Week 4 was a mixed bag for the Big 12 conference. By and large, it was the defenses that suffered, but there were a few defensive bright spots.
TCU and KU lost nonconference games with spectacular displays of spotty-at-best defense. Texas Tech’s defense was humiliated by Texas, but Texas’ defense didn’t fare much better in the 70-35 Longhorns victory in a game that had 1,159 yards of combined total offense (639 for UT and 520 for TTU). Baylor defeated Iowa State, but a Trestan Ebner kickoff return and some excellent punting by Isaac Power were the real difference in a game that saw the Bears get outgained by the Cyclones 479 yards to 282 yards. K-State’s defense took the first half off against the Cowboys, allowing 24 points, and the K-State offense fumbled a snap into the endzone for another Cowboys’ TD.
Yes, K-State’s offense, fueled by its third-string quarterback for the majority of the game, was bad, but most of the league’s offenses looked good – even KU had an excellent first half in its loss at Duke.
The defensive standouts were just three, however, Oklahoma State shut down K-State’s run game. Oklahoma and West Virginia played a whale of a defensive battle with just 29 combined points and neither team rushing for as many as 70 yards. Honorable mention should go to Iowa State’s defense, which performed admirably in the loss to Baylor, holding the Bears to under 300 yards.
TCU has yet to play a conference game, but it will solve that problem with a monster showdown in Fort Worth against Texas as we enter our first week with all 10 teams playing conference games.
Savor this weekend’s five games, Big 12 fans, because next week there are only three.
Last week knocked many of us for a loop as things that seemed to be solid assumptions about the Big 12’s teams started to look a bit shaky. Here’s a look at 12 questions heading into Week 5 of the Big 12 football season in twelve typed pages (4,467 words) – a veritable Stephen King novel by the standard length of sports articles – all crafted to pique your interest and get your football thinking caps warmed-up for Saturday’s big games.
1. WHO’S THE BEST RUNNING BACK IN THE LEAGUE?
We’ve seen several players atop the league standings for rushing yards so far, including Texas Tech’s Tahj Brooks, Baylor’s Abram Smith, and K-State’s Deuce Vaughn. However, after four weeks Texas’ Bijan Robinson is in first place while Iowa State’s Breece Hall is in second.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State’s Jaylen Warren and TCU’s Zach Evans are steadily climbing the rankings. Oklahoma’s duo of Kennedy Brooks and Eric Gray have yet to really breakthrough this season, but they both have the ability to start turning in big numbers week after week.
Moreover, when all is said and done, we won’t be able to just look at rushing numbers to truly tell which back is the best as Robinson, Vaughn, and Warren are starting to show up in the passing game as well.
It’s an interesting question for a league that seems to be absolutely loaded at running back. I’m looking forward to what the fifth chapter in the story will tell us.
2. WHICH BIG 12 DEFENSE IS THE BEST?
Every team in the league except Kansas has looked great for at least one half so far this season, and several teams have put together several strong defensive outings in a row. So far, it seems clear that Kansas, Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech have the most to be worried about on the defensive side of the ball as these teams rank 10th, 9th, 8th, and 7th respectively in average yards allowed per game. They’re also in the bottom four for points allowed per game.
Meanwhile, the best defenses statistically are Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. However, Baylor’s defensive stats are still bolstered by the Bears’ weak slate through the first three games as in Week 4 Baylor gave up nearly 500 yards of offense to an Iowa State offense that started the year with two lackluster performances.
Oklahoma State and Kansas State appear to be somewhere in the middle as both have had several strong defensive games. K-State has proven to be susceptible to the pass in the last two games while Oklahoma State played its best defensive game of the season against a K-State team that was forced to play its third-string quarterback throughout the majority of the game.
I don’t think we really have an answer as to how Big 12 defenses stack up against one another yet. A good case can be made for Iowa State thus far, but the Cyclones will get another slowly pitched softball this Saturday in Lawrence, so we’ll still be looking at just two games by which to judge ISU’s D, Iowa and Baylor. Can another defense make its case while the Cyclones handle KU?
3. HOW BAD IS TEXAS’ DEFENSE?
I realize this question runs counter to the national narrative with many asking if Texas might be the best team in the Big 12 after the Longhorns hung 70 on Texas Tech. However, Texas’ defense has yet to hold a Power 5 opponent under 471 yards of offense. Against Arkansas, the Longhorns gave up 333 rushing yards (471 total). Against Texas Tech, the Longhorns gave up 392 passing yards (520 total), and Tech QB2 Henry Colombi averaged 14.1 yards per passing attempt. That’s bad.
