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October 2, 2008
Roundtable: Questions about top contenders
I don't think you can be a legit national contender without a killer defense. And I think Missouri has the most questionable unit among those teams. The numbers don't lie. Missouri's rush defense is solid – the Tigers are fourth in the Big 12 (99.0 ypg) and 24th nationally - but that's mostly because foes have opted to pass on Mizzou. How generous have the Tigers been through the air? Their pass defense ranks last in the Big 12 (279.5 ypg) and 112th in the nation. Add it all up, and Mizzou enters this weekend with the worst defense in the Big 12 (378.5) and 80th in the nation. Those awful numbers have been compiled against bad teams. Illinois was a quality contest in the season-opener, but Mizzou followed with patty-cake games against Southeast Missouri, Nevada and Buffalo. What's going to happen when the Tigers start facing turbo-charged Big 12 offenses that rank among the best in the nation? There's Oklahoma State (No. 4 offense), Texas (10th) and Kansas (12th). And Kansas State (23rd), Baylor (26th) and Nebraska (33rd) also can move the ball. There also could be a Big 12 Championship Game date with Oklahoma and its No. 7-ranked offense. Yes, Missouri – which has the No. 2 offense in the nation – is equipped offensively to win most shootouts, but I expect the Tigers' soft defense to end up costing Mizzou in the long run.
Maybe the question should be which one of these teams is not like the other.
That would be LSU.
The other top-five teams have a veteran quarterback. There is no doubt the Tigers belong in the top five, but when you start talking about getting through the entire SEC schedule with a redshirt freshman quarterback (Jarrett Lee), I think you have to figure there will be a bad game or two for the rookie.
Texas has rolled over its first four opponents, but those four opponents are a combined 7-11. Arkansas is the only opponent from a "Big Six" conference. Texas' running game has been solid, but the running backs haven't distinguished themselves. QB Colt McCoy, who has been sensational, leads the Longhorns in rushing. But the biggest question about Texas remains the pass defense, which ranks 101st nationally. True, the Longhorns have had early leads, which forces opponents to throw. But why couldn't they stop them, especially considering Rice might be the strongest team the Longhorns have played? Texas has freshman safeties, and that alone raises questions with Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, Missouri's Chase Daniel and Texas Tech's Graham Harrell remaining on the schedule. Each is among the nation's top 10 in passing yardage.
I still have questions about Texas as a viable national-championship team, but those questions should be answered in part this week when the Longhorns go to Colorado. What is Texas' best win? Arkansas? Rice? All the others in the top five have at least shown something to make you think they have elite potential. Alabama and LSU have conference road wins. Missouri has a victory, albeit a flawed one, over Illinois. And Oklahoma has wins over two teams, Cincinnati and TCU, that should finish in the top half of their conferences. Texas QB Colt McCoy is playing as well as anyone in the country, but he needs help from the running backs and the defense to win in the Big 12. When the Longhorns go to Boulder, where Oklahoma lost last season and West Virginia lost earlier this season, we'll get a better gauge of Texas' national-title hopes.
I think Missouri, because of its offense and its schedule, has the best chance to finish unbeaten among that quintet. But I still have questions about the Tigers, as well as the other four teams. The team I have the most questions about, though, is Texas. The Longhorns have looked good, yes, but they've played no one (Arkansas, Florida Atlantic, Rice and UTEP). I'm not sure Texas has a running back it can count on. Tight end is a huge concern. So is the secondary, and a shaky secondary is going to get exposed in the Big 12. Plus, take a look at the remaining schedule: Oklahoma, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Kansas, among others. That's five teams currently ranked in the next two months. That seems a little much for a team with this many questions.
Oklahoma and Missouri returned most of the key players from teams that either reached a BCS game or were in the national-title discussion late last season. Alabama and LSU already have proved their worth by beating top-10 teams away from home, with Alabama whipping Clemson and Georgia while LSU rallied past Auburn. That leaves Texas as the one team that still must prove it's a legitimate contender. The Longhorns have outscored their first four foes 198-43, but they've faced a series of overmatched opponents. The only team Texas has faced from a "Big Six" conference is Arkansas, which looks like the worst team in the SEC. DE Brian Orakpo has emerged as one of the nation's top pass rushers and QB Colt McCoy has bounced back from a disappointing sophomore season to develop into a Heisman contender. But it's tough to declare Texas a legitimate title contender until it faces a legitimate opponent. Saturday's game at Colorado will tell us quite a bit about Texas, but that Oct. 11 showdown with Oklahoma will be the real defining moment for the Longhorns. By the end of that game, we should know which Big 12 South team will join Missouri as the conference's two top national-title contenders.