Texas Longhorns: Aaron Wimberly

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.
Days after last season ended, we released a Way-Too-Early 2014 Big 12 power poll. Following the many developments of signing day and spring practice, we’ve updated the poll:

1. Oklahoma Sooners (previous rank – 1): With the bulk of its defense coming back and the league’s most experienced offensive line, Oklahoma gets the top spot. Yet despite the preseason hype coming off the trouncing of Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, this is not a team without questions. No returning running back had more than 23 carries last year. No returning receiver (outside Sterling Shepard) had more than 13 catches. And though he torched the Crimson Tide, quarterback Trevor Knight has only five career starts and has been prone to getting nicked. That said, there’s plenty of young talent at the skill positions. If a few of those players emerge, and Knight builds off his Sugar Bowl performance, this could be a team that contends for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

2. Baylor Bears (2): Baylor won the 2013 Big 12 title without a player selected in the first four rounds of the NFL draft over the weekend. That speaks to the talent the Bears have back in quarterback Bryce Petty, wideout Antwan Goodley and left tackle Spencer Drango. It’s also not unthinkable that Baylor could lead the nation in scoring again. Petty should be even sharper in his second season as the starter. And running back Johnny Jefferson and receiver Corey Coleman seem primed to make an impact as the next wave of prolific Baylor playmakers. The defense will ultimately determine whether the Bears can defend their crown. The back seven is a work in progress. But Art Briles believes he will have a dominating defensive line. If so, Baylor could become the league’s first repeat champ since 2008.

3. Kansas State Wildcats (3): After rebounding to win six of its final seven games to end last season -- including destroying Michigan in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl, K-State carried plenty of momentum into the offseason. With only 10 returning starters, there are some holes that need to be filled. But the Wildcats feature some of the best returning standouts in the league in quarterback Jake Waters, wideout Tyler Lockett and defensive end Ryan Mueller. If highly touted juco transfers Terrell Clinkscales, D'Vonta Derricott and Danzel McDaniel successfully step into some of those voids defensively, and an adequate successor to outgoing running back John Hubert surfaces, the Wildcats will have a say in the conference race.

4. Texas Longhorns (4): Discerning what team to rank fourth was the most difficult part of putting this list together. A case could be made here for Texas Tech, Oklahoma State or even TCU with its returning defense. But I couldn’t shake the memory of Texas obliterating both the Red Raiders and Horned Frogs last year while starting Case McCoy at quarterback. Given all the turnover Oklahoma State has, the Longhorns ultimately got the slight nod at fourth. With veterans littering the roster, Texas is solid pretty much everywhere -- well, everywhere except quarterback. But if the Longhorns can get anything out of the position -- David Ash? Max Wittek? Jerrod Heard? -- they could be a load in Charlie Strong’s debut season.

5. Texas Tech Red Raiders (6): The Red Raiders climbed a spot thanks to the rapid development of sophomore quarterback Davis Webb. Including the National University Holiday Bowl and Tech’s three open spring scrimmages, Webb tossed 17 touchdowns with no interceptions. With added weight and swelling confidence, Webb has been performing like an all-conference-caliber quarterback since the bowl game. Webb will have plenty of big-play weapons to operate with and his protection should be better, as well, with 75 career starts returning along the offensive line. Whether Tech truly emerges as a dark-horse contender, though, hinges on whether its four juco defensive linemen can remedy an ailing run defense that ranked ninth in the league last year.

6. Oklahoma State Cowboys (5): After getting picked in 2010 by some to finish last in the Big 12 South, Oklahoma State reeled off 11 wins. Two years ago, the Cowboys got no love in the preseason again, and won eight games with three different quarterbacks. The recent track record in Stillwater suggests this is not a team to overlook in 2014. But if the Cowboys are going to surprise again, they’ll have to do so with a host of new faces. One reason for optimism is junior quarterback J.W. Walsh, who this spring rekindled his freshman form, when he led the entire Big 12 in Adjusted QBR. The Cowboys love Walsh’s toughness and leadership. If he can recapture the throwing accuracy that escaped him last season, Oklahoma State could be a factor.

7. TCU Horned Frogs (7): The biggest development for the Horned Frogs this offseason occurred after the spring when they added Matt Joeckel. The Texas A&M quarterback transfer, who will be eligible this season, is familiar with the offense new coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie installed this spring, and could give TCU just the jolt it needs at quarterback. The other big development this spring was the reemergence of 2012 AP Big 12 Defensive Player of Year Devonte Fields, who had a nightmare 2013 season. If Fields returns to wreaking havoc off the edge defensively, and Joeckel gives the offense above average quarterback play, TCU could finally be a force in its third year in the Big 12.

8. West Virginia Mountaineers (9): Dana Holgorsen is not lacking offensive firepower, with the league’s deepest running back stable and the entire receiving corps returning. With seven starters back on the other side, the defense has a chance to be much improved in the new Tony Gibson/Tom Bradley regime, too. West Virginia, however, gained little clarity about the quarterback position this spring, with Clint Trickett recovering from shoulder surgery and the other contenders failing to make a move up the depth chart. To challenge to finish in the top half of the Big 12, the Mountaineers will have to get more out of their quarterback than they did last year -- regardless of the other pieces.

9. Iowa State Cyclones (8): Buoyed by a new play-caller and 10 returning starters, Iowa State could boast its best offense since Seneca Wallace was behind center over a decade ago. Mark Mangino has a proven track record as a coordinator, and plenty of weapons to utilize in running back Aaron Wimberly, wideout Quenton Bundrage and tight end E.J. Bibbs. The offensive line is seasoned, and sophomore Grant Rohach might finally be Iowa State’s long-term answer at quarterback following a strong spring. The defense, however, is an even bigger question mark coming out of the spring. Projected starting linemen Rodney Coe and David Irving were dismissed and safety Devron Moore left after getting homesick. The Cyclones had been stout defensively under Paul Rhoads and coordinator Wally Burnham up until last season, when they ranked last in the league.

10. Kansas Jayhawks (10): Coming out of the spring, the Jayhawks have some definite strengths they can point to, notably linebacker Ben Heeney and cornerback Dexter McDonald. Elsewhere, Kansas still has catching up to do before breaking out of the cellar. At least now the Jayhawks have a long-term quarterback to build around in sophomore Montell Cozart, who was named the starter after shining in the spring game.
With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Friday with special teams. These outlooks will probably look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 1): The Horned Frogs’ coverage units were pretty lousy last year. If they can shore those up, this could be an elite special-teams unit with kicker Jaden Oberkrom, punter Ethan Perry and returners B.J. Catalon and Cameron Echols-Luper.

2. Kansas State (3): Freshman Judah Jones, who was one of the stars of the spring game with a 51-yard touchdown catch, fielded kickoffs, too. Cornerback Morgan Burns also added a 39-yard kickoff return. They could take some pressure off Tyler Lockett in the return game and also him to get a breather when needed.

3. Baylor (2): The return units are going to be spectacular, and Spencer Roth is one of the best punters in the nation. But field-goal kicking is an unknown. Freshman Chris Callahan has taken over for now as the team’s kicker, but missed one chip shot badly in the spring game. Callahan could be fine. But as Oklahoma State found out last year, rolling with a first-time kicker can be dicey.

[+] EnlargeMichael Hunnicutt
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsMichael Hunnicutt has the ability to become Oklahoma's first All-America kicker.
4. Oklahoma (5): Place-kicker Michael Hunnicutt (Moneycutt?) nailed field goals of 52 and 47 yards during a windy spring game. Amazingly, the Sooners have never had an All-America kicker. Hunnicutt has the potential to be the first.

5. West Virginia (7): Josh Lambert created plenty of buzz this spring, including his 53-yard field goal in the spring game. Mario Alford also took the opening kick in the spring game to the house. Punter Nick O’Toole is a proven commodity. If Lambert has a big sophomore year (he was really good as a freshman) and Alford’s TD is a sign of improvement in the return units, which ranked last in the Big 12 last year, this could become one of the league’s better special-teams units.

