A weekly report on the weekend of Big 12 football.
In lieu of the usual game-by-game rundown, this week's report offers a big picture review of the now concluded non-conference slate as well as a look ahead to conference play. Teams are reviewed in order of projected finish, with national ranking preceding teams in the Top 25.
#1 Oklahoma Sooners (4-0)
|@ Washington||W, 55-14|
Offensive MVP: Sam Bradford, QB - Texas fans should have no trouble understanding the joy Sooners fans must feel watching their starting quarterback put up numbers almost too good to believe: 83 of 115 passing (72.2%), 1, 293 yards, 16 TDs, 2 INTs, for a QB Rating of 209.1. Bradford can, has, and will continue to make every throw in the book, able to pinpoint short outs or effortlessly launch 50-yard bombs to a (frighteningly often) wide open Manuel Johnson.
Defensive MVP: Travis Lewis, LB - Recruiting nerds may remember the name of Oklahoma's redshirt freshman linebacker from 2006, when the four-star prospect decommitted at the last moment from Nebraska to attend Oklahoma. Though OU's defensive line deserves a healthy share of the plaudits, Lewis has stood out at a position which had the potential to be an Achilles' heel for the Sooners in '08. Lewis has 1 interception and his 32 tackles lead the team and include 4.5 tackles for a loss (3 sacks).
Big 12 Schedule - at Baylor, vs Texas (Dallas), vs Kansas, at Kansas State, vs Nebraska, at Texas A&M, vs Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State
Projected Big 12 Finish: 8-0, 1st, South Division - The Sooners are the clear favorites in the South thanks to Bob Stoops' best offensive team since he arrived in Norman in 1999. Offensively, Manuel Johnson and Jermaine Gresham are absolute nightmares to cover, the offensive line is the best in the conference, and Sam Bradford makes the position look effortless at times. Scarier still, Demarco Murray is a better athlete than he is football player right now; as he improves his body control and reads blocks and running lanes better, he's going to be even more effective than he already is. The defense is as yet untested, and despite some mild concerns in the back seven, the front four are so disruptive that the unit overall is well above average.
#5 Texas Longhorns (4-0)
Offensive MVP: Colt McCoy, QB - It's not so much that Colt McCoy raced passed Major Applewhite to become Texas' all-time leader in career touchdown passes, it's how he's done it--blending picture perfect passing with effective, purposeful rushing. He'd be the talk of the town in any other conference; in the Big 12, he's 'merely' another superstar.
Defensive MVP: Roddrick Muckelroy, LB - His 30 tackles--12 more than the next player on the roster--certainly help him stand out statistically, but his excellence (and importance to the team) are best illustrated anecdotally. Take, for example, a particularly nice play on Saturday, when Arkansas--trailing 24-3--moved to the Texas 39 before facing 3rd and 14. As Casey Dick dropped back to pass, Muckelroy (who had lined up just behind Roy Miller and faked a blitz) correctly read Dick's eyes to the strongside, and drifted back to perfect coverage help position. Good thing, because Dick completed a 10-yard pass to Greg Childs and freshman safety Blake Gideon missed the tackle, freeing him to pick up the first down... except for Muckelroy, who solidly wrapped Childs three yards short of the marker. Texas held on 4th and 3, scored again just before half, and the game was over at halftime, 31-3. For a young back seven still learning where to be on the field, Muckelroy has been excellent in everything he's been asked to do, including pass coverage--his big weakness in 2007.
Big 12 Schedule - at Colorado, vs Oklahoma (Dallas), vs Missouri, vs Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech, vs Baylor, at Kansas, vs Texas A&M
Projected Big 12 Finish: 6-2, 2nd, South Division - If the 'Horns were to win in Boulder and then upset Oklahoma in Dallas a week later, it would be time to start talking about Texas as more than an excellent team more likely to make the big splash in '09 than '08. Not that OU isn't the Big One every year, but this is a Texas team that's still got a lot of room to grow and improve and which should be a tougher out each successive week, so clearing the first hurdle would be enormous. Most likely, the Longhorns will drop a game or two in the brutal stretch between Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but this is already a very good team with room to get better.
#7 Texas Tech Red Raiders (4-0)
Offensive MVP: Shannon Woods, RB - Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree are the household names, but Shannon Woods is every bit as important to Texas Tech. A year ago when Woods worked his way deep into Mike Leach's doghouse and was benched for most of the season, the Red Raiders' rushing production plummeted to 2.8 yards per carry during Big 12 play. With Woods (43 rushes, 280 yards, 6.4 per rush, 7 TDs) the primary tailback thus far in 2008, Texas Tech's averaging 5.9 yards per carry. If Woods could produce in conference play at a level anywhere near that which he has through the first four games, defending Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree would move from hard to harder.
Defensive MVP: McKinner Dixon and Brandon Williams, DEs - The Red Raiders have handled the cupcakes (EWU, SMU, UMASS) on their schedule with ease, but Graham Harrell and the offense sputtered a bit in Reno against Nevada. It mattered not, thanks in large part to the defense, which repealed the Wolfpack on drive after drive in Texas Tech territory, highlighted by four critical sacks. Tech has 11 sacks on the season (9th most nationally) and is thriving on pressure defense thanks to 9 QB takedowns from their two excellent ends McKinner Dixon (4) and Brandon Williams (5).
Big 12 Schedule - at Kansas State, vs Nebraska, at Texas A&M, at Kansas, vs Texas, vs Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, vs Baylor.
