Oklahoma Sooners: Devonte Fields

The 2013 season featured one of the most competitive races for Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, with at least a half-dozen defenders in the mix.

Ultimately, Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett shared the award. Both are now gone, leaving the race wide open again in 2014. But the league will still have several formidable candidates for the award.

[+] EnlargeDevonte Fields
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsTCU's Devonte Fields had a sophomore season to forget, but has the talent to be one of the Big 12's best defensive players.
Going into last season, returning TCU defensive end Devonte Fields was actually the favorite to grab the honor. After all, as a true freshman in 2012, he captured the Associated Press’ Defensive Player of the Year award in the league (Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown won the coaches' honor). But after wreaking havoc as a rookie, Fields was not a factor in his second year. He was slapped with an offseason suspension that sidelined him in the opener against LSU. When he returned, he looked out of shape and was hardly the same player. And then Fields suffered a foot injury that ultimately forced a season-ending procedure in October. Despite a disappointing sophomore campaign, he still has the talent to be one of the most destructive defensive forces in college football.

Fields isn’t the only league defender coming back who is capable of getting to the quarterback.

Kansas State end Ryan Mueller, Texas end Cedric Reed and Oklahoma linebacker Eric Striker ranked second, third and fourth in the Big 12 behind Jeffcoat in sacks last season.

In his first season as a starter, Mueller emerged from nowhere to become one of the best all-around defenders in the conference. He led the Wildcats in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback hurries and forced fumbles. In a league stacked at defensive end, Mueller became a first-team All-Big 12 selection.

Reed was just as prolific as Mueller, but was overshadowed playing alongside Jeffcoat. Reed led the Big 12 in forced fumbles, and was virtually unblockable around the edge by the end of the season. Reed considered an early jump to the NFL, but elected to return to anchor coach Charlie Strong’s first defense at Texas.

But as good as Mueller and Reed were, no Big 12 defender had a stronger finish to the season than Striker. In his first year as a starter, the sophomore flashed signs of his potential in September, hammering Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees on the game’s third play to force a pick-six. By the bowl season, not even two-time defending national champion Alabama could contain him. Striker racked up three sacks in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, and jarred the ball loose from Crimson Tide quarterback AJ McCarron in the final minute that led to an Oklahoma touchdown to seal the stunning win.

SportsNation

Of these candidates, who is the best bet to win Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2014?

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    17%
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    41%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,473)

Several other players in the conference are capable of breaking into the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year discussion. The Baylor defensive line duo of tackle Andrew Billings and end Shawn Oakman is stacked with potential. Oklahoma’s Geneo Grissom finally unlocked his with three sacks and a touchdown fumble recovery return in the Sugar Bowl, and could be primed for a big senior season. Fellow Sooners defensive end Charles Tapper was the only underclassman to earn first-team All-Big 12 honors last season. Texas’ Jordan Hicks could be as good as any linebacker in the league if he could ever stay healthy. And on top of Fields, the TCU defense features safety Sam Carter and tackle Chucky Hunter, who have been stalwarts in the Big 12 the last two years.

But only five players can be included in this poll. And Baylor inside linebacker Bryce Hager, who has as much experience as any player in the league, netted the final slot. Hager will be a three-year starter, and he led the Big 12 in tackles his sophomore season, in which he earned second-team all-conference honors. Hager repeated the honor last year despite missing the final month of the season with a hernia injury that required offseason surgery. When healthy, Hager is as sure a tackler as any returning defender in the league.

Now, it's your chance to weigh in: Of Hager, Fields, Mueller, Reed and Striker, who is the best bet to capture Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors next season?

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: DL

February, 24, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we’re examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12, continuing Monday with defensive line. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how we see the defensive lines at the moment:

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesOklahoma end Charles Tapper will lead the Big 12's best defensive line in 2014.
1. Oklahoma: D-line began as a weakness but quickly turned into a strength under first-year position coach Jerry Montgomery. End Charles Tapper was an All-Big 12 selection as a sophomore, and tackle Jordan Phillips was on his way to earning similar honors before a back injury ended his season prematurely. Both players are back. So is Geneo Grissom, who had three sacks in the bowl win over Alabama. Nose guard Jordan Wade earned a starting role late in 2013, and Chuka Ndulue will be a starter for a third season. Basically, the entire rotation returns. If Phillips rebounds from the injury, this could prove to be Oklahoma’s finest D-line since 2009, when NFL All-Pro Gerald McCoy roamed the middle.

2. TCU: DE Devonte Fields, the Associated Press’ Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman in 2012, had an empty season in 2013 thanks to a suspension, then a season-ending foot injury. If Fields can return to the player he was, TCU will be formidable up front. Chucky Hunter was a second-team All-Big 12 pick inside last season, and he’ll be flanked by an array of experienced tackles in Davion Pierson and Tevin Lawson, who were all part of the rotation last season. Ends Terrell Lathan, James McFarland and Mike Tuaua, who combined for 11 sacks in 2013, all return as well. Even with DT Jon Lewis giving up football, TCU's D-line figures to be as deep as any in the league.

3. Texas: Cedric Reed, one of the best sack men in the Big 12 last season, returns after giving the NFL a cursory thought. The Longhorns have to replace Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year Jackson Jeffcoat on the other side, but ESPN 300 recruit Derick Roberson, the No. 8 DE in the Class of 2014, could help right away. The Longhorns should also be stout inside, with run-stuffing tackles Malcom Brown and Desmond Jackson back to clog the middle.

4. Kansas State: Ryan Mueller, who was eighth nationally with 11.5 sacks last season, comes back after a breakout All-Big 12 season. Travis Britz is an all-conference-caliber tackle and gives K-State one of the better one-two punches on the D-line in the league. Joining them will be Terrell Clinkscales, who was the No. 4 junior college DT in the 2014 class. The Wildcats pried Clinkscales away from Nebraska, and at 315 pounds he could be the perfect complement to Britz, who relies more on quickness.

[+] EnlargeShawn Oakman
John Rivera/Icon SMIBaylor defensive end Shawn Oakman will play a bigger role next season.
5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys lose two-time All-Big 12 tackle Calvin Barnett. James Castleman, however, will be a three-year starter, and end Jimmy Bean had a career night in the Cotton Bowl with three tackles for loss. The key to the Cowboys fielding one of the better lines in the league again will be whether Ben Hughes, Vincent Taylor and/or Vili Leveni can emerge inside after redshirting in 2013. All three are promising prospects, especially Taylor, who was an ESPN 300 recruit in the 2013 class.

6. Baylor: The Bears feature two of the more intriguing defensive linemen in the league. DE Shawn Oakman, a former Penn State transfer with tremendous length at 6-foot-9, finished sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss last season, but he tailed off in Big 12 play. Baylor will ask him to play a much bigger role along the line, and he has the potential to give the Bears a unique playmaker there. On the inside, Baylor will lean more on Andrew Billings, who was part of the DT rotation as a freshman. If both Billings and Oakman play up to their vast potential, Baylor could be a handful up front.

7. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose two of three starters along the D-line, including second-team All-Big 12 end Will Clarke. West Virginia is hoping for big things from DE Kyle Rose, who played a lot as a sophomore. Dontrill Hyman will likely fill a starting role on the other side, though he could get pushed for time by Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who both will be in their third year in the program. The Mountaineers will lean on Christian Brown and Darrien Howard at nose guard. Howard was an ESPN 300 recruit last year and played as a freshman. There’s some talent and potential here.

8. Iowa State: Like Texas Tech, Iowa State loaded up on immediate defensive line help, signing three juco defensive ends in Dalyou Pierson, Terry Ayeni and Gabe Luna, who is enrolled already for spring ball. Those three together with All-Big 12 honorable-mention selection Cory Morrissey and sophomore Mitchell Meyers should give Iowa State a solid rotation at end. Rodney Coe, who started the last four games, will anchor the Cyclones inside.

9. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders lose their two best defensive linemen in Kerry Hyder and Dartwan Bush, and Tech got pushed around up front anyway last season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury recognized this deficiency and signed four juco defensive linemen, all of whom have a chance to play immediately. Of the returning linemen, Branden Jackson was by far the most productive, totaling nine tackles for loss and four sacks as a starter.

10. Kansas: Despite also losing two starters, the Jayhawks have experience up front. Defensive captain Keon Stowers is back after manning the middle in 2013. Ben Goodman returns as well in Kansas’ “buck” role, and he is coming off a very solid sophomore season. Goodman’s backup, Michael Reynolds, and rotation players Tedarian Johnson and Ty McKinney give the Jayhawks depth.
Our series on the 25 best players in the Big 12 comes to an end today when we reveal the conference's three best players.

We hope this list hasn't been too terribly controversial, but yes, there have certainly been some quality players who did not make the cut. Several can make a solid case for why they should've made our Top 25, including Texas defensive end Cedric Reed, Texas Tech defensive lineman Kerry Hyder, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney and Kansas State running back John Hubert.

We did not forget about you, guys. We tip our caps to your strong showings in 2013.

And let's not forget the many Big 12 players who would've been among the conference's 25 best had they stayed healthy. Here's a closer look at five big-time players who missed out due to injuries.

Devonte Fields, DE, TCU: The No. 3 player in the blog's preseason Top 25 did not have a sophomore season to remember. TCU shut him down for the season on Oct. 9 due to a foot injury that required surgery. He ended up appearing in just three games due to suspension and injury. The Horned Frogs were wise to end his season early and seek a medical redshirt, and let's hope Fields is back to his dominant self when he returns in 2014.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesJohnathan Gray was well on his way to an all-Big 12-caliber season before succumbing to injury in early November.
Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas: A torn right Achilles suffered in a road win at West Virginia ended a sophomore season that could've ended with Gray earning All-Big 12 honors. He emerged as the workhorse of Texas' offense after David Ash was lost for the season and, at 780 yards and four touchdowns, was one pace to become the Longhorns' first 1,000-yard rusher since 2007. If he can get healthy in time for the start of the 2014 season, he'll be on the league's best rushers again.

Trey Millard, FB/RB/TE, Oklahoma: Millard, who ranked No. 11 in our preseason Top 25, brought so many things to the Sooners' offense both in production and intangibles. He was pretty much guaranteed a spot in our postseason list until Oct. 26, when a torn ACL suffered against Texas Tech ended his season and his OU career five games too early. It's a shame we only got to see him touch the ball 28 times is his final season, but Millard and his many niche contributions won't soon be forgotten by Sooners fans.

Jordan Phillips, DT, Oklahoma: Sure, you can argue that OU linebacker Corey Nelson deserves this spot as the Sooners' captain and possible defensive MVP prior to his injury. But losing Phillips to a season-ending back injury in the middle of October was just as damaging, not only to the middle of the Sooners line but also because he seemed on pace to developing into an All-Big 12 caliber talent. He played in four games, missed two, and then was done. Let's hope he can get healthy and back in track as a junior.

Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor: Reese came very close to making our Top 25 despite missing five games this season with a broken wrist. He was one of several Baylor players who went down during the stretch run, and arguably the most critical one. He finished the year with 867 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and only needed 38 receptions to get there. His 22.8 yards per catch average ranked No. 2 nationally, and three of his scores came from 60-plus yards.
Immediately after the national championship game, colleague Mark Schlabach released his Way-Too-Early Top 25. In concert, below is our Way-Too-Early Big 12 power poll. This could change between now and the end of the spring. In fact, it probably will. But this is a first look at how the Big 12 teams stack up against one another for 2014:

1. Oklahoma Sooners

In the Allstate Sugar Bowl, freshman Trevor Knight finally played like the quarterback that had been drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel behind Oklahoma’s closed practices. The Sooners lose some cornerstone players to graduation, notably running back Brennan Clay, center Gabe Ikard, receiver Jalen Saunders and cornerback Aaron Colvin. But with Knight and budding running back Keith Ford returning to man the backfield, and nine starters coming back defensively, including menacing outside linebacker Eric Striker, Oklahoma could be a favorite in every game next season -- and a force once again on the national stage.

2. Baylor Bears

Even with running back Lache Seastrunk going pro, the Bears return plenty of firepower offensively. Bryce Petty will be the reigning All-Big 12 quarterback, and Antwan Goodley will be coming off a monster junior season. Rising sophomore Shock Linwood showed he could shoulder the rushing load, too, when Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were banged up late in the season. The Bears, however, could take a step back defensively. Baylor, which got torched for 52 points in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, loses six starters there, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon and All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Former blue-chip defensive tackle recruit Andrew Billings will need to step up and become more of a force. Even if the defense stumbles, Baylor should be capable of scoring enough points to win every game on its schedule, thanks to coach Art Briles being back on its sidelines.

3. Kansas State Wildcats

Along with Missouri, the Wildcats were the first two teams left out of Schlabach’s Top 25. But they make a compelling case for inclusion. Quarterback Jake Waters improved dramatically during the second half of the season, eventually squeezing Daniel Sams out of the QB rotation. Wideout Tyler Lockett could be a preseason All-American, after torching Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan for a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns. The defense should be better, too, with sack artist Ryan Mueller back at end, and rising junior safety Dante Barnett set to take over for the outgoing Ty Zimmerman as leader of the secondary. The Wildcats will be tested early with national runner-up Auburn visiting Manhattan on Sept. 20. If K-State can win that game, the rest of the Big 12 will be on notice.

