By Wendell Barnhouse
It's finally here: Game Week. How do we know that? Because the first Big 12 Conference football teleconference took place Monday. Here is a team-by-team update on the news, notes and quotes from the 10 coaches.
The defending Big 12 champions open the season Sunday against SMU. The big news, though, is that the school will take the wraps off (collegiately, at least; there's a high school game on Friday) new McLane Stadium, the Jewel On The Brazos.
The state-of-the art stadium sits hard by I-35 and just across the river from campus. "Sailgating" (over a dozen boat slips) plus a pedestrian bridge over the river are just two of several unique attractions.
But for coach Art Briles, the focus is beating the Mustangs.
"It's just a spectacular facility," he said. "There's a lot of excitement around that for the first game but as coaches and players, our stand point is winning a football game."
The Bears had two scrimmages in the stadium last week specifically designed to familiarize them with the facility.
While Oklahoma State is getting plenty of attention for opening against defending national champion Florida State, Iowa State is also taking on a team defending its title. North Dakota State has won the last three FCS titles and has won 24 consecutive games. And last season, the Bison opened the season with a stunning victory at Kansas State.
The Cyclones are coming off a 3-9 season, which should be incentive enough to start 2014 with a victory. But their opponent's accomplishments have Iowa State's full attention.
"Our guys have the upmost respect for North Dakota State," Rhoads said. "They know exactly what they're facing."
The Jayhawks are the only team that has to wait until Sept. 6 to get started, the second consecutive season Kansas has watched others play on the opening weekend.
Coach Charlie Weis says he would rather play this Saturday but circumstances are working in KU's favor. The Jayhawks' opening opponent is Southeast Missouri State and the Redhawks open the season Thursday. That allows his staff and players to get a jump start on assessing their opponent and start working on the game plan.
Also, Kansas lost two senior running backs to injury just over a week ago. Brandon Bourbon (ACL) and Taylor Cox (Achilles tendon) were expected to be the team's top two candidates to replace 1,000-yard rusher James Sims. The extra time before the opener is helping freshman Corey Avery and junior-college transfer De'Andre Mann get acclimated to their increased roles.
The Wildcats also are searching for a replacement to a productive rusher. Three-year starter John Hubert has exhausted his eligibility and there have been four players battling for playing time - senior DeMarcus Robinson, sophomores Charles Jones and Jarvis Leverett plus freshman Dalvin Warmack.
"All of them emerged," coach Bill Snyder said. "I feel reasonably comfortable with each of them, they've all improved and they'll all have their opportunities."
While the K-State two-deep chart won't be announced until Tuesday, Snyder mentioned Monday that sophomore Charles Jones will get the start Saturday against Stephen F. Austin. Jones redshirted in 2012 and didn't play last season. As a high school senior in Mandeville, La., he rushed for 1,767 yards and 22 touchdowns.
The Sooners must replace three of their top four rushers and two of their top three receivers from last season. The depth chart for Saturday's opener against Louisiana Tech lists sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross as co-starters at running back.
Coach Bob Stoops said he feels "reasonably comfortable" with all the running backs in the mix. The "mix" includes freshmen Samaje Perrine and Dimitri Flowers, a couple of power runners who weigh in around 240 pounds.
Junior Sterling Shepard, who was second in receptions last season, will start at wide receiver along with junior Durron Neal and redshirt freshman K.J. Young earn the starting spots at wide receiver. Redshirt freshman Jordan Smallwood and freshman Michiah Quick are also expected to see playing time.
Senior Blake Bell, who started eight games at quarterback this season, is the starter at tight end.
The Cowboys start at the top. They face Florida State, the defending national champions, in the Cowboys Classic at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. The Seminoles are led by sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston, who will try to become the second player to win two Heisman Trophies.
And Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has a bottom line assessment of the challenge.
"Florida State is as far along and as talented as any team I've seen in my 25 years in college football," Gundy said. "And we'll have about 20 players step on the field that haven't played a game at this level."
So who will start at quarterback against Samford Saturday? Wait and see.
"When we run out on the field for the first offensive huddle, that's when you'll know," Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson said Monday.
The candidates are junior Trevone Boykin or senior Matt Joeckel, a transfer from Texas A&M. But don't put much stock into which one takes the first snap. Patterson has contended since practice started that both quarterbacks will probably play in the opener. And, with TCU playing three games and having two weeks off in September, Patterson said that the first month of the season will help further define the quarterback position headed into the Big 12 opener against Oklahoma on Oct. 4.
The Horned Frogs have installed a new offensive system run by co-coordinators Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.
"The chemistry of those two guys working with the coaches who were already here, it's been great to watch," Patterson said. "The offense has given our defense a lot of trouble in the red zone during our scrimmages."
The Longhorns start the Charlie Strong Era by playing host to North Texas, a team that went 9-4 and won its bowl game. Strong and Mean Green coach Dan McCarney, who began his head coaching career at Iowa State, were on the staff at Florida when the Gators beat Oklahoma for the 2008 national championship.
"From getting to know coach McCarney when we were together at Florida, I know his team will be very physical and won't beat themselves," Strong said. "Watching their games from last season, they just found a way to win. They'll be well prepared and focused. What they did last season, winning nine games and a bowl game, speaks volumes about the job he's doing there."
Strong said that senior wide receiver Jaxon Shipley is "day-to-day" after suffering a hamstring injury just under two weeks ago. Other than Shipley, Texas has two receivers that have productive game experience – juniors Marcus Johnson and Daje' Johnson.
One of the "question threads" on the teleconference involved each coach answering which statistic they highlight after games. Turnover margin was the most popular answer and the Red Raiders' Kliff Kingsbury was on that list.
Last season Texas Tech won eight games but finished third from the bottom nationally in turnovers. Additionally, the Red Raiders were next to last in the Big 12 in penalties.
"We learned last year that we've got to get better at turnover margin," said Kingsbury, whose team opens against Central Arkansas. "Actually, we harped on the turnovers and the penalties that I think it backfired.
"We've put it back on the players. It's up to them to lead this team, take ownership. When you're talking about turnovers and penalties, that's player-controlled stat."
Coming off a 4-8 season and facing one of the powerhouses in college football, the Mountaineers are facing a tall order when they take on Alabama Saturday. Coach Dana Holgorsen is fine with the challenging schedule.
"We're thrilled to play a game with that kind of awesome atmosphere," said of facing the Crimson Tide in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. "I've been talking with (athletic director) Oliver Luck for the past three years and we need to continue playing challenging nonconference games. We've scheduled neutral site games with BYU, Virginia Tech and Tennessee in the next three years."
Holgorsen announced Monday that senior Ishmael "Ickey" Banks, a starter at cornerback, has been suspended by the NCAA for the first three games because of academic issues. He's scheduled to return for the Mountaineers' Big 12 opener against Oklahoma on Sept. 20.