Who will be thisyear's Texas Tech?
Which up-and-coming outfit from a BCS conference will have a giddy, undefeatedrun into November? Which good-but-not-yet-great program will spoil the seasonof a pedigreed rival? Which overachieving squad will crack the top five andthrust itself into the national championship conversation? ¬∂ Like last year'sTexas Tech—which started 10--0, broke the hearts of the Texas Longhorns andclimbed to No. 2 in the land—this year's Texas Tech will feature a high-octane,risk-taking, crowd-pleasing offense with a seasoned quarterback disbursing theball to a set of dazzling skill players. It will be the beneficiary ofserendipitous scheduling, all but one of its toughest games to be played athome. This year's Texas Tech will ... not be Texas Tech. (Sorry, RedRaiders—you're breaking in a new quarterback.) Rather the upstart will comefrom among Oklahoma State, Ole Miss and Oregon.
Sure, Florida willkick it off against Texas in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7 in Pasadena, amonth after Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy edges Tim Tebow in one of theclosest Heisman votes ever. Now, let's get back to those three programs thatare ready to crash the party....
Pay no attention tothe man with the blowtorch outside the office window of Oklahoma State coachMike Gundy. That office overlooks Boone Pickens Stadium, whose $282 millionrenovation is, at long last, nearly finished. "There's been scaffoldingoutside my window for four years," says the coach. Well, it's gone now, inplenty of time for the Cowboys' Sept. 5 opener against Georgia, whose task itwill be to slow the most frenetic offense in college football.
Two years andtwo-million-plus Internet views after his postgame philippic against TheOklahoman ("I'm a man! I'm 40!"), Gundy is still a man, albeit aslightly mellower one. Leaning back at his desk, he tells the story of droppingby his middle son's Little League practice this summer. The seven-year-oldGunnar was entertaining teammates with an animated performance that includedhim shouting, "It's garbage!"
Asked afterwardwhat he was doing, Gunnar told his father, "I was showing them your rant.I've gotten pretty good at it!"
The Rant, in whichGundy ripped the newspaper for its critical reporting on the demotion andstatus of quarterback Bobby Reid, is old news in Stillwater. "Around herenobody cares about it," says Gundy, "but when I go out recruiting, it'sthe first thing [parents] bring up in the home. Moms love it."
A four-year starterat quarterback for Oklahoma State in the late 1980s, Gundy spent 10 years as anassistant in two stints at his alma mater before replacing Les Miles as coachfollowing the 2004 season. Gundy brought in coordinator Larry Fedora, whoinstalled a fast-break spread offense that was as cutting edge as it wasill-suited to the Cowboys' personnel. Oklahoma State dropped seven of its eightBig 12 games in '05 but has improved steadily as the influx of athletes who fitthe system picked up. (Fedora has since left to become the coach at SouthernMiss.)
Key among thoserecruits is fifth-year senior Zac Robinson, the quarterback who replaced Reid.The son of an Oklahoma State alumna and the nephew of a former Pistol Pete (theschool's student mascot), Robinson was overlooked by most college scouts whilea wide receiver during his junior season at Chatfield High in Littleton, Colo.After being switched to quarterback as a senior, he began fielding scholarshipoffers, eventually rewarding the Cowboys for their early interest in him.
Now a 6'3",218-pound dual threat with 4.55 speed in the 40, Robinson last season passedfor 3,064 yards and rushed for another 562. But his most valuable asset,according to Gundy, is his football intellect. In the high-speed chess matchthat plays out before each snap, Robinson has mastered the art of getting theoffense out of bad play calls at the last possible moment.
His job is madeeasier by two native Texans, running back Kendall (Spud) Hunter and widereceiver Dez Bryant, both juniors. Hunter rushed for 119.6 yards per game in'08, though he barely played in the second half of several games. "Weprobably cost him 400 yards," Gundy figures, "but we couldn't take thechance of getting him injured." Bryant, who in high school had his heartset on playing for LSU ("They wouldn't call me back," he says, "soI came here"), averaged 113.9 receiving yards a game and caught 19 TDpasses despite facing double-team coverage over the last nine games.
Among thechallenges of coaching Bryant, a 6'2", 215-pound pogo stick, is keeping himcalm—"I just get so much ... rage," he says, with a smile—when he isn'tgetting the ball. Says Gundy, "We have to tell him, 'Dez, here's the deal:You've got two guys on you and one running toward you. So Kendall's going torun for 200 yards today, and you're still going to be a first-roundpick.'"
On a recent Julymorning Hunter and Bryant are lounging in the team's new, 14,000-square-footlocker room with its state-of-the-art stalls, each with an electrical outlet, adeodorizing system and a backlit Oklahoma State helmet etched in glass."When we first came," Hunter recalls, "we talked all the time abouthow we were going to change the program."
"It feels kindof unreal," Bryant adds, "because all those things we talked about arecoming true."
