Tyrone Swoopes needs Texas Bowl triumph

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
AUSTIN, Texas – You have to make it happen.

That, Charlie Strong says, was the cleaned-up gist of his animated speech to Tyrone Swoopes before the second quarter against TCU began.

Toward the end of his quick 12-second lecture, Strong pointed a finger right at the Texas quarterback’s chest just to ensure the message was delivered.

“I just told him he has to play,” Strong said after the 48-10 loss. “You can't turn the football over. You can't get down on yourself. It's all about his demeanor.”

[+] EnlargeTyrone Swoopes
Scott Sewell-/USA TODAY SportsTexas is 4-2 this season when Tyrone Swoopes passes for at least 200 yards.
Swoopes, flustered after turning the ball over twice and goofing up the last play of the first quarter, couldn’t manage to shake whatever ailed him against the Frogs. Strong’s message got through, but didn’t sway the outcome: four interceptions including a pick-6, four sacks, a fumble returned for a TD, a Thanksgiving-night meltdown.

A month later, Swoopes’ rocky first year as the Longhorns’ starter reaches a finale that will further define how his 2014 is remembered and perhaps how 2015 is resolved. Like the rest of his 11 starts, Swoopes’ showing against Arkansas on Monday night in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl is sure to get overanalyzed for months to come.

The sophomore, thrown into an unexpected starting role with unfair expectations when David Ash went down, calls what he has endured an “up-and-down experience.” The peaks required patience. The valleys required thick skin.

“You definitely have to have that, playing quarterback at a big school like this,” Swoopes said this month.

Strong and co-offensive coordinator Shawn Watson never publicly wavered this fall when it came to their faith in Swoopes. They had no other option, of course, but Swoopes never burned them either. He had tough days in losses to Baylor and Kansas State, but never so tough that a benching was considered. Not until the TCU game.

“I know that game wasn’t me,” Swoopes said.

His performance against the Horned Frogs left frustrated fans wondering whether Swoopes is the long-term answer and offered confirmation to table-pounding critics that he’s not the one meant to lead Texas back to championship-level football.

Granted, we’re talking about a second-year player taking on a top-six team, but the setback did seem significant. How is Swoopes going to respond? He knows all the right things to say about what comes next.

“Keep my head up, learn from it, put it behind me, don’t let it get to me too much, use it as motivation,” he said.

Senior receiver John Harris senses Swoopes gets too down on himself when things aren’t going his way, which was evident against TCU. But the go-to receiver also has witnessed growth at every step of the season and expects even more now.

“I think it’s good for him to learn this way,” Harris said.

So much of Swoopes’ play hinges on his confidence. On his best days – road showings against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State stand out – he went out and proved as much to himself as anyone else. Watson treats Swoopes like a freshman because he had so little meaningful experience and so much to learn.

Against Arkansas and its top-25 defense, we might learn just how resilient Swoopes can be. But win or lose, he will have to fight for his job next year.

Strong and Watson have repeatedly said they crave competition at the QB spot. The situation they have right now – a sophomore starting, true freshman Jerrod Heard learning slowly and redshirting, walk-ons Logan Vinklarek and Trey Holtz the only real backup options – won’t cut it.

Competition, they hope, is the best path to pushing Swoopes this offseason. The incumbent must be made uncomfortable by peers capable of challenging him. Whether that’s coming from Heard, ESPN 300 commit Zach Gentry or some other arm remains unclear.

For now, all that’s certain is Monday’s bowl game is another test that can propel Swoopes into the offseason and beyond in ways nobody can foresee.

“He’ll be fine,” Strong said. “The thing about it, he just needs to play well this next one. He’s just got to move on and just get better, and he’ll get better, and it will happen for him.”

But only Swoopes can make it happen.
As he left the meeting, Kevin White wasn’t exactly happy with what he’d just heard.

After an up-and-down junior campaign, the West Virginia receiver had just sat down for a postseason chat with Mountaineers receivers coach Lonnie Galloway. It wasn’t all good, it wasn’t all bad but it was exactly what White needed to hear.

“Coach Galloway told me I have all the aspects to be great, but I only show flashes of it,” White said. “I took it personal.”

White had solid work habits and focus as a junior but something needed to change. He’d combined for 14 receptions for 210 yards and two touchdowns against Oklahoma and Baylor then combined for three receptions for 61 yards against TCU and Kansas State in 2013 as inconsistency became his trademark. All told he finished with 35 receptions on 83 targets for 507 yards and five touchdowns during his first season as a junior college transfer from Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania.

[+] EnlargeKevin White
Scott Clarke/ESPN Images"I wanted to be a dominant receiver," Kevin White said. "Not the best receiver on the team, the best receiver in college."
Thus Galloway’s message was simple.

“[We talked about] attacking each day,” Galloway said. “Each day is a different work day. [It was about] not getting in your own way. Coming out being focused, working hard, being a leader, setting a good example. “

White left the meeting with renewed focus and it started to show. In winter workouts, in spring football and in summer workouts, White brought a different energy to the table.

“The focus and work habit were there in his junior year but they intensified in winter workouts to spring ball to his senior year,” Galloway said. “[He was] finishing first in just about everything. His attitude in the weight room, his attitude in spring ball [changed] and he was being a dominant player in spring ball.”

During the times when nobody was watching was when the light turned on for the Biletnikoff Award Finalist. Preparing for his senior season became his only focus.

“This is my last year, I wanted to put everything aside and focus in 110 percent,” White said. “Whatever happens, happens, as long as I’ve done the best I can.”

White’s senior year was his last chance to show himself, teammates, coaches, fans, NFL scouts and anyone else who doubted his ability to be a dominant receiver.

“I wanted to be a dominant receiver,” White said. “Not the best receiver on the team, the best receiver in college.”

He didn’t earn that honor, as Alabama’s Amari Cooper beat him out for the Biletnikoff, which is awarded to college football’s top receiver. But, he did become a consistent, game-changing threat for the Mountaineers as WVU returned to bowl eligibility after a one-year hiatus.

White’s final season featured 102 receptions in 151 targets for 1,318 yards and nine touchdowns including a seven-game stretch to start the season which included seven straight games of 100 receiving yards or more. He torched Alabama’s secondary for nine receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown while his 13-reception, 216-yard performance against Maryland two weeks later set the tone that his dominance was going to become commonplace in 2014. Heading into WVU’s AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Texas A&M on Dec. 29, White has cemented his name among the nation’s best receivers.

“We knew he had it in him,” Galloway said. “You knew that he was going to have a special year. The stuff he’s accomplished is all due to the work he put in.”