Projected Big 12 Finish: 6-2, 3rd, South Division - Assuming Tech can handle business as a road favorite in three of its first four Big XII games, their season's pivotal stretch begins November 1st when they try to snap a five-year losing streak to the Longhorns. Their last victory over Texas in 2002 was also in Lubbock, but the stakes could be higher this time around if Tech enters the game ranked in the Top 5 at 8-0. Following Texas the Red Raiders will host pesky Oklahoma State (winners of 3 of the teams' last 5 meetings), who feature an offense plenty explosive to play Tech's style. If this is indeed Mike Leach's big year, Tech might just find itself 10-0 on November 22nd when they travel to Norman. But that's a long way away; without seeing how well Tech runs the ball in conference play and whether this defense really is an improved unit, the projection remains conservative, noting the team's considerable upside.
#21 Oklahoma State Cowboys (4-0)
|@ Washington State
Offensive MVP: Offensive Line - Not only have tailbacks Kendall Hunter (80 rushes, 618 yards, 7.7 per carry, 8 TDs), Keith Tolston (41-368-9.0-5), and Beau Johnson (37-252-6.8-2) each been so successful that it hardly seems fair to reward any one over the others, but the unbelievable performance by all three speaks to the amazing job the Cowboys' offensive lineman have done. With 9 of their top 10 O-Linemen returning, this figured to be a team strength, but the numbers being put up by Oklahoma State on the ground thus far have been beyond what anyone could possibly have predicted. This unit is the reason Oklahoma State is the most dangerous team in the country that no one is talking about.
Defensive MVP: Ricky Price and Perrish Cox, DBs - Perrish Cox (one of the conference's most gifted all-around CBs) and Ricky Price (who has successfully completed his transition from wide receiver to become a very solid playmaker at safety) anchor a quietly excellent secondary, both in terms of talent and--at least thus far--production. Oklahoma State is allowing just 5.0 yards per pass attempt, a big reason why opponents have converted just 14 of 55 third downs on the season.
Big 12 Schedule - vs Texas A&M, at Missouri, vs Baylor, at Texas, vs Iowa State, at Texas Tech, at Colorado, vs Oklahoma.
Projected Big 12 Finish: 5-3, 4th, South Division - Without question, the conference's wild card, Oklahoma State has a brutal schedule which both makes their own contention something of a longshot and provides them with the opportunity to play 2008 Big XII kingmaker (or spoiler, depending on the perspective). Road games at Missouri, Texas, and Texas Tech provide the brutality, but the Cowboys look explosive enough on offense to upset one of those three or Oklahoma in the season finale, potentially ruining someone's conference title dreams and making OSU a fascinating team to watch in the coming weeks.
Baylor Bears (2-2)
Offensive MVP: Robert Griffin, QB - No surprise here, of course, but whereas in past years being Baylor's offensive MVP has been like being named the best-read 9th grader in Oklahoma, Griffin has been one of the nation's most productive quarterbacks and very nearly as outstanding as the conference's highly-touted superstars. Given his exceptional athleticism, the rushing success (83.5 ypg, 6.1 ypc, 5 TDs) isn't a big shock, but the proficiency with which he's passing the ball (47-78, 756 yards, 7 TDs, 0 INTs, 171.3 QB Rating) has been most impressive. Best of all for Baylor fans, he's a true freshman ushering in a new era under a new coach who looks very much like he can get the most out of this rare talent.
Defensive MVP: Joe Pawelek, LB - Second Team Big XII a season ago, Pawelek is well on his way to improving on his strong '07 numbers, leading the Bears with 48 tackles, 2 passes broken up, 4 quarterback hurries, 2 interceptions, and 1 fumble recovery. Though Baylor doesn't have the talent to slow down the juggernauts in the Big XII this year, the unit held its own during non-conference victories over Washington State and Division 1-AA Northwestern State, and kept Baylor close enough to nearly upset Connecticut in Hartford.
Big 12 Schedule - vs Oklahoma, vs Iowa State, at Oklahoma State, at Nebraska, vs Missouri, at Texas, vs Texas A&M, at Texas Tech
Projected Big 12 Finish: 2-6, 5th, South Division - Though the conference slate will be a tough proving ground for Briles' squad, victories over Iowa State and, in particular, Texas A&M would both keep the Bears cleanly out of the cellar and help give the team confidence that it's on the path to something bigger and better in the coming years with Robert Griffin.
Texas A&M Aggies (2-2)
|@ New Mexico
Offensive MVP: Jerrod Johnson, QB - Sophomore Jerrod Johnson has been very solid replacing the injured Stephen McGee, to the tune of 35-61 passing for 452 yards, 7 TDs and just 2 INTs (150.9 QB Rating), but while that hasn't translated into much offensive firepower for the Aggies, his presence is important as visible evidence to a frustrated fanbase that 2008 is more than an exercise in mediocrity. Poor football is easier to swallow if it's being played by younger talent fans believe can and will develop into winning players.
Defensive MVP: Jordan Pugh, S - It's difficult to find an MVP of a group that's allowing 5.3 yards per play, but the Aggie's junior cornerback is doing his part in helping the team at least field a respectable pass defense (5.6 yards per attempt). Defensive end Michael Bennett (21 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 2 fumble recoveries) stands out statistically, but with A&M allowing an atrocious 5.2 yards per rush on the ground, it's difficult to make the case for any member of the defensive line being an MVP of any kind.
Big 12 Schedule - at Oklahoma State, vs Kansas State, vs Texas Tech, at Iowa State, vs Colorado, vs Oklahoma, at Baylor, at Texas
Projected Big 12 Finish: 2-6, 6th, South Division - If A&M plays in the Big 12 as it has in the non-conference schedule, their visit to Ames may be the only win on the schedule. But the team has enough room to improve that winning at Kyle Field over Kansas State and/or Colorado isn't out of the question. However, avoiding the cellar likely means winning in Waco, but Baylor's thus far looked the superior team.