Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas A&M

The program

Well, this is a timely topic. Today Texas A&M officially announced it would leave the Big 12 at the end of this school year and seek affiliation with another conference for next season. A&M's Big 12 tenure was but a blip compared to its lengthy Southwest Conference tradition, but switching leagues will mean the Aggies will be in a different league from seemingly eternal rivals Texas and, to a much lesser extent, Baylor and Texas Tech.

Texas A&M has a good football tradition. Not among the nation's elite, but very respectable. The Aggies have won 18 conference titles, including 17 in the SWC and a Big 12 title in 1998, thanks to a rally and overtime upset of No. 1 Kansas State. A member of the SWC throughout the conference's lifetime (1915-1996), the Aggies won at least one SWC title in every decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. A&M also won a national title in 1939, and halfback John David Crow, one of coach Bear Bryant's famed "Junction Boys," won the Heisman Trophy for the Aggies in 1957.

Beyond the on-field achievements, Texas A&M is probably best known for its fan/program traditions, such as the 12th Man, the Reveille dog mascot (who goes to class; class is dismissed if the dog barks), the scoreboard at the Reveille cemetery next to the stadium, Midnight Yell Practice, kissing after touchdowns, Yell Leaders in white, the white rally towels waving, the "Gig 'em" thumbs up gesture, the Aggie War Hymn, so many random chants and cheers, the massive stands at Kyle Field swaying, the band playing the ultra-dramatic "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" during tense moments... on and on and on it goes.

In Sports Illustrated's farewell to the SWC, Gary Cartwright wrote that "Aggies were zealots, superpatriots, bumpkins." He also wrote that his grandmother, a devout Aggie fan, would kill a chicken on every gameday, study its entrails, and then put the "appropriately colored" candle in the window before listening to the Aggie came on the radio.

And then there is A&M's ancient grudge of a rivalry with Texas. They always play (played?) on Thanksgiving weekend, and A&M used to have a huge bonfire as a pep rally before the game, until it tragically collapsed in 1999, killing 12 people. Texas holds a sizeable 75-37-5 lead in the series, but the Aggies have scored some stunning upsets in the series and the games are often fiercely contested. A&M won in Austin last year. It's an obsessive rivalry. Texas sings "it's goodbye to A&M" in "Texas Fight." Much of the Aggie War Hymn is anti-Longhorn venom, singing, "Goodbye to Texas University, so long to the orange and white" and "saw Varsity's horns off." The Aggies are fairly obsessive about sawing the Longhorns' horns off, even selling shirts reference a Bible verse about "sawing off the horns of the wicked."

Finally, it seems A&M's desire to get out from behind Texas' shadow, and that irritating Longhorn Network pushing the envelope, have led to the Aggies' secession. A&M will surely try to keep this series going as a nonconference game, but it's tough to know how Texas would react to that. I'm afraid all those goodbyes in their fight songs could come true, in a way in which no college football fan wins.

Best player ever

John David Crow
There are plenty of good choices here, but I'll go with Crow, the school's only Heisman winner. A&M celebrates traditions, maybe like no other school, and Crow has almost mythical status in College Station. He played both ways, a marvel of an athlete who could both run and throw. In 1956, he was on the first Aggie team to beat Texas at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. In 1957, although injuries limited him to seven games, he ran for 562 yards and six touchdowns, passed for five touchdowns and racked up five interceptions on defense. Coach Bear Bryant told Heisman voters they should "do away with the thing" if they didn't vote for Crow. Vote for him they did, making Crow the only player Bryant ever coached who won the Heisman.

2011 outlook

The Aggies may be the primary challenger to Oklahoma in their last year in the Big 12. Last year coach Mike Sherman, with his team on a three-game losing streak, made the gutsy decision to bench quarterback Jerrod Johnson, only the school's alltime leading passer. He went with backup Ryan Tannehill, who led A&M on a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season, ramping up expectations for 2011, Tannehill's senior season.

Tannehill is surrounded by a loaded offense. Running back Cyrus Gray is the leading rusher returning in the Big 12 (1,133 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns). The receiving corps features Jeff Fuller, who had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2010, and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who battled injuries while having a down year last season. Skill position players need a good offensive line to shine, and the Aggies have one of the Big 12's best offensive lines.

The A&M defense has improved in each of Sherman's three years. The defensive line and secondary are especially strong, but questions at linebacker could be a concern.

