Ten significant surprises of Big 12 football race at midseason

10/16/2013 1:10 PM

10/16/2013 8:45 PM

At the midpoint of the Big 12 football season, we can safely say the pundits and prognosticators seem to have accurately forecast the fate of a Kansas team working its way to the bottom of the league standings.

But beyond making the easy call on the Jayhawks (2-3, 0-2 in Big 12), who will drag a 23-game losing steak in league play into Saturday’s game against No. 18 Oklahoma (5-1, 2-1), there has been little about the Big 12 race that has followed the preseason form chart.

Among the midseason reality checks that few saw coming in August:

• No. 12 Baylor (5-0, 2-0) is the top-ranked Big 12 team in the weekly college polls for the first time in the conference’s 18-year history.
• No. 16 Texas Tech (6-0, 3-0), roundly targeted for a seventh- or eighth-place finish, is the only school already bowl-eligible.
• Texas (4-2, 3-0) is a factor in the Big 12 race because Mack Brown and his coordinators outcoached Bob Stoops and his Oklahoma counterparts in the Red River Rivalry.
• West Virginia (3-3, 1-2) is leaning more on defense than offense in efforts to secure a bowl berth.
• Oklahoma and No. 21 Oklahoma State (4-1, 1-1) are facing quarterback quandaries, after several years of stability at that position.
• The savvy sideline strategists who wear purple at TCU (3-3, 1-2) and Kansas State (2-4, 0-3) oversee teams on the verge of early elimination from the conference race.

And so it goes in the Big 12, where league teams are at least backing up one popular preseason projection: Expect the unexpected, because there is no clear-cut favorite in this race.

At the halfway point, the favorite’s role probably falls to Baylor by default. But coach Art Briles is not rushing to declare his Bears the team to beat down the stretch.

“It’s a wide-open race, the same way it was when you looked at it in August,” Briles said earlier this week. “Nothing has changed that, now that that we’re in October. Anybody can beat anybody.”

Briles’ point about parity has been driven home by several August unknowns who have turned the race in unexpected directions. Here are 10 significant surprises in the first half of the Big 12 season:

QB Bryce Petty, Bayor: A junior with zero starts and 14 career passes until Aug. 31, Petty looms as the landslide leader in the race for all-conference quarterback. He leads the Big 12 in total offense (347 yards per game) and leads the nation in passing efficiency (230.6 rating) with a 70.2 completion rate, 13 touchdown passes and one interception.

QB Baker Mayfield and Davis Webb, Texas Tech: Both of the Red Raiders’ freshmen quarterbacks rank among the league’s top seven players in total offense. Mayfield (321.4 average), a walk-on, is 5-0 as a starter. Webb (193.8 average) is 1-0.

Greg Robinson, Texas: A staff consultant living in Los Angeles until Sept. 8, Robinson has brought meaningful change — mentally and schematically — in five weeks as the Longhorns’ defensive coordinator. He replaced the fired Manny Diaz after Texas surrendered 550 rushing yards in a 40-21 loss to Brigham Young. Last week, the Longhorns held OU to 263 yards and one offensive touchdown in a 36-20 upset.

Kliff Kingsbury, Texas Tech: The former Tech quarterback, 34, has transitioned smoothly in his first season as a head football coach. His calm-but-confident sideline demeanor has benefitted the Red Raiders’ young quarterbacks.

CB Zack Sanchez, Oklahoma: The redshirt freshman from Keller Central ranks among the league leaders in passes defended (9), tops on the roster for the league’s stingiest defense (308.8 yards, 16.8 points per game).

DE Shawn Oakman, Baylor: The transfer from Penn State has been a terror at defensive end, tying for the league lead in tackles for losses (9).

K Anthony Fera, Texas: Transfer from Penn State has become a dependable kicker after contributing little last season (2-of-4 on FGs, two missed PATs) while battling a groin injury. Fera has made 8-of-9 field goals, including a 50-yarder and 43-yarder against OU.

QB Casey Pachall, TCU: A broken left arm removed Pachall from the lineup in Week Two, before the senior had a chance to show whether he was back on top of his game after missing most of last season in a rehab facility for substance abuse. Pachall, an all-conference candidate in August, could return later this season.

QB Jake Waters, Kansas State: The nation’s top-rated junior college quarterback in 2012, Waters earned the starting job in fall drills. He’s been an accurate passer but has thrown more interceptions (5) than touchdown passes (4) as K-State has fallen out of the league race.

Spotlight: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech TE

Texas Tech tight end Jace Amaro leads the Big 12 in receptions (47), ranks third in receiving yards per game (101 average) and is capable of serving as a burly blocker (6-foot-5, 257 pounds) when the Red Raiders run the football.

Yet Amaro was not listed among the 29 candidates on Tuesday’s midseason watch list for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the top tight end in college football. The omission, while puzzling, is not a deal-breaker in regard to final placement on ballots.

Rest assured, Amaro is not overlooked in Big 12 circles. West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen considers Amaro a matchup nightmare for his defense in Saturday’s game against Tech . “I don’t know how you stop him,” Holgorsen said. “He poses a lot of problems.”

Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury likened Amaro to a security blanket for his quarterbacks, who seek him out in clutch situations. “He’s definitely a big comfort level for our quarterbacks,” Kingsburgy said. “They know if they get it close to his big body, he’ll make a play on the ball.”

Amaro, a junior, missed Tech’s final six regular-season games last season because of a spleen injury suffered against West Virginia. But he understands big hits come with the territory at tight end.

“Every time I catch the ball, I know that I’m going to get hit a lot,” Amaro said. “There are always a lot of defenders around me. I’m just going to go out there and play like I’ve been playing and see how it goes.”

Storylines

Upset central: During the first 13 conference games this season, an unranked Big 12 member has knocked off a ranked opponent three times (Texas over Oklahoma; West Virginia over Oklahoma State; Texas Tech over TCU). That is the most among BCS leagues this season. Since 2011, the Big 12 has 15 upsets by unranked teams over Top 25 conference peers. By comparison, the totals in other leagues: ACC (13), Big Ten (11), Pac-12 (11) and SEC (2).

Spreading the wealth: In a pass-happy league, No. 16 Texas Tech (6-0, 3-0 in Big 12) is the only team with three different receivers who average at least five catches per game: tight end Jace Amaro (7.8), receiver Eric Ward (5.7) and receiver Jakeem Grant (5.0).

Slingin’ Sam: Iowa State quarterback Sam Richardson has thrown at least one touchdown pass in eight consecutive games heading into Saturday’s contest at Baylor (6 p.m., ESPNU). It marks the third-longest streak in school history.

Burch’s picks

No. 21 Oklahoma State 31, TCU 20 (Saturday, 11 a.m., KDFW/Ch. 4): Horned Frogs have yet to show the consistent firepower needed to knock off the Cowboys.

No. 18 Oklahoma 45, Kansas 14 (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., ESPN): Sooners rebound with a vengeance after falling short in last week’s Red River Rivalry.

No. 16 Texas Tech 31, West Virginia 28 (Saturday, 11 a.m., FS1): Upset potential is high, with Mountaineers coming off a bye week. But the Red Raiders’ defense carries the day.

No. 12 Baylor 63, Iowa State 34 (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPNU): Bears continue their march toward first Top 10 ranking since 1991 season.

Last week: 3-1

Season: 34-9

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