And it's even worse as a reporter, when travel and time in the press box before and after games makes it difficult to watch games unfold in real time (thank God for DVR). But with Texas off, I had a chance to watch every Big 12 game but one — I didn't see West Virginia-Maryland — in real time. Here are my thoughts.
There are those that will look at Baylor's 47-42 win over Louisiana-Monroe, look at the fumbled exchange that the Bears pounced on late and call it a lucky victory. I'm not one of those people.
In beating Louisiana-Monroe, the Bears showed, at the very least, the ability to do what they did last year: out-fire an extremely capable offensive team. That they did it on the road, with an offense that is still developing, made it all the more impressive. Nick Florence was able to respond to adversity and passed for 351 yards, including the game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, even after allowing the Warhawks to go up 14-0 in the first quarter by throwing two interceptions.
But when things mattered the most, he was on, firing a game-clinching 22-yard strike to Terrance Williams, who might be the Big 12's best outside receiver right now (Tavon Austin is likely the league's best slot).
The Warhawks added a late score, but the Bear defense was a able to stretch things out enough that they effectively nipped a comeback attempt in the bud. Overall, it was a defense-optional game, with only three punts combined between the two teams, but with the way both Baylor and Monroe had played this year, that was pretty much the expectation heading in.
The Bears remain a scary Big 12 team, and are in that group of squads who can beat anybody on the right night. I'm not sure they're a title contender — I'd like to see more explosion from the running game — but they're certainly a team that could impact the title race.
For the second consecutive week, TCU pulled off a double-digit victory over a BCS conference team that came across as a bit ho-hum, this time beating Virginia 27-7 in a workmanlike effort. The Horned Frogs didn't seem truly challenged, and led the whole way. Virginia didn't find the scoreboard until about five minutes left, while for the second consecutive week, TCU gave away a touchdown by fumbling out of the back of the end zone.
Maybe it's the level of respect I had coming into this season for TCU, and a win is a win. But I figured the Frogs would make quicker work of both Virginia and Kansas, both of which figure to be bottom feeders in their respective leagues. The Cavaliers had things go wrong as well, including a long pass off an open receiver's facemask, and multiple turnovers in TCU territory. And like against Kansas, which was able to find some gaps — Dayne Crist passed for more than 300 yards against TCU — Virginia was able to move the ball at times, breaking off a few long runs.
Offensively, there's a lot to like in the passing game, where Casey Pachall had another great effort, while Brandon Carter is making a case to be among the Big 12's top five receivers. Fellow receiver Josh Boyce is technically the team front-man, but Carter has some Ryan Broyles to him. He's just a playmaker, and for the second straight week, made an acrobatic touchdown catch.
It's too early to pass judgment on TCU, especially with a young team in a new conference. But the Frogs need to perform better against the top of the Big 12 class if they're going to finish in the top half. Right now, this is a team that I'm confident can beat a top-of-the-table team if they play their 'A' game — and we haven't seen it yet — or could lose to a bottom part of the league team on the wrong night. Which, of course, puts the Horned Frogs on the same plane as, oh, just about everybody else in the league this year.
The good news for Kansas fans is that they are, in fact, improved. The bad news is that said improvement hasn't shown up on scoreboards. The Jayhawks held a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, but salted it away in a 30-23 defeat at defending MAC Champ Northern Illinois.
Here's the thing: if you leave off the final quarter a half, just pretend like the game's final 22:30 didn't exist, Kansas would have won three games and lost to TCU 10-6. Not bad, right? But the Jayhawks have proven to be clumsy closers, a result of a lack of talented and experienced depth, a quarterback unsure of himself in his new surroundings and a coaching staff seemingly unsure of who to trust.
Much like the Rice game, Kansas found itself in control in the second half, but looked lost when it turned to the pass. In this case, the lead was built in part thanks to the savvy option running of former Arlington Bowie product Christian Matthews, a Jayhawk wide receiver who quarterbacked a read-option package. But when Kansas needed offense, the coaches turned back to Crist, and from panicking in the pocket to missing a wide-open Kale Pick for a touchdown on a fourth down play, Crist failed to deliver.
