College Football Nation: Big 12 takes the spotlight
They’ve stood to the side through six weeks of the college football season. They’ve allowed others to play the central roles, filling bit parts as September progressed and ultimately passed. They went about their business, doing what was needed to remain relevant while the nation’s attention was elsewhere, knowing their time would come so long as they didn’t slip.
They didn’t, and now they take center stage.
They’re Oklahoma and Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma State, Kansas and even Texas Tech. After being distracted by USC, Clemson, Georgia, Florida, Ohio State, Wisconsin and others who couldn’t make it past the first month of the season without delivering bad performances, it’s time to sit back and watch the Big 12, where all hell is about to break loose.
Five of the 12 teams in the conference are undefeated. There are only 15 unbeaten teams left in all of Division I-A, and five of those are from non-BCS conferences. The ACC, Big East and Pac-10 have no undefeated teams left, while the Big Ten has two and the SEC has three. Part of the reason the Big 12 still has so many teams with perfect records is that they haven’t played each other yet. Now they do.
Conference play began last weekend, but the top teams all went up against the lesser Big 12 teams. That’s not the case this weekend when Oklahoma, the No. 1 team in both major polls, heads to Dallas for its annual matchup with Texas, which after getting little attention in the preseason has rocked its five opponents and now stands fifth in both polls. Meanwhile, Missouri, No. 2 in the USA Today poll and No. 3 in the AP poll, hosts Oklahoma State, which though unbeaten is 17th in both polls.
But it’s not just about one weekend. Next week Missouri goes to Texas. The week after that, No. 7 Texas Tech and Kansas do battle, as do Oklahoma State and Texas. And the week after that it’s Texas and Texas Tech.
“I don’t think Texas has ever had (a stretch) like this,” Texas coach Mack Brown said of his team’s upcoming schedule. “I told the guys it’s a great opportunity for us. ... Nobody will question who we’re playing, nobody will question how good we are and how much fun it is to go and compete against the best in the country at a time when the Big 12 is the best they’ve ever been.”
Big games are what will put the Big 12 in the biggest part over the next few weeks, but there’s much more going on here than simply good teams playing other good teams. The offenses are ridiculous. The quarterbacks are ridiculous. It’s pinball football, teams racing up and down the field and putting up points video-game style.
Six of the nation’s top 10 scoring offenses are Big 12 teams, including five of the top six. Missouri and Oklahoma State - those two who play each other in Columbia tomorrow - each average more than 50 points per game. Oklahoma clocks in with 49.6, while Texas Tech puts up 48.2 and Texas averages a mere 47.2.
And the players piloting those offenses are a who’s who of Heisman contenders.
Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, just a sophomore, ranks second in the nation in passing efficiency. He’s followed, in order, by Oklahoma State’s Zac Robinson, Texas’ Colt McCoy and Missouri’s Chase Daniel. Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell is 12th and Todd Reesing of Kansas is 14th.
Bradford already has 18 touchdown passes while throwing just three interceptions. McCoy has 16 and three. Daniel has 15 and one. Harrell is 18 and three. And Reesing is 14 and three. Even Robinson, whose team is second in the nation in rushing, has thrown 10 touchdown passes and just three picks.
“I guess the media outlets who are picking the Heisman right now pick me, but I’m just doing my job,” Daniel said. “I’m just trying to distribute the ball to my playmakers, and those playmakers are making me look good.”
“Playing quarterback is a challenge every week, especially in this league,” McCoy said. “You are going to have great players on the other side of the ball. You just have to trust your offensive line. You have to trust your coaches. You have to trust your receivers, expect them to make plays and get the ball in their hands.”
Now the video-game numbers to date do raise questions, two in particular. First, who have these teams played? And second, can any of these teams play defense? Both are key to understanding whether any of these teams are actually as good as fellow undefeateds like Alabama, LSU and Penn State.
The schedules have been pretty weak to date. Missouri has the best win of the Big 12 bunch, beating Illinois on opening weekend. Oklahoma easily handled a ranked TCU team and Texas beat a Colorado team on the road that has a decent win over West Virginia. But Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, among the conference’s unbeaten teams, haven’t played anyone of note yet.
Still, this is the age of parity, and reaching the second weekend of October with an undefeated record speaks volumes.
Look at USC. The Trojans would be No. 1 in the nation and still owner of the inside track to the BCS Championship Game if not for a loss to unranked Oregon State. Turn your gaze to Gainesville, Fla., where the Gators would be ranked second if not for a mystifying loss at home to Mississippi. Same story for Wake Forest, which lost to Navy, and Virginia Tech, which was beaten by East Carolina. Add South Florida to the list.
As for the defenses, well, time will tell. They’re not statistically bad - Texas is fourth in scoring defense, while Oklahoma is 15th. Missouri is 44th, allowing 20 points per game, but that includes the 42 scored by Illinois. Oklahoma State, however, may just be a mirage -- even against a weak schedule the Cowboys are giving up 23 points per game. Kansas and Texas Tech both allow less than 19 per game.
“We’re concerned because they can play,” MIssouri coach Gary Pinkel said of Oklahoma State’s offense, though he could have been talking for all the Big 12 coaches regarding opposing attacks. “They’re really good. ... We will be tested.”