Sure, Arkansas is a good team, probably a really good team, but what is Texas Tech? You can argue that Texas hanging 70 on Tech had a negative impact on the Longhorn defense due to the sheer number of plays run in the game, but Tech gained over 7 yards per play. Again, that’s bad.
Now, Texas’ defense is facing an angry Horned Frog team that’s averaging over 460 yards per game and that can run and throw the ball well. Moreover, TCU arguably has more overall talent at the skill positions than any team Texas has faced this season. Sure, TCU’s offensive line is a far cry from Arkansas’, but it’s certainly comparable to Texas Tech’s.
While others are asking if Texas is the best team in the league, I’m wondering if Texas’ defense will be a liability all season long.
4. HOW BAD IS TCU’S DEFENSE?
You know the cliches about Gary Patterson and good TCU defenses. Such is not the case so far this season, at least not against FBS opponents.
After holding FCS Duquesne to 3 points and just 137 yards of total offense, the Horned Frogs have given up 1,037 yards of total offense in just two games against Cal and SMU. That’s an average of 518.5 yards per FBS opponent. For clarity, that’s bad.
Cal (1-3), which has yet to beat an FBS opponent this season, did it against TCU primarily through the air with 309 passing yards, and SMU did it primarily on the ground with 305 rushing yards. If you’re getting ripped through the air and on the ground, what does that say about your defense? It says it’s bad.
Now, TCU faces a Texas Longhorns team that has been on an offensive tear since getting beat-up by Arkansas. Granted Rice is a bad team all-around and maybe Texas Tech is a bad defensive team, but again, what is TCU’s defense if not bad?
However, unlike Texas Tech, TCU has the personnel in place to be really good on defense. Why the Horned Frogs defense has been so bad thus far is something of a mystery to me, but the numbers are what they are.
Can TCU right the ship on defense? Can it prove that its defense is better than it has appeared? Texas is going to give TCU the opportunity to change the narrative.
5. CAN OKLAHOMA’S OFFENSE AND SPENCER RATTLER COME CLOSE TO MEETING PRESEASON EXPECTATIONS?
Oklahoma has the best collection of offensive talent in the league. From the skill positions to the offensive line, the Sooners are the class of the league – or, at least they should be. But the season so far has left many Sooners fans feeling unfulfilled and frustrated, particularly with QB Spencer Rattler.
It’s not like Oklahoma’s offense has been bad. Through four weeks, the Sooners rank 4th in the Big 12 with 443.75 yards of total offense per game, and the team is hanging nearly 39 points per game.
However, against Power 5 opponents Oklahoma is averaging just 19.5 points and 332 yards of total offense per game. Granted, West Virginia and Nebraska (OU’s two P5 opponents thus far) rank 25th and 26th nationally in scoring defense, but both of those teams have received big boosts in that category by playing really bad FCS teams.
Long Island, which got shut out by WVU, is averaging just 5.7 points per game, good for 119th out of 124 FCS teams. Fordham, which hung 7 on Nebraska, is doing a bit better at 18.8 points per game, good for 88th in the FCS.
Against FBS opponents, not including Oklahoma, Nebraska is allowing 20 points per game, but against Power 5 opponents, Illinois and Michigan State, the Cornhuskers have allowed an average of 26.5 points per game, 3.5 better than Oklahoma managed.
West Virginia allowed an average of 25.5 points to Maryland and VA Tech, 9.5 better than the Sooners could muster.
Regardless of the competition and comparisons to other teams that may or may not say much, 19.5 points per game against P5 opponents is not even in the same stratosphere as what is expected from Oklahoma’s offense. In fact, 19.5 points per game isn’t a number that anyone would expect from a team considered the heavy favorite to win the shoot-em-up Big 12.
Kansas State has played two P5 opponents, Stanford and Oklahoma State, and has allowed an average of 19 points in those two games. The Wildcats have had a lot of success at stopping the run all season, but they’ve proven over the last two games against Nevada and Oklahoma State that they are susceptible to the pass, allowing an average of 320 passing yards per game to Nevada QB Carson Strong and OSU QB Spencer Sanders.
Can Oklahoma’s offense take a step forward and blister the Cats with the passing game? Can the Sooners hang more than 20 in Manhattan?
