Pinkel's Program Reloaded With A Blank

  • Friday, November 13, 2009 12:34 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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The big talk in Missouri this off-season was that the team wasn't in rebuilding mode -- it was in reloading mode. This was the year where questions plagued Missouri's roster, but Gary Pinkel made a passionate case that this team wouldn't lose a beat, it just wouldn't be the same team. Maybe the offense didn't have Chase Daniel or Jeremy Maclin, but it did have Blaine Gabbert and Danario Alexander, not to mention an experienced defense that was supposed to pick up any slack the offense couldn't handle.

Well, that assessment proved to be grossly misguided in almost every way. It turns out Gabbert, for all his efforts in the off-season to prepare himself to fully fill out Daniel's shoes, is not as a sophomore what Daniel was as a senior. The Tigers' passing yards per game has dropped to 276 yards from 330 yards in 2008. For a number of reasons, the less threatening passing game being one of them, the running game also dropped off sharply this season, from 154 yards per contest to 111.

The result is a steep drop in scoring offense from 42.2 points per game in 2008 to 27.9 in 2009. Two fewer touchdowns a game is a tremendous drop-off, and it's taking its toll.

Then there's the defense, which for all its lauding and praise has only improved marginally, from 27.2 points per game to 24.4, a jump in the national rankings from 69 to 63. Is it pessimistic for me to say that's not making much of a difference in the box score?

Missouri is in the midst of what looked in the preseason like its cakewalk portion of the Big 12 schedule, with games against Colorado, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State all strung together. But the Tigers gave up 40 points to a famously-inept Baylor program playing its third-string quarterback, and now they face a Kansas State team trying to stake its claim to surprise team in the nation.

So it turns out the Tigers are who we thought they were -- a program with potential, but not an annual player. I wonder how long they'll give Pinkel to prove strong seasons can come consistently -- and let's remember his track record for producing underwhelming seasons. Prior to 2007, all of the Tigers' records under Pinkel were a disappointment. Even 2008, when they went 10-4, was a letdown after their preseason national title hopes.

I'm not holding my breath. I don't think Pinkel can lead Missouri where it wants to go.

The picks:

Texas at Baylor: I think if Baylor can score seven and hold Texas under 40, it should go down as a moral victory. But then again, who knows? Bears quarterback Nick Florence seems to be getting more comfortable in the pocket and getting more production out of his unit. Maybe they can squeeze a quarter or two of intrigue out of this one.

Missouri at Kansas State: The Karma Gods say Missouri, which has excelled at catching the wrong team at the wrong time, would knock off Kansas State, which has had everything go its way as of late. And while I'm tempted to pick Missouri, I just wrote seven paragraphs blasting almost every aspect of the Tigers' football program and issuing a vote of no confidence in their coach. So consider this an obligatory pick against Missouri rather than for Kansas State.

Colorado at Iowa State: I would enjoy watching this game between two programs headed in opposite directions. I think Colorado could pull it out, because it has had shown some surprising fight recently, and perhaps its mathematically-alive hopes of making a bowl game are fueling the Buffs in this last leg of the regular season. But at home, with the better coach, I'm going with the Cyclones for the win and the bowl eligibility. That's right, Cyclones fans! Book your flights for Shreveport!

Nebraska at Kansas: Is Nebraska's offense worse than Kansas' defense? I'm guessing it is. And I'm guessing you'll see both quarterbacks on Saturday trying to create something, anything on the offensive end. Luckily, Nebraska's defense is not only far superior to Kansas' offense, it's also the best in the country, and debate is almost futile. Go find another defense out there playing alongside an offense that can't even muster 40 passing yards in a game -- find that defense and ask them if they can hold Oklahoma to just three points for an entire game. Only the Blackshirts. They're why Nebraska wins.

Texas A&M at Oklahoma: So every other week, Landry Jones is labeled either the second coming of Sam Bradford or complete garbage. He was complete garbage last week, but I'm guessing A&M makes him look more like a Heisman winner. Sooners win.

Texas Tech at Oklahoma State: Another interesting game. These teams usually have wild games between them, often shootouts. Texas Tech has been a stumbling block for Oklahoma State, but I think the Cowboys will finish the year second in the Big 12 South, and a big step towards that goal is by beating Tech this weekend.

Iowa State: Not the Cyclones We Know

  • Monday, October 26, 2009 6:12 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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Paul Rhoads probably knows his Iowa State team got lucky at Nebraska. But you can bet he doesn't care.

