CFT predicts: the Big 12

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For the past two years, the Big 12 was dead. Or, so we thought.

But, throw in an interim commissioner, a new TV deal and a postseason partnership with the SEC, and suddenly the Big 12 is the cool conference in an ironic way that only a hipster would understand.

The additions of TCU and West Virginia help. What the Big 12 lost in TV markets and footprints with Missouri and Texas A&M, it gains in recent on-the-field success with the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers. Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the Big 12 should shake out.

(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)

1. Oklahoma (last season: 10-3; won Insight Bowl)
From injuries to departures to losing defensive coordinator Brent Venables to Clemson, Oklahoma has experienced plenty of turnover this offseason. But, Oklahoma also returns quarterback Landry Jones and leading rusher Dominique Whaley, and new DC Mike Stoops is a solid replacement for Venables too. OU’s schedule this year is manageable, though perhaps its two toughest tests could come against the Big 12’s two newest members: at West Virginia on Nov. 17 and at TCU to close out the regular season.  If the Sooners can stay healthy — that’s already an issue along the offensive line — there’s little reason to think Bob Stoops‘ (pictured, with QB Blake Bell) team won’t win the Big 12.

2. West Virginia (last season: 10-3 in Big East, won Orange Bowl)
Placing the Mountaineers to finish second in the Big 12 is a bit risky, but we’re betting with house money, right?. Hanging 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl helps — points aside, it was the most cohesive WVU looked on offense all last year — and returning nine offensive starters helps even more. Still, the Mountaineers have two very important questions left to be answered: how will a young defense fare under new co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson, and can the team rise to the occasion in the face of stiffer competition? Remember, this is a team with a recent history of struggling unexpectedly against weaker opponents.

3. Texas (last season: 8-5; won Holiday Bowl) 
Texas’ Holiday Bowl win over Cal gave the Longhorns some momentum heading into 2012 and there’s a lot of upside in Austin. Until that upside is reached, though, I’m going to put the Longhorns at No. 3. In fact, Texas is still about a year away from realistically competing for a conference title. David Ash looks like he’s the guy at quarterback despite what Mack Brown says and the offensive line should be better. The Longhorns are scary talented on defense, but I’m not sold on the offensive consistency yet.

4. TCU (last season: 11-2 in Mountain West; won Poinsettia Bowl)
The Horned Frogs could easily have been No. 3 or even has high as No. 2, but given the offseason attrition, I’m going to put them at No. 4. Like West Virginia, I’m curious to see if TCU can succeed against better competition. The Frogs are 5-5 against Big 12 opponents under Gary Patterson, with a few of those wins coming against Baylor when the Bears were … not so good, shall we say.  That said, there are few coaches in college football better than Patterson, who is a big reason why TCU is even in the Big 12 to begin with. Though I don’t expect TCU to win the Big 12 in their inaugural season, I’m never one to count out Patterson.

5. Kansas State (last season: 10-3; lost Cotton Bowl) 
I’m going to have to agree with ESPN’s Big 12 blogger David UbbenThe Wildcats are the Big 12’s wild card, equally capable of either another 10-win season or a .500 record. Not coincidentally, K-State is my No. 5 team. Last year, K-State made a habit of pulling out close games, winning eight by a touchdown or less. This year’s schedule is a coin flip too. Bill Snyder‘s team has to play at Oklahoma (the Sooners almost never lose at home), at Iowa State (don’t laugh), at West Virginia, at TCU and at Baylor. Back is quarterback/tough guy Collin Klein, who needs to improve his passing game if he’s to become a true dual-threat.

6. Oklahoma State (last season: 12-1; won Fiesta Bowl) 
2011 was a memorable year for the Cowboys. Mike Gundy guided his alma mater to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford after winning the first Big 12 title in school history. But boy, oh boy, does Oklahoma State lose some firepower with the departures of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Replacing Weeden will be true freshman Wes Lunt, who faces a backloaded schedule with games vs. West Virginia and at Oklahoma.

7. Texas Tech (last season: 5-7) 
The Red Raiders return plenty of starters on offense and should finally have a healthy backfield again with the return of Eric Stephens and DeAndre Washington; injuries were unforgiving to Texas Tech last season. I like Tech’s home schedule too and Lubbock can be somewhat of a Twilight Zone for opponents. Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas … I get the feeling Tech’s going to knock one of ’em off at home.

