The best and the worst in the Big 12

Originally Published: October 16, 2003
By Mark Wangrin | Special to ESPN.com

A final team-by-team look at the Big 12.

Baylor
Bears coach Guy Morriss was pictured on the cover of the media guide astride his Harley-Davidson, as if he was ready to roll on a quick getaway. That won't be necessary. The BU first-year coach did more than expected, leading the team to a three-game win streak -- longest since 1996 -- and only its fifth Big 12 win ever. Still, the Bears never found any offensive consistency behind quarterback Aaron Karas and a lack of depth on the defensive line proved costly. A strong second half against Oklahoma, though, should provide a little momentum on which to build.

MVP: RB Rashad Armstrong. Armstrong was able to provide a consistent running threat even with a line that lacked depth and a quarterback situation that was wildly unstable. The senior became only the fifth Bear to run for 1,000 yards in a season, a strong accomplishment in a rebuilding year.

Biggest Disappointment: The Bears gave up a 50-yard touchdown pass with 40 seconds left against Alabama-Birmingham and lost 24-19. At the time that seemed to be little more than business as usual for the Bears, who have made a tradition of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But if the Bears had hung on they would have started 4-1, their best opening mark since 1995, before the Big 12 was formed.

What's Next: A significant influx of JUCO linemen is needed to build some depth on both sides of the ball and give the Bears a chance to hang in ballgames. Look for an interesting three-way battle for the starting quarterback job between Aaron Karas, Bell and redshirt freshman Terrance Parks. And the schedule will be a little kinder to the Bears. The next two years they'll get to play Iowa State, which has wrestled the title of Big 12 caboose away from the Bears and Jayhawks.

Colorado
Colorado had its usual strong finish this season, though it wasn't as strong as usual. This season a 2-2 close -- including a win over Missouri and close losses to Texas Tech and Nebraska -- was good, considering how low the Buffaloes had sunk during the season. Coach Gary Barnett expected a rebuilding year on offense because of a young offensive line and inexperience at quarterback. He was right about that. He also predicted the Buffaloes defense could be the best he's had there. He couldn't have been more wrong about that. Injuries and a poor pass defense scuttled that hope, and CU's season.

MVP: QB Joel Klatt. When a young offensive line didn't live up to potential and injuries sidelined halfback Bobby Purify, the Buffaloes turned to a wide-open passing game led by quarterback Joel Klatt. The former minor league baseball player missed time with a shoulder injury but still ranked fourth in the league in passing.

Biggest Disappointment: "To anybody who's ever worn the Buffalo helmet, we're a disgrace." Those were the words of CU cornerback Phil Jackson after a 42-30 loss to Baylor on Oct. 4, which extended the Buffaloes' losing streak to three games and officially signaled they had hit rock bottom. Only a 50-47 overtime win over Kansas the next week kept CU from a seven-game losing streak.

What's Next: The Buffaloes can look to 2004 with some hope. Their offensive line should be more experienced and, just as importantly, healthy. Same for Purify, who's expected to get a medical redshirt after missing 2003 with an ankle injury. That bodes well for an improved running attack. Another year of experience bodes well for a young secondary that came on towards the end of the season.

Iowa State
The Cyclones' modest three-year run in bowl games came to a crashing halt this season, as did pretty much everything else about them. Injuries cost them top players such as defensive linemen Jordan Carstens and Tyson Smith, offensive guard Bob Montgomery and halfback Hiawatha Rutland, among others. Shuffling between quarterbacks Austin Flynn, Cris Love and Waye Terry, their offensive was terribly ineffective. ISU scored only 71 points in Big 12 play -- or six less than OU hung up on Texas A&M. Wrestling season can't arrive fast enough in Ames.

MVP: DB JaMaine Billups. Heck, he was the only candidate left standing at the end. Literally. Injuries felled most of the other top defenders, leaving the safety and leading-tackler as the easy choice. His 77-yard interception return for a touchdown against Oklahoma was a highlight in a season starved for them.

