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A League of Its Own

No conference is getting better play at quarterback than the Big 12, whose wide-open offenses are piling up yards and lighting up scoreboards

FIVE DAYS before his Cornhuskers hosted No. 4 Missouri, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shared with the world his team's goal against the Tigers: "We're going to play the best we possibly can and try to shut them out." ¶ Oh, don't go there, Bo. Pelini lost his goose egg exactly 59 seconds into last Saturday night's game, when ever-dangerous Jeremy Maclin snagged a short pass from Chase Daniel and motored 58 yards to the house. Final score: 52--17. While the 52 points Mizzou hung on the hosts were the most scored against the Big Red in Lincoln since World War II, it barely rated a second glance around a conference whose teams have gone over the half-century mark 18 times this season.

The guard isn't changing just yet. Having given us the last two national champions, the SEC has earned its reputation as the deepest, most talented conference in the country. Six weeks into this season, however, the Big 12 is closing the gap. And fast. While college football's nastiest defenses still reside in Dixie, its most high-flying aerial attacks can be found in flyover country. Defense may win championships, but the ability to spread the field and "hang half a hundred" on opponents, as former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer liked to say, has propelled six teams from this conference into the Top 25.

That includes a logjam of Big 12 teams in the top 10: Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech are Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 7, respectively. While that concentration will be diluted after this Saturday, when Oklahoma and Texas renew acquaintances in the Cotton Bowl, the question will remain: What's going on in the Big 12? The league formerly known as the Big Eight, which spawned such antediluvian offenses as the power I and veer option and Switzer's baby, the wishbone, is now home to the nation's most cutting-edge passing attacks.

Scanning a list of NCAA leaders last week, Daniel couldn't help noticing that, while his 193.4 passing-efficiency rating was fourth-best in the country, it only rated third in his own conference, behind those of Colt McCoy at Texas and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. The news that six more Big 12 signal-callers were in the top 20 was less surprising than the fact it was Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, the league's alpha gunslinger, sitting at No. 20.

On Saturday, Harrell moved up in the ranking, to 12th (chart, page 42), by throwing six touchdown passes in a 58--28 annihilation of Kansas State. Despite leaving early in the fourth quarter, the senior completed 38 of 51 passes for 454 yards. To keep himself interested, he ran for a touchdown.

"It's ridiculous—the quarterback play we have in the Big 12," says Daniel, who after completing 18 of 23 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska dropped a spot in the passer ratings.

Each of the conference's ranked teams is blessed with a seasoned quarterback who operates a spread offense designed to distribute the ball to as many playmakers as possible. Each employs a no-huddle attack that has been made more potent by the NCAA's new 40-second play clock. How so? "The old rule was that, when play stopped, the ball was spotted and the referee stood over it" until play was whistled to begin, says Oklahoma State co--offensive coordinator Gunter Brewer. "Sometimes it could take 12, 14 seconds for that to happen. Now, they set the ball down and it's off to the races."

The result: an explosion of points and an epidemic of frazzled defensive coordinators across the Great Plains.

BRENT VENABLES remembers the good old days. Today he is the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. A decade ago he was an assistant at Kansas State, his alma mater. "In 1998 we were the Number 1 defense in the nation going into the last game of the season. We would play two or three [defenses] the entire game.

"Now, it's all about matchups. You're dialing up all kinds of coverages and pressures. You've got to play games up front"—twists and stunts by defensive linemen—"to take away running lanes. It's much more challenging."

Venables might rate more sympathy if it hadn't been the Sooners themselves who launched this revolution. Hired at Oklahoma before the 1999 season, coach Bob Stoops put together a staff that included contrarian offensive coordinator Mike Leach, whose determination to install a passing offense—in the stadium where Billy Vessels, Steve Owens, Billy Sims and Joe Washington had run wild—struck many a Sooners fan as vaguely heretical.

They were not his only critics. At a staff meeting the following spring, Leach got into a heated discussion with offensive line coach Mark (Bear) Mangino about streamlining the playbook. "I wanted to cut the counter," he recalls. "Bear wanted to keep it."

The two men were soon out of their chairs, shouting and finger-pointing across the table. The dispute was mediated by tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, a former NFL player. "I've got one gigantic paw implanted in my chest; Bear's got another in his," recalls Leach. "We kept the counter."

Leach has been even less inclined to hew to mainstream doctrine since taking the coaching job at Texas Tech in 2000. Since then, the Red Raiders have carved out a niche as the most unapologetically unbalanced spread offense in the nation. "We're going to throw it," says Leach. "We know it, you know it, so try and stop us. Let's see what you got."

