Top 12 Questions Heading into Week 4 of the Big 12 Football Season
A sterling Week 3 is in the books for the Big 12, and the page is about to turn to Chapter 4, Week 4, and a story that features four intriguing conference clashes, a cross-town rivalry, and a gridiron bout between two basketball heavyweights.
After this Saturday, every team except for TCU will have played a conference game, and we’ll know a lot more about how the Big 12 race is shaping up this season.
Last week several questions were answered while others were raised. Here are 12 Big Questions for the fourth chapter of the Big 12 this season:
1. HOW GOOD IS TCU’S PASS DEFENSE?
The Horned Frogs (2-0) line-up against Metroplex rival SMU (3-0) on Saturday having given up just 385 passing yards through two games this season. However, 309 of those yards came against Cal, the only passing offense with a pulse TCU has faced. Cal only mustered 177 yards passing at home against Nevada in Week 1, so as of now, the TCU pass defense is somewhat suspect.
The Horned Frogs’ secondary came into the season with a high ceiling and plenty of hype, so there may still be much to learn about them, and this game should provide some answers.
SMU quarterback Tanner Mordecai has already thrown for 1,023 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, respectively good for 6th and 1st nationally, while completely 73% of his passes. Of course, Mordecai has yet to face a defense as good as TCU’s, so this will be a good litmus test for both Mordecai and TCU’s pass defense.
2. WHAT NEXT FOR RB ZACH EVANS?
After barely seeing the field in TCU’s season opener against Duquesne, Evans caught fire against Cal, carrying the ball 22 times for 190 yards. More importantly, 105 of those yards against Cal came after contact while he forced five would-be tacklers to miss.
The hype regarding Evans wasn’t hard to come by this offseason, and the Cal game showed why. It was just the first truly big game for the former 5-star recruit, however, and what he does for an encore will go a long way toward TCU’s bid to reclaim the Iron Skillet from SMU.
Evans played 36 snaps against Cal, which is more than half of the total snaps he received through the 2020 season (70). If TCU head coach Gary Patterson is ready to commit to making Evans his featured back, Evans could see even more snaps against SMU and carry the ball up around 30 times.
3. HOW GOOD IS TEXAS TECH’S RUN DEFENSE?
The Red Raiders’ rushing defense currently holding opponents to just 57.3 yards per game, good for 9th nationally and 3rd in the Big 12 behind Iowa State and K-State. But Texas Tech has yet to face a running back that even comes close to comparing to Texas RB Bijan Robinson.
With 299 rushing yards through three games, Robinson has been quieter thus far this season than many expected. However, he’s coming off his best performance of the season against Rice in which he gained 127 yards on just 13 carries (9.8 yards per attempt), and the Longhorns will doubtless try to get him going on Saturday.
While the prospect of limiting Robinson and the Texas ground under wraps is a tall task, the Tech defense has shown that it has the potential to make rushing yards hard to come by. Maintaining its season average of just over 57 rushing yards allowed is more than likely out of the question, but the question of whether the Red Raiders’ can contain Robinson will go a long way towards deciding the winner in Austin this Saturday.
4. CAN TEXAS’ DEFENSE HOLD UP AGAINST A BALANCED OFFENSE?
A week after getting shredded by Arkansas’ rushing attack, Texas’ defense made a statement by shutting out Rice in a 58-0 woodshedding. Beating up on Rice doesn’t erase the questions raised by Arkansas regarding Texas’ defense, however, and while Texas Tech doesn’t have Arkansas’ offensive line, it does have the Big 12’s leading receiver, Erik Ezukanma, and fifth-leading rusher, Tahj Brooks.
Texas Tech QB Tyler Shough has been electric at times and painfully sloppy at others, but there is no doubt he has the skillset and the weapons around him to expose any flaws in Texas’ defense. The Longhorns’ will not have the advantage of simply containing Brooks, not with Ezukanma running routes, and it won’t be enough to simply drop an extra man into coverage either, not with Brooks ready to carry the ball.
The Red Raiders will provide a key test for Texas’ defense, and how they respond will not only have a big impact on the game’s outcome, it will also likely provide a glimpse into the rest of Texas’ Big 12 season.