In the process he’s gone from fringe NFL prospect to a likely Day 1 or Day 2 selection as one of the nation’s best receiving prospects. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has White as the No. 3-ranked receiver in 2015 NFL draft class and ESPN draft expert Todd McShay has the Mountaineers’ top pass-catcher as the No. 14 prospect overall.

Thanks in part to one offseason meeting followed by a business-like approach that defined his senior season, White has gone from pondering his future to steps away from fulfilling his dream.

“It changed dramatically,” White said of his future. “I knew if I focused in I would be able to play on Sundays despite how my junior season went.

“I always knew I could do it … but the world didn’t know.”
Total defense and scoring defense have forever been the statistics widely used to evaluate defenses.

But any more in college football, they only tell a small portion of the story.

With the rise of the hurry-up offense, some defenses have to face more plays or defend more possessions than others. By default, a defense that has to defend 100 plays is usually going to give up more yards and points than the defense that has to defend 70 plays.

With that in mind, ESPN Stats & Information keeps track of a pair of metrics that better define how a defense performs: The yards a defense allows per play; and the points a defense gives up per drive. Factor in a third category -- turnovers gained -- and you have a better account of who is actually playing good defense. And who is not.

Below, we will examine those three statistics and average them out to provide a more accurate representation of Big 12 defense rankings for 2014 (also, in the interest of keeping a level playing field, only conference games were evaluated):

Yards per play
  • 1. Texas: 4.83
  • 2. West Virginia: 5.28
  • 3. TCU: 5.41
  • 4. Kansas State: 5.51
  • 5. Oklahoma: 5.58
  • 6. Baylor: 5.70
  • 7. Oklahoma State: 5.94
  • 8. Kansas: 6.31
  • 9. Texas Tech: 6.63
  • 10. Iowa State: 6.81
Points per drive
  • 1. Texas: 1.30
  • 2. TCU: 1.50
  • 3. West Virginia: 1.65
  • 4. Kansas State: 1.73
  • 5. Oklahoma: 1.92
  • 6. Baylor: 1.99
  • 7. Oklahoma State: 2.40
  • 8. Kansas: 2.47
  • 9. Iowa State: 2.82
  • 10. Texas Tech: 2.98
Turnovers gained
  • 1. TCU: 26
  • 2. Baylor: 19
  • 3. Kansas State: 18
  • 4 (tie). Kansas: 15
  • 4 (tie). Texas : 15
  • 6. Iowa State: 14
  • 7. Texas Tech: 13
  • 8 (tie). Oklahoma: 11
  • 8 (tie). West Virginia: 11
  • 10. Oklahoma State: 9
Taking average placement for the three above categories, this is how the overall defensive rankings shake out:
  • 1. TCU: 2.0 (average rank)
  • 2. Texas: 2.2 (average rank)
  • 3. Kansas State: 3.7
  • 4. West Virginia: 4.5
  • 5. Baylor: 4.7
  • 6. Oklahoma: 6.2
  • 7. Kansas: 6.8
  • 8. Oklahoma State : 8.0
  • 9. Iowa State: 8.3
  • 10. Texas Tech: 8.7
In today's holiday edition of the Big 12 Twitter mailbag, we talk recruiting, potential expansion (again), who could be 2015's version of TCU, and the end of a Twitter era, as @FauxHolgorsen.

Here's to everyone having a Merry Christmas.

Now, on to the 'bag;

@Jake_Trotter: It's probably a wash. Considering the Bears still have coach Art Briles and a veteran quarterback in Bryce Petty, I don't think not having Phillip Montgomery will have a major effect on the offense. Briles has established a culture of scoring that goes beyond any one assistant or player. Likewise, Michigan State has implemented a culture of defense under Mark Dantonio. Pat Narduzzi has been a fabulous coordinator. But just because he won't be in Arlington doesn't mean the Spartans will forget how to play defense. I still expect this to be an epic clash of irresistible offense vs. immovable defense.

Trotter: From a list of West Virginia, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Iowa State, I would have to go with the Cowboys. Oklahoma State appears to have uncovered its long-term answer at quarterback in Mason Rudolph, who was terrific in his two starts to cap the regular season. Oklahoma State will also return its entire receiving corps, as well as eight starters defensively. With TCU, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas State all headed to Stillwater next season, the schedule lines up for the Cowboys to make a bounce-back run at the conference crown.

Trotter: Clever.

Trotter: For the first time this football season, I went to the movies over the weekend and saw "Interstellar." So if by "horizon" you mean the wormhole next to the rings of Saturn, then yes, expansion is on the horizon.

Trotter: Highly unlikely, considering any expansion is highly unlikely. That said, commissioner Bob Bowlsby has indicated in recent days that if the Big 12 ever expanded, it would look east instead of west. That would seemingly put UCF in play, as one of the top available schools to the east. I'm not sure how a Big 12 school in Florida would work. Then again, the Big 12 really has no convenient options left when it comes to expansion.

Trotter: It's possible Chad President ends up in Lubbock. After losing Jarrett Stidham to Baylor, Texas Tech needs a quarterback for this class, and President needs a new team after de-committing from Baylor. But Tech won't be the only Big 12 school that goes after him. Highly ranked quarterbacks (even quarterbacks that could end up as college receivers) usually aren't available this late in the recruiting game. So President will be in demand. As for the Tech defensive coordinator search, Houston's David Gibbs is at the top of the list. Even though Houston finished just fifth in the American, the Cougars have improved defensively under Gibbs, ranking 11th in scoring defense this season. A former defensive coordinator at Minnesota and Auburn, Gibbs is the kind of veteran coordinator Kliff Kingsbury needs to add to his staff.

Trotter: After de-committing from Texas A&M, Daylon Mack tweeted that TCU and LSU were his top two schools. He is apparently scheduled to take an official visit Texas on Jan. 23, which could change things. But I would think TCU's odds of landing Mack at this point are at least 33 percent.

Trotter: Huge bummer. This, by the way, was his farewell letter. In memoriam, below was a great moment in @FauxHolgorsen history...

Trotter: This one is easy ...

Arkansas needed to upset LSU and Ole Miss. Texas had to knock off Texas Tech, West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Both did just that --and just enough to go bowling.

There is plenty at stake when these 6-6 teams square off at Houston's NRG Stadium on Monday night. Pretty simple, really: One team goes home with a winning record, the other doesn't. Which team will embrace the momentum-building moment?

ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf and Max Olson break down the matchup.

