Big 12 Football Continues to Adapt, Excel in 20th Season

by BoCarter | Posted on Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Twenty seasons ago, a group of over 300 head coaches, news media and conference officials gathered at what was then the TWA (now Edwards Jones) Dome in St. Louis, Mo., for the inaugural Big 12 Conference football media day…

You’re come a long way, baby (we think).

Though the 2015 configuration is 10 teams, and Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M have left for three other conferences with varied degrees of gridiron success, the day that began with lovable (now retired) head coach Spike Dykes of Texas Tech and ended with NFF College Hall of Fame head coach Dr. Tom Osborne of Nebraska some 8:30 later on that scorching Friday.

Those gathered wondered how the blend of the old Bi Eight and Southwest Conferences might work and how baseball-devoted St. Louisans would respond to a Dr Pepper Big 12 Football Championship some five months later to determine the football titlist.

It worked out that season in the trophy contest, though Texas upended then-No. 3 nationally Nebraska 38-28 (a pattern that occurred in several of the 1996-2011 Dr Pepper Big 12 title games), and the inaugural football champs earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl where Penn State thumped the Longhorns 38-15. The Huskers avenged the Big 12 finale by walloping Virginia Tech 41-21 in the Orange Bowl as both UT and NU advanced to the eight-team Bowl Alliance – a 1994-97 attempt in postseason nationally to pit the highest-ranked teams against one another despite existing conference bowl contracts.

Funny, though, how the 2015 media days had a strong defensive theme, especially given that the Big 12 has been one of the highest-tallying conferences nationally over the last 4-5 seasons with a preponderance of passing offenses.

The head coaches of the 2014 Big 12 co-champions (and the conference now has a head-to-head tiebreaker rule to determine the league’s Conference Football Playoff representative if there is a Big 12 team among the Final Four standings) both spoke about how defense had helped their teams reach these pinnacles and what challenges were ahead in ’15.

Baylor head coach Art Briles, whose team overcame a 21-point deficit in the fourth quarter to edge TCU 61-58 at stunning McLane Stadium in Waco, pontificated about how the reloaded Bears might be able to keep winning those close games (the team was 11-2 in 2014) despite opposing offenses.

“This is the best time of year,” Briles noted. “I’m very thankful to be at Baylor University and be a member of the Big 12, and we’re excited about this season. We feel like we’ve got a unit that understands each other, loves each other, respects each other, and knows how to win football games. That’s a critical thing. There’s all kinds of experience on both sides, though we lost two fine players in (QB) Bryce Petty and (LB) Bryce Hager. Our guys have good experience. They have winning experience. They have championship experience.”

TCU head coach Gary Patterson echoed the same sentiments after the Frogs turned a 4-8 showing in 2013 into a 12-1 masterpiece and co-title last season, though the tough-minded mentor probably would like to see a few more rock ‘em-sock ‘em defensive encounters. One of those for the Horned Frogs was a 42-3 thumping of Southeastern Conference contender Ole Miss in the 2014 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

“I kind of put it into, now going into our fourth season in the Big 12, just the difference in the two‑year turnaround,” Patterson opined, “and how the attitude and confidence changed in our team. For me it’s about standing in between the lines, not getting too high or too low either way. So a year ago you had to prove people wrong. This year you have to prove people right. As a football team, that’s really, from my approach on down, how we’ve tried to handle it.
It’s been a great summer. Going into our fourth season in the conference, last year having an opportunity to be in a situation where you won more than you lost and getting a chance to play in a great bowl game. Things have not stopped at TCU.

Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder, entering his 22nd season at the age of 73 with KSU and still going strong with a new arsenal of “experienced” quips, is the lone coach remaining at his school from the opening year of the Big 12 in ’96 and continues to succeed with discipline, outworking the foes and solid defense.

The Wildcats sport DB Dante Barnett, a three-year starter who has garnered pre-2015 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year kudos in some circles and around whom Snyder has built another salty stop squad.