5. CAN IOWA STATE’S OFFENSE EXECUTE AGAINST A LEGITIMATE DEFENSE?
The Cyclone’s offensive play-calling in the season-opener against Northern Iowa was so conservative, it should probably be thrown out of any analysis of ISU’s offense, but the Cyclones were able to move the ball against Iowa in a Week 2 loss. The problem against Iowa was fundamental execution, primarily ball security. ISU’s offense had a robust outing on the road last week. The success came against a hapless UNLV defense, but it was a success nonetheless and much more in line with what was suspected from a veteran Cyclone offense featuring QB Brock Purdy, RB Breece Hall, and TE Charlie Kolar.
Traveling to Waco to take on the Baylor Bears will tell us a lot about the state of ISU’s offense. Baylor has NFL talent at all three levels of its defense and currently ranks fifth nationally in total defense. Moreover, while Baylor’s competition has been poor, the Bears appear to be improving on defense week after week.
I’m not claiming that Baylor’s defense is as good as Iowa’s, but there’s no doubt that, unlike UNLV, the Bears have a legitimate defense. If Iowa State is the team many thought it could be this season, the offense will need to start showing it this week on the road against a defense that can play.
6. HOW GOOD IS BAYLOR’S RUSHING OFFENSE?
Who doesn’t love a college football game of strength on strength? That’s what we’ll see when Baylor’s Big 12 leading rushing offense takes on Iowa State’s Big 12 leading rushing defense.
While there is little question about the legitimacy of ISU’s rushing defense after holding Iowa to a mere 67 yards on the ground, the legitimacy of Baylor’s ground game, which ranks fifth nationally with 321.3 yards per game, is still somewhat in question due to Baylor’s soft schedule.
For the record, I have no doubt that Baylor’s rushing game is, in fact, good, but others don’t share my confidence because Baylor’s run game has yet to be truly tested. The Cyclones’ defense will provide the Baylor run game by far its best test to date and possibly its best test of the season.
7. CAN KU’S RB DEVIN NEAL BREAKOUT AGAINST DUKE?
The Jayhawks (1-2) travel to Durham to take on Duke (2-1), and while a win isn’t completely out of the question, it would come as quite a surprise. Some signs of improvement would be a moral victory for KU, however. Someone other than QB Jason Bean has to make an impact for KU on offense, and RB Devin Neal is the obvious candidate.
Duke has allowed 520 yards rushing in three games this season, just over 173 yards per game, so the Blue Devils are susceptible to the ground game. KU has struggled to throw and pass, but its best production has come in the run game with Bean carrying the ball.
Velton Gardner’s departure via the transfer portal makes it obvious that Neal is considered the future of KU’s ground attack, and the sooner he gets going the better. The freshman has averaged 3.4 yards on just 22 carries this season, but now he will be the main man facing a defense that is likely to key on Bean.
8. CAN KU GENERATE A PASS RUSH?
KU is facing a somewhat balanced Duke attack that has passed for 861 yards and rushed for 714 yards. Duke has struggled some against the pass rush, however, surrendering five sacks.
KU only has two sacks on the season, so getting pressure on Duke QB Gunnar Holmberg, who’s completing 71% of his passes, would be a big step forward and is essential to any chance KU has of pulling off an upset. Thus far, KU is allowing opponents 17.17 yards per completion, a horrible stat that I’m sure KU head coach Lance Leipold is eager to start shaving down one way or another.
Nothing makes a pass defense’s numbers improve or impacts the big picture of a game like an effective pass rush. KU has yet to find much success rushing opposing quarterbacks, and it will need to reverse that trend on Saturday.
9. CAN K-STATE AND WILL HOWARD BE EFFECTIVE THROUGH THE AIR?
K-State has possibly been the most impressive Big 12 team through the first three weeks, and some are starting to wonder if the Cats could actually contend for a spot in the Big 12 championship game this season. The K-State defense has played fast and hit hard. The offense has taken to bludgeoning opponents with a hard-nosed rushing attack. Just one thing is missing that would make K-State a legitimate contender in the Big 12 this season: a functional passing attack.
