Here are grades for the Big 12 Conference teams at the midway point of the NCAA football season:
This Tom Herman underdog thing isn’t cute anymore, and It’s not a media narrative either. There’s something about Herman’s coaching style.
As a favorite, Herman’s teams (Houston and Texas) are 11-12-2 against the spread and 20-5 overall, compared to 6-0 against the spread while an underdog and 5-1 overall.
Herman finds ways to beat teams he shouldn’t on paper. And he's also finding ways to flatline against teams Texas should steamroll.
Key Figure: The Red River Showdown was a neat microcosm of Texas’ season offensively. When it’s humming, Herman’s system, with Sam Ehlinger at the helm, looks damn near unstoppable. Then the unit goes through prolonged, unexplainable periods of looking like a clogged toilet.
This team is being propelled by its defense that ranks 32nd in defensive S&P+ and is conceding 5.2 yards per play. Todd Orlando continues to make his case for being the most valuable coordinator in the country, if not the best.
Texas has a favorable schedule the rest of the way, and gets West Virginia and Iowa State at home. The school is now expected to win its first Big 12 title since 2009. How does Herman’s team handle that?
Summary: Just when WVU was gathering momentum as a sleeper playoff pick with the best quarterback in college football not named Tua Tagovailoa leading the Mountaineers' offense, they dropped a clanger against Iowa State.
The Cyclones didn’t beat them in a close one, either. They hit Dana Holgorsen’s team with a sledgehammer, and West Virginia withered. Iowa State averaged over five yards per carry and 10 yards per pass, and WVU couldn’t get anything going offensively.
The Mountaineers' schedule now looks light. Their top win so far is over Texas Tech (by a score), or perhaps Tennessee. Either way that's not great, which is why West Virginia could really use that N.C. State showdown - cancelled due to Hurricane Florence - right now.
They will still get their shot to win the Big 12 outright, with games against Texas and Oklahoma deciding that fate. But the loss to ISU left an overriding feeling of fraudulence. This WVU team isn’t who we hoped it could become.
Key figure: Quarterback Will Grier will continue to do his thing. The issue, as always, is the Mountaineers' defense. After what Matt Campbell’s fairly simplistic system did to his guys on Saturday, just thinking about Texas and Oklahoma is probably giving West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson nervous fits.
Gibson has more talent up front than in previous years. Kenny Bigelow, the defensive lineman and former five-star recruit who transferred from USC, has been among the most dominant down linemen in the conference. Bigelow wins with a blend of size, speed, and sheer tenacity. He’s also one of the most intelligent interior pass-rushers in the nation and is able to sequence together a cluster of polished moves. He often acts as the point man on stunts or gap exchanges, holding up two blockers while others orbit around him.
Gibson’s men have done a solid job containing opposing offenses, and the team is fifth in stuff rate in 2018. But the Moutaineers' third-down defense must improve.
Summary: Where do we begin with Oklahoma? The Sooners' season was looking so good up until the Red River Showdown.
There was no regression from an offense that lost Baker Mayfield, the best player in the country, and Oklahoma also didn't stumble after star running back Rodney Anderson suffered a season-ending injury. Lincoln Riley seamlessly transitioned to a system designed to take advantage of Kyler Murray’s extraordinary skill set.
Murray and his teammates gelled fast and surprised everybody. Oklahoma is first in offensive S&P+, averaging a truly gargantuan 8.7 yards per play, and Murray has been a human first down.
However, there were warning signs prior to the Red River Showdown. Army challenged Oklahoma at home, but that game had all the hallmarks of a fluke. The service academy held the ball for large swaths of the game, running a triple-option style that the Sooners aren't going to see for the rest of the season. Every time they touched the ball on offense, Army moved it effortlessly.
Still, OU’s defense looked ill-equipped for the challenge against Texas. Herman and his Texas offense preyed on those same issues in the Cotton Bowl, marching down the field against a Mike Stoops defense that didn’t do anything at a high level.
Key figure: Losing the Red River Showdown may have ultimately been good for Riley’s team, as it gave the young coach an excuse to move on from Stoops. The former defensive coordinator, whose brother just happened to be the previous, legendary head coach, had cobbled together a group that struggled in every phase of the game while ranking 78th in defensive S&P+.