But it's tough tomove up in the world when your defense has established permanent residence inthe bottom third of the national rankings (93rd in total defense a year ago,with an anemic 15 sacks). "We've had one defense in about the last 25 yearsthat's been respectable," Gundy laments. "We haven't had the speed, thedepth, the D-line to rush the passer. You can't get to the passer in thisleague, you're in trouble." Solution: Gundy poached Bill Young from Miamilast January, luring the well-regarded coordinator to fill a vacancy at hisalma mater. Young, whose makeover of the Kansas defense was instrumental in theJayhawks' 2007 run to the Orange Bowl, specializes in putting heat on the QB,by any means necessary (page 77). No one is asking him to work miracles."You get two or three key stops a game," says Gundy, "you don't endup 9--4. You end up 11--2 or 12--1. Last year we lost to Texas by four downthere. One more stop, we're tied for the [South Division]."
Gundy's goal upontaking over as coach five years ago was to become a fixture in the top 20."And then, when you get the right players and the right chemistry and a fewbreaks," he says, "you can make a run."
In a peculiarexercise in masochism, Mississippi fans kept track. They knew to the day howlong it had been since their team had won an SEC game. That grim total reached665 last Sept. 20. On that day the Rebels turned the ball over half a dozentimes and blew a 17--7 lead on their way to a 23--17 loss to Vanderbilt. Thenext day first-year coach Houston Nutt took an interesting tack. He did notraise his voice. He made the squad watch "five plays where everybody'sdoing everything right. I want you to see what that looks like.
"Guess what,guys," Nutt intoned, once the players had seen themselves at their best."We go to the Swamp this week, and if you believe everybody outside thisroom, we're going to get beat by 33 points. Here's what I'd like for you to do:Think about those five plays, know the rules, take care of the ball, relax andjust turn it loose down there. Let's see what happens."
What happened onSept. 27, of course, was that Ole Miss won its first SEC game in 672 days,31--30 over No. 4 Florida. The defeat inspired Tebow's Promise: the vow, nowimmortalized on a plaque on the Gainesville campus, that A LOT OF GOOD WILLCOME OUT OF THIS. Some good came of it for the victors as well. Just not rightaway. The Rebels dropped their next two games, then headed to Arkansas, Nutt'sprevious place of employment. "We go to Fayetteville in a fairly hostileenvironment"—he smiles at his own understatement—"and find a way towin. Then we just took off."
The Ole Miss teamthat closed out the season with six straight victories provided a study in thegood things that can happen when a team buys into a coach's philosophy andbegins to believe in itself. "Our confidence," Nutt says, "justexploded." It also served as a reminder (unnecessary, perhaps, on a campuswhose 18-mph speed limit commemorates number 18, Archie Manning) of theimportance of good quarterback play.
By the end of the2006 season Jevan Snead had seen his future at Texas, and it was taking snapsin garbage time behind Colt McCoy. "That wasn't how I'd pictured my collegecareer," recalls Snead, a 6'3" junior from Stephenville, Texas, who hadoriginally committed to Florida then switched to the Longhorns after Tebowpledged to the Gators. "So I decided to look around."
He transferred toOxford and sat out the NCAA-required year, his presence on the scout team adaily torment to then coach Ed Orgeron and his staff. The best quarterback onthe roster, by far, wouldn't be eligible until the '08 season, by which timethe staff would end up fired. Snead is strong-armed and accurate, but his majorflaw at first was his unwillingness to give up on plays. "For the firstfive games [of last season]," Nutt recalls, "he was trying sohard—forcing everything, throwing it to their guys. Then he realized, Hey, Idon't have to be Superman on every play. And the game just slowed down forhim."
Who needs Supermanwhen you've got the Wild Rebel, the innovative single-wing formation that Nuttbrought with him from Arkansas? Enter Dexter McCluster, a wide receiver mindinghis own business, running sprints in the team's indoor facility in February2008 when Nutt asked him, "Have you ever played running back?" It wascollege football's equivalent of being discovered in Schwab's drugstore."As a matter of fact," replied McCluster, who had rushed for 2,490yards and 39 touchdowns as a senior at Largo (Fla.) High, "I've been arunning back all my life."
McCluster was soonlining up in the backfield and even taking snaps out of the shotgun, just asDarren McFadden had done in the Wild Hog at Arkansas. "He is electric,"says Nutt of his latest multiple threat. "He can catch it, run it, throwit, hand it off." Between his rushing, receiving and returns, McClusteraveraged 98.5 all-purpose yards per game in '08, and he was named offensive MVPof the Rebels' 47--34 Cotton Bowl win over Texas Tech. The senior's onlyproblem, says Nutt, is that, at 5'8", "he has trouble seeing over theline."
Mississippi'sproblem, going into Nutt's second season, is that it won't be sneaking up onanyone. "We understand that people won't underestimate us anymore,"says sackmeister Greg Hardy, a senior defensive end. "They're going toprepare for us a different way. We're O.K. with that."
They're O.K. withit because of the confidence spawned by the come-from-behind victory atFlorida. For example: "We're down 14 points in the Cotton Bowl, but we knewwe were going to make something happen," says McCluster. "We've got somany people believing right now, it's something we never had before."
It helps that theRebels are flat-out loaded along the defensive line (page 76). And it helpsthat Mississippi's toughest SEC opponents—Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee andLSU—must come to Oxford.