One might argue that K-State hasn’t really needed to throw the ball much through the first three weeks, and with starting QB Skylar Thompson out with an injury, the team can be forgiven for leaning hard on the run. But Oklahoma State’s defense is a different animal than the Nevada defense that K-State pounded into submission last Saturday, and what worked against the Wolf Pack isn’t going to work against the Pokes.
Oklahoma State’s defense has been fierce this season and doesn’t take kindly to running backs. K-State’s rushing attack will be the best OSU has seen this season, and OSU will want to sell out on the run. If backup QB Will Howard and K-State can just be moderately effective in throwing the ball, the Cats will find the going in Stillwater a lot easier and may well pick up a win that would indeed position them as one of the contenders in the league.
10. HAS OKLAHOMA STATE’S OFFENSIVE LINE CURED ITS EARLY-SEASON PROBLEMS?
Prior to the Cowboys’ 21-20 win over Boise State, the OSU run game was a mess as the offensive line was getting beat by defenders and struggling to finish blocks. That all changed last Saturday night on the Smurf Turf as RB Jaylen Warren exploded for 218 yards on 32 carries. At last, the offensive line was paving the way for the kind of rushing attack we’ve come to expect from the Cowboys.
While this was certainly a relief and a welcomed development for Cowboys fans, it hardly laid OSU’s early-season struggles to rest. Boise’s run defense has not been particularly stout this season against anyone but UTEP. Against UCF, the Broncos allowed RB Isaiah Bowser to rush for 172 yards on 33 carries and surrender 255 rushing yards on the night.
Meanwhile, K-State currently has the 6th best rushing defense in the nation, giving up just 54.7 yards per game. More importantly, K-State’s defense has looked the part: swarming to the ball and making stops.
Saturday night will be a good test for Oklahoma State’s offensive line. If it has truly turned a corner since the beginning of the season, the O-line has a big opportunity to prove it on Saturday night.
11. CAN WEST VIRGINIA FINALLY BEAT THE SOONERS?
Since joining the Big 12 in 2012, the Mountaineers have had their share of success against every team in the league except Oklahoma. With the Sooners departing for the SEC at some point in the future, West Virginia is running out of chances, and a win in Norman against the 4th ranked Sooners would easily be the biggest win of the Neal Brown era.
And it’s not like a win in Norman is a mere pipedream.
Far from being the juggernaut Oklahoma was expected to be, the Sooners have looked downright vulnerable against any team with a pulse – at least throughout several stretches against Tulane and Nebraska. And I dare say that West Virginia is a better team than Tulane and Nebraska.
That said, the Mountaineers will need to play their best game of the season to beat the Sooners, and WVU QB Jarret Doege is going to play better and make better decisions. WVU’s defense will need to step up as well.
Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler has seemed a bit off all season long, but OU has the offensive line and weapons to punish WVU’s D for any mistakes it makes.
It’s a big opportunity for West Virginia, as the Mountaineers should pose Oklahoma’s greatest challenge thus far in the season.
12. CAN OKLAHOMA FINALLY LOOK LIKE A NATIONAL TITLE CONTENDER?
The hype train for the 2021 Oklahoma Sooners was high-speed rail bulleting along at a rate that would make the super trains of Europe and China green with envy. Experts like Phil Steele pronounced that the 2021 Sooners were not only playoff contenders but likely national champions.
And then the actual season began, and the super train started to look more like a pump trolley as both Tulane and Nebraska found ways to push the heavily favored Sooners to the brink of disaster. Moreover, Spencer Rattler, who practically had his name carved on the Heisman Trophy before the season began, hasn’t looked as if he will even be in the running for college football’s most prestigious award.
But that can all still change beginning this weekend.
West Virginia is better than Tulane and Nebraska, but it’s not so good that the Sooners can’t run the Mountaineers out of the building the way a team that’s truly a national title contender might. On the other hand, West Virginia is definitely good enough to beat OU if Rattler and the Sooners continue to play the way they have against Tulane and Nebraska.
The game in Norman on Saturday night is a possible fork in the road for Oklahoma. The Sooners could assert themselves as a legitimate threat to dethrone Alabama, or they just might lose the game.
Will the real Oklahoma please stand up?