8. Baylor (last season: 10-3; won Alamo Bowl)
Oklahoma State loses some key playmakers, but Baylor loses more in Heisman winner RGIII, receiver Kendall Wright and running back Terrance Ganaway, all of whom were statistical leaders in their respective positions. 2011 was a dream season for Baylor, but it’s back to reality in 2012. The Bears’ defense needs to get significantly better too under defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. I like Art Briles, but he has a lot to work on this season.

9. Iowa State (last season: 6-7; lost Pinstripe Bowl)
By now, you should know I’m an unabashed Paul Rhoads homer. If for nothing else, the man grows a hell of a mustache. That said, it pains me to predict that 2012 will be a rough season for the Cyclones. There’s no frontrunner at quarterback, but ISU does have two All-America candidates at linebacker in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. The schedule is balanced and you know the Cyclones are going to give some team much better than them a scare, if not a check mark in the loss column.

10. Kansas (last season: 2-10)
Charlie Weis will get some immediate help in his first year with the Jayhawks thanks to Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist. Beyond that? Ouch. Kansas can’t get much worse, but road games at Kansas State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia won’t make getting better much easier. Weis may get it turned around eventually, but I don’t see it happening, or being anywhere close to happening, this season.

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Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ’em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.

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Big East
Big Ten
Conference USA
MAC
Mountain West
Pac-12
SEC
Sun Belt
WAC
Independents

No. 13 Notre Dame rolling early to take big halftime lead over turnover-prone USC

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There are bad starts, and there are starts like what No. 11 USC had in the first half of their rivalry game against No. 13 Notre Dame.

Fumble on the first drive? Check. Shank a short field goal? Yep. Muff a punt? Indeed. Throw an interception. Thumbs up.

As a result, the Irish fed off an electric atmosphere in South Bend to jump out to a hot start against their intersectional rival and went to the locker room up 28-0 at halftime in a game that seems over given the way the two sides are playing at the moment.

Proving that a few weeks off were indeed plenty to get back to 100 percent, quarterback Brandon Wimbush looked sharp in taking advantage of all those USC miscues. He finished the half with two touchdown passes (one to Kevin Stepherson, the other to Equanimeous St. Brown) and ran for 76 yards and another score despite that balky foot injury that kept him out for several weeks.

Running back Josh Adams didn’t get a ton of work given all the quick end zone trips (just 14 carries), but also gave a boost to his low-key Heisman campaign by running for 68 yards and a touchdown.

As many positives as you could come up with for Notre Dame in the half, you could just about double it and come up with the number of negatives for USC. Sam Darnold had one of his worst halves in cardinal and gold, fumbling on the opening drive and throwing an interception late in the second quarter. He wound up with 107 yards as the only source of offense for the Trojans after Ronald Jones was bottled up to the tune of just five yards on seven carries.

USC has authored several second half comebacks already this year but, based on the way they played so far in Notre Dame Stadium, they’re going to need a comeback just to avoid getting blown out. The flip side is another strong showing like that and all the College Football Playoff talk surrounding the Irish will start to become very, very real come Sunday.

Penn State starts fast, but Michigan hanging around

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On a white out night in State College, Penn State threatened to blowout Michigan early, but the Wolverines battled back to a 21-13 deficit at the break.

Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead pulled out a wrinkle on the Nittany Lions’ second play from scrimmage, and it worked to perfection. Quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley shifted pre-snap, and Barkley took the direct snap and raced 69 yards untouched for a touchdown.

After forcing a three-and-out, Penn State moved 78 yards in four plays, keyed by a 35-yard rainbow heave from McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki. Barkley scored his second touchdown of the first quarter one play later, a 15-yard burst around the right side. 

But Penn State’s offense stalled from there. The Lions’ next possession ended in a McSorley interception, and the possession after that was a three-and-out that lost nine yards. Penn State penetrated Michigan territory midway through the second quarter, but Barkley dropped a wheel route that would’ve put the Lions inside the red zone. Penn State turned the ball over on downs two plays later.

Meanwhile, Michigan turned McSorley’s interception into an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive capped by a 1-yard Karan Higdon run on fourth-and-goal. Quinn Nordin missed the ensuing PAT.