To Tebow's chagrin,the Rebels are not on Florida's schedule in '09. Unless the teams meet in anSEC championship game, they will not play again until at least 2012—at whichpoint it will have been at least 1,810 days since Florida defeated OleMiss.
The first play thatquarterback Jeremiah Masoli queues up during a late July tape session isOregon's opening snap in the Holiday Bowl last December. What appears to be agarden-variety screen to a wideout—Masoli throws a quick hitch to JeffMaehl—turns interesting when Maehl, running parallel to the line of scrimmage,pitches back to Masoli, who throws a 47-yard strike to wideout Jamere Holland,setting the tone for Oregon's wide-open, 42--31 victory over OklahomaState.
Masoli is thelatest and least likely in the long line of superb Oregon quarterbacks. Aftertransferring from City College of San Francisco, he was fifth on the depthchart as a sophomore entering preseason practice in 2008. Demonstrating asavant's grasp of offensive coordinator Chip Kelly's bewildering triple option,he was named the starter by the fourth game of the season—by which time, Masolinotes, his head had yet to stop spinning from trying to digest Oregon'splaybook.
"Physically, Iwas ready last year," he says. "Mentally, definitely not." It tooktime for him to master such nuances as executing ball fakes to Kelly'ssatisfaction and selling the defense on that Holiday Bowl play. "After Ithrow it the first time," he says of the toss to Maehl, "you see how Iwalk back a few steps, like the play is over."
Next up on thetape, Masoli takes a shotgun snap, freezes the linebackers with a silky fake tothe running back and then takes off, bowling over a free safety on his way to aspectacular 41-yard touchdown. At a school known for mobile quarterbacks—AkiliSmith, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon—Masoli set an Oregon season rushing record(718 yards) for the position in his first year out of junior college. Builtlike a fullback (5'11", 214), he is more durable than the willowy Dixon. Bythe end of last season Masoli was running Oregon's zone read, if it's possible,more skillfully than Dixon once did. Over the final three games (includingagainst the quality defenses of Arizona and Oregon State) Masoli threw for 830yards and six touchdowns, and ran for 248 and seven.
With an entireoff-season to prepare as the starter, Masoli will be even better in '09. Littlewonder there is guarded optimism around Oregon's football offices that, withsome luck, this kid could carry the Ducks to a special season (page 84).
Back in the videoroom it's LeGarrette Blount's turn. A vexing blend of speed and power, the6'2", 240-pound senior from East Mississippi Community College rushed for1,002 yards last season (7.3 yards per carry) as a backup to Jeremiah Johnson.Accelerating into the secondary on one play, Blount hurdles an Oklahoma Statesafety en route to the end zone. Another Blount highlight, this one fromOregon's 65--38 Civil War beatdown of Oregon State: He uses just enough wiggleto elude a linebacker on his way to a 46-yard pickup. "I threw thestiff-arm too early," says Blount, critiquing himself.
"You ain't evengot a stiff-arm," says tight end Ed Dickson, not long before seizing theremote control to find highlights of himself. And they are plentiful. Among thenation's top tight ends, the 6'5", 243-pound senior is arguably the mostversatile as well, lining up next to a tackle, in the slot, split wide and inthe backfield. Every so often Kelly even uses Dickson as a pitch back.
Dickson had acareer game against Boise State last season, catching seven passes for 103yards and two touchdowns, but any reference to that subject throws a wetblanket over the room. Masoli was knocked out in the first quarter of whathe—and all of Duck Nation—regarded as a cheap shot. With Masoli out, BoiseState upset the Ducks 37--32.
As it happens,Oregon opens on Sept. 3 on the blue turf at Bronco Stadium. Blount puts itbluntly: "We owe that team an ass-whuppin'." A tense silence ensues,until Dickson breaks it. "You know something," he says, "myfavorite color is blue."
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Stewart Mandel writes about the two teams he believes will play in the BCStitle game at SI.com/bonus
ROBINSON'S MOST VALUABLE ASSET IS HIS FOOTBALLINTELLECT.
"WE'VE GOT SO MANY PEOPLE BELIEVING NOW," SAYSMCCLUSTER.
SNEAD'S GAME TOOK OFF WHEN HE STOPPED FORCINGTHROWS.
BUILT LIKE A FULLBACK, MASOLI IS MORE DURABLE THANDIXON.
Track the Heisman contenders this season with SI'sspecial foldout.
Photograph by LOUIS LOPEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA
Oregon's Blount, who hurdled a defender on a 29-yard touchdown run in the 2008 Holiday Bowl, will be the featured back in an offense that could wreak havoc in the Pac-10.
JOHN BIEVER (ROBINSON)
Big 12 foes know Robinson (11) and Hunter (24) can turn a busted play into a touchdown.
DARREN CARROLL (HUNTER)
[See caption above]
CHRIS GRAYTHEN/GETTY IMAGES
Though only 5'8", the versatile McCluster is ideally suited to direct the Wild Rebel package.
After switching off Florida and bolting Texas, Snead is passing Ole Miss to SEC glory.
DUSTIN SNIPES/ICON SMI
Masoli, who set a rushing mark for Oregon QBs, runs the triple option over Pac-10 opponents.