FROM THE STANDS: Big 12 Preview

The Great Exit of2014 came much later than I expected, but it was not a surprise. There are usually three reasons a head coach is replaced: 1) he retires, 2) he takes another job or 3) he’s fired. In the case of No.1, if it’s planned out correctly often times the transition from the previous coach to the new coach is pretty seamless because it almost always involves someone already on the staff, like Jimbo Fisher/Bobby Bowden. No.2 can go different directions: Maybe the new coach is someone that was already on the staff, making things easier, like Kevin Sumlin taking over for Art Briles at Houston; other times it’s someone brand new, like Bobby Petrino replacing Charlie Strong. But what both scenarios have in common is the team that lost its head coach is pretty good — no one hires a coach from a slumping program — and the new coach doesn’t need to do much tinkering since the team was playing well. In the case of No.3, all bets are off. The team struggled to the point the staff was fired and an entirely new one is brought in. And, almost all the time, “entirely new” means just that — everyone from the old staff is gone. With a new staff comes new ideas, new processes new expectations, and, as is always the case, new faces on the roster.

That’s just the way it goes. Some players don’t connect with the new staff, or have a grudge because the old staff is gone. Some don’t like the new rules and new processes. Some break those rules and others just don’t like the new staff. Inversely, the new staff has their own evaluations. Some guys aren’t as good as they expected and they get moved to another position. If they don’t like that position, they are free to play at another school. Some coaches see troublemakers or instigators and decide things that were acceptable to the old staff are unacceptable now. Sometimes an example needs to be made to the set the tone for the rest of the team. Sometimes players are a poor fit for the system and they slide down the depth chart because they don’t have a place on the field. The result is attrition. Some leave on their own, others are asked to leave, but it happens every time a new coach comes in.

It was really something that Texas lost only two players last spring, both being asked to leave. Charlie Strong and staff had a demanding off-season and they set forth a group of core values that must be adhered to in order to be a Texas Longhorn. Part of the reason for the severe changes was to see who truly wanted to play football at the University of Texas and who simply wanted to be on the team. The new staff wants players that want to be here for the right reasons. Who is willing to push themselves further than they ever did under the old staff? As Quandre Diggs said at Big 12 Media Days, “Who loves football?” It seemed like most every player on the team had answered the call.

But it was not as it seemed. Last Friday Texas dismissed four players: Joe Bergeron, Josh Turner, Chevoski Collins and Jalen Overstreet. This came less than 24 hours after wide outs Kendall Sanders and Montrel Meander were indefinitely suspended — barring something unbelievably extraordinary I don’t see them ever playing for Texas again — after being arrested for sexual assault. Also last Friday, linebacker Kendall Thompson retired from football due to concussions (bad timing for Thompson, who is being mistakenly lumped in with the dismissed/suspended). In the blink of an eye, nearly 10% of the 85-man roster was gone.

Charlie Strong and staff have been monitoring the team all spring and summer to see, again, who loves football. The process that seemed over was far from it. In fact, the new staff took their time and did what they could to let the players who might not have bought in as much as they could/should have the opportunity to do so. In the end the dismissed were given ample opportunity and multiple chances to show the staff and their teammates they loved football and would follow the rules of the team set forth by Charlie Strong. The dismissed failed to do so and the result was them not being Texas Longhorns any longer. And here we are.

Eric Nahlin of InsideTexas.com wrote an outstanding article over the weekend about Charlie Strong and discipline and how it relates to football and Texas A&M, who has their own share of off-the-field problems right now. It’s a pay site, but I highly encourage you to check it out. The gist of it was this: you can’t wait for arrests to instill discipline and buy-in. It’s too late at that point. You identify the trouble and if the trouble will not bend to the staff’s will, the trouble will be excused. No exceptions. When it gets to arrests, the dye is already cast. It isn’t about one guy, or seven guys, it’s about the logo on the helmet. If you can’t follow the rules off the field, you don’t get to wear that logo and you don’t get to be on the field. It isn’t like that everywhere else, but it’s like that here, and while the losses might sting in the short term, it’s the best thing for the long term.

