The Big 12 on the national stage

This is probably the biggest week of the year for the Big 12 in terms of their standing as a national conference unless the league puts a team into the playoffs (doubtful). For reasons I’ve articulated here a few times, the Big 12 can’t quite compete with the other major conferences. The demographics of the region are too sparse and Texas-focused to allow for as many big time programs as you get in the SEC, ACC, or B1G and the Pac-12 and even AAC are typically the peers to the Big 12.

However, the Big 12 does have a large number of programs that truly care about football and currently have an amazing collection of coaches that know how to take mid-tier Power 5 resources and build something closer to upper tier Power 5 teams. Then you also have Oklahoma and Texas, the former of whom has really defined the ceiling for the conference and the latter of whom has squandered one of the best positions in college football to the tune of one national championship over the last 48 years.

All that big picture rambling aside, I’ve got some thoughts on the big games this weekend and some ideas about how they might go and what they could portend for the 2018 season.

Boise State +2.5 at Oklahoma State

I’ve been a little hypocritical this week. I’ve noted that S&P+ seems to see the 2018 Texas team as I have, namely as a team that’s been reasonably solid and not great on both sides of the ball and which has a chance to end up being a pretty overall team that contends for the Big 12. I heard a story about a casual-ish sports gambler living in the Austin area that saw USC +3.5 and put down six figures on the Trojans. That’s where the typical perception is down in the Austin bubble regarding this team after a loss to “4-8” Maryland and a seven point win over “2-10 Tulsa.”

Of course Maryland went 4-8 after losing two different QBs for the year to injury and Tulsa nosedived to 2-10 after a 10-3 season because they tried to replace pocket passing Dane Evans with running QB Chad President in the veer and shoot offense which is predicated around using the pass to set up the run. All that to say, neither of those teams are as bad as their 2017 records suggest.

So when S&P+ and Vegas both saw Texas as a slight favorite over USC I was eager to say, “see, I’m not not the only who sees things this way.”

But when Vegas (definitely not S&P+) told us that Oklahoma State is about equal with Boise State? I urged a friend who’d bet against Texas (not the 6-figs character) to hedge by betting heavily against OSU.

As Steven Godfrey has been humorously noting, 2018 looks like the year that we get the return of the “Murder Smurfs.” The turn of the decade Boise State teams that would beat the hell out of a different opponent every week.  Last week Boise outgained UCONN 818 yards to 193…

Heading into the year Boise looked like a very promising team. They have 10 starters returning from a very strong 2017 defense, one of their best since Pete Kwiatkowski left with Chris Petersen, although the one guy who left was 1st round draft selection Leighton Vander Esch.

On offense they had a slow start in 2017 before starting to get their OL rolling and run game off the ground, in part because they settled on Alexander Mattison at RB and he rewarded them with a 1k yard season. Their big question marks on this side concerned how they’d replace star wideout Cedric Wilson, who had 2640 receiving yards and 18 TDs over the previous two seasons.

No big deal, they plugged in a “sophomore” LB named Riley Whimpey who’d just returned to campus after serving his two-year mission for the LDS Church and have been great on defense while fourth-year starting QB Brett Rypien has been lighting opponents up throwing to veterans Sean Modster and AJ Richardson.

The name of the game in Boise is nearly opposite to Mike Gundy’s approach to building top teams in Stillwater. At Oklahoma State they look for players that have high level athleticism and potential and then they mold them into football players over years of development in their system and schemes. The Gundy offense is designed to squeeze as much value as possible out of a small number of offensive concepts by using tempo, a field general QB, and spread spacing and balance.

Boise looks for versatile football players, guys that may not have any elite measurables but are solid or good at a large number of skills and then they build multi-use tools on either side of the ball that allow them to methodically break opponents down with ever-shifting formations, concepts, and leverages.

Both approaches are great and have generated strong results for either team. The problems for Oklahoma State in 2018 are these:

  1. Their defense is in a more larval stage of development in a new scheme going up against one of the most multiple, well prepared, and mentally taxing units in the country.
  2. They’re in a transition phase at QB, currently relying on former walk-on Taylor Cornelius because he knows the system and how to distribute the ball in it while their other more talented QBs do not.

I expect OSU’s defensive approach, which is designed to cut off angles and force opponents to play in a box, to fail on a systemic level as Boise breaks “the box” and out leverages their defenders with various tricks and run/pass conflicts. The OSU offense, designed to allow the QB to figure out where the favorable leverage is and get the ball to a playmaker, could very easily break down as the Broncos show shifting looks where the extra run defender or deep safety help is impossible to suss out until after the snap when it’s too late.