Biggest Disappointment: The Cyclones couldn't find an offense, accentuated by their 10-quarter scoreless streak late in the season. They scored more points in their second game of the season -- 48 against Ohio -- than in any three-game span over the last 10 games.

What's Next: Chilling out. After ISU lost 40-19 at home to Texas some callers to a local radio call-in show were demanding coach Dan McCarney's head. Memo to ISU fans: You're Iowa State! Be thankful for the last three bowl bids -- and that OU, Texas and Texas Tech rotate off the schedule next year. McCarney looks to rebuild his offense around Terry, who became the starter late in the season, and his defense around some young talent in the front seven. It won't be easy.

Kansas
A soft nonconference schedule obscured whether the Jayhawks were truly improved, a question they erased with a 35-14 win over Missouri in their Big 12 opener. Coach Mark Mangino built a solid offensive line that allowed quarterback Bill Whittemore to do more than run for his life, which was all they allowed him to do in 2002. With time, a running game featuring Clark Green and freshman John Randle and a more patient game plan, the senior was able to hook up with receivers Mark Simmons and Charles Gordon. Bad news is next season Baylor and Texas A&M are replaced on the South Division schedule by Oklahoma and Texas.

MVP: QB Bill Whittemore. He is the true definition of MVP. Though Adam Barmann played decently in his place, the versatile senior's return against Iowa State from a collarbone injury was a big lift to a Jayhawk team that had started strongly but lost four straight. Give some mention to Gordon, who started at receiver and returner and also played cornerback.

Biggest Disappointment: Colorado's defense was ripe for exploiting and the Jayhawks did just that on Oct. 11. Only problem was, CU's Joel Klatt did the same. Instead of qualifying for a bowl game on Oct. 18 -- the same day basketball practice opened for defending national runner-up Jayhawks -- they lost 50-47 in overtime and had to wait until the season finale against Iowa State

What's Next: Finding a defense. The Jayhawks have some blocks to build around in linebackers Nick Reid and Gabe Toomey, but getting a better pass rush and tightening the secondary are imperatives. Replacing Whittemore is also a key. Adam Barmann, who gave up his redshirt year when Whittemore was injured and tossed four touchdown passes in his debut against Texas A&M, is the heir apparent. The Jayhawks are also wooing highly regarded prospects in Jason Swanson of City College of San Francisco and prep standout Nick Patton of Winfield, Kan.

Kansas State
In week one they were ranked 5th in the nation. By week seven they were 4-3. By the end of the season they were the Big 12 champions. And you thought Kansas was flat. That huge valley can be traced to Ell Roberson's broken finger and the discovery that defenders such as Tank Reese, Terry Pierce and Terrance Newman would be much harder to replace than expected. But the end of the season Roberson was healthy, the defense was fixed. And in an amazingly dominant performance the Wildcats trounced OU to win their first Big 12 title in three tries.

MVP: RB Darren Sproles. KSU's midseason swoon could be traced to Roberson's injury, which makes him the MVP, right? Nope. Halfback Darren Sproles was there all season and he provided a solid run game that carried the Wildcats through Roberson's sometime inconsistency. Sproles averaged 177.3 all-purpose yards a game -- almost 50 more than the next closest player in the conference did. His 345 all-purpose yards in the Big 12 title game helped embarrass the Sooners.

Biggest Disappointment: A huge three-game hiccup at midseason started when the Wildcats lost at home to Marshall and a backup quarterback. It continued on the road against Texas and Oklahoma State. What made the loss to Marshall so discouraging was that the Thundering Herd won with a running game and didn't even need to pass.

What's Next: Enjoying the moment. A sizeable rebuilding job awaits Snyder, who must replace 12 starters, including Roberson and receiver James Terry on offense and defensive standouts Andrew Shull, Josh Buhl and Rashad Washington. Allen Webb, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Indiana, is out of the Roberson mold and will likely get a good look at the quarterback position. Nick Patton of Winfield, Kan., is one of the top quarterback prospects in the nation and is considering the Wildcats, Kansas and Missouri.