Rumors persist that it might not be over, The Great Exit of 2014, but you can be sure if more are asked to leave it’s best for the long term and those that remain are 100% committed — and 100% with the decision to dismiss the offenders: ask Mr. Diggs — and the Texas Longhorns will be on their way where we all want them to be. With the commitment of 4-star wide out John Burt and 3-star defensive tackle Du’Vonta Lampkin Charlie Strong is amassing talent that wants to be here and follows the rules. We are on our way.

This week we get back on the weekly schedule as the Horns are about to report for fall camp. August 3rd is the Hall of Fame Game (Giants vs. Bills), and the first 1-A college game is four weeks from Thursday. Yay! This week let’s dive into how the rest of the Big 12 looks. Next week we start breaking down the Longhorns.

 

The Big 12

At some point in the last seven months, my loathing of most of the other Big 12 teams has completely gone away. I always wanted to be a conference guy. I always wanted to be the guy that said “Texas first, Big 12 second.” But I wasn’t. I rooted for other Big 12 teams when it suited me: if it helped Texas or I simply disliked them enough to root for whoever they played (looking at you, sooners).I liked the theory of Big 12 first, but the application of it was spotty at best. I just didn’t like a lot of the other schools for a variety of reasons: the sooners are terrible people; the Tech students are rude; kids at Iowa State like to threaten old people with scissors (not a generalization, I watched it happen and the ensuing arrest); Baylor kids are dorks with their mesh jerseys and nicknames; my extended family connections to TCU make that a no-brainer; the girl I met at Oklahoma State in 2007 was, and probably still is, criminally insane; K-State physically broke Major Applewhite, Vince Young (remember that ankle? ick), Colt McCoy twice and psychologically broke Garrett Gilbert; ( think) Todd Reesing served me drinks at a bar in Lawrence after the 2008 Texas game, but the rest of the team made it known we were not welcome anywhere in town; and West Virginia? What are they west of? Europe? This entire continent would be named West Virginia, then. Seems like they are northwest of Virginia on a map. And why, if you hate them so much that you’d split from the state of Virginia, do you have “Virginia” in your name at all? I’d have gone with something else, but they didn’t ask me. So, all that has been going on, so I usually don’t root for them. Until now.

It wasn’t a specific moment that made me all in for the Big 12, but rather a series of events: Bob Stoops calling the SEC’s aura and presence propaganda, ou beating Bama in the Sugar Bowl and the internet fall out of Bama fans, Paul Finebaum, Stoops taking shots at A&M’s schedule, the Aggies and their absurd #WRTS chest thumping, crazy Art Briles getting after Jimbo Fisher at the Big 12 Media days, Stoops’ reaction to Nick Saban saying the Sugar Bowl win was a consolation prize … There is probably more, but I got the feeling that once Texas hired Charlie Strong, who seems like the same sort of no-nonsense football first guy that just about everyone else has in the conference, the coaches sort of bonded together and said, “Enough. It’s us vs. them.” And I feel the same way. Enough. It’s us vs. them.

Don’t get me wrong, I still have lots of issues with us. I still don’t like everyone and I will struggle rooting for some of the most hated (again, right at you, sooners), but I know in the end it’s the best thing for all us if we are all good. And I want us all to be good. I was very happy at the Big 12 domination in the Super Regionals of the baseball playoffs and I’ve started looking at the football schedule and seeing where we can get big game wins. That’s right, “we.”