I think the Murder Smurfs are going to bring devastation in Stillwater.

Pick: Boise State +2.5

Iowa State +17 at Oklahoma

Y’all ready to sigh and shake your heads at me? I noticed a few things about Kyler Murray in that UCLA game that I’m curious to see play out in the coming weeks.

One observation is that he’s fairly contact shy, which isn’t really a bad thing at all since he’s not particularly large, he’s really good at evading people, and he’s a fantastic slider. I noticed some OU folk on Twitter like my boy Allen Kenney annoyed at his tendency to run 40 yards to gain 4 on some of his scramble drill plays. I think that’s actually a strength for a few reasons.

  1. You want this guy to stay healthy all year. He’s not big, you can’t be totally sure how he’ll respond to playing through injuries with the baseball contract looming, and Austin Kendall is unproven and also dinged up.
  2. Presumably it’s pretty tiring to run around like he does, but it’s not as tiring for him as it is for the defense. Oklahoma’s defensive front was GASSED at the end of the RRS last year because Mike Stoops’ anti-spread adjustment off the Iowa State debacle was to play nickel personnel and man coverage most every down. That was eventually exploited by Sam Ehlinger scrambling against guys who had their backs turned, 22 carries for 110 yards.
  3. Oklahoma has a ton of good wideouts that are hard to cover and can mess you up after the catch. For Murray to avoid scrambling in order to distribute the ball (which I know no one is complaining about) makes this offense very dangerous.

My takeaway watching this game was “screw dropping back and spying this guy, I’d be pressuring him all day.”

What do you do when you have a QB that likes to use his elite quickness to avoid tacklers, can have trouble seeing over the line, and throws well on the run to a cast of excellent receivers? You bring pressure, lots of it, pressure like this:

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I broke this down the other day, recapping the Iowa State performance against rival Iowa. It’s a six man pressure firing a defender into either A-gap from a different starting point with three deep defenders playing cover 3 technique but then just two guys under neath that are starting on the hash marks and reading the QB’s eyes to take away his hot routes.

This is a really smart pressure to include in the Iowa State defensive package, which is now built more on their 3-3-5/dime structure defense that regularly drops eight into coverage. It’s also going to be an excellent test of Kyler Murray’s current quarterbacking skill level.

You can’t respond to this blitz by trying to scramble wide because the edge guys are taught to play contain, the goal isn’t to win the edge but to overload inside the A-gaps. You also can’t just throw it hot because they have guys sitting on those routes (you also tend to get a lot of batted passes as a result of dudes running right at the QB). You need to feel this pressure coming and get the ball out on a line to a hitch or comeback outside where the CBs are often bailing to deep 1/3 coverage, or else you need to hold up in protection long enough to allow the QB to move his eyes and feet from the first hot route to the next read.

It’s possible that Murray will just fire balls out on a line that beats the hot defenders (or CBs) and a little less plausible that he might escape these pressures. It’s also very possible that he’ll struggle to see these things coming from Iowa State’s amorphous pre-snap looks, struggle to see over the coming waves of LBs, and bail into sacks, intentional grounding penalties, and batted passes.

On the other side of the ball, Iowa State looks like a solid but not great test of Oklahoma’s new look run defense. The Cyclones struggled against Iowa’s defensive front at times but they played pretty well inside and got some push and they are going to come right at the Sooners with some clever looks to try and clear out the box and make them prove they’re tough inside.

The loss of Rodney Anderson looms in this game because he’s one of the hardest RBs to tackle in college football and the Cyclones are a very good tackling team.

So far this season the Sooners have overwhelmed their opponents with their sheer athleticism, the Cyclones are several times more sound than FAU or UCLA and are going to be the first team with enough discipline and skill to make the Sooners win a fist fight. I think this will be a hard fought game, if OU blows them out I may have to re-evaluate the Sooners unless it’s a consequence of Kyle Kempt being out and back-up Zeb Noland playing terrible football. That’s another lame possibility for this game, that the Cyclones won’t be at full strength.

Pick: Iowa State +17

USC +3.5 at Texas

I broke this one down over at Inside Texas, went up today($). The issues that Texas was concerned about against Tulsa will be very different than what they’re facing from USC. This opponent is much more in Todd Orlando’s wheelhouse of teams he knows how to crush.

USC is struggling while they get JT Daniels going. Hopefully for Clay Helton’s sake they don’t can him and then hand a very promising roster over to some other guy. Especially a guy that won’t utilize a system that makes the most of passing talents like Daniels or Darnold.