4. Texas Longhorns

During his introductory news conference on Monday, new Texas coach Charlie Strong said Mack Brown left him with a team that could win right away. Strong might be right. The Longhorns return eight starters off a defense that found its stride under interim coordinator Greg Robinson. Texas also brings back six starters offensively and its entire running back corps, including Malcolm Brown, who rushed for more than 100 yards in the Valero Alamo Bowl. A big part of Mack Brown’s downfall, however, was quarterback play, and that once again will be a huge question mark in Strong’s first season. David Ash sat out most of this season with concussion issues, making his football future tenuous. Tyrone Swoopes is athletic with a big arm but needs polish. The other option will be incoming freshman Jerrod Heard, who just led his high school team to a Texas state championship. If one of those three emerges, Strong could have Texas on the way back ahead of schedule.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys were 19 seconds away from playing in a BCS bowl game. But two losses to end the year soured what could have been a stellar season. Now, Oklahoma State must replace the bulk of its team, including quarterback Clint Chelf and seven starters defensively. Star slot receiver Josh Stewart is also reportedly mulling over leaving early, too. Either way, 2014 will be a retooling season for coach Mike Gundy, whose first order of business will be settling on a quarterback. J.W. Walsh, who started the first half of the season before losing the job back to Chelf, would have to be considered the favorite. But Gundy has shown before he’s not afraid of turning the keys of the offense to a true freshman, and the Cowboys have an intriguing freshman QB enrolling for the spring in Mason Rudolph, who threw 64 touchdown passes this fall as a high school senior in South Carolina. That could result in some growing pains for Oklahoma State, which opens the season against defending national champion Florida State. But if Rudolph proves to be the long-term answer at QB, it shouldn’t be more than a year before the Cowboys are contending in the Big 12 again.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech completely changed the tenor of its offseason with a dominating 37-23 win over Pac-12 South Division champ Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Finally healthy again, the Red Raiders showed they were better than a five-game losing streak to end the regular season indicated. Now, Tech returns eight starters offensively, including quarterback Davis Webb, who torched the Sun Devils and had several other encouraging moments as a true freshman. Tech has to replace most of its defense. But if Webb settles in at quarterback, the Red Raiders should be improved in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s second season in Lubbock.

7. TCU Horned Frogs

TCU was the 2013 preseason pick of many people to win the Big 12. Instead, injuries ravaged the roster, and the Horned Frogs failed to go to a bowl game for just second time with Gary Patterson as coach. Patterson shook up his offensive staff after the season, bringing in Houston’s Doug Meacham and Texas Tech’s Sonny Cumbie as co-coordinators to revamp TCU’s offensive attack. TCU should be stout again defensively, especially if 2012 Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Devonte Fields returns to form from a broken foot. But the key to a better season will be whether Meacham and Cumbie can squeeze more offense out of the Horned Frogs and find the answer at quarterback. The answer, however, might not be on campus yet. Trevone Boykin has 15 career QB starts, but is probably a better fit as a receiver. Meanwhile, TCU’s top incoming recruits, Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, are both quarterbacks, and could factor into the wide-open competition.

8. Iowa State Cyclones

Even though Iowa State just finished in the bottom three of the Big 12 in points per game (24.8), yards per game (363), yards per play (4.82), rushing yards (143.8) and passing yards (219.2), the Cyclones return some offensive firepower. Tailback Aaron Wimberly was effective when healthy, and Quenton Bundrage flashed signs of a legit No. 1 receiver. The key will be QB, and whether Grant Rohach builds on his late-season surge. But with a proven offensive coordinator in Mark Mangino now on board, the Cyclones have the pieces to form one of the better offenses in the league next season.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers careened off the road late this season with back-to-back losses to Kansas and Iowa State. Now, the pressure is on coach Dana Holgorsen, who will have to win games to keep his job even though the 2014 schedule is brutal. Like so many other teams in the Big 12, West Virginia must find a solution at quarterback. Holgorsen has options. Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress are all back after getting at least two starts apiece last year. Junior-college transfer Skyler Howard will be enrolling early and joining the fray. Four-star recruit William Crest will be in the mix, too. Even if Holgorsen finds his answer at quarterback, a winning season won’t come easy. The Mountaineers have one of the toughest schedules in the country, beginning with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Alabama in Atlanta.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas showed only modest improvement in Charlie Weis’ second season as head coach. This will be a key season for Weis as he attempts to rebuild the program. He desperately needs Montell Cozart to develop into the answer at quarterback. Cozart still has a ways to go with his passing, but he showed he could hurt defenses with his legs. Defensively, the Jayhawks bring back some solid players, notably linebackers Ben Goodman and Ben Heeney and safety Isaiah Johnson. But Kansas will take the next step only if Cozart -- or somebody else -- emerges at quarterback.

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 14

December, 2, 2013
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There was a shakeup at the bottom of the Power Rankings after the miracle in Morgantown:

1. Oklahoma State (10-1, 7-1 Big 12, last week 1): The Cowboys have a chance to state their case as the Big 12’s top program of the last five seasons. Beating Oklahoma to win a second Big 12 title in three years would convey a very compelling argument.

2. Baylor (10-1, 7-1 Big 12, LW 2): Baylor’s two worst offensive outputs have come in the last two weeks. Is America’s top offense running on fumes? The friendly confines of Floyd Casey Stadium -- for one final game -- should give QB Bryce Petty & Co. the refueling they need.

3. Texas (8-3, 7-1 Big 12, LW 3): For all their issues and injuries, the Longhorns remain in the mix for an outright Big 12 title and automatic BCS bowl berth heading into this final week of the season. Ironically, if Texas somehow upset Baylor, this would actually be one of Mack Brown’s better coaching performances.

4. Oklahoma (9-2, 6-2 Big 12, LW 4): Nobody before the season predicted these Sooners, with a young defense and a new quarterback, would contend for a national championship. A victory at Oklahoma State and another 10-win season would make this a solid season in Norman.

5. Kansas State (7-5, 5-4 Big 12, LW 5): Even after a 2-4 start, Kansas State still managed to finish ahead of where it was picked in the preseason for a third straight season. Going forward, the media should automatically bump K-State up two spots when filling out Big 12 preseason ballots, to account for the “Bill Snyder effect.”

6. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5 Big 12, LW 6): After another November slide, the Red Raiders are likely headed back to the Texas Bowl for the second straight season. Tech has had several memorable moments in Kliff Kingsbury’s first season. The 41-16 loss at Texas was not one of them.

7. TCU (4-8, 2-7 Big 12, LW 8): In their final game, the Horned Frogs finally showed what could have been this season. While the TCU defensive backs locked up Baylor’s receivers, senior QB Casey Pachall looked the sharpest he had in two years, even with the two pick-six interceptions. Take away those two plays and the fumble at the TCU 1-yard line, and the Frogs might have won this game going away. Yes, TCU finished with its worst season since going 1-10 in 1997. But if defensive end Devonte Fields can return to his freshman form, and TCU can figure out the answer at QB, the Frogs could be a force next year.