So let’s take a few minutes and see what my new best friends will look like this fall. I am going to break this down into three sections: Title Contenders, Going Bowling, Desperately Hoping to Go Bowling. I am leaving Texas out of this as we will get to them in the next few weeks. The Big 12 outlook:

 

Title Contenders

 

Baylor

Count me in as one who thinks the defending conference champion is the top dog until someone knocks them off. And unlike K-State going into last season, the quarterback and lots of pieces return to defend the title. Not only will Baylor have fancy new uniforms and a fancy new stadium they have, as previously mentioned, a likes-to-fight coach that is going out of his way to place a large, uncomfortable chip on his team’s shoulder. All Big 12 quarterback Bryce Petty is back, leading the nation’s No.1 offense for the second straight season. Remember, up until this year Baylor has been turning over qb’s every season (RGIII, Nick Florence, Petty), and now they return the best qb in the Big 12 who is a sure-fire Heisman candidate this fall. Also returning are wideouts Corey Coleman, Antwan Goodley, Jay Lee and Levi Norwood. Although not a returning starter, running back Shock Linwood is terrific and should step in nicely to replace 2013 Heisman Winner Lache Seastrunk. He’s not as big as Seastrunk, but he’s a terrific tailback that will get lots of room to run as defenses focus on defending Petty and pre-season All Big 12 first team Goodley. In fact four Bears make the first team on the pre-season All Big Team: Petty, Linwood, Goodley and tackle Spencer Drango, who missed most of last year with an injury. Only two players return up front for Baylor, but history tells me they will be fine. In this system the ol doesn’t need to be dominant all the time, they just need to occupy the defender for a few seconds for Petty to sling it or Linwood to slide by.

On the other side of the ball, however, there are issues. Only three starters return, one being All Big 12 linebacker Bryce Hager (son of #60 himself, Britt). But the buzz of media days was defensive end Shawn Oakman. The junior is bigger than LeBron James at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds, and the idea of him coming off the edge is terrifying. Even if he never gets there, the wingspan of a 6-foot-9 guy with arms up is going to affect a lot of passes and quarterbacks. Art Briles, never one to by shy, said his dl was the best in the country. Oakman certainly looks the part. But it’s a good thing Baylor can score in droves, because they might need to so the defense can catch up and learn on the fly. Another thing that will help is good special teams: the Bears have pre-season All Big 12 punter Spencer Roth and return man Levi Norwood back. No one cares about field goals in Waco, because those aren’t touchdowns.

Aside from the new faces on ol and the defense, the schedule is an issue. By “issue” I don’t mean it’s too hard; just the opposite. Baylor plays no one non-conference (SMU, I-AA Northwestern State and Buffalo), and their first real test should be at Texas in game five. That’s a long time to go without really knowing where your weaknesses are, and as brutal as the SEC schedule is and the unabashed media love for them, Baylor will definitely pay for the light schedule in the polls. As for the conference race, a trip to ou could be for the Big 12 Title, but lots of land mines could derail them. Especially a burnt orange one… but that’s for later. I think Baylor tops the list of contenders with all they have returning.

 

oklahoma

The sooners are getting a lot of love in the pre-season media after Trevor Knight’s Sugar Bowl performance, but this is also the same guy that lost his job to the most famous backup tight end in college football. The defense … Sorry, I’m not quite there yet.

On this day (July 30th) in history …

–          In 1945 the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed. It was the greatest naval loss of WWII with 900 deaths. Amazing book, by the way, In Harm’s Way.

–          Jimmy Hoffa was reported missing in 1975.

–          Lisa Leslie became the first woman to dunk the ball in a pro basketball game in 2002.

 

Watch out for …

Kansas State

After falling in week one to North Dakota State and looking disastrous (the Bison are a I-AA program, at the time the two-defending national champions, but I-AA nonetheless), Midwest Purple headed to the off-week after losing to Baylor 35-25 (a game they could have won) with a 2-4 record. Then they got hot, winning four straight and five of their last six (the lone loss a very close 41-31 loss to ou) and absolutely whipped Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, 31-14. Bill Snyder’s system is notoriously hard to learn and all new quarterbacks struggle. Junior College transfer Jake Waters was no exception. He struggled early and split time with Daniel Sams, but eventually won the job and looked great in the bowl game. So good was Waters that Sams moved to wide out and eventually transferred from the program, leaving a gaping hole in the running game (Sams led all Big 12 qb’s last year with 807 yards rushing). Waters is back, as are three starters up front and all-everything wide out Tyler Lockett, who is as big play as big play gets (ask the Texas secondary). If they can find a running back, everything should click on offense.