Mangino—Leach's good friend then and now—took over at Kansas in 2002. Lacking a sufficient number of Big 12--caliber skill players, he didn't install a full-fledged spread right away. An especially critical piece of the puzzle for the Jayhawks fell into their laps three years later. As a favor to a friend, Mangino took a look at a videotape of an undersized quarterback from Austin. Despite putting up huge numbers for Lake Travis High, Todd Reesing got no love from in-state powers Texas or Texas A&M—for obvious reasons. ("Five-ten-ish," replies one Jayhawks assistant, when asked for Reesing's height.) But Mangino liked Reesing's pinpoint accuracy, his cool in the clutch, his knack for sidestepping the rush to keep a play alive. As a sophomore last season, Reesing threw for 3,486 yards and 33 touchdowns, both school records, and led the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech.

His favorite target this season has been the guy he beat out for the job. Junior wide receiver Kerry Meier, still the backup QB, is 6'3", 220 pounds, runs a 4.5 40 and has "the softest hands I've seen in a long time," says Mangino, who told Meier last season, "I really don't want to see you standing by me on the sideline every week. How about we work you in at receiver?"

Despite the fact that he neither meets nor practices with the receivers—as Reesing's understudy, he's too busy ingesting the game plan—Meier is averaging 8.8 receptions a game, second-best in the country. He snagged a pair of TD passes in the Jayhawks' white-knuckled, come-from-behind 35--33 win at Iowa State last Saturday. It beats the heck out of holding a clipboard.

MISSOURI'S GARY PINKEL was "looking for an edge" after the 2004 season, which is another way of saying he was looking to save his job. A favorite to win the Big 12 North that year, the Tigers lost a nationally televised game to the Trojans—the ones from Troy, not USC—before dropping five straight games in conference. With no bowl game to play after finishing 5--6, Pinkel had plenty of time on his hands over the holidays. That's when he decided to join football's fast-break crowd.

That decision was made easier by a commitment he had in his back pocket. The previous July, a pudgy prodigy from Southlake (Texas) Carroll High had cast his lot with the Tigers. Like Reesing, Chase Daniel had cut his teeth on this offense: He'd been operating in a spread since eighth grade. Like Reesing, the 6-foot, 225-pound Daniel was a three-star recruit who'd been docked at least one star for lack of height. And like Reesing, he was overlooked by the Texas Longhorns, for whom he'd long dreamed of playing.

Long-suffering Tigers fans got a glimpse of things to come on Oct. 15, 2005. Mizzou was trailing Iowa State by 10 with eight minutes to play when Daniel relieved an injured Brad Smith. On his first snap, a third-and-10 on his own 25, the true freshman coolly moved the chains with a 13-yard completion. On a fourth-and-seven in the same drive, he rifled a 25-yard pass to tight end Chase Coffman. In the end he completed 16 of 23 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, rallying Missouri to a 27--24 overtime win.

The Tigers finished the regular season 6--5 and accepted an invitation to the Independence Bowl, where they rallied to beat South Carolina 38--31. A failure to go bowling for a second straight season might have resulted in a pink slip for Pinkel. Ergo, by saving that game against the Cyclones, Daniel saved the job of his coach.

For Pinkel and Tigers fans alike, Daniel has been the gift that keeps on giving. He is the perfect match for Mizzou's hurry-up spread. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen is blown away, in particular, by the senior's savantlike ability to process vast amounts of information in those brief, chaotic seconds between the moment the ball is snapped and the time he releases it. "There's not another person in the country who can do what he's doing," Christensen says.

What Daniel is doing, in the grand scheme, is carrying a program to heights it has never before attained. He sits atop virtually every Heisman watch list. He is leading an offense that is averaging 53.4 points a game. In successive games against Southeast Missouri State and Nevada, he totaled more TD passes (seven) than incompletions (six). In 48 possessions this season, he has yet to direct a three-and-out.

If the Tigers can get past No. 17 Oklahoma State this Saturday, they will be 6--0 heading to Austin for a game against the Longhorns on Oct. 18—a game Daniel has had "circled on his calendar" for months, according to a teammate. He would very much like to give the Texas coaches yet another occasion to question their decision to pass on the pudgy kid from Southlake Carroll.

Not that the Longhorns are looking that far down the road. They've got a state fair to attend this week.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL'S comeback player of the year, almost halfway into the '08 season, is Colt McCoy. He has completed 103 of his 130 passes, and those 27 incompletions include six dropped balls, points out Longhorns sports information director John Bianco. McCoy's two touchdown tosses in the Longhorns' 38--14 rout of Colorado last Saturday gave him 16 on the season, against just three interceptions. Those numbers are especially welcome to Longhorns fans, considering the season from which McCoy is rebounding. As a redshirt sophomore in 2007, he threw 22 touchdown passes (down from 29 his freshman year) and 18 picks (up from seven). Deprived of his deep threat (Limas Sweed, sidelined last October with a busted left wrist), scrambling for his life behind an injury-depleted line, he tried too hard and made bad decisions.