After the turnover on downs, Michigan marched 67 yards on a series of John O’Korn plays — a 14-yard rush, an 18-yard strike to Donovan Peoples-Jones, and 23 yards to Kekoa CrawfordTy Isaac powered in from six yards out to pull the Wolverines within one with 1:45 to play before the half. 

Threatened for the first time of the evening, Penn State ended its streak of three straight unsuccessful drives with a 7-play, 75-yard march that consumed only 52 seconds. McSorley accounted for 68 yards on the drive, including a 3-yard rush to put the home team back up eight.

O’Korn closed the half hitting 7-of-9 passes for 63 yards, while a host of Wolverines runners combined to rush 22 times for 78 yards.

McSorley hit 10-of-18 passes for 159 yards with an interception with five carries for 26 yards and a score. Barkley rushed 11 times for 109 yards and two scores, while DaeSean Hamilton caught three passes for 69 yards.

Michigan will receive to open the second half.

Tennessee’s Rashaan Gaulden apologizes for flipping off Alabama fans

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It would take someone in need of Mr. Magoo-level corrective lenses to not see this one coming.

As you no doubt know by now, Alabama took Tennessee to the woodshed Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.  The Vols did save a slight sliver of their collective manhood as they scored a touchdown for the first time since the second quarter of the Sept. 23 win over previously winless UMass, a span that stretched nearly 13 full quarters of playing time.

In the aftermath of that defensive touchdown, however, defensive back Rashaan Gaulden decided to offer up a double-digit, middle-finger salute to the Crimson Tide student section that resulted in a 15-yard penalty.  In the aftermath of that gesture, Gaulden offered up an apology.

“I would like to issue an apology to the University of Tennessee and the University of Alabama for my gesture after the pick-six by (Daniel) Bituli,” Gaulden said. “That remark that I showed was very out of character. That’s not how my parents raised me. That’s not how a leader of the team should show their emotions on the field.

“I really, sincerely apologize to the student section at Alabama for disrespecting them.”

Beleaguered head coach Butch Jones, who is likely out at some point after the end of the regular season if not sooner, certainly didn’t need something like this shedding even more negative light on his flailing football program.  Jones stated that any punishment meted out to Gaulden will be handled internally.

“That’s something that will be dealt with internally in our football program, but that’s not who we are, that’s not what we’re about,” Jones said. “But, he knew that. We spoke about it, and he feels awful about it. It’s one of those things of overall just being a mature football team. But, again, that’s something that we don’t accept in this program and he understands that.”

Since we here, we’ll go ahead and offer this up as the current state of the once-proud UT football program.

Late heroics save No. 9 Oklahoma on the road at Kansas State after wild second half

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Just before the end of the first half, everybody was wondering if Baker Mayfield was 100 percent healthy. Just before the end of the second half, it became pretty clear he was doing just fine. The Sooners’ star quarterback was dazzling once again to power a last minute comeback on the road, leading No. 9 Oklahoma to a 42-35 win against a pesky Kansas State squad that was looking to pull an upset before some late heroics on the final drive.

The signal-caller appeared to get injured during a scramble late in the second quarter and was taken out in the red zone on the ensuing possession, used only as a decoy on a few wildcat snaps. As it turned out, that seemed to be a coaching strategy as OU rotated in backup Kyler Murray several times on ensuing possessions. Mayfield eventually wound up with an efficient 32-of-41 for 410 yards and two touchdowns passing while rushing for two scores and 69 yards as well.

Most importantly, he also got the win after perfectly executing a two minute drive that led to tailback Rodney Anderson (147 yards, two scores) hitting the corner for the game-winning touchdown.

That was all despite the best efforts of his counterpart Alex Delton, who was making just his second start behind center for the Wildcats. While he was solid as a passer (144 yards, one TD, one interception), the dual-threat was incredible on the ground and ran for 161 yards and three touchdowns. That led to quite the combination in the backfield as Alex Barnes managed 108 yards — 75 of which came on a touchdown run on the second snap of the game.

The close victory on the road keeps Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff race, even if the effort was less than impressive given the early struggles. The meeting between the youngest and oldest coaches in FBS proved to be quite the thriller in the end too, as Lincoln Riley claimed the ‘W’ over the Wizard himself Bill Snyder in what will surely be a memorable game for both sides.