In order to take stock in the conference, let's evaluate whose stock is soaring and whose stock is nose-diving in order of the way we ranked them in the September issue of CN Magazine.
The Sooners certainly have the look of a major national title contender, and one has to like the way Bob Stoops took a disciplinary stand in dismissing standout Dusty Dvoracek for his shenanigans. Jason White has been solid, freshman Adrien Peterson has been as advertised, and the defense – with the exception of some stretches against Bowling Green in the opener – doesn't look like it misses Mike Stoops too much yet. The one caveat here is that Oklahoma hasn't played a game away from Norman yet, and it won't until the annual grudge match against the Longhorns two weeks from now.
A month into the season, Texas might be the most questionable team with a top five national ranking I can ever remember. The Longhorns were impressive in dominating in-state rivals North Texas and Rice, but they should be against those overwhelmed foes. In its only true test of the season thus far Texas had to hang on against a gritty Arkansas squad that returned just three starters from last season. Mack Brown appears to have finally settled on one quarterback in Vincent Young, and Cedric Benson is a weapon in the backfield. Can he stay healthy without Selvin Young, out for the season with an injury, to spell him? However, for the Longhorns it still comes down to the Sooner question, which we'll get an answer to on October 9th.
Nobody is talking about it, but quietly the Aggies have bounced back quite nicely after getting routed at Utah in the season-opener. It turns out the Utes are pretty good, and since then that beleaguered Wrecking Crew defense has surrendered just six points in its last two games against Wyoming and Clemson, teams with high-powered offenses. Their offense is also balanced, averaging over 200 yards per game rushing and passing. The remaining schedule, though, is tough. This team should consider a winning record something to build on for 2005.
Two weeks ago the Red Raiders looked like they were in trouble. First there was a snoozer of a win over SMU, and the turnovers and the lack of a running game with Taurean Henderson led to a loss at New Mexico. That was followed by a 21-0 deficit at home against TCU. Then came their defining moment of the season: 56 unanswered points in a 70-35 victory over the Horned Frogs. That comeback told Texas Tech not to panic when it got jumped early at Kansas in the conference-opener, a game it ended up winning, 31-30. This is one of the younger teams in the Big 12, and it will be tested severely the next four weeks with consecutive games against Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and Kansas State. The Red Raiders a year away from being contending with that schedule.
Who needs a quarterback? I clearly overestimated the loss of Josh Fields, who eschewed breaking every school passing-record as a senior in favor of pursuing a Major League Baseball career. That twinkle in Les Miles' eye at the Big 12 media days should have sent a signal that he knew something we didn't know. No Fields, no Tatum Bell, no Rashaun Woods, no problem. Despite averaging just 86 yards passing a game, the offense is scoring 42 points per game behind Vernand Morency and a punishing ground attack. And an opportunistic, quick defense has led to a plus-10 turnover margin already.
After a 56-14 shellacking at Alabama-Birmingham in the opener, in which the Blazers amassed 343 yards rushing, the Bears have responded with two straight nondescript non-conference wins against neighborhood foes Texas State and North Texas. Dane King seems like a capable quarterback, but unfortunately a running game that is averaging just 101.7 yards per outing won't be enough to keep opposing defenses honest. Don't be surprised if Baylor doesn't win another game this season.
The Huskers suffered their first non-conference home loss since 1991 against Southern Mississippi, and are killing themselves with turnovers on offense. Nonetheless, I'm sticking with my preseason prediction that they'll emerge the North Division champion. The remainder of the division doesn't exactly impress me, and this is still the one team in the division that plays legitimate Big 12 defense. The offense will get more efficient with the football as the season goes on. The yardage is there, especially the ground game, so scheme and talent isn't the problem; experience is. Plus, I liked the chutzpah Bill Callahan showed by not backing down to standout Richie Incognito, who eventually decided to transfer following a suspension.
The team from the Show-Me-State hasn't shown that its preseason hype was warranted, at least so far. They've only played one team with anything remotely resembling a pulse, and lost to Troy on a nationally-televised Thursday night affair at someplace called Movie Gallery Stadium. Brad Smith is all that and several bags of chips, and this team still has the schedule to qualify for a second straight bowl game. However, if the Tigers are to earn that trip to the Big 12 Championship Game in December – as many prognosticators were forecasting before the season started – they face a must-win situation versus Colorado at home on Saturday.
