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Transition season not going as smooth as hoped

With eight new quarterbacks taking over starting positions this season, it was expected to be a season of transition in the Big 12.

But few expected to see the conference's early disappointment this season, particularly after a strong collective bowl season and Texas' national championship run last season.

The Big 12 struggled through a disappointing non-conference mark that included a 0-9 record against ranked opponents. It could be argued that the league's two most impressive non-conference victories were Missouri beating SEC bottom-feeder Mississippi and Oklahoma's conquest of Washington.

Texas lost to Ohio State. Nebraska lost at USC. Texas Tech lost at TCU. Oklahoma dropped a controversial loss at Oregon that prompted school president David Boren to whine to anybody who would listen.

Those losses have stripped the conference of much of its national prestige. It's the first time in the Big 12's history that it hasn't had a team perched in the top five at this point of the season.

"I wouldn't get my shorts in a bunch too much over that to be honest with you," veteran Iowa State coach Dan McCarney said. "There's just so much football to be played. I think when this season is over, all of us associated with the Big 12 will be able to hold our heads high."

Missouri emerged as the conference's feel-good story with a 6-0 start that has Tiger fans comparing the current team to the glory days of Dan Devine in the late 1960s.

The Tigers have an opportunistic defense stocked with playmakers, a talented quarterback in Chase Daniel and the two best tight ends on one team in college football with Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker.

Nebraska will be the Tigers' top challenger for the North Division title. Missouri hasn't won a conference championship of any kind since winning the Big Eight in 1969. The Cornhuskers haven't won a North Division title since 1999, which to their legion of fans is almost as long a break.

Coach Bill Callahan's offensive philosophy has kicked in this season with the conference's most balanced attack. And that multi-purpose philosophy will help them match up against virtually any opponent in the league.

Iowa State has again dropped to 0-2 to the start the conference race. The Cyclones started 0-3 in each of the last two seasons and still made a bowl trip. It won't be as easy this season, mainly because of a tougher conference schedule.

After Texas' demolition of Oklahoma at the Cotton Bowl, the Longhorns are in the driver's seat for their first back-to-back conference titles since 1995-96. The defense has played up to coordinator Gene Chizik's exacting standards and freshman quarterback Colt McCoy has developed into one of the nation's most efficient passers.

Oklahoma was expected to struggle after quarterback Rhett Bomar was kicked off the team before the season. But Paul Thompson has emerged as a capable replacement and is the least of the Sooners' worries.

The Sooners' biggest problems have been uncharacteristic defensive struggles. That appeared to improve against Texas, although the Sooners were done in by 11 penalties (including five false-start penalties on offense) and five turnovers.

Making a bowl trip for the first time since 1994 was Baylor's top priority before the season. Those hopes were considered dead after a 1-3 non-conference start that featured tight losses to Army, Washington State and TCU.

But the Bears have responded with back-to-back conference victories over Kansas State and Colorado. The bowl hopes still are a long shot, but the Bears are just reveling in a share of first place in the South Division at this point of the season heading into Saturday's game at Texas.

"We could be sitting there bowl-eligible right now if we had been able to do what I thought we could get done," Baylor coach Guy Morriss said of the six wins required to be eligible for postseason play. "The kids realize that too. They're in a good frame of mind -- we're just going to have to do it the hard way now."

It will be the same way if Texas wants a chance to defend its national title. The Longhorns likely will have to run the table and get some help to get there.

A lot of dominoes would have to fall in place, but nothing is out of the question as long as Texas keeps winning.

Biggest Surprise
Missouri players used the team's lack of preseason respect as a unifying element during fall practice. And they've trumped that by racing to a 6-0 start that is the school's best since 1973.

Most thought that the loss of record-setting quarterback Brad Smith would wreak havoc on the Tigers' offense. Instead, the Tigers might be even better this season with sophomore QB Chase Daniel taking over. He's involved all of his weapons, helping the Tigers become a more vertical passing team. He has running back Tony Temple in the mix as a breakaway running threat.

And the Tigers' defense has been just as good. A deep group of returning starters have withstood a couple of potential crippling injuries to defensive back Dominique Johnson and defensive tackle Evander "Ziggy" Hood.

"It's something we built on as the season went on," linebacker Marcus Bacon said. "We're getting more confident with every game. We're growing up together and learning as we go."

Biggest Disappointment
Easy one here. Colorado was expected to be down a little after winning four of the last five North Division titles. But nobody could have predicted the Buffaloes' collapse in coach Dan Hawkins' first season.

It started badly in a loss to Division I-AA Montana State and went downhill fast in consecutive losses to Colorado State, Arizona State, Georgia, Missouri and Baylor.

Hawkins was supposed to be an offensive guru, but the Buffaloes rank 115th in passing, 108th in total offense, 109th in scoring, 103rd in pass defense. Even the once-vaunted special teams have skidded as kicker Mason Crosby has been neutered because his team is rarely in scoring position.

It got so bad that Hawkins opted to postpone football practice the day after the Baylor loss to allow his team to play Frisbee football. Only in Boulder, we would surmise.

Midseason MVP
Adrian Peterson has become an even more valuable player for Oklahoma this season, even though his team already is likely out of the South Division title hunt.

Peterson has turned himself into an every-down back by working on his receiving and his pass blocking. He's even been a kick returner and told his coaches he'd like to serve as a gunner on the Sooners' punt coverage team.

Coach Bob Stoops will never go for that, but Peterson's work has made the Sooners more versatile offensively. His every-down presence has given Thompson a chance to singe defenses with play-action.

His lack of a signature play against Texas might have limited his Heisman chances. But he will be inspired in the next several weeks by having the opportunity to play before his father, who was recently released from a halfway house and can attend Sooner home games.

Midseason Coach of the Year
Remember the old days when Gary Pinkel looked like he needed a personality transplant as much as a multi-talented running back?

A kinder, gentler Pinkel has emerged this season and his team has responded to the attitude change.

He has kept the Tigers focused during an unexpected 6-0 start, trusting his players more as they have focused on the task at hand. Pinkel has taken all team schedules out of the practice facilities and focused on immediate goals rather than long-range ones.

Heck, he even bought a cake and sang "Happy Birthday" for one of his beat writers earlier in the season. It's hard not to root for a coach like that -- particularly considering his once-prickly nature.

Bowl Bound
Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas.

Tim Griffin covers college football and the Big 12 for the San Antonio Express-News