Oklahoma Sooners: Trevor Knight

Oklahoma needs an impressive performance.

The Sooners have looked subpar in their past two games, a loss to TCU and a win over Texas. But a Big 12 title could still come into play if things fall right for the Sooners during the rest of the conference schedule. Here are five stats to keep on an eye on when No. 11 Oklahoma hosts No. 14 Kansas State on Saturday.

OU's yards per carry: The Sooners' offensive success is directly related to success on the ground. As OU’s yards per carry go up, so do the Sooners’ total points. Against Tulsa, OU averaged a season-best 8.42 yards per carry and scored 52 points. Against Texas, OU averaged a season-low 3.43 yards per carry and scored a season-low 31 points. When OU runs the ball at will it sets up everything else on the offense.

Number of receptions by OU’s other receivers: No. 1 receiver Sterling Shepard has been a star with 34 receptions for 714 yards and four touchdowns. Other receivers have been productive including Durron Neal (23 receptions) and K.J. Young (13 receptions) but no receiver has brought explosive playmaking or another consistent threat to the offense. If another receiver can have a 100-yard receiving game it would be a great sign for OU against the Wildcats and beyond.

Quarterback Trevor Knight's turnovers: The Sooners quarterback is averaging one turnover per game with five interceptions and one fumble lost in six games. If he takes care of the ball, OU will like its chances to win. With a strong defense and solid running game, OU doesn’t need its sophomore quarterback to win the game, they just need him to make sure he doesn’t lose it.

Kansas State’s third-down conversion rate: The Wildcats lead the Big 12, converting 50.8 percent of their third-down attempts. OU’s defense is allowing opponents to convert 40.2 percent of their third-down attempts, ranking eighth in the Big 12. The Sooners will have to do a great job of stopping KSU’s creative third-down plays if they hope to win this battle of top-25 teams. The key could be success on first and second down, forcing plenty of third-and-long situations for the Wildcats.

KSU receiver Tyler Lockett's all-purpose yards: The senior receiver single-handedly kept KSU in the game against the Sooners a year ago with 440 all-purpose yards including 278 receiving yards. He averaged 25.9 yards per touch in a 41-31 Sooners’ win. OU will look to force the Wildcats to turn to another playmaker on offense and special teams while KSU will turn to Lockett when it needs a big play. A big game from Lockett would make securing a win much harder for the Sooners.
Oklahoma's College Football Playoff hopes took a major hit Saturday as TCU handed the Sooners a 37-33 loss in Fort Worth, Texas.

TCU's Trevone Boykin was the best quarterback on the field and OU ran into problems running the football as avenue after avenue seemed filled by a Horned Frog. Here's a look at five stats that defined the upset loss for the Sooners, with the help of ESPN Stats & Information:

OU's 2.12 yards per carry on first down: TCU simply refused to let the Sooners run the football on first down. Gary Patterson's team was focused on stopping the run throughout the game but winning on first-down rushes was key as OU had 17 first-down carries for 36 yards and one touchdown. Samaje Perine -- the true freshman running back who many had anointed as OU's next great running back after a stellar game against West Virginia -- was held to 14 first-down carries for 46 yards (3.29 ypc).

Trevor Knight's 16.7 completion percentage on third down: To say Knight struggled on third down is to put it mildly. The sophomore was 1-of-6 for 12 yards on third-down plays including the game-changing interception by TCU linebacker Paul Dawson. He finished with a raw QBR of 5 on third down. The Sooners converted 7 of 18 third-down attempts into a new set of downs.

TCU's 87.5 third down conversion percentage in the first quarter: It was critical for the Horned Frogs to start well against OU's defense and they did, converting six of seven third-down attempts during the first 15 minutes. Boykin was 4 of 5 for 47 yards on third down as he got off to a terrific start on the way to the upset victory.

OU's 3.04 yards per play in the fourth quarter: With 14:12 left in the game, the Sooners trailed 37-33. OU's offense scored four touchdowns in the game but when the Sooners needed it the most, the offense didn't get it done. Knight and company managed just 3.04 yards per play in the final quarter, running 28 plays for 85 yards. The Sooners averaged 13.7 yards on six fourth-quarter drives.

Sterling Shepard's seven receptions: The junior had a career-high performance with 215 receiving yards on his seven catches. It's an interesting number because the rest of the team combined for seven receptions for 94 yards. Shepard is a star but as teams take him away in the future, OU will need someone to step up or Knight could be in for more days like Saturday.

Early-season pros and cons for OU

September, 15, 2014
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Quarterback Trevor Knight has command of the offense like never before, Oklahoma’s defense could be even better than expected and the Sooners have a terrific trio of running backs.

Nonconference play is over and we’ve learned a lot about the Sooners, good and bad. Here are three positives and three negatives for the Sooners as OU turns to Big 12 play against West Virginia with its visit to Morgantown, West Virginia, on Saturday.

Positives

Trevor Knight has continued to improve: Through three games, Knight has already surpassed his 2013 passing yardage total. The sophomore’s 860 yards has surpassed his 819 passing yards in eight games a year ago. His 286.7 passing yards per game average is a clear sign of his improvement during his second season in crimson and cream. More importantly, his pass yardage total has increased every week during the 2014 season and he’s been much more consistent after an up-and-down debut season.

The Sooners' defensive changes have made the unit even better: Linebacker Eric Striker spent the spring working at nickelback, defensive end Geneo Grissom moved to linebacker and Julian Wilson moved from nickelback to cornerback. All three moves have paid off for OU’s defense and helped the Sooners get their best 11 defenders on the field more often. Striker can make plays all over the field yet remains a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks and offensive tackles. Grissom looks comfortable in coverage yet still rushes like a defensive end and Wilson brings terrific size to the perimeter while solidifying the void created by the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin.

The running game will be able to carry the load again: Even with the progress of Knight, OU’s offense remains built upon its offensive line and running backs. The Sooners' offensive front has consistently won in the trenches while OU is able to deploy fresh legs at defenses, with Keith Ford, Alex Ross and Samaje Perine each averaging at least 5.5 yards per carry. Much like a year ago, the Sooners may not end up with a 1,000-yard rusher but could easily average 200 rushing yards per game in 2014.

