Week 5 was filled with intrigue, triumph, and heartbreak – as a few teams created some separation in the Big 12 title hunt while a couple of our new friends and soon to be conference foes upped the ante in their bids to crash the college football playoffs this season. Of course, I’m referring to Cincinnati (5-0), now ranked #5, which handed then #9 Notre Dame its first loss of the season, 24-13, and BYU (5-0), now ranked #10, which stayed unbeaten on the road against scrappy in-state rival Utah State (3-2), 34-20.
As there are only three Big 12 games this weekend, I’m going to broaden the scope of this week’s 12 questions to include the four teams that will soon be joining the conference: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF.
Note: As the title suggests, I’ve broken the 12 questions into two parts this week as last week’s article covering all 12 questions was extremely long. Part I examines questions regarding quarterbacks, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia, Baylor, and BYU. Part II examines questions regarding potential bowl eligibility, UCF, TCU, Texas Tech, Cincinnati, and Houston.
Alright, buckle-up. Without further ado, here’s Part I of the 12 Biggest Questions facing the Big 12 this week:
1. WHO’S THE BEST QUARTERBACK IN THE LEAGUE?
Typically, this question for the Big 12 is a matter of trying to figure out which elite quarterback is the most elite. Not so much this season. The Big 12 is not short on elite running backs this season, but the quarterback position has largely been a disappointment.
The first contender that probably comes to anyone’s mind is Oklahoma’s Spencer Rattler. The second might be Texas’ Casey Thompson because of how Texas’s offense has rolled of late. Some might even point to Cincinnati’s Desmond Ritter as he has guided the Bearcats to the heart of the playoff conversation.
After those three, there are a lot of good quarterbacks, but you probably wouldn’t consider most or even any of them as truly contenders for the title of the league’s best.
Grading quarterbacks is difficult because the position is so complex. Some QBs are game managers, some are gunslingers, some are dual threats, and much of what makes a great quarterback cannot be measured by stats, although it typically shows up in the stats some way or another, but maybe not in the splashy stats.
However, some of the Big 12’s quarterbacks, such as Henry Colombi and all three of K-State’s quarterbacks who have played, do not have enough pass attempts yet to show-up in national stats likes passing efficiency. Moreover, stats generally measure volumes and percentages as opposed to how well each quarterback operates within his team’s offensive system.
Stats provide one lens to look through, and the national media echo chamber provides another that is mostly hype and recycled pet narratives. Nonetheless, it’s easy to believe that certain QB is the best when he’s all the national media wants to talk about.
While I do not consider Pro Football Focus (PFF) the end-all, be-all of player evaluations, it does provide a point of view that no other source can as PFF does not tabulate ratings purely by statistics but by play-by-play success within the offensive concepts run by each offense. Unlike so much of the national media, PFF’s player evaluations are not hype-based products of confirmation bias in an endless loop of recycled narratives, but an attempt to look at each play as a microcosm.
Take everything with a grain of salt, however.
Stats and media narratives are just lenses through which we may look, and PFF is also just a lens. Any lens – be it literal, analytical, or theoretical – distorts certain things while it makes others clearer and hides some things while revealing others. For example, consider the arcane theoretical lenses of Freud and Marx: both revealed things that had been hidden from the mainstream conversation regarding psychology and sociology, but both had blind spots and distorted reality as they respectively reduced human psychology and society to sex and money.
Of course, some lenses are better than others. For example, give me Hobbes over Rousseau, Hayek over Marx, Piaget over Freud, and PFF over ESPN.
Again, not that PFF (or any lens) is perfect, but for your consideration, here’s how PFF ranks Big 12 (and New Big 12) quarterbacks through the first five weeks.