Oklahoma has lost its last two against K-State and has no reason not to be dialed in and fired up to play the Cats. However, they’ll need to surpass their season scoring average against P5 teams to win the game. And they’ll need to do a lot more than that to erase the questions floating around the offense this season.
6. CAN K-STATE’S RECEIVERS, YOU KNOW, CATCH FORWARD PASSES?
For all the good that has come out of Manhattan this season, including impressive wins over two good nonconference foes in Stanford and Nevada, the passing offense has been a nightmare. K-State currently ranks dead last in the Big 12 with 643 passing yards, 2 passing touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. To clarify, those stats are bad, bad, and bad.
Sure, the Cats have been missing their starting quarterback, Skylar Thompson, for the majority of the season (roughly 2.75 games), but it’s not as if Thompson was exactly on a passing tear when he went down.
Moreover, while even K-State’s QB2, Will Howard, got banged up against Oklahoma State forcing the Cats to roll with QB3 Jaren Lewis for most of the game, the quarterbacking isn’t the Cats’ biggest concern at all. Again, quarterbacking is not even close to the Cats’ biggest concern in the passing game.
The primary problem with K-State’s passing game has been the wide receiving corps’ inability to create separation and/or catch 50/50 passes – passes where the receiver and the defender have roughly the same opportunity to make a play.
Against Oklahoma State, K-State’s best passing play on the day happened when Lewis miraculously eluded a sure sack and tossed the ball out to Deuce Vaughn who was standing near the line of scrimmage, and then Vaughn did the Deuce is loose things for 55 yards to score a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State broke up five passes that probably should’ve been caught by KSU receivers and intercepted another on a bad throw by Lewis. All in all, while there were a few bad passes against OSU by KSU’s QBs, most of them were catchable.
In the fourth quarter against Nevada, K-State’s offensive line simply took over the game as the Cats ran the ball down the Wolf Pack’s throat for 21 unanswered points. The Cats can run the ball and run the ball well.
However, the Oklahoma State game proved that K-State’s receivers have got to start catching passes in order for anyone to respect KSU’s passing game. Once a team becomes one-dimensional on offense, they quickly become dimensionless as defenses sell out to stop the teams’ only viable threat.
Kansas State cannot and will not beat Oklahoma simply by running the ball. So, can KSU’s receivers take a step forward and start catching more catchable passes? Whether or not they can start catching catchable passes will make an enormous difference in K-State’s season outlook. In fact, I dare say that if K-State’s receivers could simply be average, the Cats could contend for a spot in the Big 12 championship game. If they continue to be terrible (and they have been terrible), the Cats will be lucky to make a bowl game.
7. HOW DOES TEXAS TECH RESPOND TO MAJOR ADVERSITY?
The Red Raiders were rolling along – they were 3-0 and had a lot of things to feel positive about. The defense looked serviceable if not great. Quarterback Tyler Shough, a transfer from Oregon, had some rough patches, but overall appeared to be the kind of quarterback that always gave his team a chance to come back, no matter how badly the chips were down.
Then Tech visited the Longhorns in Austin, and, to borrow from William Butler Yeats, the center could not hold. Everything fell apart for Tech over the course of three hours as the defense collapsed and Shough was lost for approximately six weeks to injury.
Texas Tech now finds itself coming off a humiliating 70-35 loss; it’s without its starting quarterback; and its head coach, Matt Wells, is sitting on a seat that’s getting hotter faster than asphalt shingles in a West Texas summer. And that’s not all. Now, the Red Raiders have to play West Virginia in Morgantown where the Mountaineers enjoy possibly the best home-field advantage in the Big 12.
Yes, the Red Raiders have faced adversity this season, but it’s only been the first half kind of adversity. Against both Houston and Stephen F. Austin, Texas Tech rebounded from poor first-half performances to win the game. No such response came in the second half against Texas, however, and now Texas Tech is facing the kind of adversity that threatens to spiral out of control and sink a promising season.
Week 5 is coming, and Texas Tech faces major adversity. How will they respond?
West Virginia has both the defense and the offense to pounce on and thrash the ailing Red Raiders. And the Mountaineers are angry after dropping their second road game of the season. Even if Texas Tech had won in Austin, they’d likely be underdogs in Morgantown.
Now is the time for Texas Tech to either rise, show some pride, and fight like the devil himself has come on life and death business to West Virginia, or things may quickly cascade in Lubbock into widening marshes of sorrows worthy of a Tolkien novel.
Is that dramatic? Of course. But this feels this is like a major crossroads in Tech’s season. Will the Red Raiders be the devil at the crossroads, or will they be bedeviled?