6. Texas Tech (4): The Red Raiders continued to have issues fielding punts during the spring, which is probably one reason why the return slots were left blank in the team’s post-spring depth chart. Incoming freshman Ian Sadler, who had six return touchdowns during his senior season of high school, could solidify that spot once he arrives on campus.

7. Iowa State (6): Sophomore kicker Cole Netten showed off his big leg in the spring game by making a 56-yard field goal. That came after coach Paul Rhoads gave him a shot at a 62-yard attempt. Netten, combined with the dynamic return trio of Jarvis West, DeVondrick Nealy and Aaron Wimberly, should translate into a strong special-teams unit. If incoming freshman Colin Downing can adequately step in at punter, the unit will be even stronger.

8. Texas (8): Nick Rose showed a strong leg on a missed 55-yard field goal try in the spring game and converted a 40-yarder. William Russ averaged 43.3 yards per punt in the spring game. Those were positive signs, but replacing All-American kicker/punter Anthony Fera will be one of the underrated storylines in Charlie Strong’s first season.

9: Oklahoma State (10): With so much turnover on both sides of the ball, the Cowboys need their special teams to be much better than last season. They just might be, though. With his speed, Tyreek Hill will be a major factor in the return game. Also, place-kicker Ben Grogan, after a shaky freshman season, drew praise for his improvement this spring from coach Mike Gundy.

10. Kansas (9): Special teams did not excel in Kansas’ spring game. Matthew Wyman made a 23-yard field goal but missed an extra point. The punting in the game was mediocre as well. The Jayhawks reportedly have preferred walk-on John Duvic enrolling this summer. After setting the Illinois state high school record with five field goals in a game, he could be a welcomed addition.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and reranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with running backs. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:


1. West Virginia (pre-spring ranking: 4): West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one of the best and most difficult jobs in the Big 12. Seider has an embarrassment of riches at his position in Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played last year as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring from Pitt set the Pennsylvania state high school rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher in 2012) and Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher from 2011, who, finally healthy again, enjoyed a resurgent spring. The Mountaineers also will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. The difficult part for Seider will be divvying up carries to so many capable backs. But if the Mountaineers can keep everyone happy and find the right combination, this could become a devastating and versatile running back stable.

2. Texas (1): Coach Charlie Strong delivered promising news on Monday in San Antonio, suggesting Johnathan Gray could be cleared from his Achilles injury by mid-June. Strong also said that Joe Bergeron will be rejoining the team shortly, too, after sitting out the spring to focus on academics. When healthy and eligible, the trio of Malcolm Brown, Gray and Bergeron is a formidable bunch and the backbone of the Texas offense.

3. Baylor (3): Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin exited spring as the co-starters, but Johnny Jefferson left the biggest impression in the spring game. The Bears have a track record of spreading carries around, which means Big 12 fans will become very acquainted with the talented redshirt freshman next season.

4. Oklahoma State (5): One of the biggest surprises of the spring was how much the Cowboys used Tyreek Hill at running back. Oklahoma State is planning to utilize the nation’s top juco playmaker the way West Virginia did Tavon Austin two years ago. In other words, Hill could line up in the backfield one play then slot receiver the next. Either way, arguably the fastest player in college football gives the Cowboys a dynamic lightning component to complement the thunderous running of senior Desmond Roland, who led all Big 12 backs in touchdowns last season.

5. Oklahoma (3): There might not be a Big 12 backfield with more upside than Oklahoma’s. Of course, with that upside comes little experience. Sophomore Keith Ford has the potential to be a punishing inside runner, but he had fumbling issues last season as a freshman that re-emerged during the spring. If he can’t hang onto the ball, he won’t play, no matter how tough he runs between the tackles. After getting passed by Ford on the depth chart last year, Alex Ross bounced back with an impressive spring. Early enrollee Dimitri Flowers was a revelation this spring as a powerful run-blocking fullback in the mold of Trey Millard. If fellow incoming freshman Joe Mixon lives up to his recruiting hype, the Sooners could feature their most potent rushing attack in years.

6. Iowa State (8): The most underrated one-two punch at running back in the league resides in Ames. According to first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy were sharp all spring and will spearhead an offense that could surprise in 2014. The key will be keeping the slight but explosive Wimberly relatively healthy, which he never really was before and after rushing for 137 and 117 yards back to back against Tulsa and Texas. Wimberly, however, was 100 percent all spring, and it showed, as he racked up 68 yards on just nine touches in the spring game.

7. TCU (7): TCU had to make do without its three top backs in the spring due to injuries. Aaron Green suffered a broken collarbone, Kyle Hicks had a shoulder bruise, and returning leading rusher B.J. Catalon dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. All three, however, should be fine for the fall, and could form a reliable rotation at running back. Four-star recruit Shaun Nixon could help out, too, once he arrives on campus.

8. Texas Tech (6): The Red Raiders dropped two spots, largely because returning starter Kenny Williams played outside linebacker all spring and could remain there for good. But even if Williams becomes a full-time linebacker, Tech still could be solid at running back with veteran DeAndre Washington, sophomore Quinton White and incoming four-star freshman Justin Stockton, whom the Texas Tech coaching staff is very high on. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury wouldn’t have given Williams the go-ahead to move to defense if he didn’t feel optimistic about what remained in the backfield.

9. Kansas (9): Though they come in ninth here, running back could be a position of strength for the Jayhawks next season. Brandon Bourbon, the favorite to start, rushed for 96 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, but Taylor Cox (63 yards on 15 carries) and Darrian Miller (50 yards on seven carries) had nice outings, as well. The Jayhawks also will welcome De’Andre Mann, the nation’s fifth-best juco running back, in the summer, as well as four-star freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Until they start winning more games, it’s difficult to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt in these position rankings. But with this collection of runners, they might not miss All-Big 12 performer James Sims as much as first thought.

10. Kansas State (10): The spring brought little clarity about who John Hubert’s primary replacement will be. Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones both ran hard in K-State’s spring game, though neither broke a run for longer than 11 yards. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Robinson, who has the most experience of the three, sat out the scrimmage with an injury. As a result, incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns while averaging almost 9 yards per carry his final two years in high school, will have an opportunity to be a factor once he joins the team this summer.
The Dallas Cowboys of the 1990s captured three Super Bowls on the backs of their triplets. Running back Emmitt Smith churned out yardage between the tackles. Wide receiver Michael Irvin hauled in receptions downfield. And quarterback Troy Aikman captained the unstoppable attack.

Like with the Cowboys, big-time triplets usually translate to big-time offense. And the Big 12 over the years has showcased several notable ones. Oklahoma’s Jason White, Adrian Peterson and Mark Clayton in 2004. Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden, Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon in 2011. West Virginia’s Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey in 2012. Even last season, Baylor boasted one of the best triplets in the country in Bryce Petty, Lache Seastrunk and Antwan Goodley.

So which Big 12 teams will feature the most prolific offensive triplets in 2014? We rank them below:

1. Baylor

QB Bryce Petty, RB Shock Linwood, WR Antwan Goodley

The Bears remain atop this list, even with Seastrunk bolting early for the NFL draft. Despite being Baylor’s third-string running back last season, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and shined as the featured back while Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were injured. After totaling 46 touchdowns throwing and rushing, Petty should be even better in his second season as a starter. Goodley is an All-American-caliber wideout.

2. Oklahoma

QB Trevor Knight, RB Keith Ford, WR Sterling Shepard

Knight finally live up to his preseason billing with a sparkling Sugar Bowl performance against Alabama. Knight has the talent and potential to be one of the best dual-threat QBs in the country. Ford was one of the top running back recruits in 2013, and would have played more as a freshman had the Sooners not also had four senior running backs on the roster. Shepard has been a dependable starter the last two seasons, and he already has 96 career receptions going into his junior season. He seems ready to take over for Jalen Saunders as the go-to receiver.

