In its nearly three decades of existence, the Big 12 conference has seen its share of dark times. It’s gone 15 seasons without a national title, endured a messy realignment breakup over a failed television network and has seemingly purchased real estate in the College Football Playoff woodshed in three of its four appearances.
In other words, the Big 12 has endured enough dark days in recent decades that it would be hyperbolic to say that Saturday marked the worst day in conference history. The Big 12 has flopped on much bigger stages and with higher stakes. After all, this is a league who once had a commissioner who is best remembered for his parody Twitter account.
But in terms of sheer, unadulterated embarrassment, it’s hard to find too many days that match the mockery of what the Big 12 endured on Saturday. On the first semi-full day of games, the Big 12’s failures provided the defining storyline. No. 23 Iowa State got mauled at home by Louisiana, 31-14, which looked like the much better team. Arkansas State upset Kansas State, 35-31, despite the Red Wolves missing nine starters. And Coastal Carolina punked Kansas, 38-23, after jumping out to a 28-0 first-half lead. This, of course, was an upset only on paper, as Coastal Carolina also beat the Jayhawks last season.
Texas Tech was a whisker away from an embarrassing loss to Houston Baptist, needing to thwart a late HBU two-point conversion that would have tied the game.
That allowed Tech coach Matt Wells to avoid the ignominy suffered by Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, Kansas State’s Chris Klieman and Kansas’ Les Miles. Campbell and Klieman were double-digit favorites, while Miles had the indignity of forcing an entire nation starved for college football to watch the garishly teal-clad Chanticleers eviscerate the Jayhawks amid the only televised late-night game.
What does this all mean for the conference? Well, it’s safe to say that the league has less depth than a sidewalk puddle. But, truthfully, few expected the Big 12 to be much more than a three-horse race between Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State. (Iowa State was a trendy pick, but that trend looks as hip as Zubaz.)
It’s going to be hard to glean grandiose notions out of these unstable COVID-19 times. Rosters, schedules and psyches will be in constant flux until the final game of the season is played. Trends are going to be ethereal and changing direction faster than Reggie Bush in his prime.
So for today, let’s just call the Big 12’s gross day what it is – an embarrassment to the teams that face-planted. We can ascertain that the depth of the league will be called into question and the seasons of Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State will be indelibly stained. But past that, it’s hard to dig too much deeper into what it says about the league.
For months, the possibility of the 2020 season was viewed through shades of gray. So now that it’s here, it’s too early to grasp just how dark of a day this was for the Big 12.
Fun Belt wins day
One league’s heartbreak is another’s ecstasy. And it’d be difficult to imagine a higher-profile day for the Sun Belt, a hodgepodge league of directional schools that managed to capture the nation’s attention with a flurry of upsets on Saturday.
Along with ULL, Coastal Carolina and Arkansas State’s win, league favorite Appalachian State also posted a strong home win over Charlotte of Conference USA.
Perhaps the most impressive part of the decadent day for the Sun Belt wasn’t just the wins, but the tenor of them. ULL pushed around Iowa State up front and returned a pair of kicks for touchdowns. Coastal Carolina jumped on Kansas with such vigor in the first half that Miles certainly pondered retiring again. Arkansas State gained 489 total yards against Kansas State, crushing them by 115 total yards.
There wasn’t anything fluky about the win. And while we won’t draw too much from an opening slate of games in a sport hamstrung by COVID-19, we can safely say that at least App State, ULL and Arkansas State should be ranked when the next AP poll comes out. (The AP will eliminate the teams from leagues that aren’t playing at that time.)
The Sun Belt deserves that victory lap.
Arkansas State’s touching moment
When Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson joined his team in the locker room after the game, he was greeted by a celebratory waterfall. Players dumped him with water, grabbed him in bear hugs and generally pinballed their coach around the room in a giddy celebration.
“Lot of dancing and water splashing,” Anderson told Yahoo Sports by phone on Saturday night. “There wasn’t anything dry in that locker room.”
That included eyes. Anderson has been through a gutting stretch the past 18 months. His wife, Wendy, died from cancer about 13 months ago. His father died four months before that. Anderson said he found a quiet moment amid the locker room bedlam to acknowledge them.
“This is something they really wanted for us,” Anderson said. “We’ve got close the last few years but didn’t get it done. I really missed them today. I felt their absence in the locker room, but they were smiling down on us, too.”
Arkansas State was down nine starters from injury, COVID-19 and contact tracing. The losses were felt especially on defense, as he said they shuffled a handful of positions and played a lot of true freshman. “It was a team win,” Anderson said. “We only traveled 63 guys. We traveled 78 to Memphis (for a 37-24 loss). It’s the nature of where we’re at – adapting, changing the game plans.”