Tech doesn’t have to win in Morgantown to save its season, but if Tech loses, it absolutely must make WVU go through Hell to win.
8. IS WVU A CONTENDER FOR THE BIG 12 TITLE?
West Virginia is just 2-2 and 1-2 against Power 5 opponents, so it might seem silly to some readers for me to even suggest that the Mountaineers might contend for a spot in the Big 12 title game. However, WVU’s two losses have come on the road by a total of 9 points against two undefeated teams. More to the point, the Mountaineers lost to Oklahoma, the heavy favorite to win the Big 12, by just 3 points in Norman.
West Virginia is not perfect by any stretch, but it’s a tough team that has probably played the toughest schedule to date among Big 12 teams. Kansas State is probably second as far as strength of schedule is concerned, and it has only played one team that is currently or has been previously ranked. West Virginia has played three teams that are or have been ranked.
Now, the Mountaineers head home to face a team that seems to be on the ropes after taking just its first loss of the season. Though it was only one loss, Texas Tech not only got embarrassed in Austin last week, 70-35, it lost its starting quarterback for approximately six weeks.
If West Virginia is a contender, or a dark horse contender, or potential contender, or however you want to put it, it absolutely must take care of business at home against a team it should beat, but also a team that should fight and scratch like a cornered beast from Hell for four quarters.
It’s simple: Texas Tech’s defense is not good. Despite playing a soft schedule, the Red Raiders are giving up 381.25 yards and 33.5 points per game. Granted, Texas’ offense did a number on Texas Tech, but take away that one game, and the Red Raiders are still giving up just over three touchdowns per game to Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and FIU.
So, after WVU held the Sooners to just 16 points in Norman, holding the Red Raiders down and outscoring them in Morgantown is to be expected. The fact that Tech will be fighting for its own dignity, however, adds a level of difficulty.
But the fight in the Red Raiders shouldn’t matter if WVU is truly a contender for the Big 12 championship game. Take care of business, win the game, and WVU might actually be a legitimate title contender.
Succumb to Tech’s fury at home, however, and West Virginia simply doesn’t have the toughness to compete for a Big 12 title this season.
9. CAN BAYLOR TAKE ITS BOUNCEBACK SHOW ON THE ROAD?
Sure, the Bears have already won two games on the road, but those were at Texas State and Kansas. Now, Baylor heads to Stillwater to face Oklahoma State, a team that beat the Bears 42-3 in Waco last year.
The Bears have been hot all season long, and they proved all the disbelievers wrong last week by holding off a late surge by Iowa State to win 31-29 in Waco. Now, the degree of difficulty raises exponentially.
Granted, Iowa State was thought to be a better team than Oklahoma State before the season began, but even last year, Baylor gave the Cyclones all they wanted in Ames while the Cowboys galloped all over Baylor. If the Bears have improved as much as they appear to have improved, they’ll keep it close in Stillwater and have a chance to win.
According to the view from above the 2021 season, the lay of the land gives the impression that Baylor should win this game. However, the down to earth details show that Oklahoma State has improved radically as its competition has improved, and a knot of injury issues that hog-tied the Cowboys early in the season has loosened – giving Oklahoma State the appearance of Forest Gump breaking out of his leg braces as he runs for everything he has.
Baylor, on the other hand, came out of the starting block knocking foes around with a punishing run game. That stopped abruptly against a tough Iowa State defense last week, but Baylor found a way to get the win as the Bears’ special teams rose to cast a long shadow over the game that ultimately was the difference on the scoreboard.
Baylor is a proven commodity now. The Bears are legitimate. They’re good. What remains to be seen is if they can travel. Again, winning in Lawrence is a given for any good team. But the Bears’ toughest contest outside of ISU was the season-opener, on the road, at Texas State.
Season-openers are always tricky, but so is playing in Stillwater and in most Big 12 venues. Baylor is a good team, but we’ll find out if it can be a good team on the road this Saturday.
10. IS OKLAHOMA STATE FOR REAL?
After stumbling to 3-0 with a little help from an early whistle on a Boise State scoop and score that would have sent the Cowboys to 2-1, Oklahoma State announced itself as a Big 12 contender with a resounding 31-20 victory over a K-State team that had looked a lot better than the Cowboys through the first three games. But that game didn’t answer every lingering doubt about Oklahoma State.