3. Texas Tech

QB Davis Webb, RB Kenny Williams, WR Jakeem Grant

Webb broke out with a tremendous performance in the National University Holiday Bowl, throwing for 403 yards and four touchdowns in an upset of Arizona State. He had his moments during the regular season, too, and could be in for a monster sophomore campaign in Kliff Kingsbury’s air-it-out offense. Williams is a solid pass-catching running back out of the backfield, and he led the Red Raiders with 497 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season. Williams has been taking first-team snaps at outside linebacker this spring, so he could wind up deferring carries to DeAndre Washington, who has been a capable backup. Grant is electric with the ball, burning Arizona State with a pair of touchdown catches. Grant was sixth in the Big 12 last season in receiving, and with Jace Amaro and Eric Ward gone, should take on an expanded role offensively.

4. Texas

QB David Ash, RB Malcolm Brown, WR Jaxon Shipley

The possibilities of this threesome hinges heavily on the health of Ash, who missed virtually all of the 2013 season with concussion issues. Ash is back with the team this spring, and he has had moments before of performing at a high level. After Johnathan Gray’s Achilles injury, Brown took over as the starting running back and performed admirably, rushing for more than 100 yards in each of Texas’ final three games. Shipley has sure hands, is a precise route runner and is capable of catching 70-plus passes in the right quarterback situation.

5. Kansas State

QB Jake Waters, RB DeMarcus Robinson, WR Tyler Lockett

The Wildcats would be ranked second here if John Hubert had another season of eligibility. But running back is a major question, with no back on the roster holding much experience. Robinson might be the favorite to win the job, but he’ll have to fend off Jarvis Leverett and incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack. Lockett is the best receiver in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country. Waters improved dramatically in his first season as the starter in 2013. If a running back emerges, the Wildcats could surge up this list.

6. Iowa State

QB Grant Rohach, RB Aaron Wimberly, WR Quenton Bundrage

Rohach first must win the starting quarterback derby this spring over Sam B. Richardson. But he played well down the stretch while leading Iowa State to a pair of wins to finish last year. Wimberly was banged up for much of last season, but he can be dynamic when healthy. Bundrage was third in the Big 12 in receiving touchdowns in 2013, and with a little more consistency, could be an all-league receiver. This could be the best triplet combination coach Paul Rhoads has enjoyed in Ames.

7. Oklahoma State

QB J.W. Walsh, RB Desmond Roland, WR Jhajuan Seales

Walsh was fifth in college football in Adjusted Total QBR as a redshirt freshman, but he took a step back as a sophomore and eventually lost the starting gig back to Clint Chelf. If he plays like he did as a freshman, Walsh could be one of the five-best QBs in the league. If he performs like his sophomore season, he could lose the job again. Roland is a touchdown machine and is as good as any back in the league in short-yardage situations. Seales could be on the verge of breaking out in a big way after starting as a freshman.

8. West Virginia

QB Clint Trickett, RB Dreamius Smith, WR Kevin White

The Mountaineers have plenty of weapons, but they will only score more points with more consistent QB play. Trickett tops the projected depth chart for now, but he’ll have to outperform Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest to stick there. Smith was very impressive at times last season backing up Charles Sims. He’ll get the first crack at starting, but Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell will be looming if Smith sputters. White gets the nod as the No. 1 wideout, but Daikiel Shorts and Mario Alford are not far behind as part of a deep and balanced wide receiving corps.

9. TCU

QB Trevone Boykin, RB B.J. Catalon, WR Josh Doctson

Boykin is back at quarterback again after splitting time at receiver the last two seasons. Boykin struggled as the starting QB last season but got little help from his offensive line or receivers. Reports are that he has been sharp this spring in the new Doug Meacham/Sonny Cumbie offense. Catalon is a solid cog at running back, and he averaged 5.3 yards per carry despite playing in an anemic attack last year. Brandon Carter was supposed to be the No. 1 receiver last season -- and still could be in 2014 -- but he wasn’t reliable on or off the field. In Carter’s stead, Doctson surfaced after transferring in from Wyoming, and led the Horned Frogs with 36 receptions and 440 receiving yards.

10. Kansas

QB Jake Heaps, RB Brandon Bourbon, WR Nick Harwell

Harwell should give Kansas what it hasn’t had in a long time -- a go-to receiver. Harwell was the nation’s second-leading receiver in 2011 at Miami (Ohio), and he should give the Kansas offense a much needed shot in the arm. Heaps lost time to freshman Montell Cozart last fall, but he has reasserted himself this spring amid a three-way competition with Cozart and UCLA transfer T.J. Millweard. Bourbon is battling Taylor Cox and Darrian Miller to see who replaces All-Big 12 running back James Sims.
As we await the start of spring ball, we’ve been examining and ranking the positional situations of every team in the Big 12. Thursday, we close this series out with special teams.

1. TCU: Honorable mention All-Big 12 place-kicker Jaden Oberkrom was 13 of 14 on field goals inside the 50 last season and drilled a 56-yarder late in the fourth quarter at Kansas State. B.J. Catalon was second in the league in kickoff returns and took one to the house in the opener against LSU. Freshman Cameron Echols-Luper took his first punt return 51 yards and had a 41-yarder in the season finale against Baylor. Brandon Carter has had moments in the return game in the past as well. Ethan Perry will be a three-year starter at punter, rounding out a formidable special teams unit.

2. Baylor: Corey Coleman led the league in kick returns, and Levi Norwood scored twice off punt returns. The Bears are loaded with potential game-breakers in the return game and welcome back All-Big 12 punter Spencer Roth. If Kyle Peterson proves to be a reliable replacement for departing kicker Aaron Jones, this special teams unit will have no weakness.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesAlong with being a top-flight wide receiver, Kansas State's Tyler Lockett can also provide big plays in the return game.
3. Kansas State: The Wildcats feature one of the best kickoff return men in the game in Tyler Lockett, who doubles as an All-American WR candidate. Jack Cantele, the younger brother of All-Big 12 K-State kicker Anthony Cantele, only missed two field goal attempts as a sophomore and nailed a 41-yarder as time expired to beat TCU. Defensive tackle Travis Britz also returns after leading the nation with four blocked kicks.

4. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders will feature a lethal one-two punch in the return game in Jakeem Grant and Reginald Davis, who took a kick back for a touchdown in the bowl game. Receiver Jordan Davis also has return experience. Kicker Ryan Bustin returns after garnering honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last year.

5. Oklahoma: The Sooners lose the most explosive return duo in the league in Jalen Saunders and Roy Finch. Sterling Shepard and Alex Ross could be among the players who replace them. Oklahoma boasts the league’s most efficient returning place-kicker in Michael Hunnicutt, who nailed 24 of 27 field goal tries last season. The Sooners have a secret weapon in Nick Hodgson, who led the league in touchback kickoffs last season. Jed Barnett, fifth in the Big 12 in punting average last season, returns as well.

6. Iowa State: The Cyclones had four players make first- or second-team All-Big 12 last season, and departing punter Kirby Van Der Kamp was one of them. Replacing his production won’t be easy, though incoming three-star freshman Colin Downing will try. DeVondrick Nealy, Jarvis West and Aaron Wimberly all had several dynamite moments returning kicks. Cole Netten was 13-of-18 on field goals as a freshman,

7. West Virginia: Nick O'Toole leads the Mountaineers on special teams. The “Boomstache” was 15th nationally in punting last season. The Mountaineers have all their returners back in Wendell Smallwood, Mario Alford and Jordan Thompson, though more big plays are needed from this group -- the Mountaineers ranked last in the league in both punt and kick returns in 2013. Josh Lambert comes back after making 17 of 23 field goals as a freshman. The Mountaineers also enjoy a luxury in Michael Molinari, who can do a little bit of everything.