Negatives

Third-down offense: If OU expects to win a national championship, its third-down offense must get better. The Sooners have converted 38.5 percent on their third-down conversion attempts, sixth in the Big 12 and tied for 83rd among FBS teams. It’s a clear sign Knight still has room to grow as the sophomore is 13-of-26 on third down. As OU enters Big 12 play, there will be times when a critical third-down conversion is needed so this is high on the priority list.

Another big-play receiver: Sterling Shepard has been everything expected as OU’s No. 1 receiver. The junior is averaging 5.7 receptions for 111.7 yards per game as the main man in OU’s passing game. But a consistent No. 2 target has yet to emerge. Durron Neal has been solid with 15 receptions for 183 yards and could end up being a terrific complement to Shepard. And converted quarterback Blake Bell should become a bigger part of the offense as the season progresses. Yet what will the Sooners do, and who will Knight turn to, when defenses take Shepard away during Big 12 play?

Punt returns: The Sooners rank dead last in punt returns at 4.1 yards per return. After seeing Justin Brown and Jalen Saunders change games with their punt return skills during the past two seasons, OU is counting on Shepard to impact games on punt returns. He has five returns for 35 yards (7 yards per return) through three games. Shepard was a stellar punt returner in high school and has proven his big-play ability with his run-after-catch skills on offense, so it could simply be a matter of time before he makes an bigger impact on punt returns.
It’s football time in Oklahoma.

The Sooners open the season against Louisiana Tech on Saturday with an eye on cementing a spot in the College Football Playoff derby in 2014. Here are five key stats to keep an eye on.

Sooners yards per carry average: It is important for the Sooners to replace last year’s trio of seniors — Brennan Clay, Roy Finch, Damien Williams — with another solid running game. Oklahoma averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2013 and leaned on its running game to carry a Sooners’ offense that averaged 199.1 passing yards per contest. Keith Ford and Alex Ross will get the first chance to prove they can handle the bulk of the carries, but they could be looking over their shoulders at true freshman Samaje Perine. Between the three of them, Oklahoma should hope to, at the very least, match last year’s yards-per-carry average against Louisiana Tech.

Trevor Knight’s completion percentage: Knight’s 59-percent completion rate from 2013 isn’t going to get it done if the Sooners expect to earn a College Football Playoff berth. The good news for Sooners fans is Knight had a 67.1 completion percentage in the final five games of the 2013 season. So if he can mimic his strong play at the end of the season, Oklahoma could be in business. It starts against Louisiana Tech, so the Sooners should hope Knight can complete 65 percent of his throws on Saturday.

Sooners’ second leading receiver: Nobody’s worried about Knight finding a No. 1 target. Sterling Shepard should fill that role with ease. But Oklahoma needs at least one more consistent target to emerge in the offense alongside Shepard. It feels like now or never for junior Durron Neal, who stepped on campus with as much acclaim as Shepard. Redshirt freshman K.J. Young joins Shepard and Neal in the starting lineup and could become a key playmaker if he fulfills the promise he’s shown during his 12 months on campus. Tight end Blake Bell could also emerge as a legitimate No. 2 option. It doesn’t really matter who it is, but someone needs to show signs they will be a trustworthy target for Knight against Louisiana Tech by hauling in at least five receptions.

Tackles for loss: The Sooners defense was good in 2013, but it could be dominant in 2014 if it can make more tackles for loss. Oklahoma finished seventh in the Big 12 with 73 tackles for loss, an average of 5.6 per game. If the Sooners can record at least seven tackles for loss against Louisiana Tech, it would be a sign that the defense can create more chaos in opponents' backfields this season, which could be the perfect recipe for a College Football Playoff berth.

Third-down conversion rate: Oklahoma must get better on third down if they plan to compete for a national championship. The Sooners converted just 39.5 percent of their third-down attempts a year ago, ranking 69th among FBS teams. It’s no coincidence the Sooners were 7-0 last season when their conversion rate was 40 percent or higher, including victories over Alabama, Kansas State and Texas Tech. Thus, converting 45 percent of their third-down attempts should be the goal on Saturday.
 

Dorial Green-Beckham has joined Oklahoma’s football program after visiting the campus in Norman, Oklahoma, on Thursday. The former Missouri receiver is slated to sit out the 2014 season due to NCAA transfer rules but will likely try to get a waiver to be eligible to play immediately.

OU’s pursuit of Green-Beckham makes sense on many levels. The Sooners were one of the finalists for Green-Beckham when the receiver was making his final choice out of high school, OU is searching for proven playmakers at receiver and Green-Beckham’s talent is unquestioned.

Unless he allows his off-the-field struggles to continue to derail his future, Green-Beckham is a future NFL player. His physical gifts make him one of the top talents in college football with his tremendous size, athleticism and ball skills. There are no doubts he has the ability to change games with his talent.

Yet OU’s decision to add the elite receiver could end up being the wrong move.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and it’s too early to simply write Green-Beckham off as a troubled individual with no hope for the change that maturity and personal growth would bring. At 21 years old, he still has time to mature. Bob Stoops and the Sooners' coaching staff are banking on his maturation process going smoothly at OU.

But adding Green-Beckham to the mix brings distractions and questions that make it easy to ask the question: Is he worth it?

Although inexperienced, the Sooners are not in horrible shape at the receiver position. Junior receiver Sterling Shepard has the ability to put up numbers second to none in the Big 12 this fall and will enter the season as quarterback Trevor Knight's No. 1 target. Behind Shepard, the Sooners have several talented underclassmen with terrific potential, including sophomore Derrick Woods, redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood and several others. The 2014 season is an opportunity for those receivers to grow, mature and improve.

Green-Beckham’s off-the-field problems are well-documented, and on the heels of Texas Tech’s dismissal of Nigel Bethel II for allegedly punching a Tech women’s basketball player, Green-Beckham’s addition could be considered a bad PR move for OU. Like it or not, it looks like OU is taking a “win-at-all-costs” mentality.