On the bright side for USC, their D is playing well and faces a Texas that is missing star freshman RB Keaontay Ingram, who will have to wait a week or so to have his inevitable 100-yard breakout game.

One final note on Texas, last year they had to settle on senior Tristan Nickelson and freshman Derek Kerstetter at LT and RT, respectively. Kerstetter was underweight and, well, a true freshman trying to survive out wide. Nickelson was a 6-9, 310 pound JUCO transfer that missed his RS when he had to be pressed into action and was always a stiffer, developmental project that never got the time and development he needed. They desperately tried to use sophomore Denzel Okafor at LT but he just got beat regularly and so Nickelson had to hold it down.

This year Texas has Rice grad-transfer Calvin Anderson at LT and RS freshman Sam Cosmi at RT. Anderson is a much better athlete than anyone who played the spot a year ago and in his fourth year as a starter at the position. Cosmi is a powerful player on top of being a great athlete and will probably slide over and replace Anderson next season. Consequently, Texas has seriously upgraded both ends of their weakest position from a year ago.

Pick: Texas -3.5

Duke +6 at Baylor

I’ve been waiting for this game to tell me who Baylor really is this season. Of course Duke lost their QB so we may not get too clear an idea. However, the Blue Devils have a smashmouth spread concept and a good running game that mauled Army when I tuned into that game. They also seem reasonably stout on defense.

Baylor is favored by six so they must be playing well to this point. I’ll let y’all know what I make of the Bears after this one is over.

Pick: I dunno

Houston -1 at Texas Tech

I figure Tech sticks with Alan Bowman. He’s got a big arm and throwing to T.J. Vasher is the main thing they have going for them right now.

Houston has been dealing out pain with D’Eriq King at QB. King was ideal for the Major Applewhite “Gulf Coast O” they were running in emulation of what they’d done with Greg Ward, Jr and they have another coupla guys like him in Bryson Smith (playing WR and QB for them) and Julon Williams (playing WR currently). Of course they’re going Veer and Shoot instead with Kendal Briles, where pushing the ball down the field is a bigger part of the formula.

If they can get these guys playing like RG3 (I mean, to the extent that’s reasonable) in which they use their legs to guarantee time to throw down the field, that could be pretty dang effective. I’m betting Houston tears Tech apart and the “fire Kingsbury” drums start to beat louder.

Pick: Houston -1

TCU +13 vs Ohio State

I broke this one down at SB Nation this week and evidently triggered a lot of Frog fans online with my diagnosis of the game, as well as some other fans that insisted that Ohio State needed to come out running rather than chucking it deep.

Personally I tend to think I’ve got a better feel for each of these programs than most. I’ve written on each a ton over the last few years and have covered TCU’s issues with play-action spread teams as well as Ohio State’s need to be a better play-action team to realize their title-winning potential. I’ve also written on Shawn Robinson since he was a recruit, Ohio State’s issues with the spread, etc.

My feel for this game is that Dwayne Haskins is going to murder TCU throwing to these wideouts down the field unless the Buckeye coaches are too dumb or stubborn to realize that running into Patterson’s smaller fronts is exactly the trap he’s setting for you.

After this game TCU may look even more vulnerable than they really are. Their passing game just isn’t there right now but their run game can be and they showed last year that they could win games by running it, taking care of the ball, and playing defense. I think they’ll be a little worse in all three categories this season, but they could still be a 7-8 win team. I’m not currently buying them as B12 champs but they haven’t been crossed off the list of possible contenders either.

Pick: Ohio State -13


  1. Travis

    Baylor basically just looks like a stronger version of last year. The strong areas are now really strong, the mediocre are average, really bad are now just below average.

    Both QBs and the WRs and RBs have all been fantastic. Mims and Hurd have been dirty.

    The OL still can’t run block effectively. But they are making less blatant mistakes.

    Defense looks OK but they miss Taylor Young. Still making errors in run fits. But the DL is improved because James Lynch has become one of the best players on the team.

    I think Duke will feast on Baylor’s OL. The question is whether Baylor can make them pay getting Brewer on the move and getting the ball to the skill talent. Duke’s secondary is very green. And they still play the all-or-nothing defense (they hired from within after Knowles).

    Should be a tight game.