“That’s exactly the way it has to take place with Dante,” Snyder stated. “Each one of those young guys on defense I’ve alluded to (in preseason gathering), it’s wonderful. Congratulations to each on being selected on this watch list, that watch list, et cetera, et cetera, but that’s not the significant thing. The important thing is will you work hard enough, will you make it important enough to you to earn it in the light that is expected of you, which is to be a great teammate and make it about the team and not about yourself.

“He is a young guy like the rest of them who I think will do exactly that,” Snyder continued. “I think he cares more about the accomplishments of his collective team and his teammates than he does about his own. I have great appreciation for that. There’s a humility there. Dante is a very confident young guy, and I appreciate that a great deal. But by the same token, humility is part of his makeup, and I appreciate that a great deal as well. Aside from the other things, he’s been a fine player as well.”

Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads also knows his team needs to make some defensive statements and to raise its level back to 7-8-9 wins from recent years in Ames.

“The bottom line coming out of this summer, coming out of this offseason both offensive and defensively is we are a closer football team heading into 2015,” he explained. “Talent, experience, continuity are all very important, but if you don’t have that chemistry, you don’t have that closeness, you’re starting at a disadvantage.

“Speaking of experience, we’ve got a fair amount of it on our football team,” Rhoads said. “Offensively, we return 11 guys that have starting experience and up to 13 that have played. On the defensive side, we’ve got six guys with primary starting experience, but then we have another 10 that played a bunch of football for us in 2014 and earlier. We’re going to add seven junior college players, and that will give us some instant playing experience.”

Oklahoma and Texas, with a combined record of 14-12 (OU 8-5, Texas 6-7) and rugged defeats in bowl games to Clemson and Arkansas, respectively, know where improvement is needed – especially in defensive areas.

“Defensively, we hired a couple of new guys in the secondary, Kerry Cooks and Diron Reynolds on the defensive line,” said OU’s 17-year coach veteran Bob Stoops and 2000 national championship winner. “And I like how that has gone through the spring. (Coach) Mike Stoops moving to outside backers has allowed him more opportunity to move around to each position, and I thought through the spring we made really good progress.

“I feel like on defense with all the guys that are back,” he added, “we have a chance to make improvement just from experience with maturity and guys being older, in particular, in the secondary. Some guys I think are pretty special are Steven Parker and Jordan Thomas that were true freshmen a year ago and are now a year older. I see improvement through the spring and summer.”

Second-year Texas head coach Charlie Strong has observed many of the same things in Austin as his disciplined and team-first attitudes seem to be taking hold.

“At Texas 6-7 is not acceptable,” he began. “We have got to get better. We want all our student-athletes to succeed on the playing field and in life, and we have 85 people on scholarship every year. It just happened that nine did not want to follow the rules last year, and we did what was best for everyone in the program.”

“Besides playing better defensively, we need to find people on offense who can play with discipline and show leadership,” Strong stated. “We have two fine athletes coming back at quarterback in Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard (redshirt freshman in 2015), but we have to surround them with quality people on both sides. We need some playmakers, and I think about that Florida national championship team (Strong was defensive coordinator under then-head coach Urban Meyer at UF in 2008) and how so many other players on offense and defense made Tim and the whole team even better with their playmaking skills.”

Other coaches had similar thoughts on two days where every team still is undefeated, and optimism reigns – at least until the 2015 openers.

Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury made one of his most significant offseason hires when he added former Houston defensive coordinator and interim head coach in the Cougars’ 35-34 miracle comeback win over Pittsburgh in the 2015 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in new Red Raiders’ DC David Gibbs.

“David Gibbs has been phenomenal,” Kingsbury said. “We knew that he had the track record and had the credibility coming into spring practice. He has brought a different level of professionalism, accountability and discipline that we needed on that side of the ball. I couldn’t be more pleased with what I’ve seen thus far. We have a young defense still. It’s an excited group. He has related to the players really quickly. I’m excited to watch that group continue to grow this fall.”

The always high-scoring Red Raiders may have found their starting quarterback in soph Patrick Mahomes, who finished fourth in the Big 12 in 2014 passing efficiency at 151.2, tossed 16 TD passes with just four interceptions and established AT&T Stadium records with 598 yards passing and six TDs in a narrow, 48-46 loss to Baylor in Arlington last November.