Darren Sproles is still putting up big numbers, but not having Ell Roberson's big-play potential at quarterback has hurt as much as we anticipated in the preseason. In fact, one has to wonder about the overall talent-level of the defending conference champions. Case in point: look at the Fresno State game. The Bulldogs committed 11 penalties for 113 yards, lost the turnover battle, gained just 3.3 yards per rush, and were just 6-for-16 on third down conversions; yet they rolled K-State in Manhattan. A year ago, the Wildcats would've beaten a visitor by 30 points had they finished with those numbers. Could K-State be in danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 1992?
Through three games the young Cyclones have already accomplished a lot. They broke a 10-game losing streak in beating Northern Iowa in the season-opener. They played their archrivals to the east tough as nails and down to the wire and showed they can play tough, physical football against teams in the top half of college football on the road. And they showed a resiliency lacking in the program for the last year and a half with a gut-check, character-creating victory over Northern Illinois. This team probably has the highest-ceiling of any in the division, and one of the friendliest schedules. Iowa State won't contend for a division title, but could very well go from doormat to postseason participant if the running game gets going.
Before the season, Dan McCarney told me that nobody in college football circles the wagons like Gary Barnett. Colorado's coach was embattled throughout the offseason thanks to sexual assault scandal, and his poor public handling of it. Several players transferred, the media was swarming, and folks were wondering if this program had peaked after missing a bowl game a year ago. Now the Buffaloes are the lone North Division team without a blemish on their record, including a gutsy win at Washington State. They probably have the best quarterback-tailback combo in the division with Joel Klatt and Bobby Purify. The defense is suspect, surrendering passing yards by the bushel-load and yielding over 500 yards of total offense in its last outing. So far new defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz isn't having much of an impact.
If the Jayhawks can't win a Big 12 game at home given a 25-point lead, it could very well be a long season in Lawrence just one-year removed from a Cinderella run to the Tangerine Bowl. Texas Tech muffed a punt, turned it over four times, committed 14 penalties and still beat Kansas on the road. The running game has been a struggle, averaging just 102.1 yards per game despite not playing a team yet ranked higher than 42nd nationally in rushing defense. The only thing stopping Kansas from bringing a five-game losing streak to Jack Trice Stadium on October 30th is its first win over K-State in 12 years on October 9th.
My Top 25
If I had a vote in the Associated Press college football poll, this would have been my ballot:
2. Oklahoma (3-0)…Last week—2…This week—idle…Next week—Texas Tech (3-1).
5. Texas (3-0)…Last week—5…This week—beat Rice, 35-13…Next week—Baylor (2-1).
7. Auburn (4-0)…Last week—10…This week—beat Citadel, 33-3…Next week--#6 Tennessee (3-0).
9. Fresno State (3-0)…Last week—6…This week—idle…Next week—at Louisiana Tech (2-2).
10. Utah (4-0)…Last week—8…This week—beat Air Force, 49-35…Next week—at New Mexico (2-2).
12. LSU (3-1)…Last week—2…This week—beat Mississippi State, 54-0…Next week—at #3 Georgia (3-0).
18. Notre Dame (3-1)…Last week—19…This week—beat Washington, 38-3…Next week—#15 Purdue (3-0).
22. Wisconsin (4-0)…Last week—23…This week—beat Penn State, 16-3…Next week—Illinois (2-2).
24. Oklahoma State (3-0)…Last week—NR…This week—idle…Next week—Iowa State (2-1).
Dropped out—#14 Alabama, #24 Iowa, #25 Memphis
Handicapping the Heisman
Now that we're heading into October, it's time to project my Heisman ballot if the voting were to occur today.
1. Jason White (QB-Oklahoma)…Until somebody beats the Sooners the reigning Heisman winner, who continues to post solid numbers, deserves to remain there.
3. Kyle Orton (QB-Purdue)…Putting up astronomical numbers, but faces his first real defensive test of the season when he goes to South Bend on Saturday to take on the resurgent Fighting Irish.
4. Cedric Benson (RB-Texas)…Rice no longer has the nation's top-rated rush defense after he gained 189 yards against the Owls. Already has 558 yards rushing, but is he even the best running back in his own conference?
Waiting list—Vernand Morency (RB-Oklahoma State), Reggie Bush (all purpose-USC), Braylon Edwards (WR-Michigan).
(Steve Deace can be heard on the radio in Iowa each weekday from 3-6 p.m. on 1460-KXNO, the flagship of the Cyclone Radio Network)