No other playoff contender has a wider discrepancy between its two units. New defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill has his work cut out for him. Sure, the Sooners have talent, but they’ve also formed bad habits. They miss tackles in space, lack pursuit skills, and don't play with enough intensity.
There are schematic fixes McNeil can make. Stoops had become fond of setting the strength of his formation based on the spot of the ball rather than the offensive formation. He could never quite figure out how to bracket an opposing team's top weapon in the slot while still defending the run effectively.
All of those issues are correctable on the practice field.
Move this group closer to the top four, and McNeil will give the Sooners a chance to run the table and crash the playoff party. Then, who knows.
Summary: Texas Tech got its season off to a rip-roaring start. Kliff Kingsbury secured what, at the time, looked like excellent wins over Houston, TCU, and Oklahoma State. With more time, it looks like only one of those victories - over Houston - will be a tick above decent.
Tech hasn’t changed as a program in a couple of decades. No matter the changes to the coaching staff, or the personnel they add, the output is the same: An efficient though inexplosive offense, and a poor defense.
It must be something in the water. Once again in 2018, TTU finds itself ranked near the bottom in opponents’ yards per play, conceding an average of 6.6 yards per play, good for 116th in the country.
What’s frustrating is that Tech’s defense has more talent than in recent years. Linebacker Dakota Allen is as impactful as any off-ball ‘backer in the country. He processes everything so quickly, and there are few linebackers around who navigate mazes and attack as well.
There’s no reason for Texas Tech to be this bad. Other Air-Raid offenses have found a way to win with offensive firepower and a so-so defense.
Key figure: Quarterback Alan Bowman has been remarkable as a true freshman. Against West Virginia, he suffered a scary-looking injury - a partially collapsed lung that has him out indefinitely. Whether Tech gets Bowman back this year is an open question.
Kingsbury needs him. Hot seat talk won’t go away if TTU loses against Iowa State, Oklahoma, or Texas, and doesn't get at least two wins from games against K-State, Baylor, and Kansas. An air of disappointment will push aside early-season positivity, and questions about whether Kingsbury is the right guy for the job long term will resurface.
Summary: Iowa State has faced a rough schedule. Matt Campbell’s team has played four top-25 opponents (by S&P+) so far this year, going 2-2.
The coach might have stumbled into Brock Purdy, his long-term answer at quarterback. Against Oklahoma State, Purdy showed off his physical tools, displaying a live arm, slick feet, and the ability to make throws from unusual body angles.
Purdy is the first true freshman QB to play for ISU since 1995 (Todd Bandhauer). In his two starts, he’s shown rare poise for his age.
Some quarterbacks just have the it-factor. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. You don’t exactly know what it is, but you just know when you see it. There's a blend of moxie and competence.
Purdy has it in buckets.
Key figure: Iowa State's defense is one of the most under-discussed topics in college football. Defensive coordinator Jon Heacock is building one of the nation’s top-ranked units against the run and pass while utilizing a six-man box.
The Cyclones rank 30th in defensive S&P+ and seventh in sack rate. They do most of their damage from the en vogue “Tite” front, a defensive look that attacks the A-Gaps, the lifeblood of spread-to-run offenses.
By using a Tite front as the base, Heacock is able to limit explosive runs while freeing up linebackers and defensive backs, who can then fly to the ball as pass defenders. He's consistently able to double-team any slot receiver, the heartbeat of run-pass option plays.
Heacock is dropping sorcery on the opposition every week. He likes to use an exotic blitz package as his base three-down lineman look. Linebackers or safeties can blitz from anywhere, meaning that depth doesn't matter.
Heacock’s defense gives the Cyclones a chance in every game. It’s up to Campbell, Purdy, and the offense to take full advantage.
Summary: Fewer coaches have walked into tougher spots than Matt Rhule did at Baylor a year ago. In less than 18 months, he's turned around the team’s culture and schematic philosophy while making the Bears one heck of a tough opponent every week.
Baylor still had some talent left over from the Art Briles era, but not a ton. It would have been easy for the program to give up, spending years in uphill recruiting battles while getting blown out on the field.
Rhule has done an excellent job of rallying. The Bears have been competitive in the Big 12’s middle class while triumphing in winnable games against Kansas, UTSA, Abilene Christian, and a toss up against K-State.