How Arkansas can control the game: Run the ball and control the clock. This has been Arkansas’ strength all season. The Razorbacks have 14 touchdown drives of five minutes or longer, second most in the FBS behind only Georgia Tech. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each have more than 1,000 yards rushing. No other FBS team can say that. When the Razorbacks are gashing the opponent on the ground, they are hard to stop. -- Ostendorf

How Texas can control the game: Charlie Strong wins games with his stout defense, and when this group forces turnovers it can be awfully tough to beat. Texas had the Big 12's No. 1 total defense and pass defense, and the pressure that Malcom Brown, Hassan Ridgeway and Cedric Reed get up front ought to make running the ball a challenge at times. It's a bend-don't-break defense that will keep this game relatively low-scoring. -- Olson

Arkansas' X-factor: Trey Flowers has been a quarterback’s nightmare this season. The senior defensive end has 13.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and nine quarterback hurries. When he’s not chasing him down, he’s batting the ball down at the line of scrimmage. He has been the heart and soul of an Arkansas defense that allowed only 9.5 points per game in the month of November, and this will be his final game in a Razorbacks’ uniform. -- Ostendorf

Texas' X-factor: The play of Tyrone Swoopes, obviously. His five-turnover showing against TCU gave the Longhorns no shot and raised doubts among the fan base about whether he's "the guy" for the future. Swoopes can kill those questions with a bounce-back showing. He had one of the finest performances of his career (305 yards, two TDs, 72 percent passing) against Oklahoma State right before facing the Frogs. Can he bring his best against the Hogs? -- Olson

What a win would mean for the Razorbacks: The rebuilding process at Arkansas took a big step this season under second-year coach Bret Bielema. The Hogs won an SEC game, nearly knocked off the eventual conference champion, and now they are playing in a bowl game. A win could propel them into next season and validate them as a contender in 2015. -- Ostendorf

What a win would mean for Texas: The Longhorns got their recruiting momentum rolling last week with a commitment from elite linebacker Malik Jefferson. This 'W' can get the rest of the program rolling. An important win would aid an important offseason for growth, and the Horns badly need to move past the buzzkill of getting beat up by TCU. -- Olson

AutoZone Liberty Bowl primer: West Virginia vs. Texas A&M

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
One week into the season, expectations soared for Texas A&M after the Aggies destroyed South Carolina on the road. That result, however, proved to be a bit of a mirage, as the Aggies struggled through the heart of their SEC schedule.

In Morgantown, expectations also ballooned after the Mountaineers knocked off fourth-ranked Baylor on Oct. 18. But two weeks later with ESPN "College GameDay" in the house, West Virginia couldn't hold on to a nine-point fourth quarter lead against TCU, which ignited a three-game November losing streak for the Mountaineers.

Still, in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, both teams have the chance to finish their roller-coaster seasons with an eighth win and on a high note heading into 2015.

Below, SEC reporter Sam Kahn Jr. and Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter break down this Memphis matchup:

[+] EnlargeKevin White
AP Photo/Chris JacksonReceiver Kevin White has been the catalyst for West Virginia's offense this season.
How West Virginia can control the game: Getting All-American wideout Kevin White going early and often is key for the Mountaineers. As White goes, so go the Mountaineers. During White’s amazing seven-game 100-yard receiving streak to begin the season, the Mountaineers claimed one of the top offenses in the country. But late in the season, as White cooled off, so did the West Virginia offense, prompting the Mountaineers to drop three of their final four games. The Aggies are hardly effective defending the pass, with the SEC’s 12th-ranked pass defense. So West Virginia should be able to get White the ball in the opening quarter. That in turn should open up the rest of the offensive attack. -- Trotter

How Texas A&M can control the game: Getting off to a fast start is important for the Aggies. This season, when the Aggies have led after the first quarter, they are 5-1; when they’ve trailed after a quarter, they are 0-3. A team with young players at many key positions, particularly quarterback, the Aggies feed off the confidence of having a lead. Beyond that, though it’s known as a pass-happy offense, getting the running game going is critical for Texas A&M. In the Aggies’ seven wins, they averaged 182.8 rushing yards; in their five losses, they averaged only 86.8. Having success in the run game gives the Aggies some semblance of balance offensively and opens things up for quarterback Kyle Allen and his group of receivers to attack all areas of the field. -- Kahn

West Virginia's X factor: After suffering a concussion against Kansas State on Nov. 18, quarterback Clint Trickett is finally expected to play again in the bowl. Still, it remains unclear whether he will start, how much he will play and how effective he can be coming off the head injury. Trickett struggled late in the year before the concussion, but he was also a major reason why the Mountaineers were so successful during the first half of the season. If he can get back to that level when he was among the nation’s leaders in completion percentage, West Virginia will be tough to beat. But if Trickett is ineffective or can’t reclaim his early-season accuracy, the Mountaineers could be in trouble. – Trotter

Texas A&M's X factor: Run defense. The Aggies were been atrocious in this area in their final three games, allowing a whopping 360.6 rushing yards per game. They are 111th nationally and last in the SEC in rush defense, and though West Virginia throws it quite a bit, coach Dana Holgorsen won’t hesitate to run the football (the Mountaineers gained 195 or more rushing yards in four of their final five games this season). The Aggies moved true freshmen Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker into the starting lineup late in the season and saw linebacker play improve, but Walker will miss the Liberty Bowl with an injury, meaning someone like Shaan Washington will have to step up. If the Aggies can’t stop the run, they won’t be able to stop the Mountaineers, period.-- Kahn

What a win would mean for the Mountaineers: All in all, the Mountaineers have already exceeded preseason expectations. Given last season’s struggles and a brutal schedule, just getting to a bowl game seemed like it would be a stretch for this team. But after the surprisingly fast start to conference play, followed by the disappointing three losses in November, this season has a slight sour taste to it for West Virginia fans. A season-ending win against Texas A&M, however, would remove most of that bitterness while giving the program a boost going into the offseason. -- Trotter

What a win would mean for the Aggies: Ending the season on a positive note would be huge for Texas A&M, given how turbulent this season was. The season went sideways after 5-0 start, and there has been plenty of angst from fans in Aggieland as coach Kevin Sumlin has sought out, but has yet to hire, a defensive coordinator and lost out on two key defensive recruits in the process. Sumlin must also find new offensive line and receiver coaches, and next season is shaping up to be a critical one in College Station, as fans are looking for results from three consecutive top-10 recruiting classes as well as the investment of $500 million in football facilities upgrades and $5 million a year to Sumlin. Texas A&M needs to begin taking real, tangible steps toward SEC West and SEC title contention starting next season, and a win in the Liberty Bowl against a good West Virginia team would be a nice springboard into 2015.-- Kahn
Brent Venables, Mike StoopsUSA TODAY SportsBrent Venables, left, has turned Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country while Oklahoma has shown little improvement under Mike Stoops.
Three seasons ago, Oklahoma seemed to be in need of a defensive change.

Baylor had racked up 620 yards against the Sooners, the most an Oklahoma defense had ever surrendered. Shorty after, rival Oklahoma State destroyed the Sooners by almost five touchdowns, sending Oklahoma tumbling all the way to the Insight Bowl.