Missouri
How do you figure a team that comfortably beats Nebraska and Texas Tech -- and loses to Kansas and Colorado? You don't. The Tigers teased this year, making a run at the North Division title but in the end they rarely got their offense and defense to click at the same time, as evidenced in losses to Kansas and Colorado. A 62-31 win over Texas Tech was the high-water mark for both, particularly on defense as the Tigers' liberal substitution in the secondary set a blueprint in how to slow the Red Raiders.

MVP: QB Brad Smith. As the sophomore went, so usually did the Tigers. He had a season-high two interceptions and two fumbles, one lost, against Colorado. He ran for 291 yards, most by a major college quarterback this season, against Tech. With 178 yards passing in the Tigers' bowl game he can have a 1,000-yard rushing/2,000-yard passing season. Only one quarterback did it before Smith did it the first time last season.

Biggest Disappointment: Mizzou entered its game against Kansas State on Nov. 22 with a shot at the North Division title on the line. They could have already almost had it sewn up. But losses to the Jayhawks and Buffaloes -- teams they were expected to beat -- left them facing KSU with anxiety instead of confidence. To no surprise, KSU won 24-14. What's Next: Getting more consistency out of Brad Smith without putting any more demands on him. That's easier said than done, with the Tigers needed to replace three offensive linemen, the tight end and halfback. Damien Nash will get a long look to replace Zach Abron at the latter. Defensively, the Tigers are young and figure to get faster with the addition of some talented freshmen that redshirted this year.

Nebraska
Bet the six new assistant coaches didn't envision this during their job recruitment last offseason. Cornhuskers' athletic director Steve Pederson pulled the plug on coach Frank Solich despite a 9-3 regular season, a respectable jump after last year's 7-7 tumble. The revamped offense under Barney Cotton didn't take without a strong I-back, something Cory Ross tried to provide late in the season. The revamped defense did, at least for a while, but ultimately the unit paid for sacrificing size for speed.

MVP: S Josh Bullocks. Bullocks had a nation-leading 10 interceptions for a unit that aggressively produced takeaways. He gets the edge over linebacker Demorrio Williams, whose ability to rush off the edge also was key to the Blackshirts' improvement, and punter Kyle Larsen, whose strong leg provided a decided field position advantage.

Biggest Disappointment: It wasn't the 9 in Frank Solich's 9-3 that was the problem. It was the 3. All three of the Cornhuskers' losses came in Big 12 play and all were blowouts, by a combined 110-40. In those games NU's shortcomings were exposed -- the NU rushing attack wasn't physical, Jammal Lord was one-dimensional and the Blackshirt defense was average.

What's Next: Survivor, Lincoln. If you want cutthroat reality television, have a crew tag along with the Cornhuskers' new coach. Watch as he dumps the I-option attack and tries to bring back the passing legacy of David Humm with Joe Dailey. Watch as he tries to restore the Blackshirts' damaged reputation. Watch as he tries to regain control of Big 12 from Oklahoma. Watch as he treats every loss like a death in the family. Watch as he develops an ulcer and sees his sink fill up with hair. Parental guidance suggested.

Oklahoma
Playing the Sooners this season was seen as opportunity. For what depends on your point of view. For the terminally optimistic, it was a chance to knock off the king. For the realistic, it was a rendezvous with humility. OU scored at least 50 points seven times. Five teams didn't score double digits on the Sooners. Finding a weak link in the Sooners was difficult. Their rushing attack ranked 59th among 117 D-IA teams and their net punting was 29th. In every other of the 13 team categories they were 20th or higher, including No. 1 in scoring offense, pass defense, pass efficiency defense and pass efficiency. Trouble was, OU got fat on all that acclaim. KSU didn't pay much attention. Chalk up one for terminal optimism.

MVP: QB Jason White. The Sooners had a record six players named to the first-team Football Writers Association of America, which means any OU MVP isn't going to have to do much solo heavy lifting. But if you take five of the six away the Sooners are still playing for the national title. If you take Jason White away they may not be. White's only bad game all year came at a bad time, in the Big 12 title game, but the Sooner offensive line didn't give him much time.