PFF’s national rating – overall numerical grade:
4. Skylar Thompson (KSU) – 91.1
9. Henry Colombi (TTU) – 90.3
16. Desmond Ritter (UC) – 87.6
22. Spencer Rattler (OU) – 86.6
25. Spencer Sanders (OSU) – 85.1
45. Brock Purdy (ISU) – 79.3
48. Casey Thompson (UT) –78.7
51. Gerry Bohanon (BU) – 78.1
60. Tyler Shough (TTU) – 76.9
66. Dillon Gabriel (UCF) – 76.1
73. Jaren Hall (BYU) – 75.1
93. Max Duggan (TCU) – 72.6
108. Clayton Tune (UH) – 70.0
127. Jarret Doege (WVU) – 66.7
169. Jason Bean (KU) – 60.0
181. Will Howard (KSU) – 57.4
183. Hudson Card (UT) – 56.7
2. CAN OKLAHOMA’S DEFENSE ROPE TEXAS’ GALLOPING OFFENSE?
Outside of a few minutes against Tulane, Oklahoma’s defense has been the main reason the Sooners have started the season 5-0. The OU defense came up big against Nebraska and West Virginia while the offense just poked along like a teenage boy in a summer daze, trying to find himself.
Against K-State, when the Cats threatened to hold onto the ball for forever, the OU defense kept grinding and making K-State make plays. Of course, given how long K-State was holding on to the ball in the first half, the Oklahoma’s offense needed to take advantage of nearly every possession to win the game, and that they did, but still a large amount of credit goes to the defense for simply not giving up huge plays to Deuce Vaughn and the K-State running game.
Now, the Sooners defense faces one of the hottest offenses in the nation as quarterback Casey Thompson, running back Bijan Robinson, wide receiver Jordan Whittington, and the rest of the Texas offense have been on a literal tear. Since Texas’ loss to Arkansas in Week 2, the Longhorns offense has been without mercy, scoring 160 points in its last three games, including 102 points against Big 12 opponents.
The Longhorns offense isn’t unstoppable, however. Last Saturday, TCU fumbled the ball away three times and still only lost to Texas by 4 points. The 32 points scored by Texas against TCU are tied for the fewest the Frogs have surrendered to an FBS team all season long. The other FBS team to hang just 32 on the Frogs was Cal (1-4), a team that has yet to beat an FBS opponent.
Nonetheless, with the weapons at Texas’ disposal, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to foresee that Oklahoma’s defense is going to have its hands full. Are they up to the challenge? And what can Oklahoma’s offense do to ease the burden?
3. CAN TEXAS’ DEFENSE GET OFF THE FIELD ENOUGH TO LET ITS OFFENSE RUN?
While the Sooners leaned heavily on their defense in Weeks 3 and 4, Texas’ defense has had the luxury of not needing to be very good. However, there are disconcerting signs regarding UT’s D if you’re a Longhorns fan.
First, there was the manhandling at Arkansas as the Razorbacks rushed for 333 yards. Two weeks later, following a shutout of Rice, Texas Tech piled up 520 yards of offense while its second-string quarterback passed for 14.1 yards per attempt.
Last week, TCU had 351 yards of offense and literally had the game stripped away by losing three fumbles. Kudos to Texas for creating turnovers, but Texas is 8th in the Big 12 in yards allowed per game, 396.8, ahead of just TCU and KU.
And that 396.8 yards allowed per game is with a shutout against lowly Rice. Take the Rice game out of the equation, and Texas is surrendering 428 yards per game.
All of this is to say that defense is far and away Texas’ main concern entering Red River because Texas’ defense has simply not been any better than average against any offense that isn’t completely overmatched. And while Oklahoma’s offensive line hasn’t been humming along the way Arkansas’ was until it ran into the UGA buzzsaw, the Sooners without doubt have the best collection of talent at the skill positions that Texas will face all season long.
Oklahoma’s offense got off to slow start this season, largely due to the offensive line needing time to gel, but it looked pretty good against a K-State defense that is allowing fewer yards per game than Texas (342.6) while playing the 4th toughest schedule in the nation per the Sagarin rankings (Texas’ schedule to date is ranked 26th). In fact, in a game with precious few possessions, Oklahoma did not punt against K-State.