8. Texas: The Longhorns lose their punter and their kicker in consensus All-American Anthony Fera. That hurts. Nick Jordan, who made nine of 15 field goals in 2012, could reclaim his job. Daje Johnson -- who returned a punt for a TD against Oklahoma -- Duke Thomas, Quandre Diggs, Marcus Johnson, Kendall Sanders and Jaxon Shipley all have experience returning.

9. Kansas: Return men Connor Embree (punts) and JaCorey Shepherd (kicks) both come back. The Jayhawks also return kicker Matthew Wyman, who connected on a game-winning 52-yard field goal to beat Louisiana Tech. The freshman, however, only made two field goals after that and eventually lost that job to departing senior Ron Doherty. Trevor Pardula was third in the Big 12 in punting as a junior and received votes for Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year.

10. Oklahoma State: After enjoying All-Americans Dan Bailey and Quinn Sharp the last few years, the Cowboys were finally mediocre in the kicking game last season. Ben Grogan struggled as a freshman, making just 11 of 18 field goals while missing two critical attempts in the early-season loss at West Virginia. The Cowboys were also last in the league in punting. Oklahoma State signed three-star kicker Zach Sinor with hopes of curing some of those ills. The Cowboys were still dynamic in the return game, but with Justin Gilbert and Josh Stewart both gone, Oklahoma State could lean on juco transfer and track star Tyreek Hill for a jolt on returns.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: RBs

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we're examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Wednesday with running backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how they compare at the moment:

1. Texas: The three-headed monster of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron gives Texas the best 1-2-3 punch in the league. Whether this group goes from good to great hinges on a healthy return for Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury and will sit out spring drills. Either way, this will be the backbone of Charlie Strong’s first offense.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsShock Linwood showed breakaway ability as a Baylor reserve in 2013.
2. Baylor: Shock Linwood takes over in the backfield after a dynamic freshman season in which he finished seventh in the league in rushing despite being a third-team running back. The competition for carries after Linwood will be interesting. Devin Chafin is the favorite to be Linwood’s wing man, but he could be pressed by Johnny Jefferson and/or incoming four-star freshman Terence Williams, who is already on campus.

3. Oklahoma: The potential of this running back crop has no bounds. But it will be young and inexperienced after seniors Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams (until he was kicked off the team) hoarded the carries last season. Keith Ford, who was the nation’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2013 class, will take over the starting role. Joe Mixon, this year’s No. 6 RB recruit, won’t get to Norman until the summer, but he should supply the lightning to Ford’s thunder. Alex Ross, who was the nation’s No. 7 RB recruit in the 2012 class, rounds out a fearsome threesome with tremendous pedigree.

4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims, but still claim a glut of capable rushers. Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood thrived playing behind Sims last year. West Virginia also has Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, its leading rushers from 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Buie is back after leaving school for a semester.) On top of all that, Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell figures to be in the mix. Shell was the No. 26 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history. If that weren’t enough, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, Donte Thomas-Williams, is also a running back. Suffice to say, the competition for carries will be fierce in the league’s deepest backfield.

5. Oklahoma State: Desmond Roland helped fuel Oklahoma State’s midseason turnaround after seizing a starting role. Roland was great in short yardage and led the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns, but he wasn’t a big-play runner, with an average of only 4.6 yards per carry (14th in the league). The Cowboys are banking that Rennie Childs can complement Roland as the breakaway back. Childs showed flashes as a true freshman. Roland and Childs can form a solid combo, but four-star freshman Devon Thomas, who is enrolled for the spring, should not be discounted, nor should Sione Palelei, who has the good hands that past Oklahoma State running backs also possessed.

6. Texas Tech: The returning trio of Kenny Williams, DeAndre Washington and Sadale Foster won’t do much damage between the tackles. All three, however, are excellent pass-catchers, making them supreme fits for Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Together they combined for 82 receptions, and that number should go up in 2014 as quarterback Davis Webb settles in as a sophomore.

7. TCU: The Horned Frogs were a disaster offensively last year, but the potential at running back is a reason why TCU could be equipped for a bounce-back season. Aaron Green, Kyle Hicks and incoming freshman Shaun Nixon were all ESPN 300 recruits. That doesn’t include B.J. Catalon, either, who led the Frogs with 569 yards and six touchdowns last season. With a new regime making the play calls, there’s reason to believe this could become one of the better units in the league.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIf Aaron Wimberly can stay healthy, Iowa State has a potentially dynamic returning running back.
8. Iowa State: When healthy, Aaron Wimberly can be a game-breaker. He torched Texas for 137 yards as the Cyclones nearly pulled off a Thursday night upset. Wimberly, however, was never really healthy the rest of the season, and never had the same impact. After Wimberly, though, the Cyclones don’t have much returning firepower. Firepower, however, could be on the way. Oklahoma native Michael Warren went overlooked in recruiting, but he can fly; he rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a high school senior.

9. Kansas: The Jayhawks gradated their heart and soul in James Sims, who was an all-conference selection even though Kansas won only one Big 12 game. Tony Pierson returns as an electric playmaker, but he has never been a full-time running back, often flexing out as a receiver. It will be interesting to see who emerges in Sims’ shoes. Brandon Bourbon (191 yards) will have the first crack in the spring, but newcomers De'Andre Mann and Traevohn Wrench could vie for time once they arrive in the summer.

10. Kansas State: It’s difficult to believe K-State will be at the bottom here once the season starts, but running back is a major hole for the Wildcats going into the spring. That’s because longtime starter John Hubert is gone. Hubert, senior backup Robert Rose and QBs Jake Waters and Daniel Sams combined for 492 carries last season. Nobody else had more than five. Rising senior DeMarcus Robinson, who has only 11 career carries, will probably be atop the depth chart going into the spring. It’s also possible that Sams will get a look at running back with Waters having nailed down the full-time QB job. But the player to watch here is freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns his final two seasons in Blue Springs, Mo. Warmack isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds. But his size fits the mold of past K-State running backs Hubert and Darren Sproles.
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 predictions: Week 11

November, 7, 2013
11/07/13
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Welp, it finally happened. I finally lost to a guest picker. And to a 14-year-old, no less. Thanks, Caymen. I thought you weren’t going to embarrass me?

Anyway, this reporter’s pride is on the line again. This week’s guest picker submission:

My name is Claire Stallings and I would love to one day be a guest picker for you. It’s about time a lady shows these men how to pick a perfect week! I love the Big 12 and of course Baylor. I worked for the team all through college and I am that girl who knows more about Baylor football than most of the men on campus. I think it would be interesting to throw a girl into the “man’s world.” Don’t worry, I can hold my own. #GirlPower

The last time a girl challenged me to something, I was destroyed by my wife in a 5K. So this is my shot at redemption. #BringTheNoiseClaire.

Tonight, Max and national writer Mark Schlabach will be in Waco for Oklahoma-Baylor. Saturday, Brandon will drive to Stillwater to check out Kansas-Oklahoma State. Due to my horrific picking, I've been benched for the weekend.

To the Week 11 picks:

SEASON RECORD

Trotter last week: 2-2 (.500)

Guest picker (14-year-old Caymen) last week: 3-1 (.750)

Trotter overall: 43-14 (.754)

Guest picker overall: 29-11 (.725)

THURSDAY

Baylor 52, Oklahoma 34: The Sooners’ best chance in this game is to pound the ball, wear out the clock and keep Baylor’s high-powered offense on the sidelines. But without star fullback Trey Millard, I’m skeptical OU can pull off such a game plan. The Sooners have no viable tight end, and none of their other fullbacks are capable receiving threats off play-action. OU’s remaining firepower keeps the game interesting into the second half. But a Sooners defense playing two freshman linebackers finally capitulates to the overwhelming speed of the Baylor offense, as the Bears make a statement they belong in the national title picture.