  2. Jay M.

    Ugh! I was hoping to get a better feel for the Duke/BU game by reading this. I watched Harris in the 2nd half of the Northwestern game and he looked very uncomfortable out there. But I also know that Cutcliffe is gonna have him looking much more prepared with a week of prep with him. I think the game will come down whether he can throw the ball enough to keep the BU safeties back. If they can sustain drives, I see Duke winning by 10-14 and being in comfortable control the entire 2nd half. If not, I think Brewer and the WR corps are gonna have too many chances for explosive plays…especially with Gilbert down for the year. If thats the case, I see Baylor winning by 14-17.

    • ianaboyd

      Big range of outcomes there. Sorry I don’t have more, I haven’t found the time to really watch Baylor yet and they also haven’t really played anyone that interesting yet.

    • Travis

      The biggest thing Baylor will have to avoid is missed gap assignments in the QB run game. They are going to run the QB a ton, and missed gaps are even more critical when you have an extra blocker. We shall see.

  3. Joey

    Very interested to see how Murray/Riley adapt to inevitable pressure from ISU. Hopefully OU is able to establish the run and take some of the weight off his shoulders. Would like to see Riley incorporate some quick screens early on. If ISU forces Murray to make intermediate throws all day, it’s going to be a tight game. OU is still scoring big, but in my opinion, this offense isn’t humming the way the scores would indicate.

    Despite all that- still think they cover. As does Texas. Daniels is going to be a turnover machine in that game.

    • Clayton Davis

      That was a pretty hilarious attempt at pressure by UCLA. Outside guys aren’t really doing anything except making sure Kyler can’t easily get upfield if flushed from the pocket. Still, he’s a much more dangerous rushing threat than Stanley if pressure doesn’t bring him down or force him into a dumb throw.

      • Matt

        #1 I believe that’s the basic idea that Boyd is saying Iowa State will use to defend Kyler: force him to step up into interior pressure with plenty of defenders back deep.
        #2 Are you trying to say you think that Iowa State’s defensive line will have more success than UCLA’s?

        • Clayton Davis

          #1 I think the difference there is that ISU actually rushed upfield, so that if Kyler tries to escape interior pressure to buy time to throw, it’s in to the waiting arms of the contain rushers.

          #2 On paper, OU should easily be able to handle their front. But I would have said the same about last year, too.

    • ianaboyd

      You can post GIFs, use the image tags and a link that ends in .gif. Took me a while but I figured it out once.

      That play is not at all like what Iowa State will bring. For starters, it’s a 5-man pressure rather than 6. For another, they don’t get any pressure. Murray has all day to find the comeback outside, it’s like they didn’t blitz at all. He’s standing way back there with all day and zero visibility concerns. Iowa State is going to disguise better, they’ll use trickier looks, and when they come you’re going to feel them.

      The cyclones are considerably better on defense than UCLA. If Murray torches them it’ll be the first time he’s created film where he’s executed against a higher level defense.

      • Matt

        Double A gap blitz, DE’s force him to stay in the pocket, Cyclones have multiple guys on the hashes to take away hot reads. 3 deep shell with 3 under in coverage. Idea is pretty dang similar. Iowa State played one game and lost. Its pretty hard to say they are considerably better than UCLA after only 1 game especially when UCLA has much more talent than Iowa State especially on the D-line and at edge rusher.

        • ianaboyd

          It’s almost like Iowa State didn’t bear y’all and several other teams last year, haha.

          The scheme is similar except Iowa State brings one more, they actually try to get upfield, it’s much better disguised, it’s much better coached, and they have better players.

          Fending off a 5-man rush in which no one beats the line of scrimmage is very different from beating a 6-man rush where there’s immediate pressure. If OU can recognize and block these things that’s one thing but we haven’t seen them have to do that yet so it’s an important check point in their growth as an offense.

          • Matt

            Last year is last year. You don’t know what they’re going to be this year yet. Same point your making with OU’s offense. If you’re looking at last year’s defenses, look at what they did to FAU’s passing defense which had 10 starters back from last year’s unit that finished only 3 spots behind ISU’s in passing S&P. Here’s a play from that game where he beat 5 with an immediate pressure. Its not a double A gap but then again, a double A gap is not at all similar to what ISU will bring anyway.

          • ianaboyd

            Another “pressure” that isn’t. I’m sure Murray with oodles of time in the pocket can beat reduced coverages and hurt teams.

            The cyclones look better all the time under Campbell and just held a notoriously consistent Iowa team to a lotta nothing.

  4. Clayton Davis

    On both the plays Matt posted, UCLA brought more than 4 rushers, but in each case, OU had 6-7 blockers. Unless assignments got missed, Murray wasn’t going to face immediate pressure. If OU is prepared, he won’t in this game either. We’ll see how ISU does.

