Big 12 teams need a tune-up. Welcome Mr. Fix It
On Tuesday, we took a close look at the problems facing the Big 12. Last year, the league had the look of a brand-new Ferrari: Flashy, with tons of speed that everybody liked to watch. This year, it's a bit more like a 2006 Ford Explorer: Not too bad, but very average with very little worth noting. Sounds like it needs a tune-up. Let's take the league into the shop and take a look at all 10 parts to see what we can do to fix what's gone wrong.
Biggest complaint: Nothing much to see here. The Bears have been untested so far, but lead the nation in scoring offense (69.7 points) and are second nationally in scoring defense (7.7 points). The only thing I'd quibble with is the Bears' tendency to give up long passing plays early in games against Buffalo and Louisiana-Monroe. Baylor's given up six passes longer than 30 yards in Big 12 play, tied for the most in the league.
Mr. Fix It says: It's mostly a minor issue, and I agree with Art Briles, who mostly shrugged off the concern. "They've certainly done pretty well. We gave up a couple of big plays, just kind of flashing back through my mind," Briles said. "When you get two guys get a pick six, that's a pretty good sign you're playing pretty well, but we understand it's early." Maybe bigger issues will emerge when the competition stiffens, but for now, the Bears look like a well-oiled machine.
Biggest complaint: In losses to Iowa and Northern Iowa, the Cyclones turned in poor tackling performances. Hawkeyes running back Mark Weisman was a load, but Iowa State looked outmanned against Iowa and sloppy against Northern Iowa. There's been plenty of complaints about the offense, but if you can't get off the field, the offense has no chance.
Mr. Fix It says: Give it some more time. Old parts like Jake McDonough on the defensive line aren't easy to replace, and linebackers like Jake Knott and A.J. Klein are even tougher. Jeremiah George is talented, and Luke Knott has taken over a starting spot on the weak side, opposite Jared Brackens. Coach Paul Rhoads has already seen some improvement during ISU's bye week. "I think our defense is really running to the ball with the athleticism we feel we have," Rhoads said. "We're going to get to a point where we're extremely consistent sitting in the right position as we pursue to the ball."
Biggest complaint: The Jayhawks haven't played a great pass rushing team yet, but they're giving up two sacks a game and are eighth in the Big 12 in yards per carry, despite having one of the deepest and most talented groups of running backs in the league. The offensive line is young. All-name teamer Aslam Sterling is the only returning starter, and he's on the opposite side of the line this year, moving from right tackle to left tackle.
Mr. Fix It says: More physicality is needed, and Kansas coach Charlie Weis has plans for exactly that. It's a bye week in Lawrence, but it's going to feel like a the Jayhawks play a mid-week game. To establish more physicality, Weis planned to have his team "beat the hell out of each other" in Tuesday's practice. "I don't think inexperience is the issue," Weis said. "We have to continue getting better at the line of scrimmage. … In the run game this past week, I thought we didn't get the best of it. If we're going to be any good, we need to be able to run the ball efficiently and you need to control the line of scrimmage. For two weeks in a row, that hasn't been the case."
Biggest complaint: The Wildcats didn't lose their second game of 2012 until the Fiesta Bowl. This year, K-State didn't even get to October before losing two games. Getting beaten up on the line of scrimmage on defense. North Dakota State won that battle and won the game with a nearly nine-minute drive. Texas rushed for 227 yards and three touchdowns in its 31-21 win over K-State.
Mr. Fix It says: Losing talents like tackling machine Arthur Brown and defensive linemen Meshak Williams and Adam Davis makes life tough, and K-State is still throwing out first-year starters at six of the seven spots in the front seven. "If we're asking them to do something they can't do, it falls on us as coaches to define what they can do, and direct our schematic approach to that," Snyder said. "We have players that are capable." To borrow a phrase from Snyder, only "daily improvement" can fix this problem. I agree it's not scheme, but experience and refined technique are the only answer for the Wildcats' defense up front.
Biggest complaint: The Sooners have won eight Big 12 titles with six different quarterbacks because they have consistently been efficient in the passing game. That wasn't the case with redshirt freshman Trevor Knight, who completed 43 percent of his passes in two games with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Mr. Fix It says: Oklahoma thinks it may have already solved the problem by making a switch from Knight to Blake Bell, who lost the job in preseason, but regained it after Knight struggled and suffered a knee injury. He threw for 413 yards and four touchdowns against Tulsa, proving he had an arm. We'll see how he handles tougher defenses like Notre Dame this week. Stay tuned to FoxSportsSouthwest.com this week for more on Bell.