Those things are a process, though the unfortunate thing for Kansas is that the Jayhawks' most winnable games came early this season. Had the Jayhawks closed this season with those four opponents, it might have been a different season. Instead, Kansas will have to pull off an upset somewhere — potentially Iowa State in Lawrence — just to meet last year's paltry two-win total. Had Kansas been able to hold onto fourth-quarter leads against Rice and Northern Illinois, there was the (extreme) outside chance of Kansas nipping a couple of teams and spending November hunting for a sixth win and bowl eligibility. Just goes to show how brutal the college football season is.
It would be easy to take the popular route here and rip the Sooners for losing to a lesser talented team in their 24-19 loss to Kansas State. To rip them for again pushing themselves out of the national title chase. But the bottom line is that doing so would be painting the game with too broad a brush.
Here's the bottom line: against Kansas State, when you lose the turnover battle — especially by three turnovers — you lose the game. The Wildcats were never going to come into Norman, shove the Sooners around and roll up 450 offensive yards on their way to a convincing victory. But Collin Klein and Co. are especially adept at turning errors against those who err, like a judo fighter using an opponent's momentum against them to toss them into the mat.
That's precisely what happened here. Landry Jones was stripped, and Kansas State recovered in the end zone. Seven points. Blake Bell fumbled a snap when trying to bull into the end zone. Minus seven points. Kansas State then took the momentum from that turnover and kicked a field goal on its next possession. Three points. And when Jones threw an interception just before the start of the fourth quarter, was there any doubt that Klein would capitalize? He did, driving the short field and running into the end zone to take a 17-13 lead that the Wildcats never relinquished.
So the Wildcats scored all 17 of their points, to that point, off turnovers. And seven came off the board from the Sooners. Take out the turnovers, and OU has a nice 20-0 lead early in the fourth quarter. Instead, the Wildcats left Norman the better team despite being (slightly) outgained and (more significantly) outgunned from a talent standpoint.
It's silly, then, to put too much stock in Oklahoma failing off that game, though it certainly puts the Sooners behind the eight ball as far as the Big 12 Championship is concerned. Oklahoma also needs to discover more of a ground game to take the pressure off Jones. The good news? Oklahoma's young receiving corps showed some promise — particularly freshman Sterling Shepard — and the Sooner defense was largely stout, with the exception of the field goal drive and a late drive that essentially salted the game away.
Kansas State Thoughts
I don't want to get too into depth here, because I want to take a longer look at Kansas State later this week, just because their manner of building a program is so counter to that of Texas. But it's worth noting at least this part here: out of Kansas State's starting 11 on defense, only one player signed with Kansas State as a traditional high school signee.
The defensive line? Entirely of JUCO players. The linebackers featured one JUCO transfer (who joined the team as a quarterback), one transfer from another team and the lone "normal" high-schooler. The secondary featured three JUCO players — one of whom was a walk-on — and a player who signed with Kansas State as a grayshirt (though he was needed immediately, and played immediately).
Compare that to the Oklahoma offense that they had a lot of success shutting down, which featured a number of players wanted by schools across the country. Shows that there are certainly multiple ways to skin a cat.
Of course, the heartbeat of the team is Collin Klein, who (ironically enough) was recruited by Ron Prince as a pocket passer. That he's developed into the player he has, an all-guts, totally clutch performer who seems to relish running like a fullback, speaks to his character and his ability to adapt … like his head coach Bill Snyder.
Like Snyder, Klein is constantly underrated, especially when one looks at the cold, hard stats. But numbers don't tell the total impact you make on a game as a manager, nor do they tell of your ability to go out and make five yards, when everybody in the stadium knows the ball's going your way.
And one other thing: you guys know that I've always been bully on Kansas State's strength and conditioning coach Chris Dawson. I think he's the best in the Big 12, potentially the nation, and has always excelled at taking unwanted athletes and squeezing every last drop of potential out of them. And Saturday night, for about the 10th time in the past few seasons, the Wildcats were more physical and just had more in the tank down the stretch than their more highly regarded opponents. If you asked coaches to describe K-State in two words, they'd probably use "disciplined" and "tough." And those are traits ground in through a strength and conditioning program.
Is K-State now the class of the Big 12? I don't know. But I do know that it's hard to bet against Klein … and a team coached by Snyder … and toughened up by Dawson.