Sunday, August 27, 2006
2006 PREVIEW, QUICKLY: THE BIG XII
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Five seasons out of six this decade have featured a Big XII team in the mythical championship game, a testament to the talent concentrated in its top programs, and the monopoly they seem to have on it compared to mostly far-behind underlings, always on the brink of a losing season: it's still Texas, Oklahoma, and everyone else.
In 2005, of course, it was just Texas and everybody else, and the deflation of the initial hype surrounding the Sooners following the dismissal of their starting quarterback might be an indication it will be again. Surely no team from the North will seriously contend. Colorado's won four of the last five division crowns, the past three of those by teams that barely broke even in the conference, and the last two by teams that were outscored over the course of the season. The void left by the demise of Kansas State and Nebraska as counterweights to Oklahoma and Texas will only be replaced anytime soon, it appears, by a resurgent Nebraska program - if it is, in fact, resurgent, and not merely mired in the division's race to December destruction.
Underlying Literary Themes in the Big XII
The Development and Image of the Hero - Colt McCoy is an actual hero, with the lone ridin', gunslingin' name to boot, but will never come anywhere the shine Vince Young emitted on the field. If the young quarterback is going to earn the spotlight any time soon, it'll be for qualities like "maturity" and "unselfishness" in the course of making the easy plays, maybe one here and there in a jam and not screwing up handoffs before one of UT's ridiculous stable of backs can get his talented hands on it. Otherwise, the cameras will be picking up a kid who's "flustered" and "trying to do too much." Which is still preferable to a true freshman.
Individuality/ The Individual in Society (Society and a person's inner nature are always at war) - SMQ's favorite coach is Mike Leach, who's so out of place in the contemporary society of college football, his own fans have begun dubbing him "TSO" - The Strange One. In a culture of coach-as-politician, Leach is a savant, something like a pizza delivery boy thrown into the general's chair, making it up as he goes with the rulebook but no indoctrination as to how to go about it. In that sense, there's a correlation with Leach's reported fascination with pirates, vikings and Deadwood, all operating in violent, lawless societies that have to form their own rules for survival, some of which confuse or appall mainstream culture. And also with Donald Trump.
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Swing your sword, Coach. Swing your sword.
Religion and Faith - Nobody else thought Bill Callahan's attempted shift to the dreaded "West Coast" of pro-style quick passing was all that great an idea, given Nebraska's historical success at, affection for, and recruiting emphasis on, running over people. It didn't help that the team continued to average almost five yards per carry in 2004, while getting itself intercepted out of a bowl game for the first time in many decades. Converts may have begun milling around the icon of Bill Walsh only after Zac Taylor threw for 392 and creamed Colorado on the road, then snuck by Michigan in a less explosive but more run-friendly, affirming year-end win. And last week, Callahan added his greatest convert in deposed Arizona State quarterback Sam Keller, who will bring instant legitimacy to the 2007 passing attack, when all of the skill guys are scheduled to return. If he comes out of this fall with ten wins - or at least a trip to the conference championship - the congregation's going to start bursting at the seams for the long-awaited return ascension to mythical title speculation.
SMQ Must Justify...
The respective trajectories of Texas Tech and Texas A&M under their current administrations is pretty clear: Raiders hot, Aggies cold. Other than the one guy who voted for A&M in his BlogPoll ballot, SMQ's not aware of anyone besides his own self going with TAMU over Tech.
Key backfield and line components are back from a very good, deep, underrated running game at A&M that averaged 5.7 a carry, and peaked against Oklahoma and Texas to close the season. So, of course, is 75 percent of the secondary that gave up more passing yards per game than any other, anywhere - this will not, however, have an effect on the four automatic wins (The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army and Louisiana Tech) to open the season.
Texas Tech benefited from a similarly snuggly soft schedule to hit the elusive ten-win, top 20 peak last year, and could potentially match that again with more than 200 catches returning and allegedly the most talented quarterback yet (either Graham Harrell or the pugilistic Chris Todd) joining TSO's unstoppable pitch-and-toss attack. But: the Raiders' are a team that slumps a bit away from home (16-22 on the road under Leach), meaning an extra loss or two, or more, on top of the assumed Texas-Oklahoma defeats from among the much stiffer road slate of TCU, UTEP, Texas A&M, Colorado and Iowa State is not at all a reach.
The Aggies' struggles on the road are even more severe (3-12 under Franchione), but this makes it all the more favorable for them that Tech, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska all come to College Station. So this is a schedule pick: SMQ says TAMU should be favored in at least eight of its first nine games before the November gauntlet, the same ratio Tech had against even softer softies in '05, and it didn't much slow voters from jumping on that bandwagon (the Raiders were 10th at 6-0 when they were dropped by Texas, and back up to No. 13 when they fell to Oklahoma State three weeks later).
Most Likely To Prove SMQ Wrong
If it finds anything in the general size and weight of a running game, Iowa State could finally break on through to the championship game. We've all been waiting for that next step since the Seneca Wallace Era, and this is the best personnel Dan McCarney's had to work with in any era of his extended tenure here. Bret Meyer can throw; Todd Blythe, Austin Flynn and Jon Davis can catch; the offensive line is a seniors' club; Brent Curvey is a productive tackle (61 tackles, 6.5 sacks) who led the defense's holding opponents to 3.0 per carry.
In the same breath, the offense produced just 2.7 a carry, only improved upon a little by a healthy Stevie Hicks, and this held against terrible teams like Army, Baylor and even Illinois State. And with chances to lock up the division in the season finale the last two years, ISU's let Kansas and Missouri sneak away with overtime wins that handed the title to bearly-treading-water Colorado. Until it corrects those trends - both toughness issues - and its secondary, while we're at it, Iowa State's just average or slightly below.