8. Iowa State (3-9, 2-7 Big 12, LW 9): Coach Paul Rhoads proved those who have wanted him out to be ridiculous. Despite all the tough losses, the Cyclones never quit on their coach, even when down 17 points in the fourth quarter on the road in Morgantown. With a little bit of luck, especially around the goal line, the Cyclones have the pieces to return to a bowl next year.

9. Kansas (3-9, 1-8 Big 12, LW 10): Hey, at least they beat West Virginia.

10. West Virginia (4-8, 2-7 Big 12, LW 7): The Mountaineers capped off another depressing season with an epic fourth-quarter collapse. Good thing no one was there to see it. Well, almost no one. Saturday featured the third-smallest crowd in Milan Puskar Stadium’s 33-year history, and the smallest since 1992.

Injury impact: Big 12

October, 24, 2013
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Injuries have played a major role in the Big 12 through the first half of the season and they’ll continue to impact the conference title race down the stretch. Baylor is the lone squad in the top half of the Big 12 that has escaped the injury bug relatively unscathed.

1. TCU: The Horned Frogs have watched quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Devonte Fields, arguably their top players on each side of the ball, go down. Pachall (forearm) could return soon but Fields (foot) is lost for the season. It’s easy to imagine the Horned Frogs offense, which has looked lost and has averaged just 97.4 yards in the first half in the past five games, as much improved with Pachall under center.

2. Texas: Another team that has lost a major contributor on both sides of the ball, the Longhorns hope to get quarterback David Ash (head) back at some point this season and have lost defensive leader Jordan Hicks (Achilles) for the season. Add in nicks and bruises to playmakers Daje Johnson and Mike Davis and success has been much harder to come by for Texas.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners lost linebacker Corey Nelson (pectoral) and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (back), two of their top defenders, in back-to-back weeks. Nelson's leadership is sorely missed and Phillips' strength in the middle is hard to replace. OU is still scrambling to replace the duo, which is a scary thought with Texas Tech and Baylor set to test the defense.

Big 12 midseason report

October, 14, 2013
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Texas was on its deathbed; now it’s a contender. The Oklahoma schools, once bastions of quarterbacking, suddenly have issues there. West Virginia’s defense is better than its offense. TCU can’t score. Kansas State can’t buy a win. And the teams picked to finish fifth and seventh in the conference are the only ones without a loss.

If the second half of the Big 12 season is anything like the first, who knows what might happen? Good luck guessing which game will ultimately decide the conference race, too.

Before the season, Bedlam looked most likely to be that game. Now, another showdown the very same day could end up overshadowing it.

Bedlam decided the Big 12 in 2011. It decided the Big 12 South in 2010. But will anything more than bragging rights be on the line this time? That will depend on whether either team can solve quarterback problems that plagued both in their losses.

[+] EnlargeKliff Kingsbury
AP Photo/LM OteroKliff Kingsbury's calm, cool demeanor has resonated with his players, as Texas Tech is one of two undefeated teams in the Big 12.
After Trevor Knight was ineffective in two lackluster wins to begin the season, the Sooners turned to Blake Bell. The Belldozer took care of the ball and made plays in the fourth quarter in wins over Notre Dame and TCU. But he did neither in a 36-20 loss to Texas that shook up the league race. According to QBR, Bell’s Texas performance was the worst by a Big 12 quarterback this year, raising questions about whether he’s the answer for the Sooners after all.

Oklahoma State is in a similar raft. J.W. Walsh took the starting job from Clint Chelf two series into the opener against Mississippi State. But the past two games, including a loss at West Virginia, have seen the Cowboys flatline offensively. Oklahoma State, in fact, failed to get a single first down the second half against Kansas State until a late game-winning drive. Like the Sooners, the Cowboys can’t run the ball lately, because they can’t get anyone to take their downfield passing game seriously.

That hasn’t been a problem in Waco, which is one of the reasons why Baylor has ascended to conference favorite status. Every one of Tevin Reese’s six touchdown receptions has gone for more than 40 yards. Five of Antwan Goodley’s six touchdown catches have gone for at least 60. As a result, 32 of Baylor’s 40 touchdown drives have taken less than two minutes.

While Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could still turn things around, Texas and Texas Tech could wind up being the biggest roadblocks to Baylor’s first Big 12 title.

Despite playing two true freshmen quarterbacks, the Red Raiders have spread the ball around as well as anyone in the league, claiming four of the Big 12’s top eight receivers. Tech also leads the conference in third-down defense. Back-to-back road trips to West Virginia and Oklahoma the next two weeks will shed more light on whether the Red Raiders are ready to contend.

A week ago, virtually everyone had written the Longhorns off as possible Big 12 contenders. Then they pulled off the biggest Red River upset in 17 years to move to 3-0 in the league standings. Texas’ rushing attack looked formidable, and quarterback Case McCoy looked poised. If that continues, who knows? Maybe Texas will be playing for the conference title at Baylor in the season finale.

The season’s first half is done. Much is yet to be decided.

But as we gear up for the second half, below is a breakdown of the Big 12 at midseason:

Offensive MVP: Baylor junior quarterback Bryce Petty has picked up where Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence left off, posting an Adjusted QBR of 95.1. That’s second only to Heisman frontrunner Marcus Mariota of Oregon. Thanks in large part to Petty’s precision passing, the Bears led the nation with a scoring average of 63.4 points per game.

Defensive MVP: The Horned Frogs haven’t had the kind of the season they’d hoped for so far. But that’s to no fault of cornerback Jason Verrett, who has been lights out. Even with opposing quarterbacks leery about throwing his direction, Verrett leads the Big 12 in passes defended. And even with a tender shoulder, he has continued to be one of the surest tackling cornerbacks in the league.

Biggest Surprise: The Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12. But seven weeks into the season, they join Baylor as the league’s only teams still without a loss. Amazingly, Texas Tech has gotten to 6-0 rotating true freshman quarterbacks Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, who, despite some rocky moments, have been solid.

Biggest Disappointment: In ESPN.com’s preseason player poll, the league’s players tabbed TCU as the team to beat. The Horned Frogs, however, have already been defeated three times. TCU has faced a difficult schedule, and the injuries to quarterback Casey Pachall and defensive end Devonte Fields have really hurt. But at the season’s midway point, the Frogs are already just one loss away from falling completely out of the conference title hunt.

Newcomers Of The Year: West Virginia running back Charles Sims was the Big 12’s preseason pick for newcomer of the year, and for good reason. But the impact of Texas Tech true freshmen quarterbacks Mayfield and Webb has been greater. Mayfield is 5-0 as a starter. Webb, who quarterbacked Tech to a win over Iowa State over the weekend, also threw the game-winning touchdown pass to beat TCU.