Biggest Disappointment: Like you have to ask. Just when it appeared finding fault with OU was like marrying Miss America and then complaining she couldn't recite Homer's Odyssey -- in the original Greek -- Kansas State provided an emphatic answer. For all of Bob Stoops' strengths, he has the disturbing trend of being upset late in the season (OSU in 2001 and '02; KSU this year) that has cost them a Big 12 or national title -- or both.

What's Next: Building more trophy cases. Forget the spot where the Big 12 bauble was supposed to go, but there's still plenty of hardware left to collect. Derrick Strait is a Thorpe Award Finalist. Jason White is an O'Brien and Camp award finalist and possible Heisman Trophy winner. Teddy Lehman is a Butkus Award finalist. Mark Clayton is a Biletnikoff Award finalist. Tommie Harris won the Lombardi Award. And there's still the national championship trophy waiting to be claimed. The offseason will focus on rebuilding the defensive line, particularly if Harris turns pro, and on replacing White, if he decides not to try to petition the NCAA for a sixth season to complete his eligibility.

Oklahoma State
The Cowboys came into the season with their best team and, therefore, their best chance of beating rival Oklahoma. Sounded logical, right? But the try for a third-straight win over the Sooners ended in a demoralizing 52-9 defeat and a hangover that cost OSU in a second-half collapse the following week to Texas. OSU was solid on offensive with receiver Rashaun Woods and halfback Tatum Bell providing a one-two punch unparalleled in the Big 12 but injuries ultimately robbed the Cowboys of some of their top playmakers on defense.

MVP: WR Rashaun Woods. Woods provided the key for the Cowboys, even though his statistics (66 catches, 1,144 yards, 14 touchdowns) weren't as remarkable as they'd been. His established threat opened up running lanes for halfback Tatum Bell, who 124.0 yard per game average ranked second in the Big 12.

Biggest Disappointment: Moving the Nebraska game to opening day proved to be a mistake for the Cowboys, who were still finding their way on offense. The Cornhuskers, meanwhile, had a whole offseason to put in wrinkles with new offensive and defensive coordinators. If the game had stayed in the meat of the Big 12 season the Cowboys might have had a chance to iron out those wrinkles.

What's Next: OSU must keep the momentum going. Replacing a player with the game-controlling talent of Woods won't be easy, but look for his younger brother, D'Juan, to get first shot. Seymore Shaw, who's been bothered by injuries, should move in for Bell. If Josh Fields, a pro prospect as a third baseman, signs a baseball contract next summer and gives up football, the Cowboys could be trying to replace him, too. A young secondary returns nearly intact but replacing ends Greg Richmond and Khreem Smith will be a challenge.

Texas
It's a familiar story. Texas loses to Oklahoma, Texas does some soul searching, Texas gets back in the picture, Texas knocks itself out of the picture. This year it came with a twist. Oklahoma never allowed the Longhorns to work their way back in the Big 12 race after their 42-point whipping in Dallas, but OU still knocked Texas out of the BCS picture by losing to K-State in the Big 12 title game. UT expected to showcase a passing attack featuring quarterback Chance Mock and what was billed as the deepest receiving corps in the country, but redshirt freshman Vince Young changed everything. Roy Williams and Co. became blockers who got more knockdown blocks than balls and the Longhorns elusive power running game resulted in the Longhorns' highest single-season rushing total since Earl Campbell's senior year in 1977.

MVP: QB Vince Young. This may be the clearest choice in the entire league. Young's running skills were so remarkable that they caused the Longhorns to transition from a passing offense to a spread running attack in midseason. His presence turned Cedric Benson from a back that averaged 59.7 yards a game when Chance Mock was starting; 185.8 when Young started. No player in the league had a more profound impact on reversing his team's fortunes.

Biggest Disappointment: The Longhorns' 65-13 loss to Oklahoma hit hard, but after three previous losses it would hardly qualify as a disappointment any more. UT's 38-28 loss to Arkansas three weeks earlier definitely fits the bill, though. It was the only home loss by the Longhorn seniors, who finished 22-1 at Royal-Memorial Stadium.