Claire’s pick: The media (including you, Jake) keeps saying K-State laid out the blueprint on how to beat Baylor, but then again, Mack Brown made it clear that OU is far from invincible. Between Baylor’s dynamic receiving duo, Antwan Goodley and Tevin Reese, along with Lache Seastrunk and Bryce Petty’s Heisman-worthy performances, this pick was easy. #GoingTarpless. Baylor 56-35

SATURDAY

West Virginia 26, Texas 23: I find it strange the voters still haven’t put Texas back in the Top 25 polls. I actually had the Longhorns ranked 14th in the ESPN power ranking, the highest of the 19 voters in the ESPN poll. But this is a tough spot for Texas. West Virginia has been a far better team in Morgantown than away from it. The Mountaineers also have a ton of momentum from last week’s comeback overtime win over TCU, with a bowl appearance in their sights. Texas QB Case McCoy comes back to earth a bit and the Longhorns get caught peeking ahead to next week’s clash with Oklahoma State, as Charles Sims runs wild again to hand Texas its first Big 12 loss.

Claire’s pick: The Horns will win if they keep the ball with Malcolm Brown and Johnathan Gray. But they have to make sure Case doesn’t make too many mistakes on the road. If they are not careful, West Virginia will upset Texas, just like they did to OSU. #TexasStayawayfromBriles. Texas 31-28

Kansas State 37, Texas Tech 34: With receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson back in the fold, the Wildcats are finally firing on all cylinders offensively. QBs Daniel Sams and Jake Waters have been terrific lately, and, much to Bill Snyder’s satisfaction, have been taking care of the ball, too. Tech has had a great run. But turnover-prone teams usually don’t fare well against Snyder-coached teams, and only six offenses in college football have turned the ball over more times than the Red Raiders. As a result, K-State continues its late-season push and hands Tech a third straight defeat.

Claire’s pick: I grew up in a Tech-loving family from Midland, Texas. I have lost sleep over this pick, and I may lose friends and a chunk of my inheritance after this is published. Unfortunately, the clock has struck midnight for Cinderella, and they are beginning to look reminiscent of last year’s West Virginia squad. #SorryDad. K-State 38-35

TCU 19, Iowa State 13: Will either side have enough players left to actually stage the game? Iowa State figures to be without running back Aaron Wimberly, who’s been its best offensive player, and could be without QB Sam B. Richardson, too. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett and running back B.J. Catalon are questionable on a team that also will be missing running back Waymon James and receiver Brandon Carter. The difference in this game proves to be TCU QB Casey Pachall, who finally showed signs of returning to his old self last week.

Claire’s pick: This is the “Battle of Who Could Care Less” between two struggling teams. TCU’s players are dropping like flies. TCU barely wins, but for sure is not making a bowl. #NotYallsYear #ByeFelicia. TCU 14-10

Oklahoma State 55, Kansas 9: Kansas has been hanging tough in Big 12 play. That ends here. The Cowboys have finally found their identity offensively with Clint Chelf at QB and the tough-running Desmond Roland at tailback. Oklahoma State keeps rolling in its return to the thick of the Big 12 title race.

Claire’s pick: I have always liked Kansas -- they have great school colors for game-day outfits. But that is all they have. Chelf is a real threat and the Cowboys' backfield has exploded these past few games -- they might actually steal the Big 12 title right out of Baylor’s little paws. #ButPleaseDont. Oklahoma State 56-14

Big 12 Power Rankings: Week 10

November, 4, 2013
11/04/13
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And then there were four in the conference race:

1. Baylor (7-0, 4-0 Big 12, last week: 1): The Bears have been complaining about a lack of national respect. Thursday night against Oklahoma, they have their chance to gain that respect. It should be noted, though, that Baylor has never played in a game with major conference and national title implications on the line -- and the whole country watching. The Sooners have played in dozens of these games. Are the Bears ready to shine in the spotlight? We’re about to find out.

2. Oklahoma State (7-1, 4-1 Big 12, last week: 5): Look who’s back in the thick of the Big 12 title conversation. On Saturday, the Cowboys delivered the most impressive Big 12 win of any team this season, dominating Texas Tech before a record crowd in Lubbock. Behind linebackers Caleb Lavey and Shaun Lewis, the OSU defense continues to perform at a high level, as they limited Tech to just three touchdowns in 17 possessions. The OSU offense is now beginning to click, too, with QB Clint Chelf making the big plays he did down the stretch like last season and backs Desmond Roland and Rennie Childs reviving the running game. The Cowboys are the only contender that get Baylor at home, and they have dominated the Bears in Stillwater. OSU still has to go to Austin on Nov. 16. But the Cowboys just proved they can win big games on the road.

3. Texas (6-2, 5-0 Big 12, last week: 2): It wasn’t a work of art, but Texas took care of business against Kansas. Next up is a sneaky-tough road game in Morgantown. West Virginia has been a much tougher team at home. The Mountaineers knocked off Oklahoma State and led Texas Tech by double digits in the second half before succumbing in the fourth quarter. West Virginia will also be playing with plenty of momentum after its overtime win at TCU. A showdown with Oklahoma State in Austin looms the following weekend. But Texas needs to escape Morgantown first.

4. Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1 Big 12, last week: 3): After struggling in conference play, Blake Bell seemed to turn a corner with a determined performance in last week’s win over the Red Raiders. To have any chance of scoring with Baylor, the Sooners are going to need a similar effort from their quarterback. The running game should be able to pile up yards. And the OU secondary will give Baylor’s speedy receivers their biggest challenge yet. But to pull off the upset as double-digit underdogs in Waco, Bell will have to make the same kind of throws downfield he delivered against Tech.

5. Texas Tech (7-2, 4-2 Big 12, last week: 4): Considering the Red Raiders were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 in the preseason, this has already been a banner first season for coach Kliff Kingsbury. But the past two weeks, Tech’s flaws have been exposed. The defense hasn’t been able to stop the run without overloading the box. True freshman QB Davis Webb is making true freshman mistakes. And the depth doesn’t seem to be there for Tech to be sound covering punts and kicks. This is still a good team. But as it turned out, just not yet good enough to contend for the conference title.

6. Kansas State (4-4, 2-3 Big 12, last week: 6): Since the return of receivers Tyler Lockett and Tramaine Thompson, the Wildcats have featured an efficiently balanced offensive attack. K-State threw for 221 yards and ran for 227 while picking apart Iowa State’s defense. The K-State run defense has been excellent the past month, too. This is not a team anyone will want to face this last month of the season.

7. West Virginia (4-5, 2-4 Big 12, last week: 7): What a win for Dana Holgorsen’s bunch. The Mountaineers seemed to be dead in the water after falling behind 17-3 in Fort Worth. But behind running back Charles Sims and an eight-minute stretch where the Mountaineers forced TCU into three turnovers in five plays, West Virginia emerged with a crucial overtime victory. Had the Mountaineers lost, more questions would have surfaced about Holgorsen’s status in Morgantown. Instead, West Virginia is in great shape to make a bowl game, which would be a solid season for a team that had to replace Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

8. TCU (3-6, 1-5 Big 12, last week: 8): When does basketball season start? Wait, nevermind.

9. Iowa State (1-7, 0-5 Big 12, last week: 9): The Cyclones have not posed much of a threat offensively when running back Aaron Wimberly has not been in the lineup. If they can get him back from a hamstring injury, they could still pick up a couple of Big 12 wins down the stretch, which would give this program some momentum heading into next season.

10. Kansas (2-6, 0-5 Big 12, last week: 10): The Jayhawks have not rolled over in Big 12 play, which has to be an encouraging sign for coach Charlie Weis. It would be huge for the program for that effort to manifest tangibly in the form of an actual win. If Kansas keeps playing hard, it just might get it.

Big 12 predictions: Week 7

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
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It was mass panic this week on the Big 12 blog.

I had a guest picker lined up: Tyler, a K-State fan in California who is getting married. He pulled at my heartstrings with this submission:

Jake, I'm getting married on the 19th. How about an early wedding present for a Big 12 fan raised in Manhattan, Kan., now living in Pac-12 country?

