklahoma, TCU and Kansas State (not to mention an underrated Baylor) are injecting some defense into the conference, and Iowa State and TCU have made some good coaching moves. It will be interesting to see how the Big 12 responds to the state of college football over the next few years, but at least for 2014's marathon, there will only be the one champion (actually, there might be two, but regardless), and we'll try to analyze some preseason favorites and give in-depth cases for each of them. Here's part one.
University of Oklahoma
Trevor Knight started the year 11/28 and 86 yards against Louisiana-Monroe, and ended it 32/44 with 348 yards against Alabama. People are wondering which quarterback will show up, but this is as simple as a redshirt freshman getting comfortable late in the season. Ian Boyd is impressed, and so am I - there was one play against Alabama when Knight decided to run for it on 3rd and 10 and converted it. Another time, he threw three straight completions to overcome 1st and 30, then threw for the TD. Quarterbacks like Christian Hackenberg have talent, but there's another ceiling for instinctive playmakers like Knight and Connor Cook (Knight is better than Cook, by the way).
The problem is who he'll have to work with, as the Sooners lose a lot of talent at running back and receiver. Running back shouldn't be a problem, as the Sooners will give the ball to a pair of four-star freshmen, five-star freshman Joe Mixon, Rivals-6.0 running back Keith Ford (5.8 ypc), and occasionally to other athletes like Sterling Shepard, Knight, and quarterback-turned-tight end Blake Bell. Again, receiver's a bit of a problem, but there's talent and youth, plus some good coaching. Next year, they will also get a boost by the addition of Dorial Green-Beckham.
The defense, in a word, is fast. Even the D-line is athletic and disruptive in the pass game, though it can get gorged against strong running teams. And most of their defense returns, save for a couple key players in the secondary, which has three freshman or sophomore four-stars making their way up. Oklahoma has quietly had four straight 10-win seasons, and it's also been remarkably and quietly consistent in recruiting - they have been in the top fifteen of Rivals' recruiting rankings every year since Rivals was founded.
The Sooners struggled last year at preventing penalties, defending punts, kicking punts, and red zone defense (an extension of their poor defense against the run), but outside of special teams, this is a team to like. Against Alabama, they played with confidence and aggression, even though the Tide won a majority of the one-on-one matchups. The fall is a long season, and through all the twists and turns, it favors the opportunistic and prepared teams. Oklahoma is one of those.
Accepting Applications: Wisconsin's Receivers
A year ago, Northwestern started by beating Cal (would go 1-11), Syracuse (7-6), Western Michigan (1-11), and Maine, an FCS school... and none of them by more than 21 points. This was somehow good enough for the #16 ranking the country, right before a long slide into the treacherous, dismal season they had, punctuated by that high point. Heading into 2014, Wisconsin is considered one of the top 15 teams in the country because of a put-it-in-the-bank running game, a reputation built up by three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances, a potential star at quarterback, and a marquee appearance against LSU.
The Badgers have a growing concern at wide receiver, however. All of the top four pass-catchers are gone from a unit that ranked dangerously low in the Big Ten to begin with - the 2,562 yards that Wisconsin managed was almost second-worst in the league, and 2,113 of those are now gone. Freshman wide receiver Dareian Watkins, a player I've mentioned as a future star of the Big Ten, has left the Badgers program for personal reasons, and he is one of two freshman receivers who did not make it to campus during the summer. The other, Chris Jones, had been a high-three-star recruit. Rather than mirroring Penn State's situation at wide receiver - and more has been made about both Penn State and the Wolverines turning to unproven players - Wisconsin is trending further downward.
Strategically, this leaves Andersen in a situation he wanted to avoid - going into Reliant Stadium against a fast but inexperienced defense (especially on the back end) without much of a play-action attack. Against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, Wisconsin could run the ball against the Gamecocks' defensive line (their backs and defensive front seven combined to win the ground game, 6.8 ypc to 3.4) but that didn't necessarily turn into points (they lost, 34-24). Now, the Badgers have a less fearsome front seven and lose James White, Jared Abbrederis, and tight end Jacob Pedersen, and go into a game where they're being lauded as some of the best in the Big Ten. The Big Ten hype machine is doing us no favors.