How bad is Iowa State? It's coming off a winless conference season in 2008, after which its touted coach left two years in, leaving an unapologetic mess in his wake.

And then comes Rhoads, who brought optimism, understanding and energy to the sideline. Suddenly, Iowa State knows how to play football.

Four games remain on the Cyclones' schedule. With one more win, they're bowl eligible and likely bowl-bound. They pushed Kansas to its limit. They beat Nebraska at its own game -- defensive fortitude. And maybe they needed a trick play to extend a drive that led to their only touchdown, and maybe Nebraska's eight turnovers were unprecedented, but it doesn't matter.

Iowa State isn't an easy place to build a program. It's got all the attraction Nebraska does, minus the program prestige -- which is to say, none. Jack Trice Stadium is small and the athletics department doesn't have much money. But when you have a good coach, you can usually get things done, at least in the short term. Right now, there's no question Rhoads is doing just that.

This week: 4-2 overall, 4-2 Big 12

Overall: 46-20, 14-6 Big 12

Hits

Texas 41, Missouri 7: Everyone's saying that Colt McCoy returned in this game after struggles with illness and injuries earlier in the season. Missouri pulled quarterback Blaine Gabbert midway through en route to its first 0-3 conference start since 2002.

Oklahoma 35, Kansas 13: How awful did Todd Reesing look? Three interceptions on the first three drives is no way to start a game against the Sooners. Of course, he didn't get much help from his offensive line, which gave up three sacks and let OU get to Reesing all day.

Oklahoma State 34, Baylor 7: No intrigue, no surprise. But OSU hosts Texas next weekend in possibly the only legitimate game standing between Texas and a BCS Title Game appearance.

Kansas State 20, Colorado 6: What a contrast of coaching jobs. Kansas State is on an absolute roll right now. Meanwhile, the Buffs have to go 3-2 to finish with a 5-7 record. It seems even my five wins prediction was above and beyond Colorado.

Misses

Texas A&M 52, Texas Tech 30: Cyrus Gray had a field day against Texas Tech, scoring four touchdowns. Texas Tech can't be feeling good about losing by 22 to the team that Kansas State railed 62-14. It was a much-needed win for Texas A&M, which is still in pretty poor shape but at least won't feel as much heat this week.

Iowa State 9, Nebraska 7: Had I waited a week to write my midseason coaching review, Bo Pelini's efforts this season would place him solidly at No. 10. Losing to Iowa State, at home, via eight turnovers, by a score ofnine to seven no less, is among the ugliest home losses in Nebraska football history. This team has struggled from the get-go with its personnel, which lacks a serious playmaker. But credit to Iowa State: it looks like it has found a quarterback, and there are a lot of reasons for that program to be optimistic.

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Don't Underestimate The Underdog

  • Sunday, October 11, 2009 6:47 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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Every team favored to win in the Big 12 did so this weekend. But the first full week of conference matchups proved that underdogs shouldn't be underestimated. Missouri had the Huskers hogtied for three quarters on Thursday. Iowa State and Texas A&M both threatened to knock off Top 25 teams early in the day Saturday, and Colorado came out of the gates in Texas looking like the Buffs were the team with the No. 2 ranking.

The end result saw every game go the way it should, but it's clear that parity is calculated in different ways among conference teams. You simply can't look at the paper and find a reason Iowa State could have -- should have -- beat Kansas. But that's how it happens.

Week 6 record: 6-0, 6-0 Big 12

Overall record: 40-14, 8-0 Big 12

Hits

Nebraska 27, Missouri 12: I was ready to pull out my hate mail stationery and look up the mailing addresses of Craig James and Jesse Palmer, the way they were giving gratuitous credit to Missouri for such a dominant game. Four reasons: 1) Nebraska's special teams gave them every opportunity possible for big plays; 2) Missouri's offense failed to put together a single field-length drive; 3) Blaine Gabbert threw at least a dozen passes right between the numbers of Nebraska's Blackshirts before one of them finally grabbed it for an interception; and 4) Nebraska's offensive play-calling was as bad as I've seen it under offensive coordinator Shawn Watson. Despite this, they scored all their points in the fourth quarter and picked off Gabbert twice.

Oklahoma State 36, Texas A&M 31: While the Aggies' loss to Arkansas looked less and less embarrassing as the Razorbacks steamrolled Auburn, Oklahoma State had its hands full. The Cowboys still seem to lack the consistency needed to crack Oklahoma or Texas.