The Sooners will contend that is just surface-level conjecture. Under Stoops, the Sooners haven’t hesitated to give players second chances and strive to help instead of discard players when they run into off-the-field struggles. OU clearly believes it can help Green-Beckham by giving him a new environment and chance to redeem himself while he provides a significant boost to the team's national title pursuit. And the former Missouri receiver sounds like he understands he could be looking at his final chance.

“I appreciate this opportunity from Coach Stoops and the University of Oklahoma,” Green-Beckham said in a statement issued by the university. “There are people here who will help me build a strong foundation. I’ve disappointed myself and others in the past. I know that I have a lot of work to do and I’m ready to get started. OU is a great program and I feel privileged to be part of it.”

The Sooners have the talent to compete for national championships, even without the ultra-talented former Tiger, during the next few seasons. If the Sooners come up short in their title pursuits, it’s unlikely we’ll point to a lack of production from their receivers as the culprit. In addition, it’s quite possible Green-Beckham, regarded as a top prospect for the 2015 NFL draft, never plays a down in Norman if his waiver appeal for immediate eligibility is denied and he declares for the draft after sitting out the 2014 season.

Thus, there are major questions about the decision to add Green-Beckham, particularly with a best-case scenario that likely includes just one season of production from the Missouri native before he heads to greener pastures in the NFL.
On Monday, we started our series on the best-case and worst-case scenarios for each Big 12 team.

The premise of these fun posts is to take a look at what the season might look like if everything fell into place for each school, the best-case scenario for 2014. Conversely, we'll also show what might happen if everything goes wrong, the worst-case scenario.

We continue the series with Oklahoma.

BEST CASE

The Sugar Bowl never ended.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsTrevor Knight certainly played like a Heisman Trophy contender in the Sugar Bowl.
OK, well, that’s taking things a bit far, but the Sooners open the season as if their 45-31 thrashing of Alabama is destined to end up on the lower end of their list of accomplishments in 2014.

OU begins the 2014 season with three consecutive wins, including a 30-point home blowout of Tennessee, its second win over an SEC team in four games. Bob Stoops’ postgame news conference lasts less than a minute as the Sooners’ veteran coach, tired of being asked about the SEC, says, “Maybe you guys should stop asking me about the SEC and start asking the SEC about me.” He promptly drops the mic and walks out.

Stoops' team rallies behind its CEO, winning three straight games away from home with West Virginia, TCU and Texas each coming up short against the Sooners.

Trevor Knight starts to emerge as one of the Heisman Trophy frontrunners as the season hits the midway point. The sophomore is one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the nation, joining Bryce Petty as the driving force in restoring the Big 12’s reputation for elite quarterbacks.

Wins over Kansas State and Iowa State result in the Sooners entering a early November showdown with Baylor with an undefeated record. The labels for this battle are endless -- “offense vs. defense,” “old school vs. new school” and “tradition vs. up-and-coming” are just a few of the labels being attached to the showdown.

Much like the Sugar Bowl, OU’s defense wins the day against the Bears, with a late-game sack by Eric Striker sealing a Sooners victory. OU narrowly escapes an upset bid by Kliff Kingsbury’s Texas Tech squad then rattles off wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State, earning a CFB playoff berth.

Controversy overshadows OU’s semifinal win over Florida State after it is revealed that Sooners fans had been sending a pound of crab legs to Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston every day since the matchup was announced, and the Seminoles admit it became a distraction during playoff preparations. Sooners fans smile.

Oklahoma meets Auburn in the title game and the Sooners defense stands up to the test again, giving the Sooners their eighth national title. Knight ends the season as a Heisman Trophy finalist and clear frontrunner for 2015.

WORST CASE

After a 2-0 start, Tennessee comes into Oklahoma Memorial Stadium and gives the Sooners’ College Football Playoff hopes a major setback with an upset win. The “S-E-C, S-E-C” chant doesn’t go over well in Norman, and local politicians implement a policy shortly thereafter that outlaws the chant in Norman city limits.

Fans of SEC schools unite and send one fan to Norman every day for a year with the sole purpose of breaking that law. The social media account labeled “Started in the SEC now we here” documents the daily forays into the city and quickly jumps to 850,000 followers by mid-October.

Meanwhile, OU rallies with back-to-back victories over West Virginia and TCU before another Red River blowout at the hands of Charlie Strong’s Texas squad. Strong cements his popularity in Texas afterward by stating, “I thought it was going to be harder than this.”

The Sooners rattle off two more wins before Baylor comes into Norman and leaves with its third victory over OU in four seasons. Kingsbury’s squad hands the Sooners their second straight loss the following week.

OU enters Bedlam with a 7-4 mark and questions about what went wrong. Things get even worse for the Sooners as the Pokes leave Norman with an upset win, leaving the Sooners without bragging rights over the SEC, the Longhorns or Cowboys for the next year.

Sooners fans express their displeasure by purchasing only 5,000 tickets to the Texas Bowl, where OU saves a little face by knocking off Ole Miss in an ugly, turnover-filled game.

Previous posts

June 16: Baylor
June 17: Iowa State
June 18: Kansas
June 19: Kansas State
There can be various signs of success in the Big 12.

This fall there will be Big 12 players whose individual success could be a sign of greater things for their teams. Baylor needs someone to fill the void left by Tevin Reese, a healthy David Ash could transform Texas' season and consistent production from several players would boost their teams' chances to excel.

With the help of ESPN Stats & Information, here's a look at one stat from a player on each Big 12 team that could be a sign of success for their teams.

[+] EnlargeCorey Coleman
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsCan Baylor wideout Corey Coleman breakout in 2014?
Baylor receiver Corey Coleman's reception per game average: The Bears’ fourth leading receiver averaged 2.7 receptions and 40.5 yards per game as a redshirt freshman. With Reese moving on to the NFL, Coleman has the chance to drastically increase his per-game averages. The Bears hope his Fiesta Bowl performance -- seven receptions for 88 yards -- are a sign of things to come. If Coleman can double his average to 5 or 6 receptions and 80-plus yards per game, it could mean the Bears offense is humming yet again.