Well, Tyler flaked out. Either the fiancée was getting on him about focusing more on the wedding and less about Big 12 football, or he got too depressed to send his picks in after his ‘Cats fell to 0-2 in Big 12 play.

I was, however, able to secure another guest picker at the final hour in Curtis, an OU fan in Washington, D.C., who submitted the following:

I'm in Washington, D.C., in the middle of a year-long military deployment, and while I can't say exactly what it is I do, suffice it to say the schedule is not conducive to going to a lot of live games. In fact, every other weekend I'm stuck in a room that we can't even take a phone into. That said, through lurking on various Big 12 message boards when I’m not on duty, I am eminently qualified to pick games.

Last week, Big 12 officials helped derail my upset special, as Texas escaped Ames with a controversial victory. West Ham not only scored its first road goal, but stunned Tottenham 3-to-nil to hand me yet another defeat. Bollocks!!

I’m feeling a bounce-back week, though.

To the Week 7 picks:

SEASON RECORD

Trotter last week: 4-2 (.667)

Guest picker (David in England) last week: 5-1 (.833)

Trotter overall: 30-10 (.750)

Guest picker overall: 17-6 (.739)

SATURDAY

TCU 44, Kansas 3: Led by All-American cornerback Jason Verrett, TCU is playing championship-level defense, even without a healthy Devonte Fields, who will undergo season-ending surgery. If only the Horned Frogs could find a way to muster just a little more offense, this could be a dangerous team the second half of the season. Kansas could barely move the ball with playmaking running back Tony Pierson. Without him, it becomes a long day for the Jayhawks in Fort Worth against this TCU defense.

Curtis’ pick: While Kansas has shown some signs of life, they will face a TCU defense far better than any they've seen. TCU, 45-13

Texas Tech 31, Iowa State 23: Iowa State has somewhat had Tech’s number recently, winning two of the last three, including the 41-7 stunner in Lubbock the week after the Red Raiders had upset Oklahoma in 2011. Coach Kliff Kingsbury, however, seems to have the Red Raiders on more solid ground than Tommy Tuberville did. The quarterback position continues to be a moving part due to injuries, but thanks to the defense, that hasn’t cost the Red Raiders yet. The Cyclones, meanwhile, should arrive in Lubbock angry after the way they lost to Texas last week. They also bring an offense that is rapidly improving, thanks to the healthy return of center Tom Farniok and emergence of speed-demon running back Aaron Wimberly. As a result, Iowa State hangs around. But the Cyclones come up short in the fourth quarter again against a Tech defense that continues to buck up in the red zone. By the way, this pick should please Iowa State fans, and concern Red Raiders. I’m 0-4 picking Iowa State games this year.

Curtis’ pick: A little tough to pick this game as there's still no word on who Texas Tech will have under center. Iowa State suffered a controversial loss last week after getting jobbed by the refs, so Paul Rhodes will have his team fired up for this one. The Cyclones are usually good for one upset a year, and this will be their week. Iowa State, 31-28

Oklahoma 34, Texas 16: There’s not much to like about the Longhorns in this game. Texas enters without starting quarterback David Ash or much momentum after a lackluster victory at Iowa State last Thursday. The Longhorns are lacking identity, and have shown little heart recently against the Sooners, as Oklahoma has completely run Texas out of the Cotton Bowl before halftime the last two years. Usually, the pressure is on the favorite in this game. But because of the way Texas has lost to OU the last two games, and because of Mack Brown’s tenuous standing in Austin, all the pressure is on the Horns. The Sooners have their vulnerabilities. The offense has sputtered at times. The defense will be without linebacker Corey Nelson, who is out for the year with a torn pectoral muscle. But the Cotton Bowl seems to bring out the best in the Sooners and the worst in the Longhorns. This game is no different.

Curtis’ pick: They should just rename this game the "Texas Turkey Shoot." While most OU fans would love to see Mack Brown finish out the final seven years of his contract, this game will be his last in the series. (Oh, and in front of a home "sellout" crowd, Oklahoma State drops a heartbreaker to "Bye", 10-3). Boomer Sooner! OU, 50-13

Baylor 55, Kansas State 19: The Bears have looked virtually unbeatable through four games. The offense has been unstoppable and the defense quietly has been sound since November of last year. But this will be Baylor’s first game away from Floyd Casey Stadium. And it’s worth nothing that the Bears have won just one Big 12 road game in their last nine tries -- the lone victory being at Kansas. This Baylor team, however, is at another level. This is the best defense Art Briles has had, and the offense has no weaknesses. And even though Bill Snyder has a solid defensive game plan in place, the Bears still drop off 50-plus to secure their first Big 12 road win in two years.

Curtis’ pick: It's tough to find a superlative to apply to Baylor’s offensive output this year, but their defense has also played pretty darn well. KSU isn't playing the mistake-free football characteristic of a Bill Snyder coached team, and their offense isn't built to get into a shootout. The only upset here is if Baylor doesn't drop another 60-point performance. Baylor, 63-27

Big 12 Week 6: Did you know?

October, 4, 2013
10/04/13
10:00
AM ET
Thanks to the fine work of the folks of ESPN Stats & Info and a sports information department near you, we’re excited to continue the tradition of ending the week with a large heaping of knowledge in the form of numbers.

Chew on these nuggets of fun info and random trivia, and you’re sure to be the smartest guy or gal at your tailgate.

Did you know …
  • No team in FBS has given up more quarterback rushing yards (525) than Texas. That's 100 more yards than any other school.
  • Case McCoy attempted a career-high 45 passes against Iowa State. He's only the second FBS QB this season to attempt at least 45 passes, throw for fewer than 250 yards and still win.
  • McCoy has led three game-winning drives on his career, and each came on the road: at Texas A&M in 2011, Kansas in 2012 and Iowa State in 2013.
  • In a battle of two of the Big 12's best punters, Texas' Anthony Fera averaged 43.9 yards on eight punts and Iowa State's Kirby Van Der Kamp averaged 39.7 on six. They combined for eight kicks downed inside the 20.
  • Quenton Bundrage's 97-yard catch and score against Texas set an Iowa State record and tied for the second-longest reception in FBS this season. Georgia's Aaron Murray completed a 98-yard touchdown pass to Reggie Davis against North Texas last month.
  • Aaron Wimberly could be on his way to 1,000 yards. Iowa State's new starting back has rushed for 254 in his past two games.
  • ISU QB Sam B. Richardson has rushed for 427 yards in his eight career games, at an average of 53.3 per contest.
  • Three of the top four single-game yardage totals in Baylor school history have occurred this season.
  • The Bears' starting offense has scored touchdowns on 21 of its 26 offensive drives this season.
  • Baylor's defense has forced three-and-outs on 54.3 percent of opposing teams' drives this season.
  • Last time they met (which was the first time ever), West Virginia and Baylor combined for a Big 12-record 133 points and 1,507 yards of offense.
  • West Virginia has won 16 games against ranked opponents since 2001.
  • The Mountaineers offense is No. 2 in the Big 12 in first downs produced with 100, five fewer than Texas Tech.
  • West Virginia opponents are converting 31 percent of their third-down attempts in the second half this season. WVU has made 26 stops and given up 12 conversions.
  • Texas Tech is 13-1 all-time against Kansas and has won six in a row in this series. Since joining the Big 12, though, Tech is only 7-6 in games following a bye week.
  • Of the 35 Big 12 players with more than 100 receiving yards, only two play tight end: Tech's Jace Amaro and Iowa State's E.J. Bibbs. Amaro is the No. 3 receiver in the conference.
  • Texas Tech's defense has pitched shutouts in each of its past two games. The last time this unit did that in back-to-back games was 2005.
  • Kansas defensive back Dexter McDonald leads the Big 12 and the nation in passes defended per game at 2.7. He has seven pass breakups on the season.
  • Matthew Wyman's 52-yard game-winning field goal for Kansas against Louisiana Tech is tied for the seventh-longest made kick in the nation this year.
  • A total of 13 junior college transfers are listed on Kansas' current depth chart. Speaking of newcomers, only one true freshman is on KU's depth chart: Backup snapper John Wirtel.
  • Under Bob Stoops, Oklahoma is 12-2 in games immediately preceding the Red River Rivalry. That includes a 9-1 record against Big 12 schools, with the lone loss coming in 2007 to Colorado.
  • Blake Bell is No. 2 in the Big 12 in total QBR at 88.4. The best QBR season his predecessor, Landry Jones, ever produced in his career was 75.0 in 2012.
  • Only three teams ranked in the top 25 got to 4-0 by beating four FBS teams: Oklahoma, Stanford and Michigan.
  • TCU has forced a conference-leading 12 turnovers on defense this season but has scored just 37 points off those takeaways.
  • This weekend, the Horned Frogs begin a stretch of seven consecutive weeks with Big 12 games. Oklahoma will be TCU's third top 25 opponent of the season.
  • Since beating a No. 5 Oklahoma team in 2005, the Frogs are 0-2 against OU.
  • TCU has allowed a total of 59 rushing yards in its past two games. Oklahoma is averaging 256 rushing yards per game this season.
  • Oklahoma State has won three consecutive games against Kansas State when they play in Stillwater, but all three were decided by 7 points or fewer.
  • The Cowboys have won 13 of their past 14 games at Boone Pickens Stadium. They've played at home only once in their past seven games.
  • Oklahoma State's offense has accounted for 400 or more total yards in 29 of its past 30 games, including 12 in a row.
  • How's this for spreading the love: Nine different wide receivers have caught touchdown passes for Oklahoma State this season.
  • Kansas State started the season 2-2 for the first time since 2009 and hasn't gone 2-3 to begin a season since 2004, a season in which KSU went 4-7.
  • K-State quarterback Jake Waters has completed 16 passes of more than 20 yards this season. That ties him for best in the Big 12 with Baylor's Bryce Petty.
  • In its past 26 games, KSU is 21-5 when its defense intercepts at least two passes.

