Welcome to Part II.
As I explained in Part I, the questions are broken into two parts because trying to get all 12 questions in one article makes for a very long article. Hey, you’ve got things to do – you can’t spend an hour reading one article.
Part I looked at questions regarding grading Big 12 quarterbacks, Oklahoma’s defense, Texas’ defense, West Virginia’s mindset, Baylor’s chance to bounce back, and the pressure on BYU to keep the wins coming.
Here, Part II examines questions regarding the teetering bowl hopes of a few teams, UCF’s bid to bounce back from two consecutive losses, the quest for TCU’s defense to find itself, Texas Tech’s big chance to get ahead of the chains in the win/loss columns, a potential letdown game for Cincinnati, and Houston’s chances of meeting Cincy in an all-Big-12 AAC championship game.
If you’re wondering why this week’s 12 questions include the four teams that are not actually conference members just yet, there are only three Big 12 games this weekend, so I thought it would be fun to broaden the scope a bit and let you, Big 12 fan, warm up a bit to the new look of the league.
Alright, buckle up. Without further ado, here’s Part II of the 12 Biggest Questions facing the Big 12 this week:
7. WHO WANTS TO GO BOWLING?
Three teams from the Big 12 and New Big 12 can secure bowl eligibility this weekend: Oklahoma, Cincinnati, and BYU. However, this question isn’t so much for them as it is for teams that need to get things turned around to keep a bowl game from getting beyond reach.
West Virginia (2-3, 0-2), TCU (2-2, 0-1), and UCF (2-2, 0-1 AA) have all suffered back-to-back losses and need to get on the right side of the win-loss column this week to keep their seasons from starting to spiral down into bitter disappointment. Things are most dire for West Virginia as another loss would put them two games back from .500 with the only near sure-fire win remaining at Kansas to close the season. A win at Baylor, however, dramatically changes the Mountaineers’ bowl prospects.
TCU doesn’t have a lot of leeway either. They still have the layup vs Kansas the week before closing the season at Iowa State, but it’s difficult to point out three more likely wins. One of their best chances for a win will be this weekend at Texas Tech. Beat Tech and TCU is back in business and on track to reach a bowl game, but a loss might signal a very long season indeed.
UCF’s bowl hopes aren’t in nearly as much jeopardy as the American is simply not as strong of a conference from top to bottom as the Big 12. However, after falling to winless Navy last Saturday, there is no better time than the present to get the ship turned around headed toward bowl eligibility. In order to right the ship, however, UCF must fend off the Pirates on Saturday.
8. CAN UCF BOUNCE BACK FROM TWO STRAIGHT LOSSES?
This is strange yet familiar territory for UCF fans. After starting the season with a Big 12 invite, a come from behind win against Boise State, and an easy win against FCS Bethune-Cookman, the Knights lost two straight road games to Louisville and Navy.
While UCF lost two games consecutive games in the oddball 2020 season, the Knights have become accustomed to rarely losing at all. Entering the 2021 season, the Knights had lost just six games since 2017 – a paltry 1.5 losses per season.
2020 ended with a loss to #16 BYU in the Boca Raton Bowl, and yet another UCF head coach – this time former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel – was spirited away by a big-budget Power 5 program hoping to rebuild its fallen kingdom with a Knight.
New UCF head coach Gus Malzahn has come to an early crossroads in his Knights tenure with as UCF suffered a strange loss last week to previously winless Navy, and no one can blame UCF fans for wondering what the heck is going on.
With a trip to Cincinnati on the horizon, it is critical that UCF bounce back this Saturday against Eastern Carolina (3-2) to get back in the win column. The schedule softens up a bit after the Cincinnati game. While games remain at home against Memphis and in Dallas against #24 SMU in mid-November, the rest of the schedule consists of four nearly sure-fire wins at Temple and at home against Tulane, UConn, and South Florida.
Thus, the battle with ECU now appears to be something of a swing game for UCF. A bounce-back win against the Pirates gives the Knights a chance to head to Cincinnati with some momentum that could potentially cascade all the way to a shot at reaching the American championship game.
A loss and UCF may be fighting all season to get above .500.
9. CAN TCU’S DEFENSE START TO LOOK LIKE A GARY PATTERSON DEFENSE?
College is a time in many people’s lives when they truly figure out who they are or who they will be as adult. In fact, the journey to find one’s own self is perhaps what college is all about.
In college football, however, a team doesn’t have four years to sort out its identity. Indeed, if a team’s identity isn’t established within four games or less, the season is likely going badly.
At 2-2, 0-1 with losses to two of the three teams that TCU hates to lose to more than any other, the Horned Frogs’ season is going badly, and while the offense hasn’t been perfect in either loss, it looks like the primary reason for the losses, especially the loss to SMU, is that TCU just isn’t itself on defense.
One of the advantages that TCU’s defenses have traditionally had is knowing who they are before the season even began because they could inherit the identity created by Gary Patterson over numerous seasons of defense oriented football. However, this doesn’t appear to be the case in 2021, at least not yet.
TCU travels to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech (4-1, 1-1) this Saturday, and while the Red Raiders may not be the offensive juggernaut they have been in the past, they’re still no slouch. In fact, the 2021 Red Raiders may be the best team Texas Tech has fielded in some time.
