While Kansas and Iowa State hold the top two spots atop Big 12 leaderboard following the first week of gameplay (partially thanks to the alphabet, of course), Texas, West Virginia, and Baylor find themselves find themselves bringing up the rear after losing their opening contests.
The three teams at the bottom of the table all came into the season with different areas of concern and varying levels of expectation for the 2017 campaign, each of which need to be revisited after their early setbacks.
Texas (41-51 loss, Maryland)
It might be an overreaction to say that Texas fans are in store for another disappointing year, but their first game under Coach Herman did little to nothing in proving that he can turn around this Longhorn program. Their 5-7 2016 season featured an atrocious defense paired with some sloppy special teams play, neither of which showed much sign of improvement against a pretty average Terrapin offensive attack.
The Longhorns were unable to get any sort of stable running game going, while their offensive line did a poor job of keeping Buechele safe in the pocket. Only 20 of their 41 points came from offensive scores, and the game would’ve been all but over with at halftime if it weren’t for two touchdowns from DB Holton Hill (INT, blocked punt).
I’m not willing to say that this game was indicative of what the 2017 Longhorns are going to look like, but this loss to Maryland made it clear that Tom Herman really has his work cut out for him this year, and this may not be the promising comeback season their fans had hoped for. Their offense should become more cohesive and eliminate dumb mistakes as the season goes on, but there are still evident holes in a defense that hasn’t been able to stop anyone in years.
It seems pretty likely that this will be the last the Longhorns see of the top 25 this season. It’s clearly going to take a little while longer to transition from Charlie Strong’s Texas to Tom Herman’s Texas, and a matchup with Pac-12 powerhouse USC in two weeks is shaping up to be a massive undertaking for this defensively challenged Texas team.
West Virginia (24-31 loss, Virginia Tech)
If nothing else, West Virginia’s opening loss to Virginia Tech made it clear that the Mountaineers have a quarterback with offensive weapons to rely on going forward. Florida transfer Will Grier threw for 371 yards on 31-53 completions, with three touchdowns and one interception in his first game in two years, facing an elite Hokie secondary. With 1:55 left in the game, Grier had the ball in his hands following a missed field goal and drove his team down into the redzone before some inopportune incompletions and penalties killed any chance for last-second heroics.
While the result was disappointing, the way the game went couldn’t have been too surprising to Holgerson and his staff, in a game he said “has the same type of feel as when we lost to Alabama” with multiple positive takeaways. Aside from Grier, some of West Virginia’s more unproven offensive contributors had promising games, with receivers Gary Jennings (13 for 189, 1 TD) and David Sills V (9 for 94, 2 TD) proving their worth as Grier’s top passing targets for the future. Senior running back Justin Crawford was also ready to get back to action, with his 13 carries going for a stellar 106 yards.
The determining factor in this tightly contested matchup were the two defenses. The toughness of Virginia Tech’s D is well documented, with one of the ACC’s top linebacker corps paired with one of the most tenacious secondaries. They allowed Grier and the Mountaineers to move the ball, but were able to make the necessary stops when it mattered the most.
On the other side, West Virginia’s new-look defensive front gave way too much space to a young explosive quarterback in freshman Josh Jackson. While I was previewing this game, I wasn’t sure how comfortable Jackson would look in his first start, and thought there was a chance Holgerson’s defense would take advantage of his inexperience.
As the game went on, I quickly realized that I underrated the immediate impact of Jackson while overrating the first-week Mountaineer defense. Leaving wide open holes on the blitz allowed for too many breakaway plays for the mobile quarterback, as they put their team in a pretty poor place to win their week one matchup. I expect that many of the defensive lapses will be dealt with in the coming weeks, and while West Virginia may fall out of this week’s rankings, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see them back in due time.
Baylor (45-48 loss, Liberty)
Going into the season, I wasn’t ready to fully write off Baylor as being a top-half Big 12 team this year. There had been a lot of turnover across the conference from a coaching and personnel standpoint, and it seemed plausible that Matt Rhule and Arizona transfer QB Anu Solomon would fly mostly under the radar a bit and take advantage of some weak Big 12 defenses.
Now, I’m fully ready to write off Baylor as being a decent team in 2017. Up against a Liberty team just starting the two-year transition to FBS Football, Baylor’s defense front couldn’t put any sort of pressure on Sophomore quarterback Stephen Calvert, who was able to tear them apart from start to finish. The 6’2” Florida native threw for 447 yards, completing 44 for 60 passes with three touchdowns, in a career game that didn’t seem like any kind of challenge for him.
The Bears did their best to play catch-up in the second half before Liberty nearly killed off the final five minutes on offense. The final outcome was embarrassing, but obviously the greater concern should be directed at how (or will) this Baylor team will hold up with conference play fast approaching. Starting September 23, they will take on Oklahoma, Kansas State, and Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks, followed by West Virginia and Texas. Matt Rhule has two weeks to get his team back on track before facing each of the conference’s best teams, almost in order.
Lacking significant depth and talent especially on the defensive end, it’ll take some big-time adjustments to keep this team from allowing 60+ points a game throughout conference play. The Bears will also be without starting running back JaMycal Hasty to start the grueling round robin, who is set to miss about four weeks with a sprained knee.
Images via: San Antonio Express-News, Charlotte Observer, Baltimore Sun