Nonetheless, it’s not like Oklahoma’s offense is the juggernaut it has been in the past, and with Texas’ offense playing so well of late, the Texas defense just needs to make some timely stops and get off the field without allowing points from time to time to keep the Longhorns in the game. They did it in Fort Worth against a pretty good TCU offense. Can they do it in Dallas against a potentially elite OU offense?
4. ARE THE WHEELS COMIG OFF FOR WEST VIRGINIA?
Things are starting to look desperate for the Mountaineers after falling to 2-3, 0-2 with a home loss to Texas Tech last week. Now, with a game at Baylor (4-1,1-1), a team that has already surprised many this season by knocking off then #14 Iowa State two weeks ago, West Virginia’s season is on the brink of going disastrously wrong.
However, anyone who thought WVU’s first six weeks would be a cake walk didn’t look at the schedule. According to the Sagarin rankings, West Virginia has played the 15th toughest schedule in the nation (3rd in the Big 12) through the first five weeks of play,.
The bad news is that the schedule doesn’t get easier with a trip to Waco, and while WVU has the ingredients to pull off an upset against Baylor, so much depends on the Mountaineers’ psyche after being stunned by a reeling Texas Tech team that was coming off a 70-35 beatdown at the hands of Texas.
This game will tell us a lot about where West Virginia’s season is headed. If the Mountaineers win, they’re back to .500 and can still reach most of their goals for the season. A loss, however, would drop WVU to 2-4, 0-3 and even a bowl game will very much be in doubt.
While the game in Waco will mark just the halfway point for WVU’s season, it feels like a do or die game for the ‘Eers.
5. CAN BAYLOR BOUNCE BACK?
A week after Baylor finally set aside many of the doubts about its legitimacy by knocking off Iowa State, the Bears stumbled for the first time this season at Oklahoma State. Now, Baylor is tasked with proving that it come bounce back from disappointment.
This will not be an easy test, but it is a critical one.
West Virginia may well be fighting for its very season in Waco on Saturday. As mentioned above, a loss in Waco would drop WVU to 2-4, 0-3, and even a bowl game will begin to seem out of reach. Playing a desperate team can be harrowing, and Baylor may be tested far more than it has been this season.
Fail this test, and Baylor is on the doorstep of becoming desperate itself as a two-game losing streak could quickly become a three-game losing streak with #10 BYU coming to town the following week. All the positive energy the Bears built up over the first four weeks of the season could be completed evaporated by the time they reach their bye week.
Can Baylor bounce back? If the answer is “no” this weekend, the entire complexion of the Bears’ season could begin to grow quite dark and stormy.
6. CAN BYU CONTINUE TO ROLL AGAINT DANGEROUS AND DESPERATE BOISE STATE?
BYU (5-0) has been fat and happy all season long. From clinching a spot in the Big 12 to steamrolling the Pac-12 on the football field, including in-state rival Utah, life has been good for the Cougars. Keep it up, and BYU should be in line for a New Year’s Six bowl, and on the short list of playoff contenders.
But there’s still a lot of football to be played, and this week BYU plays host the Boise State (2-3), a team that is fresh off a home loss to Nevada, and that must be feeling rather desperate to get its season turned around. What better way to turn a disappointing season around than to knock off a top 10 team at home?
And it’s not like Boise is a bad team. Big 12 fans will remember that the Broncos gave Oklahoma State all it wanted and more in Week 3. There’s not a bad loss on Boise’s resume. On the other hand, there’s not a great win either.
The Broncos best win of the season came at Utah State, 27-3. Just last week, BYU won its own game at Utah State, 34-20.
Comparing scores against a common opponent is rarely a good indication of which team is better, but BYU had better come prepared to play a team just as dangerous as the Pac-12 foes the Cougars disposed of in the first three weeks of the season, or things could go very wrong.
A win this weekend, and BYU gets to take its show to the Big 12. Baylor vs. BYU will be a big a game for both teams no matter what, but it would be a much bigger game on the national stage is both teams, and particularly #10 BYU, can escape this weekend with wins.
That’s it for Part I. Part II is coming soon.