"This year, I'm not trying to force things," McCoy said last week. Asked for an example, he said, "Well, against Arkansas [on Sept. 27], we ran a sprint-out. They were playing Cover Two in a corner-smash look. Our route combination, against that call, wasn't very good. If it's last year, maybe I force a ball into coverage. Maybe it's incomplete, or maybe it gets tipped and intercepted. This year I'll just tuck the ball, make six or seven yards and play second-and-three as opposed to second-and-10, or as opposed to throwing a pick and forcing our defense back on the field."

Speaking of tucking the ball, with 317 yards, McCoy is also the Longhorns' leading rusher. While that speaks to the speed and strength he has gained since arriving in Austin as a 6'1", 179-pound wisp (he's now 6'3", 210), can he keep up that kind of punishing workload?

Texas coach Mack Brown can't resist comparing McCoy's rushing statistics from this season—7.0 yards per carry—to those of Vince Young through five games in 2005, when Texas won its first national title in 35 years. (Young's per-carry average was 5.5.) The difference is that Young had Jamaal Charles, Ramonce Taylor and Selvin Young to whom he could hand the ball. So far this season the Longhorns have been unable to find a feature back capable of averaging four yards a carry. That bodes ill for McCoy's physical well-being as Texas marches into the gantlet of its next four games: Oklahoma, Missouri and Oklahoma State, followed by a visit to Lubbock, where Leach and the Red Raiders await.

LEACH WAS not exactly feeling the love upon his arrival in Norman in 1999. "A lot of people around here still thought the name of the school dictated what you had to do on offense," he recalled last week.

Oklahoma fans got over that by the end of the 2000 season, when southpaw QB Josh Heupel—plucked by Leach from Snow Junior College in Ephraim, Utah—passed the Sooners to their first national title in 15 years.

Fast-forward to last winter. Having failed to return to that mountaintop, Stoops instructed Kevin Wilson, his offensive coordinator, to have a no-huddle scheme ready for '08. Sam Bradford says his biggest challenge was finding the fine line between "playing at a fast tempo but not letting that tempo affect my thinking as I go through my progression." Learning to remain calm, in other words, while obeying Wilson's mandate to hurry the hell up. Bradford's seamless transition to the no-huddle has not surprised Stoops, who says, "Put it this way: The guy's been here five semesters and he's got one B."

Bradford led the country in passing efficiency as a redshirt freshman in '07, and his 36 touchdown passes set an NCAA record for a first-year player. He has already thrown for 18 TDs this season.

As Bradford noted himself not long ago, this is not his father's offense. Literally. As a tackle on the Sooners' 1977 and '78 squads, Kent Bradford opened holes for the likes of Billy Sims and Elvis Peacock. Three decades later the Crimson and Cream is creaming opponents in a radically different way.

Or is it? "What we did at Oklahoma," Leach says, "was much more in line with the program's identity than people realized. Oklahoma ran the wishbone before anybody else, and ran it to perfection. The wishbone is the ultimate distribution offense. You line up with relatively wide splits to spread out the defense, then try to overload 'em and mismatch 'em. You put the ball in everybody's hands and attack from sideline to sideline. That's exactly what we do."

Switzer concurs: "I didn't care whose hands the ball ended up in. I could beat you with my fullback; I could beat you with my halfbacks or my quarterback." Yes, he agrees, it is fair to describe the wishbone as a precursor to the spread. "The difference, obviously, being that they're throwing it, where we handed it off or pitched it.

"Either way, it's a hell of a lot of fun to watch."

"We're going to throw it," says Leach. "We know it, you know it, so try and stop us. LET'S SEE WHAT YOU GOT."


No. 1 OU vs. No. 5 Texas

Enough about offense. Which defense will have the edge this Saturday in the Cotton Bowl?

Against their toughest foe to date, the Longhorns held Colorado to a single rushing yard through three quarters and suffocated the Buffs' passing game. First-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is so fiery, he's jacked up the intensity on both sides of the ball.

Sooners defensive tackle Gerald McCoy anchors an ornery unit that specializes in stopping the run. That's likely to be a problem for the Longhorns, whose leading rusher is QB Colt McCoy.

SI's Pick: OU 31, Texas 27.



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Photograph by David E. Klutho

CHASE IS ON Daniel needed only 59 seconds to get Missouri on the board against Nebraska and directed six scoring drives in just three quarters of work in a 52--17 win.



IN COMMAND Bradford (14) has built on his successful '07 debut, while McCoy (above) has bounced back from a rough season.



[See caption above]



POINT MAN Reesing found a home in Lawrence and set records for passing yards and TDs in his first full year as a starter.



SIX FOR SIX Operating the Red Raiders' pass-first attack, Harrell threw for a half-dozen touchdowns against Kansas State.