Iowa State receiver Quenton Bundrage's reception percentage: The Cyclones’ top target caught 52.7 percent of the passes thrown his way. For comparison’s sake, Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett caught 71 percent of his passes. Iowa State has been preaching consistency since the end of the season and Bundrage has said catching more consistently and limiting his drops is his primary goal. If Bundrage can up that percentage to 70 or better, it would open up the offense and open up space for the Cyclones' other receivers and running backs.

Kansas quarterback Montell Cozart's completion percentage: Jayhawks coach Charlie Weis wouldn’t have named Cozart his starter if he wasn’t confident the sophomore could be much improved as a passer. Cozart completed just 36.5 percent of his passes during his seven games played as a freshman. If KU’s offense is going to improve under new coordinator John Reagan, Cozart needs to aim to get his completion percentage to at least 58 percent.

Kansas State quarterback Jake Waters' sack percentage: Waters was sacked 23 times in 13 games a season ago and was sacked on 8.1 percent of his pass attempts. Only Iowa State's Sam B. Richardson had a higher sack percentage in the conference. Waters needs to do a better job of getting rid of the football and limiting negative plays this fall, particularly with the Wildcats searching for a consistent running threat early in the season with John Hubert no longer in the backfield. The senior signal-caller should be aiming to cut his sack percentage to five percent or less. While that number doesn't fall solely on his shoulders, Waters can play a key role in lowering the overall number of sacks and sack percentage.

Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight's yards per attempt: Knight struggled to be a consistent passing threat as a redshirt freshman, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt. Only Texas’ Case McCoy and KU’s Jake Heaps and Cozart finished with lower yards per attempt averages among Big 12 quarterbacks who started a game last fall. The league average was 7.2. Opposing defenses will likely try to force Knight to beat them with his arm this fall, so his accuracy and decision-making will rise to the forefront as he tries to lead OU to a College Football Playoff berth. If Knight’s 2014 season average is closer to the 7.9 yards per attempt he recorded in the Sugar Bowl, it will be a great sign for the Sooners.

Oklahoma State receiver Jhajuan Seales' touchdowns: The Cowboys need a breakout season from Seales, who could be the Pokes’ next star at the position. He had just three touchdown receptions as a redshirt freshman, but if he can triple that output in 2014 that would mean the Cowboys' quarterback questions have likely been answered and Seales has taken the next step toward stardom.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ash
AP Photo/Tim SharpCan Texas signal-caller David Ash remain healthy in 2014?
Texas quarterback David Ash's pass attempts: Considering the state of the quarterback position in Austin, Texas, it would be great for Charlie Strong if Ash’s pass attempts surpass 200 for the second time in his career. It would mean Ash remained healthy and would give Strong an experienced signal-caller who has won 15 games as a starter. Injuries resulted in Ash attempting just 87 passes in 2013 so surpassing 200 pass attempts could help Strong have a successful first season.

TCU quarterback/receiver Trevone Boykin's total receptions: Boykin finished the 2013 season with 26 receptions for 204 yards despite starting six games at quarterback. He has been running the Horned Frogs' offense from behind center during the offseason, but if he finishes with more than 26 receptions in 2014, that’s a terrific sign for TCU. First, it means a solid option has emerged at quarterback allowing Boykin to slide to receiver. Second, it shows Boykin’s late season excellence as a pass catcher in 2013 was not a fluke, potentially making the Horned Frogs’ attack more explosive than it has been during the past two seasons.

Texas Tech receiver Jakeem Grant's yards per play: The junior wideout averaged 11.3 yards per play from scrimmage in 2013. The Red Raiders scored at least 30 points in every game in which Grant averaged at least 11 yards per play. Grant is a dynamic playmaker whom coach Kliff Kingsbury will try to get the ball as much as possible to help lessen the impact of losing Jace Amaro and Eric Ward. If Texas Tech increases Grant's touches and he rewards the coaching staff by averaging 12 yards per play in 2014, he has the potential to change games and help the offense continue to rank among the Big 12's best.

West Virginia running back Wendell Smallwood's percentage of the Mountaineer’s total yardage: Smallwood accounted for 7.2 percent of WVU’s total yards from scrimmage as a freshman. Look for him to increase that percentage as a sophomore after a stellar spring. He could slide right into the versatile role manned by third-round pick Charles Sims. If the sophomore can match Sims’ 30.3 percent of WVU’s total yardage in 2013, it could be a great sign for the Mountaineers.
During the summer months, ESPN.com is taking a closer look at each scholarship player on Oklahoma’s roster in our Crimson Countdown series. Each day, we analyze each player’s impact on the program since arriving on campus, his potential impact this fall, and his long-term projection. Starting with No. 1 Dominique Alexander, the series follows the roster numerically through our final analysis of No. 98 Chuka Ndulue.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesIf Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl performance becomes his baseline standard, then Oklahoma fans will enjoy the 2014 season a lot.
No. 9 Trevor Knight, quarterback, 6-foot-1, 202 pounds, sophomore

Impact thus far: Knight has been on campus for two seasons but has already made a major impact on the Sooners. After a redshirt season in 2012, Knight won the starting job as a redshirt freshman. He had an up-and-down season, finishing with 819 passing yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions while adding 445 rushing yards and two scores. Even with his struggles, his freshman season is largely remembered for a Sugar Bowl MVP performance in OU’s win over Alabama. He passed for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the Crimson Tide.

Impact in 2014: Knight will be the man in OU’s backfield with the Sooners’ championship hopes resting on his shoulders as the starting quarterback. He’s shown signs of being able to handle the burden but will need to consistently play at a high level to lead OU into Big 12 title and/or College Football Playoff contention.

Long-term upside: Knight showed he has the potential to be one of the nation’s top quarterbacks with his performance against Alabama. He has all the traits of an elite quarterback, so it will be interesting to see if he maximizes his upside and becomes one of the best signal-callers in OU history.