Back on defense is Ryan Mueller, the pre-season All-Big 12 candidate that was outstanding at defensive end last year. They are missing some big pieces like Ty Zimmerman, but I think the defense should be good enough and the offense will score some points with Waters and Lockett on the field. And don’t sleep on Lockett as a return man, he’s the best in the country on kickoffs.

Holes to fill in the running game (they are going to miss Sams’ feet; he nearly led them to upset wins over Baylor and Oklahoma State) and away games at Baylor and at ou, among others, are probably too much to ask for the Wildcats to overcome and win the Big 12 … but who knows?

 

Going Bowling

 

Texas Tech

I like Kliff Kingsbury. I really do. He seems like a fun guy to play for. What other coach in the Big 12 (or anywhere else for that matter) would do this? The answer is none. He had the law firm (Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb) at quarterback last year, flipflopping the two freshmen all-season before settling on Webb for the Holiday Bowl. Mayfield transferred to ou (as a walk-on) and Webb took over, leading Tech to a thumping of Arizona State in the Holiday Bowl. As much fun as it looks like it is to play for Kingsbury, I am not sold that he’s ready for the big time. Maybe it’s just me. Regardless, I think Tech is coming back down to earth this year, which means they are basically going to be a similar version of 2013 this fall.

Webb is a very good quarterback, but he lost Jace Amaro and the weapons around him are relative unknowns. There are too many new faces in Lubbock and too many top notch coaches in the Big 12 for Tech to make a real run this year. The good news is they get Texas and ou at home and Baylor in Arlington. You can bet the goal posts will be greased when Texas comes to town on 11/1, six years to the day since Michael Crabtree ruined Texas’ national title hopes.

Tech will go bowling, but a hot start (Central Arkansas, @ UTEP, Arkansas) before a trip to Oklahoma State should have them undefeated, but I don’t think they have the defensive depth and firepower to overcome the top tier of the conference. Maybe I am wrong. We will see.

 

TCU

TCU was on fire when they joined the Big 12. But a fire hose of off-field issues doused it. There was the drug sting in February of 2012 that resulted in four players being dismissed, including linebacker Tanner Brock. A meh season was highlighted by the win over Texas, but a loss in the bowl to Michigan State and the very public loss for the season of quarterback Casey Pachall are what everyone remembers. Then Devonte Fields, the 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, was suspended for two games to start the 2013 season and the Frogs were stomped in game one by LSU in JerryWorld and things basically went downhill from there. A 4-8 season was the result, and one everyone would just as soon forget.

Things looked better going into the summer of 2014: Fields was back, former A&M quarterback Matt Joeckle transferred in and was expected to play right away and wide out Brandon Carter’s misdemeanor marijuana charge was dismissed. But then Devonte Fields was arrested for assualt, allegedly threatening an ex with a gun, and his status is once again in limbo going into the season. The defense, with eight starters returning, had the two best defensive linemen in the league (according to Big 12 writers) in Fields and tackle Chucky Hunter. That dynamic now changes if Fields is gone. Offensively the goal is to get Joeckle running the no-huddle attack installed by former Tech assistant and quarterback Sonnie Cumbie and move former qb Trevone Boykin back to wide out where he belongs.

After a warmup of Samford, Minnesota and SMU, they get ou at home and travel to Baylor the week after. If they can split those two (they won’t) who knows what can happen. I don’t expect a 4-8 season, but there are too many unknowns for TCU to be a true title contender. Probably. Expect to see them playing during bowl season, though.

 

Watch out for …

 

Oklahoma State

I personally don’t think they are going to be very good this year. Yeah, I know. I am the same guy that said Derek Strait was too short to be good, the hype on Jameis Winston was overblown and the Aggies were having personnel issues last week. But they have lost so much on defense (seven starters), and in a league with Baylor, ou and Tech, that means trouble.