The big question: Can A&M post its first 10-win season since 1998? A 10-win campaign would likely mean a BCS berth for the Aggies. They will no doubt have pressure/a target on them since they've announced they are leaving the Big 12. The Aggies surely wouldn't enjoy being on the other end of a 16-2 flag disparity against a team leaving the league (re: A&M's home upset of Nebraska last year). But, assuming it's just the home teams getting a few calls, per normal procedure, this is a talented Aggie team. I do have pause picking a team with a .500 coach to win 10 games. And now teams will be ready for Tannehill. He no doubt benefitted from teams spending the offseason preparing for Johnson only to get the backup quarterback.

The schedule is favorable. A&M has five of its nine Big 12 games at home, including key matchups with fellow Oklahoma-chasers Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas. They have a brutal game at Oklahoma, tricky trips to Texas Tech and Kansas State, plus a nonconference game with Arkansas in Dallas. I think A&M is good, but I also think a lot of Big 12 teams between Oklahoma and Kansas can beat each other, so I can't justify picking A&M to win 10 in the regular season. But we'll see. Either way, it's going to be an interesting autumn in College Station.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tigers kick off 2011 season against defending MAC champion

On Saturday, the Missouri Tigers kick off the 2011 season, their 86th at Faurot Field, with a home game against Miami University of Ohio (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Network).

The game serves as a tune-up; one of two games on Missouri’s schedule against teams not from one of the major six conferences. But even with Missouri as a heavy favorite, Miami at least provides legitimate competition.

Miami, located in Oxford, Ohio, won the Mid-American Conference last year, capping a dramatic turnaround from a 1-11 mark in 2009 to 10-4 last year. It was the first time in NCAA history a team has gone from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in the following season.

Miami also features a talented, experienced quarterback in junior Zac Dysert as well as a solid group of receivers. The Redhawks also have arguably the best defense in the MAC.

Of course, the level of play in Mizzou’s Big 12 Conference is significantly higher than the MAC. Miami has a team that has a chance to defend its MAC crown, but Missouri probably isn’t ripe for an upset or anything like that. Last year, the Tigers defeated Miami 51-13 last year in Columbia. Missouri took all of eight seconds to score its first touchdown. That’s a long time if you’re riding a bull; not so much in a football game.

Even more, Missouri has won seven straight home games and 21 straight nonconference games.

Still, Miami provides enough of a test for Tiger fans to get some very early returns on the key questions facing the team. Here are a few key things to watch as the Tigers get their 2011 season started:

James Franklin’s accuracy Franklin takes over as Missouri’s new starting quarterback, and he’ll need to take to the position quickly as the Tigers’ second game is at Arizona State, who could be ranked in the top 25 for that game. Missouri’s system and its talent advantages against Miami should make for some very open receivers, but look to see if Franklin hits his receivers in stride and still puts his throws on the money. Times will come in future games when he’ll need to thread the needle. Of course, if Franklin makes mistakes against Miami, Redhawk cornerbacks Dayonne Nunley and D.J. Brown could make him pay.

Missouri’s secondary Missouri has relatively young players at cornerback and free safety. That Miami quarterback, Dysert, and his backup, Austin Boucher, can both be dangerous passers, so the secondary’s youth will have an early test to prepare them for that Sept. 24 date with Oklahoma and the prolific Landry Jones.

The first quarter Last year Missouri jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead against Miami en route to a big win. But the week before that, Missouri let San Diego State hang around and nearly lost. All the hours of preparation have finally gave way to real games, so it would be encouraging to see Missouri rise to the occasion and look good in their tune-up before the schedule gets more difficult.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas

The program

"We don't keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses." -Texas Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds

Texas football is, of course, a big, bold presentation. They cover much of their field during pregame ceremonies with a red, white and blue flag, and it ain't Old Glory, but rather the Texas State flag. They don't have a homely "video board" or "Jumbotron," they have the mammoth Godzillatron, and of course it was bigger than the huge board those silly Aggies put in shortly before it. They have a stadium that holds over 100,000 people, they spend money like crazy in their athletic department and they command a huge fan base.