Yet during that Tempe bowl, a supposed Sooner defense savior stood off the sideline.

Mike Stoops' return to Norman seemed imminent. And days later, Bob Stoops turned that supposition into reality.

The hire didn’t exactly force longtime assistant Brent Venables out. The Stoops brothers, in fact, wanted Venables to stay. After all, Mike Stoops and Venables together co-coordinated Oklahoma’s national championship defense in 2000. But with Mike Stoops coming back to take the lead, Venables realized his tenure in Norman was no longer tenable, and he bolted for Clemson.

Three years later, that moment will come full circle Monday, when Oklahoma will meet Venables and the Tigers in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

But while Venables has whipped Clemson into the No. 1 statistical defense in the country, Oklahoma seems no closer to fielding a championship-caliber defense than it did three seasons ago.

Just like 2011, the Sooners come limping into a mid-level bowl after finishing fourth in the Big 12 standings. Like 2011, they couldn’t stop Baylor. Like 2011, they fell to the rival Cowboys.

And a reunion with Venables only accentuates how far the Sooners have come since 2011. Or, in actuality, how far they haven’t.

Oklahoma has won only one Big 12 title since Venables’ departure – a 2012 co-championship with Kansas State that was sullied by a head-to-head home defeat to the Wildcats.

Since Venables, the Sooners haven’t claimed a first-team defensive All-American, a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year or a national award finalist.

And this season, with Mike Stoops recruits finally littering the secondary, the Sooners ranked only ahead of Iowa State among Big 12 teams in defending the pass.

Following a catastrophic 2012 defensive season loaded with highlights of Tavon Austin and Johnny Manziel carving up the Sooners, Oklahoma finally seemed to be turning that elusive corner defensively under Mike Stoops last year. After getting blown out by Texas and Baylor, the Sooners surged late. Then, in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, Oklahoma swarmed Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. The Sooners sacked him seven times and forced him into three turnovers in a stunning 45-31 win.

With nine starters returning, Oklahoma defense looked as if it was on its way back. But as it turned out, the Alabama performance was merely an aberration.

Even with the entire front returning, the Sooners struggled to consistently pressure opposing quarterbacks and finished just fifth in the league in sacks. As a result, with no standouts at safety and little depth at cornerback, the defensive backfield Mike Stoops cobbled together was exposed.

With the ultimate capitulation coming on Nov. 8 against Baylor.

Completely overmatched, the Sooners opened the first drive of the second half playing their cornerbacks 10 yards off the ball. With little resistance, Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty completed all nine of his pass attempts, as the Bears zipped right down the field to take a 31-14 lead on their way to handing Oklahoma its worst home loss since the John Blake days.

Even after that, Bob Stoops avoided publicly criticizing his brother’s defense. But he didn’t have to. His actions later spoke loudest.

In the final minute of the season finale against Oklahoma State, Bob Stoops elected to punt to Tyreek Hill a second time after a running-into-the-kicker penalty. The decision was questionable. But the reasoning was understandable. Bob Stoops wasn’t confident his defense could stop Oklahoma State true freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph from driving the Cowboys 90 yards to tie the game. And Bob Stoops wanted to milk every second from the clock he could. But Hill took his second chance at a return to the house, and Oklahoma State dominated the overtime to win, 38-35, while dimming the Sooners’ season even more.

It wasn’t long ago hope bubbled over for the defense. Now, regardless of what happens Monday, the Sooners will head into 2015 overflowing with questions. Yes, the Sooners will boast probable preseason All-American running back Samaje Perine offensively. But with a strained secondary and subdued pass rush, the Oklahoma defense has never looked more discombobulated.

Three years have passed now since Venables left.

And yet under Mike Stoops, the feeling in Norman remains the same.

Big 12 Tuesday mailbag

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23
Kansas State's preseason destiny, Texas' offensive style, and the decisions of the committee highlight Tuesday's mailbag. As always, thanks for your questions. To submit questions for next week's mailbag, click here.

Nick in Las Vegas, Nevada writes: In online chatter people suggest that schools such as TCU & Baylor will never be allowed to play for a National Championship due to being small private schools. Do you think there is any merit to this "anti-small school" theory?

Brandon Chatmon: Not really. Say Florida State and Ohio State lost in their title games, what would have happened then? The committee just jumps Michigan State or Ole Miss or whoever into the top four? Now, I do think the committee needs to re-evaluate how it does things, because Baylor should have been in the top four, but I don’t think the Bears were left out because the committee is "anti-small school." The Bears were left out because the committee decided Ohio State was the better team. We’ll see if the committee was right and I was wrong.

Connor in Beaumont, Texas writes: A big issue with Texas' offense is that the quarterbacks that have been recruited over the last couple of years (Swoopes, Heard) have little to no experience in a "pro-style offense." Meanwhile the rest of the country is running spread and it's working. What are the implications of changing offensive philosophy? Can it be done for just one season or a couple?

BC: It doesn't matter the type of offense Tyrone Swoopes or Jerrod Heard ran in high school. Either they are playmakers or they aren’t. Now, changing the philosophy does have an impact as it can limit your options on the recruiting trail with limited options at tight end, fullback, etc... But that shouldn’t matter much at Texas. I think coach Charlie Strong’s focus is more on being a physical running team more than a "pro-style offense" and it’s important to note that running a spread-style passing offense doesn’t mean you can’t have a physical, tough running game. In fact, Baylor and TCU averaged more than 200 rushing yards per game in 2014. If I was a Longhorns fan, it would be more important to me that our offense changes organically each year to adapt to the best players on the offense, including the best playmaking option at quarterback.

Catalokie in Tulsa, Oklahoma writes: I know there's a lot of relief about Trevor Knight under center for the Sooners' bowl game, I'm thrilled he's healthy, but what about next season? Knight hasn't always shown the consistency he was applauded for after the Alabama game. Might Baker Mayfield top Knight for the starting job?

BC: I wouldn’t be surprised if Baker Mayfield becomes a starter at Oklahoma, and I expect a pretty good battle to start during the offseason. Knight’s status as the future at quarterback in Norman has changed from unquestioned to unclear, that’s the only thing I’m certain about.

Omar in Flower Mound, Texas writes: Can you explain to me why Trevone Boykin didn't even get invited to the New York, I feel like every other year they always bring in at least 4 people if not more. I don't think he should or would have beaten out Marcus Mariota for it, but I definitely would have picked him over Amari Cooper or Melvin Gordon. Your thoughts?

BC: Inviting four finalists to New York is not the norm, Omar. I thought Trevone Boykin had a great year as the catalyst to TCU’s turnaround, he was exceptional in every way. But I didn’t pick him to win the Heisman. I voted Mariota, Cooper then Boykin, and that was harder than I expected to pick between Mariota and Cooper, but Boykin was below that pair in my eyes. I agree he probably should have been in New York though.