What to watch in the Big 12: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
10:15
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A full slate of Big 12 Conference games is finally here. TCU at Oklahoma highlights the weekend schedule, with Texas at Iowa State kicking things off Thursday night in Ames, Iowa.

Here’s what to watch in the Big 12 for Week 6:

Is Texas ripe for an upset? On Wednesday afternoon, the Longhorns announced that quarterback David Ash would not play against Iowa State on Thursday. Case McCoy will get the start for UT, which could be heading into the lion’s den in Ames. Knocking off a big-name team is nothing new for the Cyclones, who will be looking to add UT to the list. This could be the game to watch in the Big 12 this week.

[+] EnlargeLache Seastrunk
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsRB Lache Seastrunk and Baylor have been nearly unstoppable this season, but some still have doubts.
Will Baylor continue to impress? The Bears have scored 209 points in three games. And there have been roughly 209 questions about the Bears’ legitimacy as people continue to wonder just how good BU could be this season. West Virginia provides the Bears’ first Big 12 test one week after the Mountaineers held normally high-scoring Oklahoma State to 21 points in an upset victory at home. If Baylor drops another 70-point performance, can people still question its offensive explosiveness and role as legit Big 12 contender?

Oklahoma State’s response. The Cowboys had a mistake-filled loss to WVU last weekend, so OSU will be looking to prove that was a one-game aberration, not a sign that the Cowboys aren’t a real Big 12 title contender. Quarterback J.W. Walsh will need to play well after going 4-of-13 for 54 yards and one interception in the fourth quarter of the loss in Morgantown. If he doesn’t, will the Pokes turn to Clint Chelf off the bench?

Texas Tech’s first road test. True, the Red Raiders opened the season at SMU, but they will venture out of the state of Texas for the first time this weekend when they visit Kansas. The Jayhawks have had their struggles this season, yet have already surpassed their win total from 2012, and gave the Red Raiders all they wanted in a 41-34 Tech overtime victory in Lubbock a year ago. If Texas Tech wants to prove it is a sleeper in the Big 12 title race, it will leave Lawrence, Kan., with a dominating win.

Oklahoma’s sandwich game. It’s hard to imagine the Sooners -- between meetings with Notre Dame and Texas -- overlooking TCU, but crazier things have happened. Even if they don’t, the Horned Frogs boast the talent and the defense to knock off OU in Norman. TCU leads the league in sacks and forced turnovers, so if it’s able to take Sooners quarterback Blake Bell out of his comfort zone, this game could get interesting in a hurry.

Defense at West Virginia? Gasp! It can’t be true, can it? Don’t look now, but WVU ranks among the top half of the Big 12 in forced turnovers, red-zone efficiency defense, first downs allowed, sack percentage, passing yards allowed and total yards allowed this season. The Mountaineers aren’t at the level of TCU, but they’re better than people realize, so if they want to remove all doubt that they have improved since last season, they’ll have their chance against the explosive Baylor offense on Saturday.

TCU’s chance to send a message. The Horned Frogs would put themselves right back in the Big 12 title conversation with a victory in Norman. After a rough early stretch saw people begin to brush it off as an afterthought, TCU can put the entire conference on notice and make everyone forget losses to LSU and Texas Tech.

Is Aaron Wimberly a difference-maker? After 13 combined touches from scrimmage in Iowa State’s first two games, the running back got the ball 20 total times against Tulsa last Thursday, averaging 8.4 yards per touch. Get No. 2 the ball, Cyclones. It was clear Wimberly is one of the most explosive playmakers on the squad against the Golden Hurricane, so he needs to be a huge part of ISU’s offense against the Longhorns on Thursday night.

Kansas State’s two-quarterback system continues. “We have substituted tight ends in the same way and nobody could care less,” KSU coach Bill Snyder said of using Jake Waters and Daniel Sams this week. No holes in that argument. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if either quarterback can separate himself with a strong showing against the Cowboys on Saturday.

Can KU win a conference game? Say what you want about Charlie Weis, but he doesn’t run away from things. “As of this Saturday it will be 1,063 days since Kansas football won a game against a Big 12 opponent," the Jayhawks head coach said off the top of his weekly press conference this week. "And if we exclude Colorado, who is no longer in the Big 12, it will actually be 1,455 days. I have those numbers down." The Jayhawks believe that streak will end this season. But, unless their offense kicks things up a notch, they could be hard-pressed to end it this week.

Big 12 predictions: Week 6

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
9:00
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Like the Steelers and Vikings, I crossed the pond to find this week’s guest picker, David in England.

David’s submission:

Hi there guys! I'm an avid follower of college football, which is rather rare in this country! I'd love to be your guest picker and give you some good ol' English dry wit to add to your insight!

David, after last week’s disaster picking games, we could use some insight. And since you’ll be picking games from our version of football, I’ll be picking one from yours. David is a Tottenham bloke, so we’re going to pick Sunday’s West Ham at Tottenham match.

If you want to be next week’s guest picker, contact me here, and tell me why. And, as always, creativity counts.

By the way, the Big 12 blog team will be out and about this weekend. Max Olson will be in Waco for West Virginia-Baylor, Brandon Chatmon will be in Stillwater for Kansas State-Oklahoma State, and yours truly will be in Norman for TCU-Oklahoma.

To the Week 6 picks:

SEASON RECORD

Trotter last week: 1-3 (.250)

Guest picker last week: 2-2 (.500)

Trotter overall: 26-8 (.765)

Guest picker overall: 12-5 (.706)

THURSDAY

Iowa State 27, Texas 25: The Longhorns revealed Wednesday that QB David Ash would not travel to Ames due to lingering issues from a head injury. Backup Case McCoy has actually filled in well for Ash this season. However, the offense is limited with McCoy, and I’m not sure that changes if the redshirt is pulled off freshman Tyrone Swoopes, either. The Cyclones, meanwhile, found their offensive footing last week with the healthy return of center Tom Farniok and emergence of speedy running back Aaron Wimberly. Ames will be rocking. Iowa State is tenacious on weekday games. I smell upset here.

