Thursday, July 21, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas Tech

The program

Perched out in dusty West Texas, it's difficult for Texas Tech to be a center of college football attention. It is one of the more remote BCS conference campuses, but it's still a program of understated success. Even though it's a younger program than most others in the Big 12 (first season: 1925), the Red Raiders are over 100 games above .500 alltime, at 519-398-32 (.564). The Red Raiders do have 11 conference titles in their history, although all but two came in the frontier-esque Border Conference, in which Tech competed from 1932 to 1956. The other two were shared Southwest Conference titles in 1976 and 1994.

Especially in recent decades, Tech has epitomized good-but-not-great, winning 6 to 9 games every year from 1993 to 2010 except one, their memorable 11-win 2007 season. They are the only Big 12 team to be bowl-eligible in every season in the league's history. That 2008 season included one of the most electric plays I've ever seen, with Tech's super-receiver Michael Crabtree making a sensational catch, breaking a tackle, and then tiptoeing down the sideline and into the end zone with the winning touchdown in the closing seconds.

Tech rose to 10-0 that year and No. 2 in the nation before traveling to Norman to play No. 5 Oklahoma. With Tech nearing a historic conference title (none outright since 1955), the Sooners destroyed them, rolling to an incomprehensible 42-7 halftime lead en route to a 65-21 win. Big Game Bob, indeed (at least in Big 12 games). Even despite that crushing loss, former coach Mike Leach crafted a winner at Tech, with the western outpost of Lubbock serving as a great place for Leach's renegade, pass-happy (and then some) offense.

Overall, Texas Tech's tradition is Texas to its core. It's the March Grandioso, the old SWC, the Chancellor's Spurs Rivalry Game with Texas, old Sun Bowls and the "Guns Up!" hand gesture. It's the Masked Raider, the Goin' Band from Raiderland and the legend-filled "Into the Sunset" Will Rogers statue. The humorist sits astride his horse, Soapsuds, but he doesn't quite face into the sun, as this would have the horse's hindquarters facing visitors coming to campus from downtown Lubbock. Instead, Will and Soapsuds were turned 23 degrees to the east, so that Soapsuds' rear points directly toward the campus of rival Texas A&M.

Best player ever

Michael Crabtree, WR
Crabtree is the only Red Raider to earn consensus All-American honors twice, doing so in 2007 and 2008, his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. He posted outrageous numbers (231 receptions, 3,127 yards and 41 TDs in two seasons), and became the first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award and Paul Warfield Trophy in back-to-back seasons. Also, he scored the winning touchdown in perhaps the greatest play in Texas Tech football history, the above play that shook Lubbock (and those high-and-mighty Longhorns). It was an electrifying play, the epitome of Crabtree's sublime career.

2011 Outlook

Texas Tech enters year 2 of its gradual and intriguing transition from former coach Mike Leach's pass-heavy attack to the offensive attack of new coach Tommy Tuberville, who favors the run more. In the last six years of Leach's tenure at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders averaged 404.67 passing yards per game and 89.83 rushing yards per game. Last year, Tuberville's first, Tech's passing yards per game dropped to 319 yards per game while the rushing total increased to 141 yards per game.

Tuberville is a smart coach, so he knew he had to gradually mold the team into the style he prefers, making use of the talent on hand along the way. Tech actually ran more times (437) than it passed the ball (406). Despite this gradual change, Tech's offensive output remained relatively stable, declining only from 471 yards per game to 460. This year, Tech will reportedly use the pistol formation some, further adding options to add to the ground-air balance.

And the aerial circus can still come to play. Likely starting quarterback Seth Doege will probably still put up big passing numbers, with receivers Tramain Swindall and Alexander Torres being the top targets. However, junior running back Eric Stephens (668 yards and 6 rushing TDs last year) could be a breakout star and contend for All-Conference honors as Tech looks to run more. A solid offensive line should aid Stephens' efforts.

The offense should score, by air or by land, but the defense could hold this Red Raider team back. Last year, in the first season after defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill took the East Carolina head coaching job, Tech yielded 34.9 points and 469 yards per game against Big 12 competition, 10th in both categories. That being said, Tuberville has a strong defensive coaching reputation, and versatile safety/linebacker Cody Davis gives Tech a playmaker on defense.