JW Walsh is a solid quarterback against Texas, but I watched him struggle at times last year and over the last two years he’s lost the job to other guys. They have some pieces around him, but with such a quick hook at quarterback, I wonder if he gets the chance to make any mistakes? They are going to be better on offense than I expect because that is what Mike Gundy does, but I don’t think the defense is going to hold up.

They start the season with Florida State in Dallas, host Tech in week five and travel to Baylor and ou. I think this is the year Texas regains the mojo over Oklahoma State (who still has only beaten Texas once in Stillwater since the Big 12 started), and the Pokes are home for the holidays.

But it could come together and they could make a run. That’s called “waffling.” Get those Noles!

 

Desperately Hoping to Go Bowling

 

West Virginia

I thought surely the Dana Holgorsen era was over for the Couch Fires last year. I think it’s time to start over in Morgantown. After winning the Big East and crushing Clemson’s soul in the Orange Bowl, the Neers have hit a road block in their travels to the top of the Big 12. After outscoring Baylor and Texas in consecutive weeks and climbing to No.4 in 2012, they dropped off the edge of the earth. They were destroyed by Tech the following week, 49-14, and went on a five game losing streak. They squeaked by Iowa State to get bowl eligible and hammered a terrible Kansas team before getting blown out in the Pinstripe Bowl by Syracuse, 38-14. In 2013 they won four games. And those losses: Baylor responded to their 70-63 loss the year before with a 73-42 win, they were shut out by Maryland 37-0 in Baltimore and they gave Iowa State one of their three wins in the three overtime loss to end the season.

It’s the same guys back this year with, more or less, the same staff. I don’t see it getting much better this fall.

 

Iowa State

Guess who’s back in the Big 12? Mark Mangino. The big man will be the OC and offensive line coach for Paul Rhoads in Ames. Think what you want about him, but Mangino is a terrific playcaller and an excellent offensive line coach. It’s an upgrade. The problem is they just don’t have the talent in their own state or the facilities to draw top tier out-of-state talent. It’s cold there in the winter, and, while they develop the talent they get, they just don’t get that much of it.

They don’t get any time to get their feet wet, either. They open with 3-time I-AA Champion North Dakota State, host K-State and then it’s the vaunted CyHawk game with Iowa. Then they get an off week before Baylor comes to town. It’s very, very possible they are 0-4 to start the year, and they still have to travel to Texas and host ou and Tech.

I want them to be better, but it’s such an uphill battle for them. Come on, Paul Rhoads, let’s get those Bison and start the year off right! See? Encouraging comments. Us vs. them.

 

Kansas

Kansas has shown they can be good. Remember my man Reesing? Aqib Talib? They won the Orange Bowl, too. I think the Charlie Weis experiment is also going to end this fall. For all the offensive genius he possesses, he can’t get a quarterback to do anything consistently. You’d think SOMEONE would want to go to Lawrence and on to the NFL. Mike Leach is getting guys to go to Pulman, Washington to play quarterback. You know where Pulman, Washington is? Neither do I. It’s somewhere up there on the top left, but not anywhere cool where Soundgarden is or anything.

The defense should be decent and they have shown the ability to run the ball well at times, but never consistently enough to make any waves or be anything other than an ESPN third quarter upset alert message.

If he can find a quarterback, he can win some games. Some think Montell Cozart is that guy. He’s big, athletic and fast and he will be the starter (his winning the job forced Jake Heaps to transfer). And if they can pull it all together, maybe it’s bowling season. I see winnable games against Southeast Missouri State, Duke, Central Michigan, Iowa State. That’s probably too many. I have no idea if Duke is any good this year. I do know Kansas is not good this year.

 

So …

The Big 12 looks like a 2-team race at this point with a few wild cards thrown in. Where does Texas fit? Back next week with that.

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