Kansas 41, Iowa State 36: The Cyclones were about four feet from winning this game, when Austen Arnaud's final pass of the game carried just beyond the arms of an outstretched receiver in the end zone. How bad must it hurt to be an Iowa State fan? Their team is a missed extra point and a slightly overthrown pass away from possibly being 2-0 in the conference. Paul Rhoads seems to be on the right track.

Oklahoma 33, Baylor 7: Sam Bradford wasn't always in rhythm, but if his receivers hadn't dropped so many passes, the Sooners would have dropped 60 on the Bears. Third-string quarterback Nick Florence played admirably for Baylor, given the circumstances.

Texas Tech 66, Kansas State 14: Steven Sheffield threw seven touchdown passes amid 490 passing yards. Kansas State had no chance.

Texas 38, Colorado 14: The Buffaloes came out on fire, taking an early lead. Cody Hawkins' passing was on point. Who could have guessed that he would have fallen apart to the point of being pulled mid-game?

Thursday Forecast: It's All About the Quarterbacks, Baby

  • Thursday, October 8, 2009 2:21 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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This season is reminding us how critical quarterbacks are to their teams -- not only the starters, but the second string (and if you're Baylor, third-string). Last week alone, we saw Kansas State, Baylor, Oklahoma and Texas Tech look to quarterbacks other than the ones who took the helm at the start of the season. That's four out of the seven teams that played last week. Half the Big 12 has clear issues at quarterback, by virtue of either injuries or poor performance. You wouldn't be surprised to know that, by and large, the schedule thus far has favored the schools with stability under center.

This week's Thursday night ESPN game features a Big 12 contest that has been zeroed in on the quarterbacks since the day Chase Daniel left school. Blaine Gabbert leads Missouri against Nebraska, the team he had originally made a verbal commitment to back in 2007. He's currently undefeated as a starter and has yet to throw an interception, and Husker fans hope the top scoring defense in the nation can humble him.

Quarterbacks aside, this is a key game in the Big 12 North, where Missouri looks sharper than expected. The winner of this game will get an early inside track in the division, not to mention bragging rights in a rivalry that has already gotten ugly.

That aside, six conference games this weekend will provide some much-needed stratification among Big 12 schools, although schedule-makers did a great job at providing some pretty one-sided affairs, Nebraska-Mizzou aside.

The picks:

Nebraska at Missouri (Thursday): Tune into this game. The past two seasons Missouri has picked Nebraska apart using its spread, speed and prowess. That won't be enough to beat the Huskers this year, with their old-school defense. The Tigers don't have the physicality to stand up to the Blackshirts. Huskers win.

Oklahoma State at Texas A&M: Both teams have issues looming over this game. For Oklahoma State, it's the loss of Dez Bryant after the NCAA ruled him ineligible. The Aggies are more concerned with their propensity to suck. It's a pretty big issue, one that seems nowhere close to being resolved this season. Given that, OSU wins.

Iowa State at Kansas: I'm sure Iowa State is reeling from that loss to Kansas State, but I'm not sure if abysmal teams have letdown games. Either way, the point is moot. Kansas rolls, and yet again makes it to mid-October without facing a team of consequence.

Baylor at Oklahoma: Will Sam Bradford return? He hopes so. On the other side, Baylor's hoping Blake Szymanski will be able to replace Nick Florence. It's right about here where Baylor's disappointing slide begins.

Kansas State at Texas Tech: Mad props to my friend that took one look at Carson Coffman at Big 12 Media Days and concluded he wouldn't make it in the Big 12. He's been replaced by Grant Gregory, and so far, so good. Just don't judge Gregory when his team gets buried beneath at least 50 Texas Tech points.

Colorado at Texas: You know, I keep hearing how hard it's going to be for Colorado to win 10 games. "Impossible" is a term thrown about loosely. And yes, maybe it would take them running the regular-season table and winning their bowl game to hit 10 wins. But perhaps you failed to realize that running the table would give them a Big 12 Championship Game appearance and -- dare I say -- a shot at 11 wins? It's true, mathematically speaking, though I'm still saying seven losses, and No. 4 comes this weekend.

Tech Surprises, Colorado Notches First Win

  • Monday, September 21, 2009 1:26 AM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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It'd be hard to build an argument for the Big 12 being the strongest conference in the country this year. Not when two of its preseason Top 10 teams have already lost, and certainly not after a weekend in which teams lost to schools from the Pac 10, ACC and Big East. Much like last week, few teams played as well as they could have or should have. Consequently, my predictions continue to let down when it comes to the toss-up games.