David’s pick: Texas is coming off a bye week and a standout game against K-State. Iowa State is coming off losses to two other Iowa teams (neither of them particularly impressive games anyway) and could barely handle Tulsa. Watch for Johnathan Gray to have a standout game against a particularly poor rush defense. Texas 35-14

SATURDAY

No. 20 Texas Tech 28, Kansas 7: Long known for its high-powered offense, Tech has actually jumped to 4-0 with defense this season. Despite having talent on offense, the Jayhawks have struggled to score points. That continues, as the Red Raiders win another ugly game to remain undefeated.

David’s pick: Kansas welcomes a Texas Tech team that is achieving over 400 yards passing per game. The Jayhawks capitulate, as the combination of Baker Mayfield and Jace Amaro tears through them. Texas Tech 42-7

No. 21 Oklahoma State 29, Kansas State 17: For the first time in seemingly forever, Oklahoma State is without much of an offensive identity. The offense’s best asset is receiver, but J.W. Walsh is a running quarterback without the arm strength to get the ball downfield. So far, Jeremy Smith has also proven to be a major downgrade from Joseph Randle at running back, which has limited the effectiveness of the running game. Bill Snyder is one of the best, and off an open week, he’ll have a strong defensive gameplan that attacks Walsh’s weaknesses. OSU wins, but Walsh continues to sputter passing, raising questions about whether the Cowboys should turn back to Clint Chelf at QB.

David’s pick: OSU's BCS title dreams are in tatters thanks to a woeful showing against at West Virginia. Kansas State faces an angry team and one that's ready to let it rip. OSU 32-17

No. 11 Oklahoma 28, TCU 16: This is the ultimate trap game for the Sooners, who get TCU sandwiched between the big win at Notre Dame and the Texas game next weekend. The Sooners, however, know better than to overlook TCU, which has played OU tough over the years, winning in Norman in 2005. These Horned Frogs don’t have enough offense to pull off the upset, but the TCU defense keeps the Horned Frogs in the game until the fourth quarter.

David’s pick: A once-ranked TCU finally found some offense against SMU. If Oklahoma had lost to Notre Dame, this would have been a blowout. Instead, it’s a nail-biter. OU 28-27

No. 17 Baylor 49, West Virginia 21: Neither of these teams played defense last season. This season, both units have made major improvements. The difference is that Baylor’s offense is better than last year. West Virginia’s is much worse. Even though the Mountaineers toppled then-No. 11 Oklahoma State last weekend, they are four-touchdown underdogs in Waco. Vegas is giving Baylor major respect for a reason. This offense appears to have no weakness. The Bears continue to roll.

David’s pick: Being an Oregon fan at heart, Baylor's impression of the Ducks’ high-speed offense has paid off. But I must give credit to that Baylor defense. West Virginia's shocking win against OSU will give it the confidence, but only scoring just over 20 points per game is not going to give you a win against Baylor. Baylor, 52-10

Tottenham Hotspur 5, West Ham United 0: I wanted to pick West Ham to troll David. But then I found out Tottenham is third in the Premier League standings; West Ham is 17th out of 20 and has failed to score away from home. This is like when Louisiana-Monroe traveled to Baylor, and we all know how that turned out.

David’s pick: Tottenham is flying high to start this season. Only one loss (to top of the table Arsenal) is the blip in an otherwise comfortable start to life without Gareth Bale. Gylfi Siggurdson has had a tremendous start to the campaign, bank on him to get one or two against a frail West Ham side. West Ham, typically, doesn't travel well in the BPL. Their key to victory will be to play Tottenham at its game: slick passing counter attack. Fail to do so, and we could be looking at a blowout in the first half. Tottenham 3-0

Planning for success: Texas

October, 3, 2013
10/03/13
8:00
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AUSTIN, Texas -- When the news came out Monday that all three linebackers of Texas’ 2012 recruiting class are now starting, the collective response from Dalton Santos, Peter Jinkens and Timothy Cole was universal: This is going to be fun.

If the celebrating the trio has done on their Twitter accounts is any indication, it’s safe to say the second-year linebackers are more than up to the challenge Thursday night at Iowa State (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN). This week, their contributions should be critical.

[+] EnlargePeter Jinkens
Cooper Neill/Getty ImagesPeter Jinkens is part of an all-Class-of-2012 starting linebacking corps that Texas will unleash against Iowa State.
Texas defensive coordinator Greg Robinson was looking for a spark in the wake of losing the Longhorns' most talented linebacker, junior Jordan Hicks. His season-ending torn Achilles was the last thing Robinson needed in his quest to repair the run defense.

The Longhorns defense fell apart without Hicks last season during its toughest five-game stretch. His absence opened the door for others, and a total of seven linebackers earned starts in 2012.

Yet Robinson didn’t chose any of the remaining six to take over for Hicks. He picked Cole, a redshirt freshman from Brenham, Texas, who’s spent nearly all of his debut season on special teams.

“Tim did a tremendous job against Kansas State on special teams, and because of that and practice the last four days, Greg Robinson is convinced he wants Tim out there as a starter,” Texas coach Mack Brown said.

There’s the benefit of getting a fresh set of eyes on Texas’ linebackers. Cole wasn’t in line to contribute much to that unit before Robinson took over for Manny Diaz last month.

A four-star prospect who came to Texas last year with best friend Malcom Brown, Cole makes up for non-prototypical size (he’s listed at 6-foot-2, but that’s generous) with a strong football IQ and a knack for leadership.

When Texas was recruiting him, Brenham coach Glen West vowed that Cole would end up being a team captain for Texas. His new coaches don’t doubt that, and teammates recognized what made Cole unique early on.

“Since he got here, he was different than a lot of other guys,” defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat said. “I knew he was a little more mature than other guys. His football game has come a long way since he first got here, but he looks good. He knows he has to step up and play well, and I think he will.”

He’ll team up tonight with Jinkens and Santos, two high-energy sophomores coming off strong finishes in Texas’ win over Kansas State. Steve Edmond will likely have some role in the game, but he can’t play in the first half after receiving a targeting ejection in the second half against KSU.

Juniors Tevin Jackson and Kendall Thompson were the presumptive favorites to step into the lineup in Hicks’ place, but the Longhorns’ young trio won over their new position coach.

They’ll have to reward his faith with a stout showing against the Cyclones, who got a 137-yard rushing performance out of newcomer Aaron Wimberly last week vs. Tulsa.

In their first three game without Hicks last fall, Texas’ defense let opposing running backs produce games of 199, 207 and 167 yards, respectively. That can’t happen again, not if the Longhorns are hoping to turn the season around after a 2-2 start.

What matters more to Brown, though, is the leadership void that Texas must fill now that Hicks won’t be on the field. Jeffcoat said he’ll take on the responsibility along with defensive tackle Chris Whaley and defensive backs Carrington Byndom and Adrian Phillips.

Simply having more seniors to rely on this time around means more accountability across the board.

“That’s a lot of guys who can keep their positions up and make sure guys don’t start slacking off and guys pick up the slack from what was lost with Jordan,” Jeffcoat said.

The sophomores are doing their part, too. Of the 25 members of Texas’ 2012 class still on campus, Cole is about to become the 13th to earn a start.

While others broke into the starting lineup in year one, Cole was patient. He kept working and kept waiting for an opportunity. Here it is.

“He’s upbeat and positive and smart and never makes a mistake,” Brown said. “Greg Robinson said the other day, ‘Don’t tell him something that’s wrong, because he’s going to remember it and he’s going to do it.’ He just plays so hard. It’ll be fun to watch him on Thursday night.”

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