Evaluation grade for Knight: A. The Sooners did a terrific job evaluating Knight. They have insisted their move to more mobile quarterbacks does not include sacrificing the ability to throw the ball with efficiency. Knight is an example of a guy who can make defenses play with his feet while not sacrificing any passing threat. Superb evaluation.

Development grade for Knight: A. It would have been easy for the Sooners to just give the starting job to Blake Bell in 2013 and allow Knight to learn for a couple of seasons behind him. Instead, OU proved its open quarterback competition was wide open as Knight swooped in and won the job. Some programs would not have been willing to risk placing its destiny on the shoulders of a redshirt freshman quarterback.

Quotable: “I think he showed the whole country what we've been watching for two years in our practices and our scrimmages and things like that, that the game has started to slow down for him where he's really starting to feel comfortable in what he can do when he is. He's got a very live arm with great legs.” -- OU coach Bob Stoops after Knight’s Sugar Bowl MVP performance.
It's championship time.

For the past few weeks, we've taken a closer look at the 2014 Big 12 schedule during our Big 12's Ultimate Road Trip series. This week, we'll wrap up the series with the final stretch of the regular season.

To those unfamiliar with this series, we both pick a game featuring a Big 12 team in every week of the season that we’d cover if the travel budget were unlimited and there were no editors telling us where to go.

We’ll be basing our choices on several factors, including the quality of the matchup and the stakes that could be involved. The only restriction is that each of us can pick only one game per week.

Let’s continue with Week 11.

Nov. 8

Iowa State at Kansas
Kansas State at TCU
West Virginia at Texas
Baylor at Oklahoma

Jake Trotter’s pick: Baylor at Oklahoma

Where else would I be this weekend? This showdown could be for all the marbles in the Big 12, and possibly a de facto elimination game for inclusion in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

After the way Baylor whipped the Sooners in Waco last year, Memorial Stadium will be especially -- as Bob Stoops terms it -- “raucous” for what could be Oklahoma's biggest home game since second-ranked Texas Tech came to town in 2008. And the Sooners will be aiming to pay back Baylor the way they paid back Tech in that “jump around” 44-point blowout six years ago that catapulted Oklahoma into the national title game.

Of course, these Bears could be the best squad to waltz into Norman since the Graham Harrell-Michael Crabtree Red Raiders of '08. And with Eric Striker and Oklahoma’s attacking defense squaring up against Bryce Petty and Baylor’s big-play offense, this has all the makings of a Big 12 classic.

I’ll be starting the day at the Greek House on Campus Corner for a pregame gyro before dashing over to what should be one of the games of the year in all of college football.

Brandon Chatmon’s pick: Baylor at Oklahoma

The easiest pick of the year.

My preseason co-favorites square off at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium with the Sooners looking to avenge their 41-12 shellacking at the hands of Art Briles’ team in 2013 and the Bears looking to show everyone their Big 12 title run was no fluke.

NFL talent will be all over the field with Baylor quarterback-receiver duo Bryce Petty and Antwan Goodley going head-to-head with a stout Sooners defense led by Striker along with defensive ends Charles Tapper and Geneo Grissom.

What happens when the Sooners have the ball will likely decide the game, with the Bears' defense and Sooners' offense as the wild cards for each team heading into the fall. Oklahoma sophomore Trevor Knight will try to show he’s the best quarterback on the field despite Petty’s presence, and Baylor's defensive line will aim to affirm Briles’ belief that they’re among the nation’s top units.

Those two teams have split the last four meetings, with both squads winning twice at home. Could Baylor end the trend? I can’t wait to find out.
In this week's mailbag we discuss scheduling, Charlie Strong tempering expectations and quarterbacks David Ash, Trevor Knight and Jake Waters.

Remember, to submit a mailbag entry, simply go here.

Without further ado, to the ‘bag we go:

Justin in Dallas writes: Sure, Kliff Kingsbury has gotten some studs, and West Virginia is off to a hot start, but are you really going to talk about recruiting in the Big 12 and not mention Baylor? I think the blinders might be on, and you could be forgetting where Baylor’s recruiting was just a few years ago. This class, though inherently small, could be one of the best ever in Waco.

Trotter: I have no idea what makes you feel slighted, but we’ve mentioned Baylor’s impressive recruiting haul multiple times. Think about this -- Baylor has six of the league’s 22 ESPN 300 commitments. That’s better than 27 percent. And the Bears aren’t done, either. This could wind up being a top-15 class.


Steve in Phoenix writes: Does the loss of Daniel Sams at K-State help Jake Waters’ chance of a standout season? Now, he can bomb away every game if he (or rather coach Bill Snyder) wants. I know I am reaching here but there has to be a bright side to this thing.

Trotter: Sorry, you’re reaching, Steve. Waters was going to be the unequivocal starter whether Sams had stayed or not. Waters was never going to be looking over his shoulder, especially considering Sams had changed positions during the spring. The bottom line is, the Wildcats lost a big-time playmaker, who is going to be making those plays now for McNeese State.


James in El Paso, Texas, writes: Jake, Texas' backfield is going to good again this year, and maybe even great. Do you see the Longhorns winning 10 games this year if David Ash can return as the starter, and stay healthy for the entire year?

Trotter: If Ash is healthy for the entire season, that changes Texas’ outlook substantially. The Longhorns have the most experienced offense and defense returning in the Big 12, and there’s not a weak unit on the team other than quarterback and possibly placekicker. If Ash stays healthy and finally realizes his potential, Texas could be formidable. But that’s a Texas-sized if.


J.J. in Tumalo, Ore., writes: Jake, good article on Big 12 scheduling last week. But if Baylor goes 12-0 playing three complete stiffs out of conference and Oregon goes 12-1 with an out of conference win against Michigan State, why would the committee select Baylor over the Ducks? Thanks for the great blog.