This is also part of a larger trend that eventually must be addressed, because this is how poor recruiting shows up in games. In 2013, when Wisconsin had a very fine front line, linebackers led by Chris Borland (a three-star) and Ethan Armstrong (a two-star), not to mention a very capable two-star quarterback, Joel Stave, and an offensive line built by red-chips, and a wide receiver walk-on-turned-star Abbrederis.... the Badgers still had enough holes on the roster to where they couldn't fulfill the Herculean tasks needed to compete with blue-chip talent in the SEC. The Badgers were doing the right things by getting in a couple, well-placed athletes who could help out at wide receiver, but the attrition that has hurt them shows the thin line that these schools play.
What makes this even more frustrating is that Big Ten football is a genuinely good product, and we should pride ourselves on football development and being able to turn Jeremy Gallon and Allen Robinson and Kirk Cousins and Brandon Scherff and Jared Abbrederis into NFL players. Football development is fundamentally important, and the Big Ten is a hotbed of it. But once you've proven you can develop players, the next step is to get some more four-star and five-star athletes to look your way, to quiet the comments in bowl games about the Big Ten not seeing speed during the year, and the Big Ten has not made that step. Add it all up, and it's a recipe for some high-profile disappointments and a continued problem for the Big Ten.
Hitting the Links Is Part of a Team
I know it's been talked about already, but this was still a well-written and concise look at how Ohio State should lean on their tight ends more this year.
SB Nation is running through the exciting non-conference games, and this time Clemson-Georgia gets the treatment. Reading about Clemson's defense was very interesting.
This was a good piece by Andy Staples, as usual. Alabama has won the last five recruiting titles, and over the last few years the amount they've been beating everyone else at it has grown. They have more four-star recruits than anyone else in '15, and tied for the most five-stars. They have also shown an ability to surge late, getting four five-star commits in the week prior to Signing Day the last two years.
I found a portion of a speech given by Bo Schembechler. This is terrific.
I have touched on his issues very briefly; this was an occasionally absorbing and very personal read. "Every time I put on my pads, I thought about not letting him down."
This is a good highlight to sneak in. Most corners are well under 200 lbs., and having wide receivers who can tackle and make blocks always helps extend plays on offense and shorten them when there are interceptions. Insert one last quip about Oregon's basketball passing.
The Pac-12 continues to start looking more like a souped-up version of the Big 12. First, Oregon, of course, then Steve Sarkisian introduced tempo to Washington, then Mike Leach and Rich Rodriguez were brought in to guide Washington State and Arizona, respectively. Sarkisian has taken his tempo to USC, and UCLA and Arizona State are also in on it. The result of this, if there isn't enough defense to match, will be a couple entertaining surprises like Arizona's 42-16 win over a #5 Oregon team.
This was extremely fun to look through. Michigan's coaches help serve breakfast to the team, Michigan State's players get exhausted by helping a kids' football camp, and Jesse Schmidtt long-snaps everything at his internship.
The comment section goes into detail about Dareian Watkins' departure, which was news to Wisconsin fans as of earlier this week.
For a slightly mundane topic, I found it concise and absorbing enough to include. Get the inside scoop of how Jim Mora is positioning his program going forward.
Their fan base is cultivating a nice outsiders' mentality, one that will be interesting to see develop over the next couple years. Also, Rutgers and Maryland seem to hate each other. It's very nice to see a little more hate going around.
Yes, Iowa ends with Wisconsin and Nebraska, but their "easy" schedule also features Minnesota, Indiana, Maryland, Iowa State, Northwestern, and a formerly 10-3 Ball State team. If the Hawkeyes do win the West, they'll have earned it.
Limegrover, the offensive coordinator for the Gophers, opens up about being bull-headed against Iowa and talks Minnesota's running game, their passing, and not running Mitch Leidner as much.
This is not a football link, but it's in line with some of what we've gone over before. Julie Hermann will have her work cut out to improve RU athletics. To that end, she has talked about having an "athletics campus" similar to UM's plans with South Campus, and while I am no fan of Hermann, her plans sounded very forward-thinking.
Yes, that is his running back.
Credit the writer for including plays that occurred against the Gophers. #1 and #6 are against Wisconsin, #7 and #8 are against Iowa, another rival, and #3 and #4 are against us.
This was a good piece by the Champaign Room, which of course includes Brady Hoke. It was a nice touch to then look at other coaches around the country.
Gardner finds time, throws a beauty of a pass in TCF Bank Stadium.