Coach Of The Year: In his first year as its coach, former Texas Tech quarterback Kliff Kingsbury has resurrected his alma mater. The Red Raiders have already taken on the personality of their cool, confident coach, who has Tech at 6-0 for the first time since 2008.

Best Game: Most of the intriguing matchups in the Big 12 will come later in the season. But so far, the most entertaining game in the league has been Texas’ 31-30 victory at Iowa State. Yes, the game had some questionable officiating. And some questionable low blocking. But it was also wonderfully compelling, from Texas coach Mack Brown staving off disaster to Paul Rhoads rallying his team during a fiery postgame news conference.

Big 12 Week 7 primer

October, 12, 2013
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Texas will attempt to salvage its season against Oklahoma, Baylor's offense will try to keep it rolling in Manhattan, TCU will look to bounce back from a rough early season start, and Texas Tech will shoot to stay undefeated against what figures to be an angry opponent.

Those, among others, will be the storylines to watch in Week 7 of the Big 12:

Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas), 11 a.m. CT (ABC): There’s little reason to believe Texas will end its three-game losing streak in the Red River Rivalry. But one thing to keep in mind -- the two biggest underdogs in the last 25 years of this game (’89 Texas, ’96 Oklahoma) pulled off upsets. To have any chance, the Longhorns must try to establish Johnathan Gray and the ground game against an Oklahoma front that will be without linebacker Corey Nelson and possibly defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. If Texas can’t run and has to rely on the arm of QB Case McCoy, this could end up being a third-straight Red River rout favoring the Sooners.

Iowa State at Texas Tech, 11 a.m. CT (FS1): Coach Kliff Kingsbury said during his radio show Thursday night that quarterback Baker Mayfield would be a game-time decision after injuring his knee last week. Regardless of who the Tech quarterback is, the real key in this one will be whether a Red Raiders defense that’s been stellar so far can stifle an Iowa State offense that’s shown rapid improvement over its last two games. While Baylor and Oklahoma have captured the majority of the league's headlines, Tech has quietly emerged into a darkhorse Big 12 title contender. A convincing win against the Cyclones would send a message to the Bears and Sooners that this won’t just be a two-team race for the conference crown.

Kansas at TCU, 11 a.m. CT (FSN): No team in the Big 12 has had as much misfortune as the Horned Frogs. First, TCU lost quarterback Casey Pachall to a broken forearm, Then this week, coach Gary Patterson revealed that star defensive end Devonte Fields would have season-ending surgery on his foot. This is still a good team with a great defense. And this could be the game that gets the Frogs back on track going into the second half of the season.

Baylor at Kansas State, 2:30 p.m. CT (FOX): The Bears take their offensive show on the road for the first time against K-State, which is in desperate need of a victory after starting the Big 12 season 0-2. To have any prayer, the Wildcats will have to find a way to get Baylor QB Bryce Petty uncomfortable in his first career start away from Waco. That will be a tall task. The Bears have allowed just five sacks in 122 pass attempts. K-State is not equipped to win shootouts. So if Baylor keeps Petty upright, this could wind up being a long afternoon for the home team -- and a busy one for the home team’s scoreboard operator.

Big 12 lunchtime links

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
12:00
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Think twice before holding up a train folks, think twice.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
10:15
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The Red River Rivalry is always must-watch television, and Baylor will play its first game outside of Waco, Texas, when it visits Manhattan, Kan., on Saturday. It's another intriguing week in the Big 12.

Here’s what to watch in the Big 12 for Week 7.

[+] EnlargeJohnathan Gray
Jim Cowsert/USA TODAY SportsDo Johnathan Gray and the Longhorns have the ability to hang with and upset the Sooners?
Does Texas stand a chance in the Red River Rivalry? Yes. The Longhorns have the chance to win anytime they step on the field thanks to a talent-laden roster. But their odds of beating Oklahoma on Saturday aren’t high. UT simply cannot seem to find an identity on either side of the ball, injuries are crippling the roster and distractions surround the 40 Acres. In a rivalry game like the RRR, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a hard-fought, close battle, but UT will have to completely turn things around to make that happen in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday.

How will Bryce Petty fair in its first road test? Petty has never stepped on the field as Baylor's starting quarterback on any turf outside of Floyd Casey Stadium. The BU quarterback has been exceptional, but nobody knows how he will respond in an uncomfortable conference road environment at Kansas State. Odds are it won’t matter since Petty has been the best and most efficient quarterback in the league thus far, but there’s no way to know how the junior will handle his first road start.

Can Texas Tech continue its undefeated start? Even with quarterback Baker Mayfield hobbled, there’s no reason to think it won’t. The Red Raiders’ defense is holding teams to 4.5 yards per play, second in the Big 12 and 16th nationally, helping to offset the unrest at the quarterback position. No matter who is under center for Tech against Iowa State, it might not matter because its defense has played at an extremely high level through the first five games.

Iowa State looks to rebound after the disappointing loss to UT. The Cyclones have been insistent that they are moving forward after feeling robbed during their 31-30 loss to Texas. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe a loss like that will not have ill effects in Lubbock, Texas, on Saturday. How will they respond if a call goes the opposite way? Could an early deficit take away the Cyclones’ resolve?

Will Oklahoma’s offense get back on track with Blake Bell under center? The Sooners' passing game struggled against TCU, passing for 152 yards against the Horned Frogs. Bell couldn’t seem to get on track after two stellar performances against Tulsa and Notre Dame. OU needs the junior quarterback to respond to his worst performance of the season with a strong outing against the Longhorns.

Will the Longhorns start to lean in their playmakers more? For some reason the Longhorns aren’t leaning on running back Johnathan Gray and receiver Daje Johnson to make game-changing plays for their offense. Gray’s exceptional feet and vision along with Johnson’s acceleration and speed could change games for UT. If the Longhorns make it a point to put the ball in those guys' hands against OU, it will make the Red River Rivalry much more interesting.

Daniel Sams in the Wildcats’ backfield. The Kansas State quarterback showed he has the potential to be one of the Big 12’s top playmakers in his squad’s 33-29 loss to Oklahoma State last Saturday. Sams could be the Big 12’s most dynamic running quarterback, and the Wildcats are starting to lean on him to spark their offense. If they continue to do so against Baylor, their chances of keeping up with the Bears increase.

The impact of Devonte Fields' season-ending surgery. It’s probably the best move for Fields, who was struggling through his sophomore season. Yet it’s bad news for the Horned Frogs, as the hope of him returning at some point this season to be a healthy, productive terror on the edge is now gone. And that makes TCU’s goal of getting its season back on track just that much harder.