They naturally have an arrogant, er, proud attitude. Their high-handedness annoyed the old Southwest Conference, and then the Big 12 members, notably Nebraska and Texas A&M. But that's who they are, big and bold, usually winning (second most wins among NCAA FBS programs). Texas is a GIANT burnt orange flag slowly waving back and forth as its band plays "The Eyes of Texas," somehow making a song to the tune of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad" sound downright regal:

The eyes of Texas are upon you,
All the live long day.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
You cannot get away.
Do not think you can escape them,
At night, or early in the morn'.
The eyes of Texas are upon you,
Till Gabriel blows his horn!

Texas has largely backed up that swagger, winning 32 total conference titles (2 Texas Intercollegiate League, 27 SWC, 3 Big 12). Texas has four national championships (1963, 1969, 1970, 2005). The 1969 title was the one (in)famously awarded to the 'Horns by Richard Nixon, who attended the season-ending Texas-Arkansas game and essentially declard the winner the national champion. Joe Paterno's unbeaten Penn State team and fans were not amused. JoePa at a 1973 commencement: "I'd like to know, how could a president know so little about Watergate in 1973 and so much about college football in 1969?"

That 1969 title and Nixon visit are just part of Texas' rich football history. Underneath all the bluster and swagger, the fabric of Texas football is pretty cool. It's the decades of games with Oklahoma in Dallas. It's the fierce rivalry with A&M, as even the Texas fight song says "...and it's goodbye to A&M!" (Now THAT could have some double meaning soon.) It's also the cool lighting system for Texas' tower, including special lighting for wins over A&M and championships. It's Bevo and "Texas Fight" and, of course... the chaps.

Best player ever

Vince Young, QB
Obviously, Texas has plenty of candidates for this, such as the program's two Heisman winners, Earl Campbell and Ricky Williams. Tommy Nobis, a legendary two-way player from the 1960s is another option, or even Bobby Layne, Colt McCoy or Derrick Johnson. But I'll go with Vince Young. He was an incredible 30-2 as a starter, racked up over 6,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards and finished second in the 2005 Heisman voting.

But even more, he lifted a program that couldn't get over the hump. Texas hadn't won a national title since 1970 when Young stepped onto the "Forty Acres" campus. The comma after the "1970" on the national title list at the stadium was screaming. It seemed like they might never beat Oklahoma again. But he was at his best under pressure. He converted a 4th and 18 late in the game against Kansas in 2004 when they had to have it, preserving the team's BCS bowl hopes. I saw in person when he ran to convert a 3rd and 30 against Mizzou in 2005. Then came his transcendent moment in Pasadena in early 2006. Trailing a juggernaut USC team by 12 with six minutes to play in the national title game, Young rallied Texas, scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a fourth-down run that remains as one of the most famous plays in college football history.

2011 outlook

After 9 straight 10+ win seasons and at least nine wins in each of coach Mack Brown's first 12 seasons at Texas, 2010 was an absolute disaster. Texas plummeted to 5-7, including a 2-6 record in conference play, finishing dead last in the Big 12 South. The Longhorns lost all four conference home games and five home games total, including stunning defeats to UCLA, Iowa State and Baylor. Kansas State, who has pretty much owned Texas in recent years, rolled to a 33-0 lead over the Longhorns, who simply looked helpless.

All that being said, I think Texas will come roaring back in 2011. Last year, the Longhorns actually outgained their Big 12 opponents by 53 yards per game. They were atrocious because they hemorrhaged turnovers (-12 turnover margin last year). Simply put, with their defense, they almost can't have a turnover deficit that massive again this year.

One of the key culprits in the turnover crisis was quarterback Garrett Gilbert, who threw 17 interceptions last year as a sophomore. You may recall former Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy threw 18 picks as a sophomore, then became an extremely productive quarterback as a senior and junior. I don't know if he'll be Colt McCoy, but I do think Gilbert will make quite a leap forward this season. With a lot of highly regarded, if unproven, talent around him, Gilbert could be merely an average Big 12 quarterback and the team should hum along just fine. He just can't shoot the offense in the foot over and over.

I also expect Texas to get a boost from true freshman running back Malcolm Brown. Texas has had a hole at running back since Jamaal Charles' last season, in 2007. (Seriously, are/were there no running backs among all those Texas high school programs we hear so much about?) McCoy's running ability covered this up, but it was exposed last year (9th in rushing yards in Big 12 games). I could see Brown posting about 1,200 rushing yards, taking a lot of pressure off the quarterback.