Despite being without its starting quarterback, Tyler Shough, and running back, Tahj Brooks, Tech went into Morgantown last week and come out with a win – no small feat. And while this is not Mike Leach’s Texas Tech, the Red Raiders are loaded with offensive talent – more than enough to make any defense sweat.
If TCU is going to turn its season around, it must start this weekend on the road with a strong performance from its defense. Zach Evans could well run for 200+ yards, and Max Duggan is probably going to play his typical brand of gutsy football, but all that won’t mean much, even in a win, if TCU’s defense can’t start to resemble a Gary Patterson defense.
There’s just way too much meat left on TCU’s schedule for it to be successful without its defense getting right, and the sooner the defense gets right the better because a trip to Norman to face the Sooners is up next.
10. CAN TEXAS TECH BREAKTHROUGH?
The last time Texas Tech started a season at 4-1 was in 2017. However, the Red Raiders followed that great 2017 start with four consecutive losses and barely reached bowl eligibility at 6-6.
A victory over TCU for Texas Tech to get to 5-1, 2-1 would be nothing short of a breakthrough for the Red Raiders and cause for major celebration in Lubbock. Not only would it be Tech’s best start since opening the 2013 season at 7-0, but it would also make Tech a virtual lock for its first bowl game since the 2017 season.
It’s been a long time since Tech has truly been ahead of the chains when it comes to bowl eligibility, and with a game at Kansas the week after hosting TCU, Tech could very well be bowl eligible before entering a difficult stretch to end the season: vs. K-State, at Oklahoma, vs. Iowa State, vs. Oklahoma State, and at Baylor.
To illustrate how difficult those last five games are, Texas Tech’s last win against K-State was in 2009; it’s last win against Oklahoma was in 2011; its last win against Iowa State was in 2015. And while Tech has recent wins against both Oklahoma State (2019) and Baylor (2020), those teams look formidable this season.
But this week, at home, against a TCU team that hasn’t been itself on defense, Texas Tech could all but seal its first bowl berth since 2017. It would be a breakthrough win after three straight seasons of frustration.
11. CAN CINCINNATI AVOID A LETDOWN AFTER THUMPING NOTRE DAME?
The Bearcats went to Notre Dame and took down the #9 Fighting Irish last week, 24-13. Now, at 5-0, Cincinnati is ranked 5th and knocking on the playoffs’ door.
The playoffs – the promised land – a shot at the national title. It could all be Cincinnati’s this season, and who could blame the Bearcats for just wanting to skip ahead to that dream outcome?
Cincinnati can’t just skip ahead, however, as there is still a lot of football to be played, a lot of games left, and the Bearcats will be heavily favored in every single one.
Now, the Bearcats’ season comes down to taking care of business and scoring as many style points as it can. One let down, even one ugly win could wreck it all for Cincinnati as the playoff committee has proven time and time again that it is completely crushing on blue bloods and the usual suspects. Just give the committee an excuse to put Ohio State and/or Oregon in ahead of you, Bearcats, and it will be done faster than you can say, “beauty pageant.”
It’s one step at a time now, with everyone Cincy plays treating the game like it’s their Super Bowl. The Bearcats cannot get caught looking back or looking ahead. It must be 100% locked-in week after week, including this Friday against Temple.
After getting shellacked by Rutgers and Boston College earlier this season, Temple taught Memphis a thing or two about looking backwards as it punished the Tigers with a 34-31 defeat a week after Memphis’ upset of Mississippi State.
Cincinnati doesn’t even want to flirt with following in Memphis’ footsteps this weekend. Given Temple’s lopsided losses to Power 5 teams, the Bearcats must avoid a letdown of any kind this weekend – they don’t want the score to be anywhere near close.
But that’s easy said than done. Letdown games are a thing for a reason.
Here’s hoping Cincinnati stays focused.
12. CAN HOUSTON MEET CINCY IN AN ALL-BIG-12 AAC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME?
After beating Tulane Thursday night, 40-22, Houston is 5-1, 3-0 with a clear path to the AAC championship game.
The AAC has 11 football members (Wichita State doesn’t play football), so with eight conference games, every team in the league misses just two conference foes. This works out extremely well for Houston this season as the two teams they miss in conference play are Cincinnati and UCF.
Houston’s remaining schedule is ECU, #25 SMU, at South Florida, Memphis, at UConn. The only two road games are by far the easiest games left on the schedule. As for the remaining home games, none of them are lay-ups but they’re all winnable.
Even if Houston lost one of those games, let’s say to SMU, to finish 7-1 in the league, there’s a good chance that Houston would still get into the AAC championship as SMU has to play Cincy, Memphis, and UCF and may not be able to finish better than 10-2, 6-2. Moreover, Memphis and UCF already have one loss each in AAC play.
So long as Cincy takes care of business on its end, Houston can probably afford to lose one game and still make the AAC championship and making sure that one loss is not to SMU all but clinches it. However, it sure would make for one hell of a Big-12-AAC championship game if Houston could run the table and be 11-1 facing 12-0 Cincy.