How will Kansas handle the loss of Tony Pierson? Just as he was starting to take his game to another level the Jayhawks’ multipurpose threat suffered a head injury against Texas Tech and is listed as day-to-day. KU will turn to Brandon Bourbon to shoulder a portion of the load with Pierson out, but the Jayhawks need someone to step up on offense if they hope to have any success against a stout TCU defense.

Who will step up and become a legend on the Cotton Bowl field? OU fullback Trey Millard had the play of the day with his highlight-reel catch and run against Texas in 2012. Memories are made on the Cotton Bowl turf, and great plays become legendary in rivalries such as these. Expect someone to step up and announce themselves to the world. Can't wait to see who it will be.

Game preview: TCU at Oklahoma

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
9:00
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NORMAN, Okla. -- Oklahoma turns its attention to conference play after recording the most impressive non-conference win by a Big 12 team against Notre Dame last weekend. TCU visits Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with an eye on putting itself back into the Big 12 title race.

Here are some storylines, players to watch and a prediction:

Storylines

[+] EnlargeBlake Bell
AP Photo/Darron CummingsAn injury limited what OU QB-turned-TE Blake Bell could do at his new position this spring.
Avoiding a letdown. The Sooners have to stay focused on the Horned Frogs, who have a quality defense and enough talent to make OU pay if they are overlooked. TCU knows what it is like to win in Norman and could have more urgency than the Sooners with the understanding that another Big 12 loss could eliminate their hopes of competing for a conference title.

Another test for Blake Bell. The junior quarterback has been simply outstanding in his first two games as the Sooners’ starter. Bell was 49 of 67 for 645 yards, six touchdowns and zero interceptions while leading OU to wins over Tulsa and Notre Dame. TCU brings one of the best secondaries the Sooners will face this season to Norman on Saturday. It will test Bell’s accuracy and the ability of the receivers to get open.

Boykin will test the Sooners. TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin is the most dynamic running quarterback the Sooners have faced this season. He can make the OU defense pay with his arm and legs, but if the Sooners' defensive front can create pressure, it could force Boykin into a game-changing mistake or two.

Players to watch

Linebacker Corey Nelson: The veteran has taken his game to another level as a senior, with 21 tackles, second on the squad. OU will need him to continue to show his versatility with Boykin taking snaps, as those two are likely to meet up in the open field more than once. Nelson needs to win those individual battles and have success bringing down Boykin when he blitzes.

Receiver Lacoltan Bester. TCU has talented cornerbacks in Jason Verrett and Kevin White, who could match up with receivers Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard. If that’s the defensive plan for the Horned Frogs, Bester will have to take advantage of the opportunities he has to make plays as OU's third receiving option.

OU offensive line. The Sooners have done a great job protecting Bell in the past two games, allowing just one sack. But TCU presents another challenge as the Horned Frogs enter the game leading the Big 12 with 15 sacks, and elite defensive end Devonte Fields could see action Saturday after missing last weekend's win over SMU.

Reason for concern: TCU is going to try to force Bell and the Sooners to make mistakes. The Horned Frogs have forced 12 turnovers this season, No. 1 in the Big 12, so Bell will have to continue to do a terrific job protecting the football.

Prediction: OU 34, TCU 24. The Horned Frogs play well and challenge the Sooners deep into the fourth quarter, but a couple of key plays from Bell and key stops by the OU defense helps the Sooners pull away in the final 15 minutes. Saunders proves he is one of the Big 12's top receivers with two touchdowns against the Horned Frogs’ stellar secondary.

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 5

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
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This week's Power Rankings feature a new No. 1, as last week's No. 1 takes a tumble:

1. Oklahoma (4-0, 1-0 Big 12, last week 3): The Sooners take over the top spot after delivering the most impressive Big 12 win of the season. Notre Dame is not the same team as last season, but the Irish hadn't lost in South Bend since October of 2011. OU has been a different team since Blake Bell took over at quarterback, and Bell was fabulous Saturday, throwing for two touchdowns without a turnover while churning out first downs with his arm and his legs. The OU defense is clearly better, too, picking off QB Tommy Rees on Notre Dame's first two possessions, with linebacker Corey Nelson returning one for a touchdown. The Sooners were clearly a team overlooked in the preseason, and, after five weeks, are looking like a clear Big 12 favorite along with Baylor.

2. Baylor (3-0, 0-0 Big 12, last week 2): After the off week, the Bears' offense will get its first real challenge this weekend from West Virginia's defense that appears to be the most improved unit in the league. Baylor has been unstoppable so far, but the level of competition is about to undergo an uptick. Can the Bears keep it up? They've shown no signs they can't.

3. Texas Tech (4-0, 1-0 Big 12, last week 4): Despite having the week off, the Red Raiders move up a spot with Oklahoma State's loss. The big question in Lubbock is who will be starting at quarterback for Tech come Saturday against Kansas. Baker Mayfield? Davis Webb? Michael Brewer, who has been progressing well from the back injury? The Red Raiders have been solid defensively, and the skill talent is legit. If Tech can get better play from its quarterback, this team could be a handful -- even for OU and Baylor.

4. West Virginia (3-2, 1-1 Big 12, last week 8): What a difference a week makes. The Mountaineers produced the most impressive in-conference win of the season with a 30-21 victory over preseason favorite Oklahoma State. West Virginia's defense continues to play at a high level (Maryland's 37 points were somewhat of an anomaly because of West Virginia turnovers) and Clint Trickett sparked the offense with his energy and leadership. West Virginia's offense is still pretty limited, but at least it no longer looks completely inept with Trickett at quarterback. The Mountaineers can't score with Baylor this weekend, but maybe they can slow the Bears down? Nobody thought West Virginia could slow Oklahoma or Oklahoma State, either, though Baylor's offense is at another level. We'll see.

5. Texas (2-2, 1-0 Big 12, last week 5): The Longhorns have a couple of interesting games looming. Thursday, Texas travels to Iowa State, which looked much better offensively in a 38-21 win at Tulsa this past Thursday. Then, Texas gets surging Oklahoma in Dallas. This figures to be the defining two-game stretch of the season for the Longhorns. Win the next two, and the season -- as well as Mack Brown's status in Austin -- looks totally different than it did two weeks ago. The off week could not have come at a better time for the Longhorns, giving acting defensive coordinator Greg Robinson another week to acclimate to his defense and quarterback David Ash another week to recover from the head injury that knocked him out of the Ole Miss and Kansas State games.

6. TCU (2-2, 0-1 Big 12, last week 6): Did TCU's offense finally uncover an identity during a rainy fourth quarter against SMU? The Horned Frogs poured on 31 points in the final quarter and did it with some new faces, as Ty Slanina, Ja'Juan Story and Cameron Echols-Luper all factored into the scoring onslaught in the first real action of their TCU careers. The Horned Frogs can really turn their season around with a win in Norman this weekend. That won't be easy, though, if All-American cornerback Jason Verrett (shoulder) and defensive end Devonte Fields (foot) can't play.