Big question: Can Tech continue to progress under Tuberville and equal/top last year's eight-win total? My guess would be the progress continues, but Tech doesn't get to eight wins. The Red Raiders won four games by eight points or less last year, a strong indicator they overachieved a bit. Their schedule has a lot of winnable games in the first eight games, but they'll likely need a big home upset over Texas A&M or Oklahoma State to get to eight wins. Even still, Tuberville's track record at Auburn (and Ole Miss) bodes well for the long-term direction of the program.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Baylor

The program

The history of Baylor football, while not entirely hopeless, is not one laden with success. The program, which began play in 1899, is just a shade under .500 alltime, at 532-537-44 (.498). The Bears have had 10 consensus All-Americans, and have won five conference titles, all in the venerable-but-now-defunct Southwest Conference. 

Baylor pretty much has had two successful eras: the 1920s and the 21-year Grant Teaff era, which ran from the 1970s into the early 1990s. The Bears won two SWC titles in 1922 and 1924 before going into a long hibernation. Baylor nearly won a league title in 1956, finishing second and beating No. 2 Tennessee in the 1957 Sugar Bowl, the highest-ranked team Baylor has ever defeated. Still, the conference title drought lagged on until the Miracle. 

In 1973, Baylor finished last in the SWC in Teaff's second year. But somehow, some way, crazy things started happening in 1974. The Bears had teeth. They won at Arkansas. They won at TCU. Then, on a magical November day in Waco, Baylor roared back from a 24-7 deficit against No. 12 Texas to win, 34-24. It was Baylor's first win against Texas since 1956, and it helped break Texas' seven-year stranglehold on the SWC title, propelling Baylor to its first SWC title in 50 years. That game, and the 1974 season as a whole, are known as the "Miracle on the Brazos." (Baylor is located near the Brazos River.)

Baylor also won an SWC title under Teaff in 1980, and again won the (by then imploding) SWC in 1994. However, after that, Baylor fell into another prolonged malaise. For most people of my generation, Baylor has become the lovable loser, going 18-102 in Big 12 games, by far the worst mark of any conference member. 

However, Baylor's soul is about much more than its on-field struggles in recent years (decades?). It's soul is the live bear mascot since 1915, the ancient Battle on the Brazos rivalry game with Texas A&M and the dusty old SWC. It's the school embracing its Baptist ties, playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" to rally the faithful. (As Gary Cartwright wrote in Sports Illustrated's farewell to the SWC: "Baylor fans did not make love standing up, lest God mistake the act for dancing.") It's the "Sic 'em, Bears" hand gesture and the furious efforts to beat the mighty Longhorns. And, of course, its "That Good Old Baylor Line" of students making a tunnel for the Bears to run through under the lights at Floyd Casey Stadium. All in all, not too bad. 

Best player ever

Within a year or two, it just might be current quarterback Robert Griffin III. But right now I'll take linebacker Mike Singletary, who later went on to be a famed Chicago Bears lineback and 49ers coach. At Baylor, he racked up a school-record 662 tackles, including 232 as a sophomore (single-season school record). In 1978, he had 35 tackles against Arkansas and 31 tackles against Ohio State.

He was a three-time all-Southwest Conference player, and in 1980 he helped Baylor win the SWC championship. He was also a two-time All-America player. He won the Davey O'Brien Award twice, in 1979 and 1980. (This sounds like a Paul Bunyan tale, as that award is now a national quarterback award, but back then it was awarded to the player of the year in the SWC.) Singletary is in both the college and pro football halls of fame.

2011 Outlook:

Last year was a Baylor breakthrough, as the Bears made it to their first bowl game since the 1994 Alamo bowl. Of course, since I picked the Bears to win, they were crushed 38-14 by Ron "The Zooker" Zook's mediocre Illinois team. The Texas Bowl loss came on the heels of three straight losses to Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma (each went 6-2 in Big 12 play) to close the regular season. These four straight losses dropped Baylor to a 7-6 final record and may have cooled some of the enthusiasm following a 7-2 start.

Even still, seven wins and a bowl appearance are a big deal at Baylor, plus the team broke a 12-game losing streak to Texas with a resounding 30-22 win in Austin. Baylor actually won two Big 12 road games last year after winning three total in the first 14 years of the Big 12. One of those three was the Bears' infamous (to me) 40-32 win as two touchdown underdogs at Missouri in 2009, meaning Baylor has actually won three of its last five conference road games. What a world.