Biggest complaint: Oklahoma State has fewer weaknesses than any team in the Big 12, and through three games, it was hard to have any real complaints, beyond a running game that's behind schedule a bit and a new kicking game that hasn't been tested. Coach Mike Gundy says his only concern was his team falling out of routine after its first extended break during last week's bye since reporting to campus in July.
Mr. Fix It says: No major fixes needed, just keep doing what you're doing, even if small things have popped up through the first three games. "We want to be able to take care of the football and tackle better. I think each game we've had a weakness in a different area. Safeties one week, corners one week, linebackers. Didn't feel like we tackled well enough as we needed to in conference play," Gundy said. "We've just got to continue to protect the quarterback well and tackle well in space." No major overhaul needed. Those are quick fixes.
Biggest complaint: We saw improvement against Kansas State, but more teams will continue to test Texas' ability to slow the quarterback run game, specifically as part of the read option. The Longhorns were embarrassed by the college football staple in losses to Ole Miss and BYU, but held K-State in check for most of Saturdays' win. The Longhorns have also dealt with more injuries than any team in the Big 12 so far, but the run defense is easily the reason why Texas is 2-2.
Mr. Fix It says: Going back to the basics of gap responsibility and "who's responsible for who?" in the option game is the only answer for the Longhorns, who already brought in Greg Robinson to replace Manny Diaz as defensive coordinator. "Give Greg Robinson a lot of credit and our three defensive coaches pulling together. We're still simple, don't have a lot of calls in," Mack Brown said. "They freed (players') minds and had a very simple defensive concept Saturday night, so it allowed them to play. The credit should go to the players." It's definitely a start, but tougher tests in the running game like Baylor and Oklahoma State will come soon.
Biggest complaint: The Frogs are a good team, but a 1-2 start and an injury to QB Casey Pachall has left his team "feeling sorry for themselves." Confidence is needed, but the Frogs could have easily won 9-10 games last season with mostly freshmen and sophomore and without Pachall. This team has potential, though the offense and defense have both disappointed at times this season.
Mr. Fix It says: Before joining the Big 12, TCU had won 47 of 52 games and hadn't lost a league game in three seasons. Life's different in the Big 12, and 1-2 losses don't ruin an entire season. I'm not sure TCU's mindset has fully shifted there. "We're a program that's used to winning," Patterson said. "The key to it is, you've got to grow up. … You've got to learn how to make yourself better and nobody out there wants to hear about why you're not doing well. They're all happy they're not you." TCU can get back in the win column this week and feel a little better about itself, but will be a underdog on the road at Oklahoma next week. A lopsided win over rival SMU on Saturday could be huge for the Frogs' psyche, especially if both the offense and defense start playing as well as expected.
Biggest complaint: The Red Raiders are 4-0, and have managed to stay undefeated despite failing miserably on fixing the two biggest problems the coaching staff sought to fix from the day it arrived on campus: Penalties and turnover margin. The Red Raiders are eighth in the Big 12 in turnover margin (-3) and average more penalties per game (9) than any team in the Big 12.
Mr. Fix It says: This kind of thing is maddening for coaches. "We've been banging our heads against the wall as a staff trying to figure that out, because it's something we've been harping on for the last nine months," coach Kliff Kingsbury said. The problem in last year's turnover margin was the defense couldn't force any. That's been fixed. Tech is fourth in the league with seven forced turnovers in three games. The Red Raiders' 10 turnovers are more than every Big 12 team but West Virginia, but that's the price of playing two true freshmen who are new to the system and college football. If Michael Brewer returns from a back injury and wins the starting job, those turnovers may dip. As for the penalties, it's not all bad news. "I see more effort penalties, holds, things of that nature, and haven't seen a ton of just blatant personal fouls or taunting or things like that," he said. "Just have to keep trying different techniques. You can't really fault effort penalties as much as the boneheaded things, so hopefully we can improve upon that.
Biggest complaint: Ford Childress and Paul Millard each played one cupcake and one legitimate opponent, but they've combined to complete just 58 percent of their passes, which ranks eighth in the Big 12. For WVU's offense to work, that number has to be a lot higher, somewhere closer to 70 percent or higher, especially considering the competition hasn't been all that difficult yet.
Mr. Fix It says: Millard and Childress both had zero career starts before this season, but coach Dana Holgorsen says the issues run deeper than just inexperience. Stringing together easier throws and quick release plays to establish some confidence early. Childress is the man for the future, but he's looked timid and afraid to make a mistake, and he's holding the ball too long. Holgorsen admitted he and OC Shannon Dawson need to help get Childress in more situations that set him up for success.