7. Oklahoma State (3-1, 0-1 Big 12, last week 1): The Cowboys plummet six spots after an uninspiring performance in Morgantown. It was just one loss, but it was a loss that exposed weaknesses across the board. For the first time in seemingly forever, Oklahoma State's kicking game is awful. The Cowboys' secondary gave up 320 yards to a West Virginia passing attack that previously had been completely futile. And on the other side of the ball, when the Mountaineers dared QB J.W. Walsh to beat them deep, he couldn't do it. That allowed West Virginia to stuff the Cowboys' running game, which also doesn't appear to have that bell-cow running back Oklahoma State has been accustomed to featuring. The Cowboys are better than they looked at West Virginia -- but how much better?

8. Kansas State (2-2, 0-1 Big 12, last week 7): Bill Snyder maintains the Wildcats will stick with the two-quarterback system, which has yielded mixed results. K-State has moved the ball better when Daniel Sams has been in at quarterback. But when he's in, the Wildcats are virtually no threat to pass. Sams has 29 rushes and only four passing attempts. Is Sams really that poor of a passer? Maybe it's time for K-State to find out.

9. Iowa State (1-2, 0-0 Big 12, last week 10): It's hard to believe a center could make that much of a difference. But the return of Tom Farniok sure seemed to do wonders for Iowa State's offense, which finally got going in a 38-21 win at Tulsa. The Cyclones also finally involved running back Aaron Wimberly, who ignited the running game with Iowa State's first 100-yard performance in more than a year. With former blue-chip junior-college transfer E.J. Bibbs emerging now at tight end, QB Sam Richardson no longer appears to be on his own. Jack Trice will be rocking Thursday night for the Longhorns, as Iowa State has a chance to land a signature win to build off of for the rest of the season.

10. Kansas (2-1, 0-0 Big 12, last week 9): The Jayhawks have a winning record but have been mostly unimpressive. Can they turn around the offense against Texas Tech? That will hinge almost entirely on quarterback Jake Heaps, who has talent but has been unable to find any rhythm so far with a collection of unproven wideouts. If the Jayhawks can be competitive this weekend, it will be a good sign they are moving in the right direction. If they get blasted, it could be a long season, especially with Iowa State and West Virginia seemingly having found their stride.

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 3

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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Only because Iowa State and Kansas also lost is Texas not last in this week’s Big 12 Power Rankings:

1. Oklahoma State (3-0, 0-0 Big 12, last week 1): While they’ve been in the news plenty lately for other reasons, the Cowboys on the field have quietly lived up to the role of favorite rather well. And with the Nov. 16 trip to Austin no longer looking all that daunting, Oklahoma State should be favored in every game the rest of the way.

2. Baylor (2-0, 0-0 Big 12, last week 2): The Bears are one of only three Big 12 teams that haven’t been forced to play a backup quarterback due to injury, ineffectiveness or the need for a spark. That kind of stability with Bryce Petty is one major reason why Baylor has the look of a viable conference title contender.

3. Oklahoma (3-0, 1-0 Big 12, last week 3): Before the weekend, the Sooners had been brilliant in every facet of the game, except for quarterback. Against Tulsa, they were brilliant there, too. Blake Bell gave the passing attack a huge lift, delivering college football’s sixth-highest raw QBR of the week. So far, the OU running game has been dynamic, and the defense has been solid. If the Sooners can also get that level of production from their quarterback, they'll be dangerous.

4. Texas Tech (3-0, 1-0 Big 12, last week 5): Sometimes winning ugly is what’s required. Aesthetics aside, Texas Tech’s victory TCU was huge for the Kliff Kingsbury era. Some of it was TCU’s anemic offense, but Kingsbury had to feel buoyed by the way his defense completely shut down the Horned Frogs. If the Red Raiders keep playing defense, they could emerge into a surprise title contender. Their next four games are very winnable.

5. TCU (1-2, 0-1 Big 12, last week 4): Coach Gary Patterson probably could not have envisioned a worse start to TCU’s season. The Horned Frogs already have two losses, and star defensive end Devonte Fields made little impact in Lubbock after sitting out most of the first two games with a suspension. Now, Fields has an injured foot. Given how lost the Frogs look offensively, they’re probably going to have to win games with defense, at least for now. That won’t be easy with Fields either hobbled, ineffective or both.

6. West Virginia (2-1, 0-1 Big 12, last week 6): After auditioning Paul Millard and bypassing on Clint Trickett, the Mountaineers might finally have uncovered their quarterback in Ford Childress, who had a strong debut showing against Georgia State. These next two weeks will be huge for Childress and the Mountaineers. How they perform against Maryland in Baltimore and conference favorite Oklahoma State in Morgantown will set the tone for the rest of the season, one way or the other.

7. Kansas State (2-1, 0-0 Big 12, last week 8): After the stunning loss to North Dakota State, the Wildcats have bounced back nicely, and there’s reason to believe they can keep it going in Austin. The zone-read has been devastating to Texas, and K-State change-of-pace QB Daniel Sams might be the best running QB in the league.

8. Texas (1-2, 0-0 Big 12, last week 7): After beating the Longhorns by three touchdowns, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said Texas’ defensive scheme was basically the same as last week. The Longhorns played about the same, too, giving up another 272 yards on the ground. That’s 822 rushing yards the Horns have allowed over the past two games. It's not even October, and Texas is already a total disaster. Coach Mack Brown is running out of scapegoats to fire, too.

9. Kansas (1-1, 0-0 Big 12, last week 9): The Jayhawks actually played well defensively in a nine-point loss at Rice. The offense, however, did not; notably, quarterback Jake Heaps, who had a raw QBR of 10.2, the fourth-lowest rating of any FBS quarterback for the week. The Kansas offense has to be -- and should be -- better than this for the Jayhawks to win more than two games.

10. Iowa State (0-2, 0-0 Big 12, last week 10): After two losses to open the year, it’s difficult to see how Iowa State gets to a bowl game. Other than receiver Quenton Bundrage, quarterback Sam Richardson has had virtually no help offensively, and the defense is a notch below what it's been. If Iowa State can’t uncover a running game to take pressure off Richardson, this could end up becoming a long, long year in Ames.
Texas Tech won Thursday over TCU.

But Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma came out of the night looking like winners, too.

On a wild night in Lubbock, in which a fox dashing along the sideline hardly seemed abnormal, the Red Raiders held on to a 20-10 victory to move to 3-0 on the season.

TCU fell to 1-2, and, despite missing out on several controversial calls throughout the game, hardly looked the part of a conference title contender it carried into the season.

Davis Webb
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsBackup QB David Webb made some big plays in Texas Tech's win over TCU, and helped put the Red Raiders in the conference crown conversation.
So far, the same goes for Texas, too. And considering the Horns are struggling just to dodge total calamity, the Bears, Cowboys and Sooners look like the three most solid teams in the league to this point.