This year, Baylor will have to fight for bowl eligibility again. In a nutshell, Baylor has a dangerous, balanced offense and a defense that struggled often last year. Leading the offense is the electric junior quarterback, Robert Griffin III. Already the school's alltime passing yardage leader, Griffin completed 67 percent of his passes last year and posted a sparkling 22-8 touchdown to interception ratio. The dual-threat also ran for 635 yards and eight touchdowns. As far as protection for him, Baylor actually has one of the better offensive lines in the Big 12, lead by all-conference candidate Philip Blake, a senior center. The line also features guard Robert T. Griffin, who possesses a very different set of skills from the quarterback with the same name.

As for that offensive balance: last year, Baylor passed 471 times and ran 468 times. Also, they return five players who caught at least 40 passes last year. Leading the way are juniors Kendall Wright and Lanear Sampson. Wright, likely the school's alltime leading in receiving yardage after the first month of this season, is one of five returning receivers in the Big 12 who had at least 950 receiving yards last year. (The others: Justin Blackmon, OSU, 1,782 yards; Ryan Broyles, OU, 1,622 yards; Jeff Fuller, A&M, 1,066 yards; T.J. Moe, Missouri, 1,045 yards.)

Dealing with this impressive stable of Big 12 receivers will be Baylor's somewhat shaky defense. The Bears yielded 469 yards per game in conference play last year, and they were dead last in passing yardage allowed. Baylor will need impressive efforts from cornerback Chance Casey and a host of largely unknown defensive backs to hang in games against powerful offenses. A strong pass rush from Tevin Elliott and Co. up front would help immensely.

The big question: Can Baylor make it back-to-back bowl games? Even with the bloated bowl schedule, this is still a big deal for Baylor. Playing nine conference games and opening with a nonconference game against TCU and its ferocious defense will make this tough. The key swing games are at Kansas State on Oct. 1, and a neutral site game with Texas Tech on Nov. 26 in Dallas. If the Bears win the two "easy" nonconference games and beat Iowa State (home) and Kansas (road), they then need two more. They could pick up the two swing games, or get one and find an upset somewhere. Candidates for an upset could be Nov. 5 hosting Missouri (Baylor's Homecoming; you know how those Baptists like to party) or at A&M or Oklahoma State. I could maybe see one of these schools looking past the team they've historically dominated, which would open the door for Baylor. This is out on a limb, but I like the Baylor offense; my guess is they get to six wins and back to a bowl game.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Iowa State

I'm continuing the countdown to the 2011 college football season. With 9 weeks to go until the season, here's a look at the team picked to finish 9th, the Iowa State Cyclones.

The Program

My image of the Iowa State program is a very overmatched team struggling and scrapping bravely against far superior competition. This is pretty much typified each year in the Cy-Hawk rivalry game with Iowa, those snobby (or more refined, depending on which side you're on) Hawkeyes across the state. Iowa usually has more talent, but the Cyclones remain competitive with their tenacity. Since 1998, Iowa State actually holds a one-game edge in the series (7-6), although Iowa has now won three straight. Cyclones wring every last ounce of effort out of themselves. Cyclones hang on and make open-field tackles when they can catch their opponent. However, Cyclones do not win much, historically.

Here's the kicker: Iowa State has never won an outright conference title in football. Their have two shared Missouri Valley Conference titles, in 1911 and 1912, giving them a current run of title futility that rivals the Cubs. They have but two nine-win seasons, 94 years apart (9-1 in 1906, 9-3 in 2000). They could have won the weak Big 12 North in 2004, needing only a home win over a Missouri team that had lost five straight, but of course they could not get it done, losing in overtime. (To be fair, they almost surely would have gotten crushed by Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, but still, just to play in that game would have been huge for ISU.

Iowa State is 492-590-46 all-time, but they can always dream. For years, the Big Eight champion would play in the Orange Bowl, often with national title implications. Usually the titans Nebraska and Oklahoma would make the majority of the trips, with Colorado occasionally breaking through. Omaha World-Herald columnist Tom Shatel talked one time in a column about his Big Eight memories. It is a beautiful piece, and this bit pretty much sums up Iowa State's role in the Big Eight/12:

"This one's for (coach) Jim Walden, the realist and the dreamer, and that picture of the Orange Bowl he kept on the wall behind his Iowa State desk."

Jim Walden never coached the Cyclones in the Orange Bowl.