Tyler in Waco, Texas writes: Reading your most recent mailbag, one thing that stuck out to me was this idea that if FSU and OSU both lost in championship week, but the Big 12 had chosen their "One True Champion" in Baylor, that TCU would have been left out of the Playoff at 11-1 for some other team. I just don't see that happening at all. Even without their "co-champs" label, would a two-loss Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, or Mississippi State really have made it ahead of TCU? I just don't see that happening. I may just irrationally hate Bowlsby, and maybe what he did was the right call in some scenarios, but I just can't see how an 11-1 TCU doesn't make the playoff, even without the "Co-Champ" title.

BC: I pretty much agree with what you’re saying Tyler, that’s why I’ve said I would have handled it differently and named Baylor as the Big 12’s champion. Yet we have to remember, in the weeks leading up to the selection, the committee was steadily dropping undefeated Florida State in favor of one-loss teams. Why wouldn’t it consider jumping any two-loss team it wanted ahead of TCU? I doubt it would have happened, but I doubted TCU would be ranked No. 3, win by 50 points and drop to No. 6, so ...

Daniel Drummond in Houston writes: Brandon, what can the Big 12 do to get better representation on the CFP committee? The Big Ten and Pac 12 had a lot of ties to the committee, but the Big XII was notably excluded, and more than a few people think that played into the decision to keep Baylor and TCU out.

BC: Obviously with Oliver Luck’s departure to the NCAA that leaves an opening in the committee, and I’d agree with fellow Big 12 reporter Jake Trotter that Texas Tech’s Kirby Hocutt would be a great fit with his experience at various Big 12 schools and overall understandings of the dynamics of the Big 12 region. He would be a terrific first step. But I must say issues like this are the reason I'm hoping for a expanded playoffs in the near future. I mean, could you imagine if a committee decided who makes the NFL playoffs?

Big 12

Class Rankings: Dec. 23 update

December, 23, 2014
Dec 23

National recruiting analyst Craig Haubert joins ESPN’s Phil Murphy to break down updates to the ESPN class rankings for 2015 football recruiting. A wild Friday saw four of the nation’s top 150 players announce college decisions.

To read the full class rankings, click here.
The Big 12 bowl season kicks off Monday with a tripleheader featuring West Virginia-Texas A&M in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Oklahoma-Clemson in the Russell Athletic Bowl and Texas-Arkansas in the nightcap in the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl. In this week's Big 12 roundtable, we examine the keys for the three Big 12 teams playing in the Monday bowls:

What is the biggest key for West Virginia?

Chatmon: Kevin White ’s return to the dominating force that caused all sorts of problems for West Virginia’s early season opponents would help, particularly if he can do it against double teams. But it will be the Mountaineers’ pass defense, led by cornerback Daryl Worley, that could decide the game. Facing the SEC’s top passing offense, WVU’s secondary has talent but faces a tall task against a Texas A&M offense that featured five different receivers that passed 400 receiving yards in the regular season. Thus, it will take a solid pass rush and strong performances from the WVU secondary to slow down the Aggies.

Olson: Don't overlook the reason why Texas A&M is searching for a new defensive coordinator. The Aggies allowed 298, 363, 335 and 384 rushing yards in their final four SEC games. The formula for beating them up late in the season was pretty obvious. With West Virginia's line healthy again, the Mountaineers should ride Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood and Dreamius Smith and take advantage of the passing looks the run game sets up.

Trotter: Get Kevin White going early and often. The Aggies had one of the worst pass defenses in the SEC this year, and they have no one (who does?) who can physically match up with White. If the Mountaineers can devise ways to get White -- and wingman Mario Alford -- opportunities for big plays early, they can put A&M on its heels for the rest of the game.

What is the biggest key for Oklahoma?

Chatmon: Quite simply the Sooners' offensive line must win in the trenches. OU’s offensive front is among the nation’s top units but will face a fast, physical and athletic Clemson defense with all the traits to slow down OU’s offense. Offensive balance will be key, as well as winning on first down. The Sooners averaged 7.94 yards per first-down play in their eight wins. That number dropped to 6.13 yards per first-down play in their four losses. If OU faces a game full of third down-and-long plays, it could be a long 60 minutes.

Olson: It's not just about winning the trenches for Oklahoma. The protection of Trevor Knight is of the upmost importance against Clemson. I'm no expert on transient quadriplegia -- nor had I ever heard of it prior to Knight's injury against Baylor -- and I trust that OU was extremely careful with its testing to deem Knight cleared to play. But you know he will take tough hits in his first game back, and after such a jarring injury, you'd hope his line can keep him clean and playing without fear of getting hurt again.

Trotter: Clemson owns one of the best statistical defense in the country, which could put points at a premium for the Oklahoma offense. That's why it's imperative that the Sooners' defense shows up in this game. The Tigers aren't great offensively, so the Sooners ought to be able to impose their will. Then again, this is an Oklahoma defense that massively underachieved during the last two months of the season.

What is the biggest key for Texas?

Chatmon: The formula has been pretty simple for the Longhorns. When Charlie Strong’s team wins the turnover battle, it wins the game. When it loses the turnover battle it heads into the locker room full of disappointment. Arkansas did a decent job protecting the ball, with 17 turnovers in 12 games, but the Razorbacks' 11 fumbles provides some hope for the Longhorns to get one or two turnovers. More importantly, UT and quarterback Tyrone Swoopes must protect the ball much better than they did against TCU and give themselves a chance.

Olson: This might sound like a strange request, but I want to see Texas finally show up in the third quarter and score some points. The Horns put up a total of nine points in the third period in Big 12 play. Nine. After nine games that's not some anomaly; it's a weakness and a strange one. Arkansas is going to play UT close and has had real trouble scoring in the second half (7.5 ppg in SEC play). Any points Texas can muster after halftime could make all the difference.

Trotter: Whoever wins the battle in the trenches between the Arkansas offensive line and the Texas defensive front probably is going to win this game. When the Hogs struggled to run the ball this year they struggled to score. But when they got the run game going they were difficult to beat. Texas has the horses with Malcom Brown and Co. to win the battle with the Razorbacks up front. If the Longhorns do, odds are they'll also end their season with a win.
When Texas coach Charlie Strong looks across the field to see a pair of 1,000-yard rushers on Bret Bielema’s team during the Advocare V100 Texas Bowl, it will be hard for him not to be envious.

“If you can get that, you can win,” Strong said. “When you get the two 1,000-yard rushers, you know you're a physical football team and you're running the ball. It is all about ball control.”