It's true that Baylor has yet to play anyone of substance. And yes, Oklahoma State has all sorts of ongoing distractions to overcome. And who knows about Oklahoma's quarterback situation, which seems no less settled now than it did six months ago.

Yet even still, all three teams have looked more impressive than anyone else, and that includes the Horned Frogs, who have major offensive concerns moving forward without quarterback Casey Pachall. Trevone Boykin had just a 28.6 QBR (scale 0-to-100) in Lubbock as the Frogs struggled to string together drives all night. TCU could wind up with defensive concerns as well, as defensive end Devonte Fields was spotted hobbling around after the game with an injured foot.

On top of all that, TCU is just halfway through its early season gauntlet, with road trips looming at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Lose both of those, and TCU would effectively be stripped from the conference race.

But while the Frogs seem to look less and less like a title possibility, Texas Tech has done the reverse. Sure, the Red Raiders had their share of issues Thursday. But they also have momentum building, and the opportunity to build even more.

After a hot first quarter, walk-on freshman quarterback Baker Mayfield struggled to complete passes against a stingy and aggressive TCU secondary. But the Red Raiders also played one of their best defensive games in years, prompting coach Kliff Kingsbury to call it the best defensive effort he’d ever been a part of as a coach.

Chances are, Mayfield will bounce back from a freshman-like effort, and if he doesn’t, the Red Raiders have other options at quarterback in Michael Brewer and Davis Webb, who made some nice throws after Mayfield left the game with a minor leg injury.

Even though Tech failed to put up the points Thursday, the skill talent is there. Tight end Jace Amaro is a nightmare matchup out of the slot, and Eric Ward, despite a quiet performance against TCU, is one of the better receivers in the league.

Combine all that with a defense that looks to be decent at the least, and the Red Raiders seemed primed to make a run into the top half of the Big 12 standings.

It’s not yet time to put Tech in the same tier with Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. But with an intriguing immediate schedule coming up, the Red Raiders could gradually work their way there. Up next, Tech faces Texas State, followed by Kansas on the road, Iowa State and West Virginia in Morgantown.

Could the Red Raiders jump to 7-0 against that slate? Absolutely. Which would then make them the viable conference title threat TCU was thought to be before the season.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 3

September, 12, 2013
9/12/13
10:15
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Several intriguing games in the Big 12 this week. Will Texas put out the fire? How will Iowa State respond? Is Texas Tech for real? Should Blake Bell take over the reins at Oklahoma? Can’t wait to get those answers.

Here’s what to watch in the Big 12 for Week 3:

1. Can Texas rebound? Texas has brought in Greg Robinson to turn things around for the Longhorns’ defense. The veteran coach has experience but he’s been thrown into the fire and asked to make a miracle happen against Ole Miss in less than a week. The odds aren’t on his side, but if Robinson completely turns around the UT defense, the entire Big 12 landscape will have changed in a matter of days.

[+] EnlargeBaker Mayfield
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesFreshman QB Baker Mayfield has been nearly flawless his first two games, but he hasn't seen defensive playmakers like TCU will have on Saturday.
2. First real test for Texas Tech. The Red Raiders haven’t seen anything like TCU’s defense thus far this season. Tech quarterback Baker Mayfield has been outstanding, having thrown for 780 yards and seven touchdowns (he's also rushed for a TD) while leading the Red Raiders to a 2-0 start. But he hasn’t seen playmakers like TCU’s Devonte Fields, Jason Verrett and Kevin White. How Mayfield handles his first Big 12 game could define if the Red Raiders’ hope of becoming the Big 12’s surprise team can come true.

3. Character test for the Cyclones. Iowa State can redeem itself with a win over Iowa on Saturday. The Cyclones’ disappointing 28-20 loss to Northern Iowa was one of the most surprising results of the season’s first weekend, particularly since their defense couldn’t stop UNI on the ground or through the air. Nothing can get things back on track like a rivalry game and ISU is looking to make sure its horrible Week 1 performance doesn’t snowball into a horrible multi-game stretch to start the season.

4. Blake Bell’s opportunity. The Sooners quarterback gets the chance to prove he should have been OU’s starter when his squad hosts Tulsa on Saturday. Bell, the preseason favorite to replace Landry Jones, lost the quarterback battle to Trevor Knight. But Knight’s knee injury has opened the door; will Bell walk through it?

5. How will Oklahoma State handle a week of distractions? The Cowboys have been in the news throughout the week due to allegations of misconduct throughout the program in a series of stories by Sports Illustrated. OSU’s home opener against Lamar will be the first time to see the football program in action since the series was published and Boone Pickens Stadium promises to be a lively atmosphere. Nonetheless, it should be pretty easy to tell if the Cowboys are distracted. And if they are, it might be a sign that the distractions could affect them for the remainder of the season as the ripple effect continues.

6. Will West Virginia’s quarterback situation ever become clear? Dana Holgorsen plans to continue his search for a solid No. 1 quarterback until Paul Millard, Clint Trickett or Ford Childress separates himself from the pack. Holgorsen is extremely disappointed in the play of his offense and has shouldered the blame, saying, “It’s embarrassing, we have to put our guys in better position to make plays.” But one of those guys needs to seize the opportunity to trigger Holgorsen’s offense starting against Georgia State on Saturday.

7. Can Trevone Boykin take TCU’s offense to a different level? Boykin will be asked to shoulder the load for the Horned Frogs with Casey Pachall out. He’s much better prepared to be the main man in the offensive backfield this season and his dynamic running will test any defense. Much like Bell, Boykin has the chance to prove he should have been the guy in the first place.

8. Kansas looks to keep momentum. The Jayhawks opened the season with a win over South Dakota and will get the chance to start off 2-0 when they visit Rice. KU coach Charlie Weis is trying to build a quality program and a win over the Owls would be step in the right direction after several close calls in 2012.

9. Will Kansas State’s defense return to its 2012 form? The Wildcats replaced several starters, including linebacker Arthur Brown, but the cupboard is not bare. Yet the Wildcats have allowed 24 points to North Dakota State and 27 points to Louisiana-Lafayette in back-to-back weeks. Last year’s defense allowed 19.5 points per game in nonconference play. KSU needs a strong defensive performance against Massachusetts on Saturday to get its confidence going on that side of the ball with a road trip to Texas looming next weekend.

10. Are any Big 12 teams ripe for an upset? OSU has had a week full of distractions, Kansas State is still a work in progress, WVU’s offense has been substandard and OU can’t seem to create any offensive balance. All four teams host opponents they should beat with relative ease but it wouldn’t be a shock to see any of those squads struggle because, quite simply, no Big 12 team has looked like dominant squad during the first two weeks of the season.

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