On the other side of the ball, Texas could have a dominant defense. Linemen Kheeston Randall and Alex Okafor; linebackers Keenan Robinson, Emmanuel Acho and Jordan Hicks; and safety Blake Gideon (yes, the guy who dropped that giftwrapped interception vs. Tech in 2008 is still around) give Texas a crowded stable of playmakers.

Lastly, two crucial coordinator hires should help Mack Brown and his Longhorns. After losing defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who went to be the head coach at Florida, they brought in the youthful Manny Diaz, who had success in the same position at Mississippi State (3rd in the SEC in points allowed in conference games last year). The 'Horns also brought in Bryan Harsin to be co-offensive coordinator with Major Applewhite. Harsin has been the offensive coordinator at Boise State for the last 10 years, calling the plays for the last five. Boise State, you may know, has scored quite a few points over the past decade.

The big question: Will Texas bounce back in 2011? As I stated above, I think they will, winning nine or 10 games and finishing tied for third or better in the league. However, I could also see myself being dead wrong here. Texas had plenty of talent last year and still collapsed. They could lose all their confidence again this year. For my money, this is not a program that responds well when dealt a blow early in games (example: Little House on the Kansas State bullying and dominating the glamourous Longhorns in recent years/throughout Bill Snyder's tenure). But I'll still call for Texas to get back on track. They have to play OU in Dallas and at rival Texas A&M, both very tough. How high they finish will hinge quite a bit on how they do against Oklahoma State at home (Oct. 15, week after game with OU) and at Mizzou (Nov. 12).

Monday, August 22, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Oklahoma State

The program

The history of Oklahoma State football is one of some successes, usually involving Mike Gundy in one way or another, but also an unending pursuit of their mighty in-state rival, the Oklahoma Sooners. It is the Cowboys' misfortune to have as a rival one of the historically most successful programs in the nation. The series is called Bedlam, and it's certainly produced some wild games, dating back to a mad scramble for a lose ball in a frozen creek in Guthrie, Okla., in 1904, before Oklahoma was even a state. (The wind blew a punt backwards and out of the end zone.)

With the Mad Hatter himself, Les Miles, coaching the team, Oklahoma State scored massive upsets of the Sooners in 2001 and 2002, derailing OU's national title hopes both years. The 2001 win in Norman, when OSU was a 27-point underdog, was one of two times Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops has lost a home game. But to the chagrin of orange-clad Cowboy fans, Oklahoma owns a commanding 82-16-7 lead in the series. (At my first Mizzou Homecoming game, in 2004, MU students chanted, "Sooner rejects!" at OSU. Of course, the Cowboys rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat Mizzou. And don't get me started on the 2008 Tigers-Cowboys game in Columbia.)

Oklahoma State does have 10 conference titles in football, although only two came as member of the Big 8/12, in 1926 and 1976 (co-champs). From 1928 to 1958, Oklahoma State was a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, going to that league instead of the Big Six when the old Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Association split.

Despite the single shared conference title over the last half-century, Oklahoma State has had its moments. They won 10 games in 1984 as well as 1987 and 1988, when Gundy was the team's quarterback. That 1988 season was the sublime Barry Sanders' Heisman Trophy-winning season. Gundy, now the team's coach, led the team to its fourth double-digit win total ever last fall, winning 11 games. Trouble is, in three of OSU's seasons of 10+ wins, Oklahoma has won at least a share of the conference title. In another unfortunate turn, a joint investigation by OSU and the NCAA after the 1988 season revealed multiple NCAA violations during these seasons.

But the Sooners' successes only make it sweeter when the Cowboys beat them. The Cowboys have plenty of history and identity of their own. They have Sanders and Thurman Thomas, all that bright orange and prolific offenses under Gundy, their coach who made a national splash with his "I'm a man! I'm 40!" rant. They have Pistol Pete, fans seemingly right on top of the field and super-donor T. Boone Picken$. They play in Stillwater, which just sounds like a mythical location in a Western. As Gundy leads another Cowboy team with a lofty preseason ranking, he continues his efforts to make his alma mater a powerhouse and, in the more immediate future, take the Cowboys over the BCS bowl threshold.