Trotter: We really don’t know yet how the committee is going to select the four playoff teams. I would think that any Power-5 team that goes undefeated would be a virtual lock. Where Baylor is going to run into trouble with its scheduling is if it goes 11-1. Nonconference scheduling is likely going to carry a lot of weight in differentiating one-loss teams for the playoff. Given its nonconference slate, that wouldn't bode well for Baylor.


Trevor Collins in Burleson, Texas, writes: Even as an avid Longhorn fan, I recognized Trevor Knight’s brilliant performance in the bowl game. But I don’t really think he’s fully proven himself for a whole season. Looking back at last season, he really didn’t play a significant role in most of the Sooners’ games, and when he did his stats weren’t that great. I just feel OU is being a little overrated right now, and I’m not just saying this because I’m a UT fan. What happens if Knight doesn’t work out?

Trotter: There’s no doubt that Knight has much to prove, considering he’s only started and finished three games so far in his career (Louisiana-Monroe, Kansas State, Alabama). But there’s also no denying the talent Knight showcased in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Don’t forget about the return of nine defensive starters, which is another big reason why the Sooners are getting so much preseason love. I agree, after the inconsistency last season, there’s still much for this team to prove. But there’s a lot to like, too, especially if Knight plays anywhere near the level he did in the Sugar Bowl.


Ben in Dallas writes: Do you think it was a smart or dumb move for Charlie Strong to temper fan expectations during his tour? On one hand fans might be happier with moderate improvement. On the other hand isn't fan enthusiasm during games a problem? Telling the Texas faithful they have a shot at the playoffs might solve that.

Trotter: I liked it. For too long Texas has been playing against expectations that didn’t really reflect where the team actually was. Mack Brown told everyone he ran into that the 2013 team was going to be the one that was going to take Texas back to the top. That looked utterly ridiculous after BYU obliterated the Longhorns in Week 2. Anyone who watched the Texas spring game knows the Longhorns are still a ways off from contending for a playoff spot. They could always surprise. But Strong tempering expectations will help alleviate the pressure that has enveloped the program.
The college football offseason is way too long. But we’re here to help with your suffering. With spring ball done and the season still months away, we’re giving you a taste of the 2014 season, with the long-awaited Big 12 Ultimate Road Trip series.

To those unfamiliar with this series, we both pick a game featuring a Big 12 team in every week of the season that we’d cover if the travel budget were unlimited and there were no editors telling us where to go.

We’ll be basing our choices on a number of factors, including the quality of the matchup and the stakes that could be involved. The only restriction is that each of us can pick only one game per week.

Let’s continue with Week 3.

Sept. 12-13

Baylor at Buffalo
West Virginia at Maryland
Kansas at Duke
Texas vs. UCLA (in Arlington, Texas)
UTSA at Oklahoma State
Minnesota at TCU
Iowa State at Iowa
Arkansas at Texas Tech
Tennessee at Oklahoma

Jake Trotter’s pick: Texas vs. UCLA (Arlington, Texas)

In Week 3, I’m headed to Arlington, Texas, to get a glimpse of what the Longhorns will be made of under coach Charlie Strong.

UCLA will likely be in the top 10 in the polls for this game, giving the Stronghorns a tremendous opportunity to earn back national respect.

Of course, such a difficult early-season schedule could also set the stage for another calamitous start for Texas.

With BYU the week before, and Big 12 co-favorites Baylor and Oklahoma looming the first two weeks of October, it’s not unthinkable the Longhorns could get off to a 2-4 start.

But a win over the Bruins could send a loud message that Texas is on the way back.

Brandon Chatmon’s pick: Tennessee at Oklahoma

I strongly considered a trip to Lubbock, Texas, to see the other SEC vs. Big 12 battle in Week 3, Arkansas at Texas Tech.

But the opportunity to see the Vols try to derail OU’s College Football Playoff hopes was too good to ignore.

This will be Trevor Knight's first opportunity on a big stage to prove his Sugar Bowl performance was no fluke but, instead, a sign of things to come. The sophomore played like a Heisman Trophy candidate in the Sugar Bowl win over Alabama but played like a redshirt freshman for much of the rest of his debut season in 2013. This game will show if he’s taking steps toward consistency.

Tennessee will have enough athletes to give the Sooners trouble if OU doesn’t bring its “A” game. And the Vols will be carrying SEC pride on their shoulders because, as a team that finished in the bottom half of the conference last fall, they are exactly the type of SEC squad OU coach Bob Stoops has questioned when wondering about the overall depth of the SEC.

The Vols can send a message or Stoops can say “I told you so.”

And I’ll be on hand to see it all.

Previous weeks:

Week 1: Trotter -- SMU at Baylor; Chatmon -- West Virginia vs Alabama (Atlanta)

Week 2: Trotter -- Kansas State at Iowa State; Chatmon -- Kansas State at Iowa State
After winning the Heisman Trophy in 2003, Oklahoma quarterback Jason White came right back in 2004 and led the Sooners back to the national title game while earning first-team All-Big 12 honors for a second straight year.

In the years since, the Big 12 has featured some fabulous quarterbacks, including Vince Young, Zac Taylor, Chase Daniel, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Brandon Weeden, Robert Griffin III and Collin Klein -- all of whom also earned first-team all-conference honors.

SportsNation

Who has the best chance of dethroning Bryce Petty as the All-Big 12 QB?

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    35%
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    9%
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    22%
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    34%

Discuss (Total votes: 4,575)

None of the above, however, managed to achieve the honor in back-to-back seasons -- a distinction Baylor's Bryce Petty has the opportunity to earn this fall.

Last season in his first as a starter, Petty delivered the fifth-highest Adjusted QBR rating in the country while quarterbacking the Bears to their first Big 12 title. As a result, he was also the overwhelming pick for first-team All-Big 12 honors.

Now a seasoned senior with plenty of firepower back to surround him, Petty will be the heavy favorite to repeat as the Big 12’s first-team quarterback. But the feat has eluded every quarterback since White in 2003-04. And this year, Petty could face more competition than he did for the honor last year.

Sophomores Davis Webb and Trevor Knight will be gunning for all-conference consideration after breaking out in their respective bowl games.