    • ianaboyd

      Well, even with max protect it’s hard to consistently block the double A-gap. You overload the interior and the center and RB have to be really good inside at picking it up. You’ve got 1-on-1 matchups for the D right up the middle in a best case scenario for the offense.

      It’s really tough when done well, the Spartans used to inflict -48 rushing yard days on Michigan with these things.

      • Matt

        and yet Oklahoma blocked the double A gap on that play. Also, throughout the first two games, they blocked double A gap pressure that was brought on by twists and stunts multiple times. Their offensive line has proven they can handle it and Kyler has had success against similar concepts. On the Kyler topic, you act like he’s never made a throw with pressure in his face, much less completed one which he definitely has.

        • Matt

          Also, “Another “pressure” that isn’t. I’m sure Murray with oodles of time in the pocket can beat reduced coverages and hurt teams.” The play you showed in your article from ISU vs Iowa, the pressure doesn’t come any faster than it does in the play I showed.

          • ianaboyd

            This is a 5-man blitz. Picked up pretty well and Murray has a pocket to pump and step into. Throws a decent ball, kinda under thrown. No deep safety there so he took his chance.

            None of these give any indication of how OU and Murray will respond if Iowa State brings a well executed blitz of the sort I described in the article. Maybe they’ll handle it great, but we haven’t seen them deal with it yet.

    • ianaboyd

      That’s another poorly executed blitz, in part because they jumped offsides and then the ball was snapped before their defenders knew what was happening. Looks also like rat-zero blitz rather than the one that Iowa State has been running. Anyways he’s not throwing hot he gets to a second progression and throws at coverage. Hoping to beat the coverage there, which may or may not have been successful if the wideout hadn’t fallen down.

      Another example where a UCLA blitz didn’t actually result in any pressure.

      • Matt

        Going through his progressions is even more impressive. He had guys in his face all the same which is considered pressure. Guys running free at the snap are not the only kind of pressure. Also, there’s no definitive proof that Iowa State will be able to get rushers free. In the previous games, OU has shown they can handle different blitzes like that which has been what I’ve been saying all along.

        • Clayton Davis

          I think at this point we’ll just have to look at the tape after the game. I mean, you’re not going to convince Ian, and he’s not going to convince you absent actual results on the field.

        • ianaboyd

          Maybe OU will block Iowa State well but Murray didn’t “handle pressure” here in any kind of noteworthy way. If a QB can’t make reads and throws with that kind of protection they can’t play D1 football.

  5. Matt

    Clayton, last year’s game wasn’t about pressure. Mayfield had time all game. He lost Lamb in the first half and Marquise Brown hadn’t been consistent enough at that point to be trusted. He was thrown at a couple times in that game but had drops.

  6. Matt

    “None of these give any indication of how OU and Murray will respond if Iowa State brings a well executed blitz of the sort I described in the article. Maybe they’ll handle it great, but we haven’t seen them deal with it yet.”
    They are all examples of OU handling different blitzes well and Murray facing pressure from different angles and still delivering accurate passes. They may not have seen the exact blitz that you are referencing but they’ve seen others that are similar and beat them. The double A gap that ISU and MSU used is not some unbeatable blitz. That’s why its not used on every single snap of a football game.

    • Clayton Davis

      I think another big difference is Lamb and Brown with another year in the program. I mean, both of them have added skill and understanding of what is expected of them. They are making catches they didn’t necessarily make a year ago. Calcaterra is an upgrade over Andrews in terms of actually catching the ball, though he isn’t quite the matchup nightmare Andrews was.

    • ianaboyd

      These are crappy defense launching ineffective blitzes and failing to hurry Murray at all, whatsoever.

      It won’t be the case all year that teams fail to hurry or pressure Murray. We have yet to see how he’ll respond.

      Is it really controversial to note a way in which UCLA and FAU were ill equipped to test the Oklahoma offense?

  7. Matt

    Also, comparing Michigan’s offense under Brady Hoke to Riley’s offense is just completely asinine. That’s not even considering the fact that Michigan State had multiple first round corners on those teams. Iowa State definitely doesn’t.

    • ianaboyd

      I’m not saying this is Michigan vs Michigan State I’m talking about what these blitzes can do if and when they’re run well and you can’t handle them. I doubt Iowa State does as much damage as the Spartans did to the wolverines.

  8. Philly Frog


    What is your understanding of the difference between a zero blitz and a rat-zero? Are they just run from different fronts [3-man vs 4-man]?

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