Best player ever

Barry Sanders, RB
All-time school rushing leader Thurman Thomas and Mike Gundy are certainly options here, but for sheer single-season brilliance, I'll take Sanders. His 1988 season was the stuff of legend, maybe the best season by any player in college football history. Sanders, showcasing that breathtaking running style that would make him an NFL legend, set college football records with 2,628 rushing yards in a single season. He also had 3,249 total yards He scored 39 touchdowns, including 37 rushing, also a record. He led the nation by averaging 7.6 yards per carry and over 200 yards per game. Four times he ran for over 300 yards that season as the Cowboys won 10 of 12 games... and Sanders won the Heisman.

2011 outlook

Coming off the program's first-ever 11-win season last year, the Cowboys and their fans have high hopes for 2011. Quarterback Brandon Weeden, who turns 28 in October, and sensational receiver Justin Blackmon both chose to return rather than declare for the NFL draft. Last year there were no expectations nationally, with most picking OSU about fifth in the South, but now the Cowboys are on the national radar.

Weeden led the Big 12 in passing efficiency last year, and was second to OU's Landry Jones in passing yards, with 4,277. Blackmon won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver last year. He can be a near unstoppable playmaker, last year racking up 111 receptions, 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns. Those yard and touchdown figures led the Big 12, and his reception total was second... to Sooner Ryan Broyles.

The team does lose dynamic running back Kendall Hunter, but sophomore Joseph Randle should be at very least a serviceable replacement; he averaged 5.5 yards per carry on 85 rush attempts last year. The team also lost offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, but head coach Mike Gundy drives the offensive bus. He's not particularly coy that he often talks with offensive players or studies formation photos while the defense is on the field. He has trust in defensive coordinator Bill Young, who's had several coaching stops but a good track record.

How high OSU goes may hinge on the defense, given the expected prowess of the offense. OSU's great season was helped significantly by winning the turnover battle (+12 in turnovers last year), and they have a few defensive playmakers, such as safety Markelle Martin, cornerback Brodrick Brown and linebacker Shaun Lewis, co-defensive freshman of the year in the Big 12 last season.

Overall, however, its a fairly average defense. Not really any gaping holes, but not close to dominant. Some of the stats are skewed against the OSU defense given how quickly they OSU offense scores and how opponents are often playing catchup. But it can't be totally dismissed that last year OSU was sixth in the Big 12 in points allowed and eight in yards allowed per game.

The big question: Can the Cowboys make it to their first-ever BCS bowl game? Sure, they'd love to get there by dethroning Oklahoma and securing the Big 12's automatic BCS berth. The Dec. 3 season-ending Bedlam game will be huge. It will also be played in Stillwater for the second year in a row, a gift of a schedule quirk due to the new look of the Big 12 (10 teams, every team plays every other team).

However, as good as the OSU offense is, the schedule is brutal. Five of the nine conference games are on the road. As for the other four best teams in the league, OSU has to play at Texas A&M, at Texas and at Missouri... over the course of four weeks. (The other game in that stretch? Against Kansas at home. Frustrations will be taken out.) Then OSU gets that home game against Oklahoma. A November trip to wacky Lubbock won't be a picnic. And the high-powered OSU offense could look a lot less smooth on a November Friday night in Ames, Iowa. So, while I think OSU has the talent to challenge for a conference title or at-large BCS berth, I could see that monster schedule upending those hopes. But we'll see. Reigning Big 12 Coach of the Year Mike Gundy's a man. Still.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Missouri

The program

Prior to Mizzou's historic, 12-win 2007 season, MU alum and ESPN columnist Pat Forde wrote that Missouri was one of the most underachieving programs in college football. Now that's a successful motivational ploy. I highly doubt that was Forde's line of thinking, but he made a pretty compelling case at the time. Mizzou was often cited as a "sleeping giant" with nice facilities, ties to two metro areas, some wealthy boosters (Wal-Mart. Ka-ching.) But greatness largely avoided the Tigers. The drought of conference titles since 1969, the year man first walked on the moon and the Royals starting playing baseball, lives on.

Even still, the program is not without achievements. Mizzou is more than 100 games over .500 all-time: 622-515-52 (.545). The Tigers have won 15 football conference titles (12 post-1900), including at least one in every decade except the 1950s between the 1890s and 1960s.

The Tigers began to make some noise as a program in the late 1930s and 1940s under legendary coach Don Faurot and with a gunslinger of a quarterback, Pitchin' Paul Christman. The Tigers also found success in the 1960s with coach Dan Devine. They stayed competitive in the 1970s and early 1980s, scoring the occasional upset of a powerhouse program, enough that it become something of Mizzou's calling card. They won at Ohio State, beat Notre Dame, and scored the occasional big wins of powerful conference rivals Nebraska and Oklahoma.