Arkansas is in Year 2 of the Bret Bielema project, with the former Wisconsin head coach’s blueprint starting to see dividends with a bowl appearance, a pair of shutouts in Arkansas’ final three games, and one of the SEC’s best running games serving as the foundation. Johnathan Williams (1,085 rushing yards) and Alex Collins (1,024 rushing yards) have paced the SEC’s No.4-ranked running game heading into the meeting with its former Southwest Conference foe.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Williams
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesArkansas running backs Johnathan Williams (pictured) and Alex Collins are the envy of a Texas team that wants to have similar success in the power-running game.
As envious as he might be, Strong has a blueprint of his own. From his highly publicized rules to his straight-laced honesty, the Longhorns CEO has shown he’s going to do it his way, with little regard to others' thoughts on the matter.

While Strong’s plan is different than Bielema’s blueprint, the similarities are stark. In an era of high-scoring offenses, big plays and offensive fireworks, Strong and Bielema aim to build around physical, running offenses that can control the game along with tough, versatile defenses than can adapt to the flurry of different styles present on any given Saturday.

UT wants to be known for its toughness, with a physical running gameone of the clearest signs of a team’s physicality. The Longhorns have a long way to go, averaging 146.67 rushing yards per game in 2014. UT averaged 176.33 rushing yards per game in its six wins and 121 rushing yards per game in six losses, including three games of less than 100 rushing yards.

“[We] could have played a lot better than what we played,” Strong said. “We lose six games, [that] would never be a standard here. We could have played a lot better at times than what we did. I think about those close games we were in.”

It’s a similarity Strong’s team shares with Arkansas, another sign both blueprints are starting to work despite being in the infant stages of their instillation. Both teams lost six games but can look back at the regular season and see an eight- or nine-win season just outside their grasp. The Longhorns can look back at games against UCLA, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma as opportunities left on the table. The Razorbacks can look back at losses to Alabama, Mississippi State and Missouri and say the same.

“I think it's a really good football team,” Strong said. “But, at the right time, they didn't win those close games.”

Strong was talking about his opponent but might as well have been talking about his own squad. Many people point to the dismissals and departures that followed Strong’s installation of his rules as the culprit in the .500 season.

“It had nothing to do with the guys who we didn't have,” Strong said. “You're going to win with the ones you have and not with the ones you don't have. So with a lot of those players not being with us, playing with what we had, we were good enough. We just didn't play well. We didn't play well at the right time.”

Change didn’t come, but it was needed. UT took some lumps early this season with the hopes of a later payoff. That came in the form of three wins in the Longhorns’ final four games to secure bowl eligibility.

“I think that we needed him,” offensive lineman Sedrick Flowers said of his coach. “He came in here, and he's made us all humble ourselves. I know when I first got here, I wouldn't say I was an arrogant person, but in the program there was some arrogance. There were some players that were entitled, and he came in here and just took that all away. Everybody is on the same level. We all just want to work and get a championship.”

The foundation has been set, but the concrete is still drying. The will to have a physical running game is apparent, but UT’s 3.91 yards per carry, ranking No. 85 among FBS teams, is not the standard that will lead to championships or make anyone envious.

“Physicality is what we pride ourselves on,” tight end Geoff Swaim said. “Anytime you can impose your will on another team, it makes your job easier, makes the defense's job easier. I don't really get into the whole run/pass, all that kind of stuff. It's more about who can be more physical, who can do their job the best and which team is tougher.

“That's what we want to be and that's who we strive to be. It's a growing process. It's never something you just say this is who you are and it just becomes that. That develops and that develops; not only this year, but it'll develop next year and it'll just keep growing.”
Baylor receiver Corey Coleman and Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard showed signs of their All-Big 12 futures with strong bowl showings during the holiday season a year ago. Both players led their team in receptions in the 2013 postseason before earning All-Big 12 honors in 2014.

This season's bowl games provide another opportunity for young players on Big 12 teams to show they're ready for a bigger roles in the future. Here are some Big 12 names to keep an eye on this bowl season:

Baylor DE K.J. Smith: The redshirt freshman stepped in and stepped up after Jamal Palmer was lost for the season with his ACL injury midway through the year. Smith finished with 39 tackles including 9.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. His 3.5 tackles per game are a sign he can impact the running game as well as the passing game in the Bears GoodYear Cotton Bowl matchup with Michigan State. And he could see his role in Baylor’s defense expand even further in 2015 if Shawn Oakman elects to head to the NFL.

Kansas State LB Elijah Lee: The true freshman forced himself into the Wildcats plans early during his freshman season and saw his role continue to expand as the season progressed. Lee finished the regular season with 16 tackles and 4.5 sacks while playing various roles on Bill Snyder’s defense. His athleticism could be an asset against Brett Hundley and UCLA with a big game setting him up as one of the Big 12’s potential breakout players in 2015.

Oklahoma WR Michiah Quick: The true freshman showed flashes of playmaking ability after he became a bigger part of the offense following Shepard’s injury in early November. His 16 receptions for 164 yards and one touchdown during Shepard’s absence led the Sooners. Quick’s speed and open field ability could make him a threat for Clemson’s defense particularly with Trevor Knight’s return. A big Russell Athletic Bowl performance could cement Quick’s role in OU’s offense in 2015, even with the Dorial Green-Beckham, if he returns to school, and highly touted junior college signee DeDe Westbrook amping up the competition at receiver.

Oklahoma State LB Justin Phillips: The Cowboys' crazy overtime win in Bedlam overshadowed a stellar performance from Phillips. The true freshman played the majority of the game, finishing with 10 tackles including seven solo stops in the most significant action of his debut season. Phillips saw spot duty through much of the season but if he builds on his Bedlam performance with solid Ticket City Cactus Bowl, he could be a name to keep an eye on in 2015.

Texas WR Armanti Foreman: The Longhorns will be searching for playmakers in the passing game next season with John Harris and Jaxon Shipley moving on. The freshman scored touchdowns in each of UT’s final two games including a 73-yard catch-and-run against TCU on Thanksgiving. Foreman’s quickness and speed makes him an asset to the Longhorns' offense and a solid AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl showing would re-affirm his long term potential and place him high on the list of Longhorns to get the ball in 2015.

TCU CB Ranthony Texada: The redshirt freshman locked down the starting cornerback spot opposite Kevin White as Jason Verrett’s replacement, making him a guy to keep on eye on during the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Texada started every game of his freshman season and will be the most experienced member of TCU’s cornerback group in 2015. Texada has been solid all season long but will need to take his game to another level to be the No. 1 cover man in Gary Patterson’s defense.