Anderson has won a pair of Sun Belt titles at Arkansas State, so he wouldn’t call the upset the biggest win in school history. But considering the massive stage on Fox, it still resonated as significant. “For us, where we’re at and all we’re going through and been through, it’s the biggest win in recent history.”
Big 12 favorites
The Big 12 favorites announced themselves with expected alacrity on Saturday. Texas stomped visiting UTEP, 59-3, behind five touchdown passes and 426 yards from Sam Ehlinger.
Oklahoma was down a reported 19 players from its two-deep against Missouri State, including a reported 11 players who weren’t expected to miss the game because of injury or suspension. It didn’t matter, as Spencer Rattler’s debut as a starter included him finishing 14 of 17 for 290 yards and four touchdowns.
While Baylor, Oklahoma and TCU have yet to play this season and West Virginia has yet to see an adequate challenge after wasting Eastern Kentucky, it’s safe to say that the first impression of Texas and Oklahoma is what we thought it’d be.
While neither team was expected to face any challenge – sorry, Bobby Petrino – the best takeaway may have been Texas’ defense under new coordinator Chris Ash. “I like how we have prepared as tacklers,” coach Tom Herman told Yahoo Sports this week. “We’re paying very great attention to the details.”
Next man up at Southern Miss
The sound of change at Southern Miss football arrived toward the end of practice on Thursday. As the Golden Eagles team ran wind sprints after practice, the familiar sing-song jingle of an ice cream truck pulled up to practice.
The players were a bit stunned at first. Interim coach Scotty Walden had just made them run gassers for not keeping the locker room up to cleanliness standards. But they soon lined up and began crushing kiwi-strawberry popsicles and M&M cookie ice-cream sandwiches. (The wives and kids of the coaching staff were also there.)
Walden, 30, is slated to make his FBS head coaching debut against Louisiana Tech on Saturday. It’s intriguing because he’s both the youngest coach in the country and the lowest paid. At $110,000 a year, he actually makes less than the executive chefs at some power programs.
Walden took over as the interim after Jay Hopson resigned following a blowout home loss to South Alabama in the opening week. Without time to make any wholesale scheme changes, Walden is focusing on connecting with and motivating the players. “Let’s work our butts off and keep it all about the players,” he told Yahoo Sports. “And, most important, have fun with it.”
While the schemes won’t be overhauled, there’s already been drastic differences. Practices had been running near three hours, and they’ve been cut to two hours daily. With the time cut, the pace has changed to where there are fewer breaks and more pace and focus demanded. That means little things, like Walden making sure players don’t take a knee.
There are also significant schedule changes. The team meets every day at 3 p.m., which didn’t happen before. There’s a newfound emphasis on nutrition, which includes mandatory meal check-ins. Walden is attempting to set a culture through things he can control – “schedule, nutrition, accountability and discipline.”
Walden became the country's youngest head football coach at age 26, when he was the head coach at Division III East Texas Baptist University. He's the youngest again at the FBS level, just on a bigger stage.
Walden spoke this week to Chad Lunsford, the Georgia Southern coach who took over as the interim there in October of 2017. He went 2-3 over that time, but captured the team enough to where he got promoted to full-time coach and won 10 games the following year. Lunsford’s takeaway advice to Walden: Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to make changes.
The changes have begun. We’ll see Saturday and beyond if the cultural overhaul manifests itself on the field. “As the season goes on,” he said, “we’re going to make [progress in] leaps and bounds.”
Seminoles stumble and fall again
Through four seasons, three coaches and countless reams of baseless preseason hype, the only consistent thing about Florida State on opening day has been how the Seminoles have been such a persistent mess.
So the Mike Norvell era began with an unequivocal thud on Saturday, losing at home to Georgia Tech, 16-13. It was an ugly loss in all the familiar ways to Florida State fans – a porous offensive line, tortured quarterback play and an uninspired offense.
FSU turned the ball over three times, averaged just 3.1 yards per rush and gave FSU fans a cruel reminder that just because Norvell is a play-calling whiz doesn’t mean those plays will work without a competent quarterback and offensive line.
While it’s far too early to cast any long-term meaning to this FSU flop, Seminole fans did see one byproduct of their program’s upheaval the past four years.
Georgia Tech quarterback Jeff Sims was an FSU commit who flipped from FSU to Tech in December. He finished 24-for-35 with 277 yards and showed far more promise than we’ve seen from any FSU quarterback in recent seasons. The ACC will be filled with FSU regret, as UNC star sophomore Sam Howell was also a flip from the Seminoles.
Those two will offer plenty of reminders in upcoming seasons of just what FSU’s recent dysfunction cost the Seminoles roster.
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