But then came the mid-1980s, and Mizzou reeled off 13 straight losing seasons from 1984 to 1996. They finally ended that drought in 1997, and then of course Gary Pinkel has now led the team to three 10-win seasons in the last four years. Twice (2007 and 2008) Missouri played Oklahoma with a chance to end the conference title drought, but the Sooners turned them away, once in competitive fashion, once in thoroughly not competitive fashion.

Missouri has been ranked No. 1 for two weeks in program history, once in 1960 and once in 2007. The 1960 team lost as No. 1 to Kansas (a game later forfeited back to MU), which derailed the team's national title aspirations. In 2007 the team beat No. 2 Kansas 36-28 at Arrowhead Stadium in the cataclysmic "Armageddon at Arrowhead" showdown to earn the top ranking. But then came the aforementioned loss to Oklahoma, making Mizzou 0-2 as a top-ranked team.

So it is a program of some success, some failure and enough near-misses and brushes with glory that many Mizzou fans see themselves as somewhat cursed... That 1960 home loss to Kansas as the No. 1-ranked team... the Fifth Down game loss to Colorado in 1990... the kicked ball loss to No. 1 Nebraska in 1997 with a massive upset brewing and Tiger coach Larry Smith tearing up... the meltdowns defining the lost 2004 season... the vexing blown lead in the 2006 Sun Bowl... the loss to Kansas in the snow/slush/rain at Arrowhead in 2008... the last two bowl game embarrassments.

But the successes are to be savored, like each and every win over Kansas. Heisman finalists. The 31 All-Americans. All those epic upset wins. Brad Smith's 2,000 passing-1,000 rushing seasons. Chase Coffman's Mackey Award (or his jumps over defenders). Last fall's resounding win over Oklahoma with College Gameday and so much energy in town.

And even more, Missouri football is an experience that so many Missourians, myself included, have fallen in love with. Missouri football is Homecoming pep rallies in Greek town and then the parade the next morning. It is the lovely college town of Columbia buzzing the night before a game and "Eye of the Tiger" playing in the bookstore the day before a game. It's the natural bowl of Faurot Field, that familiar white rock M, and the old fire truck rounding the field. It's the cannon after scores and the Helmet Car turning laps. It's John Kadlec telling a story and Mike Kelly saying, "To the house! Touchdown Missouri!" Sometimes it is torrential downpours and persistent chill, or the bright lights that make everything look so sharp. But also it is, so beautiful in my mind, a comfortably crisp day, maybe October, when the sky is so impossibly blue and the brilliant color of the trees peeks over the south stands. Like a painting of autumn, columnist Tom Shatel wrote in his Big Eight tribute. A masterpiece, indeed.

Best player ever

Paul Christman, QB
There's plenty of room for debate here. For my money, it doesn't seem that Missouri has one clear choice for this type of thing, but rather a highest tier of players: Paul Christman, Kellen Winslow, Roger Wherli, Brad Smith, Chase Daniel. My sentimentality (his great four years at Mizzou were my great four years at Mizzou) and his tremendous stats (12,515 passing yards, a school record) tempt me to go with Daniel. But after review, I'd give the nod to the legendary Pitchin' Paul Christman.

Here's why: Christman is the only Missouri quarterback to ever be an All-American, an he did it twice. He was also a three-time all-conference player at quarterback. (Players only played varsity three seasons back then.) Statistical comparisons are tricky in such a vastly different era, but this simple fact transcends the decades: Christman led the nation in passing yards and touchdowns in 1940. He also led Missouri to the 1939 Big Six title, which helps him in comparisons to post-1969 players. After that season, Missouri played in its first true bowl game, the 1940 Orange Bowl. (The Tigers had previously played in a bowl-style exhibition dubbed the "Christmas Festival.")

Christman also came closer to winning Heisman Trophy and was a finalist for the award more times than any other Tiger, finishing third in 1939 and fifth in 1940. He posted a 20-8 record as a starter. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Christman is clearly from a different era, a quarterback wearing No. 44 and slinging a fat football. But his 2,989 passing yards still rank fourth in MU history, according to MU's athletic website, and he is third in all-purpose yards (3,882). For a player to still rank so high on those lists over 70 years after playing is staggering. This is despite teams playing more games, freshmen being eligible to play now and dramatic changes and improvements in the passing game. Christman is indeed an icon. After serving in World War II, he played in the NFL, blazing the trail for the Smith-Daniel-Gabbert trio so many years later.