What's Next: Young holds the key to the Longhorns' future. Defenses began catching up with his running ability late in the season, almost daring him to beat them with the pass. A sidearm delivery and inconsistency on intermediate passes will get plenty of attention during the spring. Texas' rebuilding job on defense includes replacing Kalen Thornton, Marcus Tubbs and Nathan Vasher and possibly some assistant coaches, if rumored changes occur. Chances are they'll also have to replace junior linebacker Derrick Johnson, who could turn pro.

Texas A&M
The last time the Aggies imported a coach from Alabama the guy held training camp in one-horse town where he ran off half his team before building a champion. This time it didn't work out so neatly. Coach Dennis Franchione and his Aggies dipped from 6-6 to 4-8, hardly the direction A&M had in mind when it gave him a $1.7 million a year deal, almost twice what it paid R.C. Slocum last season. A&M's offense, with freshman Courtney Lewis providing the Aggies with their first 1,000-yard rusher since Dante Hall in 1998, was respectable. But injuries and a lack of depth turned a once-proud defense into a laughingstock that allowed 465 points, worse than all but two major college programs and 68 more than Bear Bryant's A&M teams allowed total in his four years in College Station. But hey, even 4-8 was better than the 1-9 mark the Aggies had in Bryant's first season.

MVP: WR Terrance Murphy. Murphy became the main receiving threat after Jammar Taylor went out with an injury and he also led league in kickoff return average. Just as importantly, he was a leader on a team that needed them.

Biggest Disappointment: The Aggies were respectable when they traveled to Lubbock on Oct. 4 to play Texas Tech. After the 59-28 loss to the Red Raiders they began to unravel, despite a 73-10 win over Baylor the following week. A&M didn't give up fewer than 33 points in its last six games, five of which were losses.

What's Next: Franchione was able to redshirt most of his 2002 recruiting class, which was ranked in the top 10 nationally. That will have to pay dividends next season, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines, where several of those players will likely start. The Aggies should be fine with Lewis and quarterback Reggie McNeal to build around on offense but they'll need to improve drastically on defense, particularly on the line and at cornerback. Franchione hopes he can work the same magic he did at New Mexico, TCU and Bama, where he was a combined 17-18 his first season and 24-12 in his second. Texas Tech
Playing the Red Raiders is like playing full-contact tennis. The emphasis is on holding serve -- and breaking theirs. Tech punted only 29 times all season, the function of a high-powered offense -- and coach Mike Leach's madcap tendency to go for it on fourth down. That made for high scoring games, a pace which Tech's defense was ill equipped to keep. At one point in the season the Red Raiders led the nation in total offense -- and were last in total defense.

MVP: QB B.J. Symons. Symons crammed an entire career into three months, throwing for 48 touchdowns and an NCAA D-IA single season record 5,336 yards. Those totals rank sixth and fifth, respectively, on the Big 12 career lists. Oh yeah. He played the last two regular season games with an ACL tear in one knee.

Biggest Disappointment: Leach gives every team trying to stop the Red Raiders fits, with one notable exception. Oklahoma, where Leach coached in 1999 before taking the Tech job, consistently makes the Red Raiders look ineffectual. One week after nearly pulling off a dramatic come-from-behind win at Texas, Tech had five interceptions in a 31-point loss to the Sooners.

What's Next: First Kingsbury, now Symons. Who does the next arm to pile up stats in Mike Leach's passing offense belong to? Maybe it's Robert Johnson of Reedly (Calif.) College, who's projected by some as the top JUCO quarterback in the country. Johnson's already given the Red Raiders an verbal commitment. Whoever wins the job will have to break in some new receivers to replace dependable targets Mickey Peters, Wes Welker and Carlos Francis. That's all parlor talk, compared to the job facing defensive coordinator Lyle Setenich, who must revamp a defense that ranked 110th in the nation in total defense.

Mark Wangrin covers the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News.