Things are going to get tough from here on out. Baylor faces a gauntlet down the stretch: at West Virginia, vs. Oklahoma, at Iowa State, vs. TCU, and vs Texas Tech.
The full fallout of the Briles scandal is still unknown. But Rhule deserves recognition on and off the field for getting the program rolling in the right direction.
Key figure: Remember Jalen Hurd? The former Tennessee running back is now a full-time receiver at Baylor, and he’s really good. Hurd has picked up the nuances of the position quickly. At 6-foot-4 and 217 pounds, he's a physical mismatch against slender corners. He’s currently averaging over 13 yards per reception, hauling in 47 catches on 72 targets. Hurd’s vision in the open field makes him a threat after the catch, too.
His position switch has done wonders for his career. As a running back, he was solid. As a receiver, he’s now firmly on the NFL scouting radar.
Defeats against Texas Tech and Texas hurt, though, and Gary Patterson’s team hasn't been able to find a sustainable offense. TCU hit the Buckeyes with a smart gameplan, racking up 28 points on a defense with NFL talent all over the field. The team has produced 16, 14, and 14 points in its games since then.
Key figure: During the preseason, TCU became a fashionable “sleeper” pick in the Big 12. What if Oklahoma drops off? Can we trust West Virginia’s defense? Maybe Texas is a year away. That was the logic.
It hasn’t worked out that way. The Horned Frogs have lacked the offensive artillery to match up with the Big 12’s best while averaging a messily 4.6 yards per carry. Quarterback Shawn Robinson isn’t good enough to cover up that kind of ineptitude.
Summary: There’s a sense of finality clouding Manhattan, and it feels like Bill Snyder’s last year with the team. With their current offensive system, K-State simply doesn’t have the horses to keep up with the conference’s middle class.
At one point, Snyder was ahead of the game, running a spread-ISO attack that melded old-school power running with spread formations, and packaging in passing concepts. It was damn tough to stop.
Defensive coordinators adapted, but Snyder hasn’t countered. And the well of talent he's been able to pull in has dried up.
I’m not going to right off the warlock just yet. You know he’s got a big upset up his sleeve somewhere. But this feels like the inevitable conclusion of his reign, especially now that the school has a new athletic director.
Key figure: Gene Taylor became the Wildcats' athletic director in 2017. He handed Snyder a new, five-year contract in August 2018, inking the coach through 2022 when he'll be 83 years old.
That new deal, of course, was about recruiting. K-State wanted to present a united front and a picture of stability.
The truth, though, is that the end will likely come before then for Snyder. He was already the oldest coach in the FBS when he signed the deal, and the team has started to slide backwards. Kansas State went a surprising 8-4 last year, and the Wildcats returned the core of that squad for 2018, making a 7-5 record the baseline for expectations.
Now the team ranks 88th in S&P+, winning games mostly due to turnover luck. There's a skill in keeping games close, no doubt, but luck can become the overriding factor in winning or losing.
Take a peek at the rest of Kansas State's schedule. It’s tough to find six wins, and the only team they’re favored against is Kansas.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped Snyder from working his magic before. But it’s easy to see a scenario in which he walks away if the team doesn't have a second-half resurgence.
Summary: Who knows what to make of the Cowboys' season. They stomped Boise State, one of the top teams in the Group of 5, but then Texas Tech lit them up for a 41-17 drubbing. They lost to Iowa State and Kansas State, but notched wins over Kansas, South Alabama, and Missouri State.
Key figure: College football at a program like Oklahoma State is cyclical, and this is a down year. Mike Gundy has to find a way to keep his team engaged because the Cowboys have a chance to play kingmaker, with Texas, Oklahoma, and West Virginia all left on their schedule and gunning for championship honors.
This isn’t a vintage Gundy team. But his roster has enough talent to pull off an upset.
Summary: Kansas stinks, but the Jayhawks don’t stink quite as much as they have in previous years. Need any more information? Nope. I thought not.
Key figure: Like many schools, what's next will consume the second half of Kansas' season. New athletic director Jeff Long has been coy about the future of David Beaty. He’ll likely move on from Beaty, even though the head coach is making Kansas kind of, sort of competitive.
Beaty fired his offensive coordinator this week, a final Hail Mary in a bid to keep his gig. It seems for naught, as speculation about Long reaching out to potential candidates (including Brett Bielema after the two worked together at Arkansas) won’t go away.