2011 outlook

After an oppressively hot summer, the state of Missouri is surely ready for some football. Another annoying, greed-fueled round of conference realignment rumors in August only made fans pine for actual games more. With the Tigers looking to replace two top-10 NFL picks and now competing in the new 10-team Big 12 (nonsensical, I know), this season has plenty of mystery and intrigue.


Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert have held the quarterback position honorably over the past nine seasons. Now it’s James Franklin’s turn, and how he performs at quarterback, especially early, is the biggest question about the 2011 Missouri Tigers.

Fortunately, Franklin steps into a good situation. Four of the five starting offensive linemen are seniors, so he should have good protection. Franklin throws to a deep receiving corps led by T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, who each caught at least 90 passes last year. Three running backs return who averaged over 5 yards per carry and ran for at least 400 yards.

Expect Missouri to run more as Franklin develops, even putting the linemen in three-point stances at times to help the ground game. Also, Gabbert’s stats from last year are actually fairly replaceable (9th in Big 12 in quarterback efficiency rating). Franklin will likely have some growing pains, but he won the starting job for a reason.


Last year was maybe the Tigers’ best defense in coach Gary Pinkel’s 10 years in Columbia. Missouri led the Big 12 in points allowed (15.8 per game) in conference play.

One area of concern is that the Tigers led the nation last year in yards allowed per point, meaning they gave up a lot of ground, but were able to dig in or get a turnover to prevent scoring. The numbers show that usually teams can only play “bend but don’t break” defense so long before the points allowed begins to catch up to yards allowed.

Fortunately, Missouri has a stout defensive line and could allow fewer yards. Brad Madison (7.5 sacks last year) and Jacquies Smith (5.5) bring a ferocious pass rush, and junior college transfer Sheldon Richardson should strengthen the Tigers’ run defense.

The defense’s big question could be how well the secondary’s new starters can curtail opponents’ passing games. Senior safety Kenji Jackson will need to anchor this young unit if it’s to stand up to the Big 12’s outstanding receivers. Missouri’s strong pass rush might make the defensive backs look a lot better.

The schedule

The big question: How many do they win? Missouri will now play nine conference games (instead of eight), plus a tough early test at Arizona State (Sept. 9). The schedule is especially tough early, with the first two conference games on the road. I see several swing games (at Arizona State, at Kansas State, home vs. Oklahoma State and Texas, to name some), which should make for a thrilling season. I’ll predict an 8-4 record, although if Franklin comes out of the box fully assembled, the ceiling is high for this team. A finish in the top four in the conference is a reasonable goal.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Kansas State

The program

For so long, the history of Kansas State football is decades and decades of abject, unrivaled futility.

It was the first program to lose 500 football games. From 1940 to 1989 (50 years), Kansas State won 24 percent of its games. Every other D-I program in the nation won at least 33 percent of its games during this time. During these 50 years, the Wildcats had a staggering 37 seasons of 3 or fewer wins. How many winning seasons during this time? Three. (6-3 in 1953, 7-3 in 1954 and 6-5 in 1982.

Then, the Miracle.

When Snyder was hired after the 1988 season, K-State had a 27 game winless streak, including an 0-21-1 mark over the two seasons before his hire, the worst two-year stretch in NCAA history. The program had no talent on hand, two legit D-I players, an assistant would later say. They went 1-10 in Snyder's first season, 1989. That win snapped a 30-game winless streak. Still, Snyder spoke of a turnaround, of the potential. He even designed a new logo to symbolize the new chapter for K-State, that Purple Powercat logo now painted on barn roofs and limestone rocks and mailboxes and grain elevators all across rural Kansas.

Slowly, unbelievably, Snyder lifted K-State. He worked hour after hour, a daunting quest to make K-State a contender. They rose past all the other Big Eight schools (or Big 12 North schools, starting in 1996) except Nebraska. Then, in 1998, the Wildcats scored their landmark win against Nebraska. They were undefeated that year heading into the Big 12 title game, a win away from an incomprehensible berth in the national championship game. But the Wildcats broke down at the finish line, blowing a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, losing in overtime.