If One Thing Is Certain...
Harrell or Todd will throw for 3,500 yards and 30 touchdowns. Or whoever's back there for Texas Tech. That's a conservative estimate, too. We're used to rent-a-fifth-year-senior slingers at Tech, but Leach's options this year mean he'll be starting his youngest passer since sophomore Kilff Kingsbury in his first season in 2000, but this isn't going to be an issue. The entire offensive line and receiving corps are back in full force.
SMQ's suggested before Nebraska could be one the country's leading mythical title shockers, and along with that - especially with the upset-friendly nature of the championship game - goes the outside chance of a league title. Texas A&M reserves the right to self-destruct at all times. The middle of the pack can go in any conceivable order; on paper, Colorado is a descending team SMQ has placed at six for potentially flimsy reasons. And assuming Baylor is about the equal of Oklahoma State and possibly Kansas, the Bears are only a couple upsets from climbing into the middle of the pack themselves for the first time since the league was formed.
Projected Order of Finish (SMQ's BlogPoll Ranking)
This is not a power poll...
1. Texas (#7)
Outside of the quarterback, this team is a cinch for number one across the board. Redshirt freshmen, though, don't win mythical championships; this is a hard, fast rule until it's broken. Rookie quarterbacks don't win Super Bowls, either. But McCoy's going to have as good a shot as anybody ever has.
2. Oklahoma (#12)
Adrian Peterson may be prepared to shoulder an historic responsibility, but the main benefit here is an all-around dominating front seven on defense. Drop off from Rhett Bomar to Paul Thompson or not, the passing game and offensive line are incriminating evidence against a full Sooner resurgence. Peterson will not defeat Texas and Oregon on his own.
3. Nebraska (#16)
More unyielding run defense here, with a lot of untapped potential on offense. The Huskers' ironic weakness is the offensive line, which allowed Zac Taylor to be bludgeoned 3.2 times per game and failing to produce enough space for a four-yard-per-carry average in any game until the bowl, which should make Tom Osborne and anyone who remembers the mid-nineties Nebraska teams weep. The new running backs, at least - Malon Lucky and Kenny Wilson - are about as highly-rated a pair as they come. Missing Oklahoma and getting Texas at home is a positive; psychologically, much probably rides on the competiveness displayed in the September trip to USC.
4. Texas A&M
Another losing season - which would be Franchione's third in four years, and certainly his last here - is very unlikely because of the schedule. But also consider the competitive season finales against Oklahoma and Texas, two games in which the offense ran wild and was in a position to win late, as a sign of better fortune to come. Highly-touted quarterback Stephen McGee has played a little and ought to be into a reasonable rhythm by November.
5. Texas Tech
The quarterback is supposed to be a bigger-armed version than we've seen from Tech before, but SMQ's not sure what this means in terms of production. Could Matt Leinart come in here and throw for more yards or touchdowns? The key here's going to be showing more consistency on defense, against the run and especially in the pass rush (just 18 sacks in '05, none against a respectable line).
One of the riskiest picks, because, even with four of the past five division titles and a pretty solid defensive core returning, a second place finish in the North is dependent entirely on self-help Zen master/OMG total techno whiz kid Dan Hawkins' influence on the offense. Running game might work, but who throws, and to who?
7. Iowa State
Ought to scare everybody to death with the talked-up skill guys, but there would be worse bets than taking ISU's opponent in all five of the Cyclones' road games. That would mean beating Nebraska and Texas Tech (and let's not completely discount Toledo) at home to finish in the black again.
8. Kansas State
Elevated by the potentially rejuvenating effects of a new coach and a huge number of returning starters. Depressed by a weird quarterback situation that's been shuffled, diced, sliced, tossed about and reconfigured a couple time since Ell Roberson graduated, to the ultimate ascension of underwhelming senior Dylan Meier or true freshman Josh Freeman in the wake of transfers by last year's starting combo, Allan Evridge and Allen Webb, and by some guy named Kevin Lopina. Also gave up 669 yards passing in one game, to Texas Tech, of course, but was not really so bad against the pass otherwise.
A lot of starters are returning - judging from the tackle numbers, every defensive player on the roster was in the rotation last year - but none of them accounted for 3,600 total yards and 29 touchdowns. If Mizzou could barely break even over four years of a guy like Brad Smith running the show, why should it get the benefit of the doubt now that he's gone? Both guys vying to replace him, coincidentally, are named 'Chase,' and that's kind of annoying. Well, no, very annoying.
Carried into a second bowl in three years in '05 by a legitimately stout, underrated defense that was decimated by graduation. That leaves the low-octane offense to make up the difference with a new quarterback, probably a redshirt freshman. Still too-far behind, talent-wise.
11. Oklahoma State
The offense has a chance, but sweet lord, the defense allowed 300 yards rushing on four different occasions. Not much upside to that, or to a quarterback situation featuring two guys with completion percentages in the 40s; the only guy on the plus side of that mark last year, Donovan Woods, moved to free safety. This indicates something very bad about both of these positions, though SMQ knows not exactly what.
The Bears showed some fight by starting 4-1, including taking Texas A&M to overtime (again) and stunned Iowa State, had a couple of scores called back that could have ended an upset of Texas Tech, and closed another ultimately dismal year by beating Oklahoma State. If Phil Steele is to be believed, quarterback Shawn Bell is the underappreciated, inexplicably benched lynchpin of a bowl run, and the numbers indicate this could be the case. It's also the case, though, that BU was 2-6 in the league and is more or less bereft of serious weaponry sufficient to hack it to the postseason, especially when Washington State and TCU are waiting outside of conference play.
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