West Virginia WR Daikiel Shorts: Dana Holgorsen will be looking for someone to fill the playmaking void left by White and Mario Alford after the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. Shorts seems a prime candidate and could use the bowl game to send the message that he plans to make a jump from complementary receiver to go-to target as a junior. With eight of his 24 receptions in WVU’s final two games of the regular season, Shorts could be starting to come into his own.

Big 12 recruiting scorecard

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
Here's what happened last week on the recruiting trail in the Big 12:

Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 4
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 23rd
The latest: Jarrett Stidham, No. 39 in the ESPN 300 and the nation's No. 3-ranked dual-threat quarterback prospect, gave his pledge to Baylor over Oregon on Friday. An Under Armour All-America Game selection, Stidham decommitted from Texas Tech on Dec. 13, just a couple weeks before he was scheduled to enroll with the Red Raiders. Stidham instead will enroll early at Baylor and vie immediately to become Bryce Petty's replacement as the Bears' next starting quarterback.

Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Just a little more than a week after getting a commitment from ESPN JC50 DT Demond Tucker, the Cyclones closed the deal by signing him Wednesday. Tucker should help shore up an Iowa State defense than ranked 122nd nationally in stopping the run. The Cyclones also picked up juco CB Jomal Wiltz last week. Wiltz was considering Cal, as well.

Total commits: 21
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Shortly after grabbing four high school players out of the Metroplex, new coach David Beaty signed a Big 12-high seven juco players on Wednesday. Three of those committed last week, including running back Ke'aun Kinner, cornerback Brandon Stewart and guard Jayson Rhodes.

Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: Not ranked
The latest: Alex Delton, a three-star dual-threat QB out of Hays, Kansas, remains on track to enroll early in Manhattan and contend this spring for the starting quarterback job that will turn vacant after Jake Waters graduates. The Wildcats also dipped in the Lone Star State last week to add a pledge from Flower Mound offensive tackle Evan Curl.

Total commits: 17
ESPN 300 commits: 7
ESPN JC50 commits: 3
Class rank: 20th
The latest: Like Red River rival Texas, Oklahoma had a big Friday, adding ESPN 300 DE Ricky DeBerry out of Virginia, and four-star safety Kahlil Haughton out of Waco. The Sooners lost a commitment from three-star DE Tyrell Jacobs over the weekend, but they remain in the hunt for ESPN 300 inside linebacker Anthony Wheeler.

Total commits: 17
ESPN 300 commits: 2
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 33rd
The latest: The Cowboys made efforts to shore up their offensive line in signing juco tackle Brandon Pertile , who picked Oklahoma State over Florida. The Pokes also added a key FBS offensive tackle transfer in Victor Salako, who started for UAB last year, and will be eligible immediately since UAB shut down its football program.

Total commits: 22
ESPN 300 commits: 0
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: 36th
The latest: The Horned Frogs are positioned well to land five-star DT Daylon Mack, who decommitted from Texas A&M on Friday. Mack released his new top two on Twitter, and TCU made the cut with LSU. Reeling in Mack would pin the exclamation point on an otherwise solid TCU class.

Total commits: 22
ESPN 300 commits: 9
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 11th
The latest: After a few shaky weeks on the recruiting trail, the Longhorns had a monster Friday, snagging a commitment from ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson, who is the No. 5 overall prospect in state. The same morning, Texas also added Jefferson's high school teammate four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal. Charlie Strong's defensive class could get even stronger if DT Daylon Mack and ESPN 300 CB Kris Boyd end up in Austin. Mack is slated to take an official visit to Texas on Jan. 23. Boyd is planning to announce his decision on Christmas day.

Total commits: 16
ESPN 300 commits: 4
ESPN JC50 commits: 0
Class rank: 29th
The latest: After losing Stidham, Texas Tech's QB predicament took another hit when Waco Midway's Ben Hicks picked SMU days after Tech offered. The Red Raiders want to add a QB in this class, but they're running out of viable high school options. Signing a juco QB could be the answer. Tech has a successful week otherwise, picking up pledges from three-star safeties Darreon Jackson and Christian Taylor, three-star WR Tony Brown and DE Lonzell Gilmore.

Total commits: 24
ESPN 300 commits: 3
ESPN JC50 commits: 1
Class rank: 24th
The latest: The Mountaineers batted .500 last week on ESPN JC50 prospects. Thursday, they missed on WR Isaac Whitney, who chose USC instead. But the day before, West Virginia picked up Rasul Douglas, the nation's No. 3 juco CB. Assuming All-Big 12 strong safety Karl Joseph stays at West Virginia for his senior year, the Mountaineers could boast a formidable secondary in 2015 with Douglas, Joseph, freshman All-American free safety Dravon Henry and cornerback Daryl Worley.

Russell Athletic Bowl primer: Clemson vs. Oklahoma

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
Clemson and Oklahoma took two different avenues on the road to the Russell Athletic Bowl.

The Tigers knocked off South Carolina in their final game, snapping a five-game losing streak to their in-state rival in the process. Meanwhile, a devastating home loss to in-state rival Oklahoma State on the final day of the regular season sent Oklahoma tumbling into the Dec. 29 matchup in Orlando, Florida.

Clemson can grab victory No. 10 with a victory; Oklahoma can grab much-needed momentum heading into the offseason after a disappointing final six games. ACC reporter David Hale and Big 12 reporter Brandon Chatmon break down the matchup:

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiTrevor Knight is returning as Oklahoma's quarterback for the bowl game, but Clemson will be missing its starter, freshman Deshaun Watson.
How Clemson can move the ball on offense: Clemson finished the regular season No. 1 in the nation on defense. But on offense, there are some major concerns, and those worries only increased when the Tigers announced that quarterback Deshaun Watson will miss the bowl game after undergoing knee surgery. That leaves the offense in the hands of Cole Stoudt, who was awful in his last two games against Power 5 foes. That means the key for Clemson will be limiting how much the offense needs to rely on Stoudt, who had 33 or more passing attempts in four straight games midway through the year. Instead, Clemson needs to rely on an improved running game led by Wayne Gallman (486 yards in his last four games against Power 5 foes) and a healthy Tyshon Dye. Through Week 8, Clemson ranked 111th nationally in yards per carry and 27.4 percent of its runs went for a loss or no gain. Since then, it’s added more than a yard per rush and just 19 percent of the Tigers' runs have been stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage. That trend needs to continue against a solid Oklahoma run defense if the Tigers are to have a chance.

How Oklahoma can move the ball on offense: If the Sooners can run the ball, they can control the game. Oklahoma averaged 299.8 rushing yards per game in its eight victories and 206.3 rushing yards per game in its four losses and if All-Big 12 receiver Sterling Shepard plays, should be closer to full strength on offense in the bowl game than at any point since a 48-14 blowout loss to Baylor on Nov. 8. Bob Stoops' team will need all of its weapons against arguably the best defense it has faced all season led by former OU defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The return of Shepard and quarterback Trevor Knight would bring the balance the Sooners need if they hope to avoid being one-dimensional as they strive for success against Clemson’s defense.