But K-State kept winning (six 11-win seasons in seven years), and in 2003 Snyder and the Wildcats finally got to the brass ring, winning the school's first football conference title since 1934. In one of the most enduring games in Big 12 history, the Wildcats destroyed the No. 1-ranked, supposedly invincible Oklahoma Sooners in the Big 12 title game. It was unthinkable watching it, as Darren Sproles kept shaking loose, Ell Roberson kept heaving touchdown passes, and the Wildcat defense beat the heack out of Jason White, the Sooners' Heisman-winning quarterback. (Here's a video telling the story of K-State football, complete with some U2 music; it features this epic upset at about the 5:50 mark.)

That win, the zenith of K-State football, became the Wildcats' calling card, going into battles with a massive chip on their shoulder, punching the bully in the face, showing no fear. (To wit: the Wildcats domination of Texas.)

Snyder, of course, retired after the 2005 season, then returned for the 2009 season after the Ron Prince era didn't work out. John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" contains the line, "He was born in the summer of his 27th year." K-State has been playing football since (year), but in many ways the program was born when Snyder took over. He has more wins than all K-State coaches combined since 1935. No. 2 on the program's coaching wins list? Mike Faheam... with 39. In so many ways (including the name of the stadium), he is K-State football.

But it's so much more. Snyder would tell you that, humble gentleman that he is. It's the haunting beauty of the Flint Hills. It's Willie the Wildcat doing the "K... S... U... Wildcats!" after touchdowns. It's a steely gray sky and a raw wind roaring in off miles and miles and miles of the Great Plains. It's limestone buildings, Aggieville before and after games and, of course, the Wabash Cannonball.

Best player ever

Darren Sproles, RB
With 4,979 rushing yards, the diminutive, lightning-legged Sproles has over 2,000 more yards than any other Wildcat. When his career at K-State ended, he was 11th on the NCAA's all-time rushing list and 6th in all-purpose yards. He led the nation in rushing in that magical 2003 season. I was there when he set the school's single-game rushing record in Manhattan against Mizzou, and then watched next week as he helped the Wildcats upset No. 1 Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game. Sproles caught a pass and scampered for a 60-yard touchdown that put K-State up 21-7 and knocked mighty OU on its heels. Not only did Sproles pile up huge numbers, he did so in some of the biggest games in K-State history.

2011 outlook

Kansas State's biggest issue will likely be replacing running back Daniel Thomas, who led the Big 12 in rushing last year (1,585 yards). The Wildcats bring in a pair of transfers expected to make an immediate impact, running back Bryce Brown and his brother, Arthur Brown, a linebacker.

Assuming he works hard enough to satisfy Snyder's high standards and wins the starting job, Bryce Brown could be a breakout star for the Wildcats. Also, fullback Braden Wilson might actually be one of the team's best players on offense. Broadcaster Stan Webber called him a legitimate NFL prospect earlier this month, and Wilson should open lanes for Brown.

The quarterback position still seems to be up for grabs, with Collin Klein, Sammuel Lamur and intriguing juco transfer Justin Tuggle all in the mix. All-in-all, I don't think it'll be a high-powered offense, but Snyder will likely look to manage games, run the ball, avoid turnovers and wait for the opponent to botch things.

K-State's defensive strength will probably come from its linebackers, led by Arthur Brown, and its secondary, including all-conference candidates in cornerback David Garrett and safety Tysyn Hartman. Last year, Kansas State was ninth in the Big 12 in total yards allowed and dead last against the run. The defense must get better, as the offense likely won't be erasing any huge deficits. Snyder brought in some juco defensive linemen in hopes of immediately improving the run defense.

The big question: Can the team equal or improve on last year's seven-win season? This would mean Snyder was continuing to gradually build momentum in his second stint. In 15 of his 19 seasons at K-State, Snyder has equaled or improved the team's record in the year before. He's done this in both years so far in his second stint at K-State. Does he get seven wins and do it again in 2011, his 20th year at K-State's coach? I say yes. Suddenly the nonconferece game at scandal-ravaged Miami looks a little more manageable. Even more, six of KSU's nine Big 12 games are in the state of Kansas (five home games and a game at toothless Kansas, just a short drive down I-70). They'll need to make hay in the first seven games, but I think they'll get to seven or eight wins.