This weekend will begin to show whether the big boys of the Big 12 have championship-level defenses, whether their schedules created false hopes, and whether those spectacular quarterbacks leading spectacular offenses can be similarly successful against other potentially superb teams.
Six weeks of supporting roles are over. The starring role is at hand.
What We Learned
Last year Appalachian State taught a loud and clear message.
With the Mountaineers’ upset of mighty Michigan, it showed that the reduction in scholarships Division I-A program can give out -- now at 85 -- had a trickle-down effect. Talented players who might have ended up at Michigan -- or Florida, or USC, or Oklahoma -- and been buried on depth charts instead went elsewhere, lifting programs from conferences like the Sun Belt and Mountain West, and of course the best of the bunch from Div. I-AA, to the point where they could rise up and beat the traditional powers on any given Saturday.
This year we’re seeing that another beneficiary of that same trickle-down effect. The smart schools, the ones who have been the whipping boys for the football factories are getting in on the parity party.
Vanderbilt is 5-0 for the first time since World War II and is a real contender for the SEC East title. Northwestern is 5-0, and if the Wildcats can beat Michigan State this week could be 9-0 heading into a home game against Ohio State. Wake Forest won the ACC Championship Game two years ago and went to the Orange Bowl, and is a favorite to win the conference again this year. Stanford beat USC last year in one of the great all-time upsets, and is now 3-3 in coach Jim Harbaugh’s second season -- the Cardinal was 1-11 the year before Harbaugh arrived, and 5-6 and 4-7 the two years before that. Duke, which lost 25 straight ACC games heading into this season, is 3-2 under first-year coach David Cutcliffe, including a streak-ending victory over Virginia.
These are schools that have often been able to compete on the basketball court, where one or two players can completely turn a team around, where one or two scholarships can make all the difference between failure and the Final Four, where only five players are on the court at any given time and one player’s breakdown doesn’t necessarily doom the other four.
But football is a game of depth, a game where one player’s missed assignment can devastate any opportunity for success by the other 10 on the field. The traditional whipping boys, the big-conference smart schools, are building depth. They’re competitive this season. There’s a good chance they’ll be competitive for years to come.
Game of the Week
Red. River. Shootout.
There is good stuff on tap this weekend. There’s that Oklahoma State at Missouri matchup where the Cowboys’ rushing attack will try to keep the Daniel and the Tigers on the sideline for as long as possible. There’s LSU, which is up to No. 2 in the media poll and ranked third by the coaches, heading east to Florida’s Swamp in Gainesville. There’s Penn State facing its biggest test to date, traveling to Wisconsin’s rowdy Camp Randall Stadium for chilly night affair.
But this weekend is all about the Cotton Bowl. One side of the old stadium in burnt orange, the other in red. It’s about the Texas State Fair. It’s about the Sooners and Longhorns, locking up in a game with championship implications.
“It’s a great rivalry,” said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. “Everyone understands it and is talking about it. It’s a really good atmosphere to compete in and a great challenge to play a great Texas team. I think Mack Brown and their staff always do an excellent job. ... It’s a major challenge and an exciting one as well.”
Beyond being one of the great traditional rivalries in all of college football, Oklahoma-Texas has major national championship implications this year. The winner will remain right near the top of the polls. The loser will slip behind Georgia and USC and Ohio State and other title contenders who have already lost, suddenly hoping this season resembles the last one when only Hawaii went through the regular season unscathed.
“This is really big to us,” Brown said. “It’s really big to Oklahoma. I have been fortunate to be on both sides of this like Coach (Darrell) Royal and see what it means to both teams, and it’s even bigger when both teams are really, really good like they are this year.”
This year’s Red River Shootout has everything. It’s got brilliant quarterbacks in Bradford and McCoy leading brilliant offenses, it’s got stout defenses, it’s got coaches who have won national championships, it’s got implications.
And best of all, the schools hate each other.
“I can remember going to the OU/Texas game with my dad when I was a kid,” said Oklahoma’s Bradford. “Walking in and seeing the red and orange divided, I thought it would be a dream to play in a game like this. To go out and actually do it, I can’t really even begin to explain the excitement and fulfillment.”
If I Had a Ballot ...
1. Oklahoma (5-0): After Texas, Reesing and the Jayhawks come calling. But right now who cares about what’s after Texas; it’s all about Texas.
2. Alabama (6-0): Are the slim wins over Tulane and Kentucky warning signs?
3. LSU (4-0): The defense, which allowed 24 points to Mississippi State, now must deal with Tim Tebow and the Gators.
4. Missouri (5-0): If Oklahoma State can run on the Tigers, this week gets very interesting.
5. Texas (5-0): An underdog to Oklahoma, but one that with McCoy at QB and an emerging running game has a real shot.
6. Penn State (6-0): Wisconsin’s Camp Randall at night is no picnic, but if the Nittany Lions survive they’re looking at 8-0 before a journey to Columbus.
7. USC (3-1): After the dismantling of Oregon, the loss to Oregon State becomes even more mystifying.
8. BYU (5-0): New Mexico this week, but then a very interesting Thursday night affair at TCU.
9. Georgia (4-1): Suddenly the game against Vanderbilt next weekend looks pretty intriguing.
10. Texas Tech (5-0): The first telling opponent will be Kansas on Oct. 25.
Eric Avidon is a Daily News staff writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.