First, while the first half is a credit to Oklahoma State’s offense and defense, K-State defense did not look like itself in the first half, and the Cats blanked Oklahoma State in the second half. Second, K-State started the game by moving the ball on the first drive, but then KSU QB2 Will Howard took a shot that would linger throughout and force K-State to play it third-string QB, Jaren Lewis for the majority of the game. Then K-State’s defensive leader, LB Daniel Green was called for a targeting penalty in the first half and missed the majority of the game.
This isn’t to say that K-State would’ve won the game if Howard hadn’t been banged up or Green had been allowed to play. Not at all. However, it casts some doubt on how convincing Oklahoma State’s first-half performance against K-State was.
One might wonder how would have OSU fared if KSU had its starting QB, Skylar Thompson, and its starting DE, Khalid Duke, and its starting TE Daniel Imatorbhebhe, and its starting nickelback, Reggie Stubblefield, and if Green hadn’t been called for targeting?
Lord knows that Oklahoma State has been banged up too, and Oklahoma State did everything it needed to do to put K-State away in the first half, but now Baylor is coming to town, and Baylor isn’t anywhere near as beat up as K-State.
Moreover, the Bears just might be better at full strength than K-State is at full strength.
If Oklahoma State simply isn’t the beneficiary of K-State’s bad fortune, and if Oklahoma State is in fact a real threat to reach the Big 12 title game, it should show against Baylor.
The Bears have yet to play a tough road game this season, in fact, Baylor has only played one team all season worth mentioning, Iowa State. Last season, Oklahoma State flat out smoked Baylor in Waco, 42-3. Can the Cowboys prevent a 40-point swing from last season?
Oklahoma State doesn’t have to blow the Bears out to prove it’s for real, but it does need to hold serve at home and win the game.
11. HOW MANY YARDS CAN BREECE HALL RUN FOR BEFORE MATT CAMPBELL CALLS IN THE SCRUBS AGAINST KANSAS?
Let’s set any crazy talk of Iowa State losing to Kansas aside. It’s not going to happen. Iowa State is probably going to blow KU out in Ames, and the game will probably be over by halftime.
After a rocky start to the 2021 season, ISU RB Breece Hall is rapidly climbing the conference leader board in rushing yards. After four weeks, he ranks second to just Texas’ Bijan Robinson with 428 yards after rushing for 190 against Baylor in Waco last week.
The Cyclones won’t need to throw the ball much against KU, and while I won’t be calling the plays on ISU’s sideline this Saturday, I see no reason the Jayhawks won’t be force-fed a heavy dose of Hall’s brutal run game. I expect Hall to punish KU for ISU’s loss to Baylor last week and then some.
However, with the game likely to quickly get out of hand, it stands to reason that Hall won’t have four quarters to carve out his pound of flesh from the KU defense. For me, the biggest question on the ISU side of this game is how many yards can Hall run-up before he’s told to take a seat and turn the page to Week 7 and K-State.
12. CAN KU MUSTER ANY KIND OF OFFENSE AGAINST ARGUABLY THE BIG 12’S BEST DEFENSE?
As I said above, there’s no drama about who will win this game, at least there shouldn’t be. The only way Kansas can put the outcome of this game in any kind of doubt is to have its best day of offense thus far this season.
KU’s offense finally showed some life last week at Duke. Kansas put up 530 yards of total offense in Durham and actually led the game at halftime. That was a big step forward for a KU offense that has been pretty anemic all season long.
Moreover, KU got good production from receivers Trevor Wilson, 122 yards on 5 receptions, and Kwamie Lassiter II, 99 yards and a touchdown on 4 receptions. For once, the offense didn’t revolve around QB Jason Bean running the ball. Again, that’s a big step forward for KU.
Iowa State’s defense, on the other hand, is a big step up from Duke’s.
The Cyclones lead the Big 12 in passing defense, rushing defense, total defense, and ISU DE Will McDonald IV is tied for second in the league with 3.5 sacks. All this while the Cyclones have faced Iowa and the same Baylor offense that hung 45 on the Jayhawks in Lawrence in Week 3.
It’s a tall order to ask KU to produce enough offense to even make the game competitive.
If I were a KU fan, I would hope to simply see the Jayhawks be able to sustain drives and not go three-and-out over and over again. If KU can do that and even score a couple of touchdowns early, the Jayhawks just might be able to keep the game close enough that it’s not over by the time the second half kicks off.
Again, it’s a tall order because ISU’s defense is legitimately good. Mustering any kind of sustained offense on multiple drives would be another step forward for KU.