In the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb threw touchdown passes on Texas Tech’s first four drives, and quarterbacked the Red Raiders to a convincing 37-23 victory over Arizona State.

Knight was equally as impressive in leading the Sooners to a 45-31 win over Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Knight threw for four touchdowns and 403 yards, and, like Webb, was named the bowl MVP.

True, both young quarterbacks are working off a small sample size. Webb didn’t start until the sixth game of the season, and eventually lost the starting job back to fellow freshman Baker Mayfield. Webb didn’t regain his status as a starter until after Mayfield revealed he was transferring before the bowl.

Knight won Oklahoma’s starting job last preseason, but started and finished only three games the entire year.

Still, the potential they flashed in their bowl performances is undeniable. And if they consistently reach that level as sophomores, they could seriously threaten Petty’s reign as All-Big 12 quarterback.

[+] EnlargePetty
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty had 32 TD passes and only three interceptions in 2013.
The same goes for Kansas State's Jake Waters, should he build on his phenomenal finish to the 2013 season. In leading K-State to wins in six of its final seven games, Waters actually produced a higher Adjusted QBR rating than Petty during the same stretch. Waters was also tremendous in his bowl, completing 21 of 27 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns as the Wildcats blasted Michigan 31-14 in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.

As for the rest of the league, Kansas is the only other school that has declared a starter (sophomore Montell Cozart). But it’s likely just a matter of time before Oklahoma State follows suit and anoints J.W. Walsh its starter.

Walsh struggled with his accuracy and decision-making last season, and eventually lost the starting job back to Clint Chelf in October. But with Chelf gone, Walsh reestablished himself during the spring, performing with the poise and precision he did two years ago when he led the Big 12 in Adjusted QBR as a redshirt freshman.

Now, in our weekly Big 12 poll, we put the question to you. Who has the best chance of stopping Petty from becoming the first repeat All-Big 12 quarterback in a decade? Is it Webb or Knight? Waters or Walsh? Let us know what you think.
It’s never too early to start talking about bowl destinations.

There is no clear favorite in the Big 12 heading into the 2014 season and several teams could finish among the top three in the conference or fall into the bottom half of the league.

ESPN.com's Brett McMurphy and Mark Schlabach took a shot at projecting the 2014 bowl games during their "way-too-early" projections earlier this week. As a reminder, with the College Football Playoff set to debut this fall, here's a closer look at the bowl selection process in 2014.

Here’s a look at the Big 12 in those way-too-early bowl projections.

Brett McMurphy

Russell Athletic: Kansas State vs. Clemson
Buffalo Wild Wings: Oregon State vs. TCU
Liberty: Oklahoma State vs. Tennessee
Texas: Texas Tech vs. Texas A&M
Alamo: Texas vs. UCLA
Cotton: Baylor vs. Georgia
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma

Mark Schlabach

Russell Athletic: Notre Dame vs. Texas
Buffalo Wild Wings: Oregon State vs. TCU
Liberty: Texas Tech vs. Ole Miss
Texas: Oklahoma State vs. Texas A&M
Alamo: Kansas State vs. UCLA
Peach: Georgia vs. Baylor
Cotton: Oklahoma vs. Cincinnati

A few thoughts:
  • McMurphy has Oklahoma earning a College Football Playoff berth with their rematch against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. That wouldn’t be a major surprise for a Sooners squad that returns a strong and talented defense to pair with sophomore quarterback Trevor Knight.
  • Baylor and Oklahoma, the two favorites to win the conference, are projected in appearances in the Cotton, Peach and Sugar bowls. McMurphy and Schlabach expect strong years, again, from the Big 12’s representatives in the final BCS bowl games in 2013.
  • McMurphy and Schlabach each have seven Big 12 teams going bowling but the landing spots differ quite a bit, a sign of the wide-open nature of the conference this fall after the two favorites, Baylor and Oklahoma.
  • TCU’s appearance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl is the lone agreement from the duo. With its strong defense, the Horned Frogs simply need more efficiency on offense to return to a bowl game this fall. TCU’s defense is too strong to expect a second-straight bowl less campaign.
  • Kansas State, along with Texas, provided the biggest disagreement among the two, with Schlabach expecting the Wildcats to be among the conference’s top three teams while McMurphy has Bill Snyder’s squad finishing in the bottom half of the conference. With plenty of question marks on the roster, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Wildcats fall into the bottom half of the Big 12, but quarterback Jake Waters gives KSU something the majority of the league is still searching for as a proven veteran quarterback.
  • UT is essentially interchangeable with the Wildcats with Charlie Strong’s first season in Austin projected to end in a bowl game by the duo. McMurphy projects UT among the top half of the Big 12 and Schlabach expects Strong’s influence to take a little longer to pay off during a bottom-half finish for the Longhorns.
  • Mike Gundy’s program is, understandably, expected to take a step backward after playing for a Big 12 title on the final day of the 2013 season. Projections into the Texas and Liberty bowls would represent a solid mid-conference finish for young team trying to replace several seniors.
  • Texas Tech isn't projected to make a major jump up the standings in Kliff Kingsbury's second season in Lubbock. Question marks along all three levels of the Red Raiders' defense is the likely culprit.
  • Neither McMurphy nor Schlabach projects West Virginia, Iowa State or Kansas to make a bowl appearance. Of those squads, the talent-laden Mountaineers could have the best chance of proving the duo wrong.
On Wednesday, we ranked the Big 12 position-by-position from strongest to weakest.

Last season the strongest position of the league was defensive back, headlined by Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Ahmad Dixon, Aaron Colvin and Ty Zimmerman, among others.

But those players are all gone. So what will be the strongest position in 2014?

With such players such as TCU’s Devonte Fields, Oklahoma’s Charles Tapper and Texas’ Cedric Reed returning, we believe it will be defensive line.

SportsNation

What will be the Big 12's strongest overall position in 2014?

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    32%
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    12%
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    8%
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    11%
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    37%

Discuss (Total votes: 3,613)

But do you agree?