Week 2 record: 8-3, 1-0 Big 12 Conference

Overall record: 22-10, 1-0 Big 12 Conference

Hits

UCLA 23, Kansas State 9: The Wildcats played better than expected, holding down UCLA until the fourth quarter. Even if UCLA was a bit hungover from its victory at Tennessee the week before, this was a respectable performance from a Kansas State team I expected to get blown out.

Texas 34, Texas Tech 24: The result is no surprise, but that Tech stayed so close -- and better yet, stifled Texas' offense early -- is surprising. I doubt many expected the defenses to perform so well early on, but it's worth remembering that this was the first game either team played against a worthy opponent. Tech looks better than expected.

Oklahoma State 41, Rice 24: I would have thought the Cowboys could do better than beat Rice by 17. Take it as an indication OSU is still deflated after its loss to Houston.

Texas A&M 38, Utah State 30: This is textbook under-performing, even for a team that lost two offensive starters in the game. The first-half defense was much too sloppy for a team looking to move up the rankings.

Oklahoma 45, Tulsa 0: Who would have expected the Sooners would shut out high-flying Tulsa? I'm guessing about as many who thought Landry Jones would hold the OU single-game passing touchdowns record. Oklahoma's defense seems out to prove the Sooners have a strong team outside of Sam Bradford.

Colorado 24, Wyoming 0: My perseverance has paid off with the Buffs' first win, and what a surprising one it was. The defense found itself against Wyoming, shutting out the Cowboys after allowing more than 600 yards to Toledo the week before (which, if you were wondering, was shut out by Ohio State this past weekend).

Missouri 52, Furman 12: The Tigers bounced back from a sad effort against Bowling Green, scoring six straight touchdowns and taking a 42-0 halftime lead. Really, about what you could expect. Blaine Gabbert seems to have passing and running skills that will cause trouble in the Big 12.

Kansas 44, Duke 16: Todd Reesing scores a win over the only other Division I school that recruited him. That's a testament to Mark Mangino's thorough recruiting job at Kansas.

Misses

Iowa State 34, Kent State 14: I tell you, it really hurts you credibility when you have no idea what Iowa State is going to do in a given week. I guess it's the result of paying minimal attention to a school that's won five games the past two seasons.

Connecticut 30, Baylor 22: This is a momentum-killer for Baylor, and it also shows the Bears' areas of weakness. UConn forced Robert Griffin to throw, and he couldn't do enough from the pocket to win.

Virginia Tech 16, Nebraska 15: If you didn't watch this game, you have no idea the sucker-punch kind of ending this game provided. After dominating VT on defense all day, blown coverage gave the Hokies the ball on the three-yard line with a minute left. The Hokies scored, and fans left in complete shock over the win. For Nebraska, it was a missed opportunity to put itself back in the national spotlight.

Friday Forecast: Near-sweep Week

  • Friday, September 11, 2009 10:50 AM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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What's become of football scheduling is a shame. Gone are the non-conference schedules abundant with what would become BCS conference schools. Instead, we're left with disappointing matchups between big-time programs and the Bowling Greens, Toledos and UTEPs of the world. And why? Three reasons:

A) BCS conference schedules make up for weak non-conference schedules;

B) Schools would be stupid to make a long, hard road longer and harder than it has to be in a sport where championships are decided by formulas and speculation instead of on-field results;

and (most importantly)

C) Money.

Think I'm wrong? Ask Nebraska how much it makes off those 85,000 seats selling out at $45 a piece (minimum). Add in the $30 pay-per-view charge for schools with committed fan bases. We're already well over $3 million heading towards $4 million. And this is hardly a conclusive estimate.

So schools minimize the home-and-away series they schedule with respectable programs and bring in teams like Arkansas State, throwing more money at the opposing school than they know what to do with, and everyone's happy.

Except fans.

But unlike the polls vs. playoffs debate, which I expect to rage until Orrin Hatch is a young 400 years old, this problem has a solution:

Bring down the free market.

Easy to say, tough to do. Which brings us to this week's Big 12 Alum of the Week: Nebraska's Warren Buffet, formerly the richest man in the world. The guy knows his economics.