“Patrick stepped up and did the job, and Davis Webb is an experienced junior quarterback,” Kingsbury related. “We have some options there, and with the defensive improvement we expect, we’re ready to play a lot better. Schematically he’ll do some different things defensively the way coach Gibbs handles players. We’ve had some shuffling of which coaches are coaching which positions since last year, so pretty much there has been an entire overhaul. Through the spring, I thought they responded well. The players responded well. I think we’ll continue to watch that growth through fall camp and into the season will be fun for me.”

New Kansas head coach David Beaty is hoping that Texas-based recruiting and stiffer defense will help return the Jayhawks’ fortunes to the point in 2007 where the squad finished 12-1 and downed Virginia Tech 24-21 in the FedEx Orange Bowl under now-Iowa State offensive coordinator Mark Mangino.

“We’ve set out and set a goal to make sure that we earn the trust and respect of our stakeholders ‑ our students, the people of our state, every high school coach, every high school player, our alumni, our former players ‑ one person at a time,” noted Beaty. “We’re committed as a team and as a staff to work hard together, and we expect to reach those expectations together. We want to create a brand of Kansas football that is tough, fast‑paced, disciplined, highly competitive, fun to watch, and, man, fun to play in on both offense and defense.”

Highly-successful Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy also has the makings of one of the better defenses in the Big 12 after the team slipped to No. 7 in 2014 Big 12 total defense and 91st nationally with virtually an all-new group of starters.

“We do begin the season with experienced quarterbacks in Mason Rudolph and J.W. Walsh,” Gundy opened, “and
now I wish I had another year with Mason. It’s really difficult to predict how redshirt years will take place, especially at the quarterback position. We put a lot of importance in planning in our defense about four years ago and spent a lot of time on this in the offseason. We felt like we needed to be more competitive on defense, and we built up our numbers. We allotted more scholarships on that side of the ball than we did on offense. I think it’s paying off for us now at this time.”

Head coach Dana Holgorsen of West Virginia also realizes the importance of many areas on the defensive side as the Mountaineers surrendered just under 400 yards a game and 38 touchdowns in ’14. A heady defense also allowed WVU to hand Baylor its only regular-season defeat 41-27 at Morgantown last season.

“Geez, I still like to throw the ball a good bit you know,” Holgorsen joked. “I know one thing: if you can’t do either one, throw or run on offense or stop other teams on defense, you’re not going to be worth a darn. We’ve worked hard on getting our run game to where people got to respect it and to keep the defense off the field a little more. Last year we were still top seven or eight in passing in the country, but we ran the ball over 50 percent of the time. That’s just kind of what our philosophy is, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

As the coaches glanced at Big 12 Preseason Offensive Player of the Year QB Trevone Boykin (301-of-492 passing for 3,901 yards passing, 33 touchdowns, 300 yards per game via the air, and a conference-best 4,608 yards of total offense with 707 rushing yards, they all realize he challenges ahead defensively. Plus, eight Big 12 quarterbacks pitched for at least 2,300 yards, and this keeps defensive coordinators up very late at night.

Still, the circuit known in most recent years for high-flying offenses might have its 2015 champ determined by Patterson’s favorite aspect of the game – good, old-fashioned defensive prowess.

Iowa State also had one of the great human-interest stories from media days, and Rhoads describes the situation best.

“I want to take this opportunity to talk about a young man and one of our players by the name of Mitchell Meyers. Mitchell was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma this past January. Since then, he’s gone on to receive six months of chemotherapy. This Friday (July 24) will be Mitchell’s last chemo appointment. During that time, this entire summer, he hasn’t missed a workout with our football team and with his teammates, going through six months of chemotherapy. From this point, Mitchell will come back to his hometown in Houston, Texas, and undergo radiation before joining us in the month of September. Prayers still extended for Mitchell and his family and everything that he’s going through, and our football team watches in admiration and appreciation each and every single day. He is a true inspiration to all of us and the whole Iowa State community.”

That motivational story probably sums up the whole point of college football and the courage it takes to compete in the Big 12.”

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