Best Cyclone Ever: Troy Davis, RB

Would you believe an Iowa State Cyclone (playing on a 2-9 team, no less) very nearly won the Heisman trophy in 1996? It's true, and that player, running back Troy Davis, is my pick for the best player in Iowa State history. Playing on poor teams his entire career, Davis posted two of the more remarkable seasons by a running back in college football history.

After playing sparingly in his first season, 1994, Davis became the first player in NCAA I-A history to rush for 2,000 yards in two different seasons, despite his team finishing last every year he played. (Also keep in mind he did this while playing only 11 games each season). He ran for 2,010 yards and 15 touchdowns as a junior, going to New York as a Heisman finalist and finishing fifth, despite playing on a team that went 3-8 (1-6 in Big Eight play).

Then, as a senior, Davis ran for 2,185 yards and 21 touchdowns, even though the only I-A (now FBS) team that Iowa State beat that year was Missouri. Davis' Cyclones went 1-7 in Big 12 play, but he was still named the first ever Big 12 Conference Player of the Year. He narrowly lost the 1996 Heisman to Danny Wuerffel, 1,363 points to 1,174. He supposedly won three regions, but lost by heavy margins in the South. Davis received 209 first-place votes.

Davis was a consensus All-American at running back in '95 and '96, those two magical seasons. He had 21 100-yard games and nine 200-yard games. He also holds ISU rushing records for a game (378 vs. Missouri), season (2,185 in his senior season) and career (4,382). Despite playing for poor teams, Davis is likely the best to ever put on a Cyclone uniform.

2011 Outlook

This is coach Paul Rhoads' third season at Iowa State, and he appears to be building something, or at very least fielding teams of which Cyclone fans can be proud. In his first year, as 20-point underdogs, they scored a massive upset win at Nebraska. (Eight NU turnovers, including an incomprehensible four turnovers inside the five-yard line, were a massive contribution to the ISU win.) In Rhoads' second year, again as 20-point underdogs, the Cyclones scored a stunning win at Texas, their first ever against the Longhorns. Iowa's governor called it "historic."

Those huge upsets helped Rhoads exceed expectations in each of his first two years, going 7-6 with a bowl win in 2009 while falling to 5-7 last year. This year appears to be a rebuilding effort, with ISU needing to replace both successful QB Austen Arnaud (school's second-leading all-time passer) and running back Alexander Robinson.

The quarterback battle will likely come down to Jerome Tiller, last seen piloting the Cyclone offense in their shutout loss against Missouri, and junior college transfer Steele Jantz Jr. Iowa State's leading returning rusher, Shontrelle Johnson, ran for 218 yards last year. He may do most of his damage as a kick returner. The bruising Jeff Woody offers a change of pace. Running behind mountainous offensive tackle Kelechi Osemele (6-6, 354 lbs.) would probably be a good idea.

However, the offense likely won't carry this team very far. It'll be on the defense to keep the Cyclones in games, with perhaps Johnson or punt returner Josh Lenz taking a kick to the house to turn the tide. Linebackers (strength of the team) Jake Knott and A.J. Klein, along with cornerback Leonard Johnson and defensive linemen Stephen Ruempolhamer provide the makings of a serviceable defense. They make the tackles they can and seemed to get turnovers in key spots over the past two years. But the overall talent level doesn't appear to be great, at least based on what I read, and memories of the Cyclones giving up 120 points over two weeks against Utah and Oklahoma are still poignant.

The big question: Can Rhoads lead them back to a bowl game? Even in this era of a bloated bowl schedule (70 teams play in bowl games), making the postseason still means something at Iowa State. It's just difficult given that they now play nine conference games, plus they always have to play Iowa, ensuring 10 of their 12 games will be against schools from BCS conferences. This year is especially tough, since five of the nine league games are on the road, also play a nonconference game at Connecticut (defending Big East champs, for whatever that's worth).

The Cyclones must win the home game with Kansas, but every other conference game seems like a mountain to climb. Road games are tough, and the other three home games are Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State (That game is Nov. 18; the Cyclones will need a tremendous effort from Coach Winter to disrupt the Cowboys' high-powered offense.) In any event, with the rebuilding effort and rugged schedule, my guess is that the Cyclones will not get to 6-6 and make a bowl game. But Rhoads has made a lot of guessers wrong, and if his teams scores its annual huge upset, then the math works a lot better for the Cyclones.