Clemson’s X-factor: The secondary. Clemson has a formidable defensive front, and that reputation is well deserved. The Tigers have recorded 245 tackles for loss in the past two years — 29 more than any other program in the country — and since a season-opening loss to Georgia, no team has allowed fewer yards on the ground than Clemson. But while the pass rush and run defense get a lot of credit, the secondary has been widely overlooked. Still, Clemson finished third in the nation in pass defense, allowing just 162 yards per game through the air and just 5.5 yards per attempt. Freshman MacKensie Alexander is a star in the making, and veterans Garry Peters and Robert Smith are among the ACC’s best. With the pass rush challenging Knight up front, the back end of Clemson’s defense is more than capable of cashing in on mistakes, and Clemson is 35-4 under Dabo Swinney when it wins the turnover battle.

Oklahoma’s X-factor: As the season approached the winter months, Big 12 teams learned it was ill-advised to kickoff to Alex Ross. The Tigers would be wise to mimic that special-teams game plan because Ross has the ability to change games with his kick-return skills. The redshirt sophomore returned 40 percent of his kick returns at least 30 yards, averaged 32 yards per return and changed the game with kickoff returns for touchdowns in Oklahoma's victories over West Virginia and Texas. A game-breaking special-teams play could be the difference in a game that looks headed toward a defensive battle, and Ross looks like the perfect guy to provide it.

What a win would do for Clemson: The obvious impact here is that it would give the Tigers their fourth straight 10-win season for just the second time in school history. It would also give Clemson a bowl victory for the third straight season, something that hasn’t happened since the Tigers won five in a row from 1986 through 1990. But perhaps as much as anything, this would be a nice reminder of Dabo Swinney’s success as a head coach. Much of that has been pinned on Chad Morris’ offense, but with Morris gone to SMU and Watson on the sideline, a Clemson victory would belong as much to Swinney as anyone.

What a win would do for Oklahoma: It would be a breath of fresh air after a suffocating second half of the season, when the Sooners played .500 football (3-3). Oklahoma hasn’t beaten a winning team since Oct. 11 (Texas) and enters the bowl game off the heels of that devastating Bedlam loss that left players, coaches and fans alike bewildered in early December. A win would help bandage that wound and send out the Sooners’ redshirt seniors, such as tackle Daryl Williams and tight end Blake Bell, with a 52-14 record during their five seasons at Oklahoma despite a disappointing final season.
A glance into the rearview mirror won't bring a smile to faces of Oklahoma players or coaches.

The 2014 season started with the Sooners looking down at everyone in the Big 12 in preseason predictions, picked to be the conference's best team, with a segment of prognosticators picking them to secure a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

[+] EnlargeTrevor Knight
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsOklahoma hopes it can spark an offseason boost in Orlando, much like the one Trevor Knight provided after last season's Sugar Bowl.
Instead, an 8-4 regular season, which included a 3-3 record in the second half of the year, has left a cloud of unease and dissatisfaction hanging over the program heading into a Russell Athletic Bowl matchup with Clemson on Dec. 29 in Orlando, Florida.

Disappointment reins during the holiday season with motivation for a meaningless bowl game among one of the many questions for Bob Stoops' team. Yet coaches and players alike insist motivation won't be a question, particularly against a Clemson squad ranked No. 17 with a 9-3 record.

"It's pretty simple: It's a great opportunity to play a great opponent like Clemson, they're really good," co-offensive coordinator Jay Norvell said. "Whenever you walk on that field with Oklahoma on your chest and you're playing a team like Clemson, that's all the motivation you need. I don't buy into any other scenario to be honest with you."

Winning should be enough. Yet, that's the simplistic version of the Sooners' motivation. Everyone in the program, from top to bottom, wants to win the game. Past that, motivations vary.

The last time we saw the Sooners, they were hobbling off the Oklahoma Memorial Stadium turf with their tails between their legs following a 38-35 overtime loss to Bedlam rival Oklahoma State on the season's final day.

None of the Sooners' seniors wants that to be the lasting image of their final moments in crimson and cream. It wouldn't seem to represent a group of redshirt seniors that went 51-14 during five years in Norman, even though their senior seasons didn't play out like they would have hoped.

"One last win," senior guard Adam Shead said. "One more time to play together, this is the last time you will see this group of people on the same field together, the last time a lot of seniors will be strapping it up here, we want to go out with a bang."

The Sooners' veterans would much rather create one final memory-book moment with an upset of the 17th-ranked Tigers and fill their final moments with joy instead of despair.

"[I want to] send us out the right way, to see smiles after the game, after a win against Clemson," senior tackle Daryl Williams said. "Going against [former OU defensive coordinator] Coach [Brent] Venables' defense, it's the best we're going to face this year, it will be a great challenge and even better if we win."

It's the final opportunity for other seniors, like Williams and fellow tackle Tyrus Thompson, to showcase their talent with the hope of an NFL payday on the near horizon. Williams is the No. 39-ranked prospect and Thompson is the No. 45-ranked prospect for the 2015 NFL draft according to Scouts, Inc. While both players reiterated their focus on winning, first and foremost, both know a strong performance against projected first-round pick Vic Beasley would help their future.

"Dude's a really good player," Thompson said. "I know I'll be at my best, I know he's going to do the same because I might be a target for him too. We'll both do our best and see who comes away with the win."

The Tigers' elite defensive end, the No. 18-ranked prospect overall, will line up across from Williams and Thompson after recording 29 tackles including 18.5 for loss and 11 sacks to earn All-American honors for the second straight season. Safe to say, there's money to be made in the head-to-head battles between the Sooners' All-Big 12 bookend tackles and the Tigers' star.

"He has it all, he's fast, he's physical," Williams said. "A great challenge for me and Tyrus."

But bowl games aren't all about upperclassmen making final memories or securing future paychecks. Postseason contests are about opportunity as well.

"It's important to play well," Norvell said. "The last game is always kind of a transition game, you're finishing the careers of some players but you're also springboarding other guys."

They can help shape the offseason, create excitement around the program and shape the future of a program, much like Trevor Knight's Sugar Bowl MVP performance made him the unquestioned starter heading into this season. Young players like true freshman receiver Michiah Quick get the chance to show they should be a bigger part of the overall plan for 2015.

"It's an important game for a lot of reasons," Norvell said. "There are guys that are going to be back next year and it's important that they play well. I think that's important for everybody in the program.

"It's an opportunity for guys to play, play well and springboard into 2015."



Friday, 12/26
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Thursday, 1/1
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