Maybe you think it will be another position such as receiver, which includes All-American hopefuls Antwan Goodley and Tyler Lockett, and a host of potential 1,000-yard threats such as Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley.

Perhaps it’s your opinion that the strength of the Big 12 will be at linebacker, where Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU bring their entire units back, and virtually everyone else has at least one proven performer returning.

Maybe the conference’s best unit is the offensive line, with experienced centers BJ Finney (Kansas State), Dominic Espinosa (Texas) and Tom Farniok (Iowa State); talented tackles Spencer Drango (Baylor), Le'Raven Clark (Texas Tech) and Daryl Williams (Oklahoma); and versatile stalwarts Cody Whitehair (Kansas State), Quinton Spain (West Virginia) and Daniel Koenig (Oklahoma State).

Or with Baylor’s Bryce Petty, Kansas State’s Jake Waters, Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight, do you believe quarterback is on its way back to becoming the dominant position in a league that not long ago was the nation’s preeminent conference for that position?

Tell us by voting in the weekly Big 12 poll.
Two weeks ago, we ranked every team in the Big 12 position-by-position coming out of the spring. Putting that together, we’ve ranked the overall league position-by-position. In other words, what is the league’s strongest position? What is its weakest?

[+] EnlargeCedric Reed
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCedric Reed will anchor Texas' defensive line.
In 2013, there’s no doubt the strength of the league was in the defensive backfield. Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert and TCU cornerback Jason Verrett were the league’s two first-round picks. Safety Ahmad Dixon earned All-American honors and Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom, West Virginia safety Darwin Cook, Kansas State safety Ty Zimmerman and Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin were longtime stalwarts in their defensive backfields.

Here’s how the positions of the league rank going into 2014:

1. Defensive line: This was easily the most difficult position to rank by team, as line figures to be the defensive strength of TCU, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State. The Horned Frogs had the league’s best run defense last season, and on top of returning basically the entire unit, will be adding back 2012 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year Devonte Fields. The Sooners are also loaded, led by All-Big 12-caliber ends Geneo Grissom and Charles Tapper and tackle Jordan Phillips, and the could also go three-deep across the board next year. The Longhorns have two potential first-round picks up front in tackle Malcom Brown and end Cedric Reed. And Baylor coach Art Briles is already on record stating his D-line could go toe-to-toe with any in the country. Collectively, this should be the best the conference has been at the position since Gerald McCoy and Ndamukong Suh roamed the middle five years ago.

2. Wide receiver: The league has two superstars at receiver in Baylor’s Antwan Goodley and Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett, who have the résumés to garner preseason All-American consideration. But they aren’t the only prolific playmakers here. Texas Tech’s Jakeem Grant, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Iowa State’s Quenton Bundrage, Oklahoma State’s Jhajuan Seales and Texas’ Jaxon Shipley are all capable of 1,000-yard receiving seasons. Baylor might feature the best receiving corps in the country, Oklahoma State is a solid nine deep and West Virginia returns its entire starting lineup from last season. Even Kansas has the nation’s second-leading receiver from 2011 in Miami (Ohio) transfer Nick Harwell. Assuming the league’s quarterbacks can get them the ball, this could be another banner year for the Big 12’s pass-catchers.

3. Linebacker: Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Kansas and TCU return virtually their entire linebacker units from last year. And from Texas Tech’s Pete Robertson and Kansas State’s Jonathan Truman to Baylor’s Bryce Hager and Oklahoma State’s Ryan Simmons, the rest of the league basically has at least one proven linebacker coming back, too.

4. Offensive line: The strength of the Big 12's offensive lines resides in experienced centers and talented tackles. Kansas State’s BJ Finney, Texas’ Dominic Espinosa and Iowa State’s Tom Farniok are all four-year starters with a combined 113 career starts. At tackle, Baylor’s Spencer Drango, Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark and Oklahoma’s Daryl Williams have NFL futures. The league also boasts three other very stout and versatile players up front in Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair, West Virginia’s Quinton Spain and Oklahoma State’s Daniel Koenig, all three of which can man either guard or tackle.

[+] EnlargeDavis Webb
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDavis Webb seems like one of the few sure things at QB in the Big 12.
5. Quarterback: The Big 12 has one Heisman candidate in Baylor’s Bryce Petty, a proven performer in Kansas State’s Jake Waters and two budding stars in Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight. The rest of the league is a big fat unknown at the game’s most-critical position. But if Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh and Texas’ David Ash regain their forms from two seasons ago, Iowa State’s Grant Rohach builds off his strong 2013 finish, Clint Trickett can stay upright at West Virginia, and transfer Matt Joeckel and sophomore Montell Cozart prove to be the answers at TCU and Kansas, the Big 12 could be on the way back to becoming the preeminent conference for quarterbacking once again.

6. Running back: Half the teams lost their leading rushers from last season, and that doesn’t include Texas Tech’s Kenny Williams switching positions to linebacker. The Longhorns pose a potentially devastating one-two punch in Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray, and the Mountaineers could go five-deep with Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Rushel Shell, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie. But the rest of the league will be leaning on potential more than past performance. That said, there is a lot to like in Baylor’s Shock Linwood, Iowa State’s Aaron Wimberly, TCU’s B.J. Catalon, Oklahoma State’s Tyreek Hill and Oklahoma’s Keith Ford.

7. Defensive back: With Gilbert, Verrett, Dixon, Colvin, Zimmerman, Cook and Byndom all gone, this position took a major attrition hit. Thanks to Sam Carter, Chris Hackett and Kevin White, TCU remains well stocked in its secondary. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas have veterans back, too. Everywhere else, there is rebuilding to be done. But the next wave of secondary stars appears to be on its way. Cornerbacks Nigel Tribune (Iowa State), Justis Nelson (Texas Tech) and Daryl Worley (West Virginia) all started as true freshmen. So did Oklahoma State corner Kevin Peterson and West Virginia safety Karl Joseph, who are now both juniors. It might not be long before defensive back is a strength of the league again like it was last season.

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