With that, this week's picks:

Colorado at Toledo (Friday): Remember what I said about BCS schools banking off home games against lower-tier schools? CU didn't get that memo. I have no idea why they're playing at Toledo. I also have no idea why they could only manage a 1.4-yard rushing average in a loss to Colorado State last week. And I have no idea what Dan Hawkins plans on doing to keep this team believing they can win 10 games. I'm still saying five. One of them comes this week.

Iowa at Iowa State: The only Big 12 loss I'm predicting this week. Iowa blocked field goal attempts on two consecutive plays against Northern Iowa last week to win by one point, notching a nice win over a team that's been the best in the state, or close to it, the last couple years. Iowa State's been the worst by a considerable margin, and it will uphold that reputation.

Arkansas State at Nebraska: Arkansas State won 61-0 last weekend -- something you don't expect from teams named Arkansas State. It runs a spread offense similar to what Nebraska will see during much of the Big 12 season. Nebraska will win, but ASU will land some punches, too.

Houston at Oklahoma State: Man, did you see the Cowboys take down Georgia last weekend? OSU fans won't even be able to see this win through the smoke still lingering from last weekend's barn burner.

Texas at Wyoming: Before you start lambasting me for totally botching my "Top teams just schedule home games except for the rare semi-annual marquee non-conference match-up," let me explain: This is Texas' marquee non-conference match-up. "But didn't they visit Ohio State, like, yesterday?" Yes. Well, 2005, though it seems much more recent. That's actually the Longhorns' last road game against a ranked foe outside the Big 12. So let's retract that blanket statement with a "generally speaking" statement with the same parameters. Oh, Texas wins.

Bowling Green at Missouri: I can't wait to see if this Tigers defense, that Blaine Gabbert, that offense of no-names, is for real. And on October 8 against Nebraska, I'll get to. But I bet they don't disappoint en route to a win.

Idaho State at Oklahoma: Boy, does Oklahoma need Idaho State more than Idaho State needs Oklahoma. What a tragedy of a season, and it's only week one. Luckily, Landry Jones will have it easy after a demanding game last week.

Kansas State at Louisiana-Lafayette: You know, Kansas State has always traveled to the middle of nowhere to play football games. I'm guessing its paying teams back for traveling to the middle of nowhere to play the Wildcats in the late 1980's, when, much like now, K-State was a program in shambles, and Bill Snyder had just been hired to fix things. Kansas State wins. If I were you, I'd bet against me.

Rice at Texas Tech: I bet there's some scoring in this game. Am I alone in my near-total lack of interest in Texas Tech? I thought it was just that they played North Dakota last week, but I'm starting to think I just don't care for the product Mike Leach has put on the field every year except last: good offense doomed by sub-mediocre defense. They're still good enough to win this one easily.

Kansas at UTEP: Todd Reesing is so good. UTEP is going to make him look good. Then next week they'll play Duke, and once again they'll look good. But that won't matter as much, because next week has some intriguing games in the Big 12. Be smart: hit the snooze button. You won't miss much.

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Big 12 Preview | Missouri No. 7

  • Friday, August 21, 2009 7:09 PM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl

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2008 record: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Big 12 Conference, co-Big 12 North Division champions

2009 projection: Missouri takes a huge hit offensively, losing Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman. The schedule is packed with teams good enough to put a bowl game trip in jeopardy.

Reason to get excited: Youth is opportunity.

Reason not to get worked up: Youth will lose a lot before it learns how to win big games.

The gist: Sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert needs to prove he can throw well enough to make room for Derrick Washington -- possibly the best talent on MU's offense -- to run. The defense has lost eight of its starters. Even kicker Jeff Wolfert is gone from a roster that was built for a BCS title run last season but fell well short. Potential All-American Sean Weatherspoon is by leaps and bounds the team's best player, and possibly its most important. More than half of both the offensive and defensive lines will be first-time starters. Coach Gary Pinkel is leaning on new leadership at offensive and defensive coordinators. This team's in transition.

Rallying point: Weatherspoon. He's the top athlete on the stronger unit, and he'll need to keep the defense calm and communicating. When the screws start to come loose, particularly in hostile Big 12 stadiums, Weatherspoon needs to hold the defense together.

Cover your eyes: For every Big 12 game but ISU and K-State. All could be ugly losses.

For what it's worth: Missouri is a couple seasons away from competing for a Big 12 title again. I'm not sure I'd buy stock in this program. Talents like Daniel and Maclin are rare. Without a better defense -- not Pinkel's strong suit -- climbing back to where they were in 2007 seems unlikely. If that's true, Pinkel could be in trouble.