While the actual 2019 season doesn’t open for business until late August, the business of football discussion is perpetual.
From a coverage standpoint, the season began July 15-16 during the Big 12 Media Days event at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Many reporters were in that venue for the first time since Dec. 1, when Oklahoma defeated Texas 39-27 in the Big 12 Championship game.
As the Sooners are the preseason favorites to win a fifth consecutive conference title, there are several compelling talking points. Among them: Are you buying the “Texas is back” buzz?
Tulsa World sports columnists Bill Haisten and Guerin Emig were at AT&T Stadium on Dec. 1 and again for last week’s Big 12 Media interaction with league coaches and stars like OU’s CeeDee Lamb and Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace and Texas’ Sam Ehlinger.
Haisten and Emig address five interesting preseason storylines:
OU’s Alex Grinch or OSU’s Sean Gleeson: Which first-year coordinator will have the greater impact?
Alex Grinch has a chance to do something heroic with returning Sooner defenders who experienced a rock-bottom 2018 season. The Sooners won’t suddenly vault to the Alabama-Clemson level, but their effort-level improvement will be immediately noticeable.
It doesn’t seem like Grinch has the personnel to make it all click in Year One, but confidence and belief are the best intangibles. He will have his guys believing they can play.
Cowboy coach Mike Gundy on Gleeson: “Sean is a young, up-and-coming, high-energy technician with great ideas that we can implement in our system.” However, Gundy also is saying that from a tactical standpoint, OSU’s 2019 offense will bear a strong resemblance to the 2018 model.
Gleeson eventually will put his fingerprints on adjusted schemes, but this first season is a time of FBS/Big 12 acclimation for the former Princeton play-caller.
Mike Gundy brought Gleeson to Oklahoma State to contribute to the Cowboys’ offensive culture, not overhaul it. There is no need for a makeover, not after the work Gleeson predecessors Mike Yurcich, Todd Monken, Dana Holgorsen and Larry Fedora put in. Not with Gundy around to maintain that culture.
Gleeson’s most obvious impact will be on OSU’s quarterbacks, Spencer Sanders in particular.
Grinch must leave an impression up and down the Oklahoma defense. He must get linemen, linebackers and defense to think and play differently.
Put it this way: If Lincoln Riley was OU’s most important offensive coaching hire since Bob Stoops hired Mike Leach, Grinch represents the most important defensive hire since Stoops brought his brother Mike and Brent Venables with him to Norman 20 years ago.
OSU’s Tylan Wallace or OU’s CeeDee Lamb: Which receiver has the better chance to win the Biletnikoff Award?
Now that Marquise Brown is a Baltimore Raven, Lamb is finally the undisputed go-to receiver at OU. He has bonded with new quarterback Jalen Hurts, saying at Big 12 Media Days last week: “Me and him have built such a strong relationship that it’s crazy. That’s my dawg.”
Lamb is set for an explosive 2019 season, no question.
It’s just that Wallace is set to build on what was an explosive 2018.
Jerry Jeudy, last year’s Biletnikoff winner, made 68 catches for 1,315 yards. Wallace made 86 for 1,491. That’s just absurd production, especially when you consider Wallace’s quarterback, Taylor Cornelius, had inconsistent stretches in games and throughout the year. That’s Biletnikoff-worthy production.
Wallace will be worthy of the award again this season, provided Sean Gleeson gets Sanders and/or Dru Brown comfortable throwing the ball.
Based on the presumption that the Cowboys and Sooners have no worse than a 60% passing performance, I would expect Wallace to be targeted more frequently than Lamb. A Biletnikoff finalist, Wallace last season had 86 catches (18 more than Biletnikoff Award-recipient Jerry Jeudy of Alabama).
Wallace in 2019 could become the fifth state receiver in this decade to record a single-season total of at least 100 catches. It was done in 2010 by OU’s Ryan Broyles, in 2010 and 2011 by OSU’s Justin Blackmon, in 2012 by OSU’s Josh Stewart and in 2014 by TU’s Keevan Lucas.
While Lamb is a tremendous receiver – and might now be OU’s best player, regardless of position – Jalen Hurts has at his disposal a great number of options. As the Sooners have playmakers all over the field, Wallace is clearly defined as OSU’s top target.
Are you buying the buzz that ‘Texas is back’?
Haisten: Not yet
First, I’ve got to know the definition of “back.” Does it mean that Texas has returned to a level to Mack Brown’s 2001-2009, when the Longhorns had nine consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, had a 61-11 record in the Big 12 and captured the 2005 national title?
Or does it mean that Texas has taken a more modest step toward sustained respectability? That Texas no longer is the program that lost in each of its past five home games against Oklahoma State, or lost to Kansas in 2016, or stumbled against Maryland in 2017 and 2018?
LSU visits Texas on Sept. 7. Should be fascinating. If the Longhorns are 5-0 before they clash with OU on Oct. 12, they’ll probably be ranked in the top five nationally. At that time, we can rekindle the “Texas is back” conversation.
Emig: Not yet
Quarterback Sam Ehlinger announced that Texas was “baaaa-ack” after beating Georgia in the Sugar Bowl last Jan. 1. It was an impressive win, no doubt.
But for a program of Texas’ heritage to truly be “baaaa-ack,” it must be competing for national championships, not New Year’s bowl trophies. In order to compete for a national title, you probably ought to win your Power 5 conference first.
Texas hasn’t won the Big 12 since 2009.
The Longhorns might look good beating LSU in Austin Sept. 7, but to seriously gauge where they are, and how far Tom Herman has brought them, we must see how they play against OSU on Sept. 21. Then at West Virginia Oct. 5. And, of course, against OU Oct. 12.
For the Horns to be “baaaa-ack,” they need to win those games, plus a rematch against the Sooners in the Dec. 7 Big 12 Championship. That puts them in the College Football Playoff.
At that point, Ehlinger can crow all he wants.
Which of the league’s four new coaches will have the best debut?
Haisten: K-State’s Chris Klieman
The 2019 Wildcats won’t upset Oklahoma and finish with 10 wins, but new Kansas State coach Chris Klieman will get enough positive results that his fan base will celebrate the start of an exciting, successful new era in Manhattan.
Regardless of the level at which it was achieved, a 69-6 record is staggering. Winning four FCS national titles in five years is staggering. Those are some of Klieman’s credentials. At North Dakota State, he was a renowned developer of QBs. He coached Carson Wentz and Easton Stick all the way from Fargo to the NFL.
Les Miles makes Kansas football infinitely more interesting, but, in 2019 and beyond, I expect the 51-year-old Klieman to thrive at Kansas State.
Prediction: Within three years, athletic directors at several big football schools will have a common thought: “I wish I had hired Chris Klieman.”
Emig: Texas Tech’s Matt Wells
Les Miles takes over Kansas. That eliminates him. Chris Klieman replaces Bill Snyder at Kansas State. We saw with Ron Prince how impossible that is.
Neal Brown succeeds Holgorsen at West Virginia, which might not be so bad if he didn’t have to replace Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings.
Wells succeeds Kliff Kingsbury. Wells returns quarterback Alan Bowman. Wells will be 3-0 heading into the OU game on Sept. 28, provided Tech wins on Sept. 21 at Arizona.
This isn’t to suggest the Red Raiders make a charge at OU or Texas atop the Big 12 leaderboard, but improving on Kingsbury’s 5-7 2018 record seems reasonable.
What is the Big 12’s most compelling nonconference game?
As it seems that Iowa State might be on the brink of something special, the Cyclones have a chance to make an early statement. The state of Iowa gets its Bedlam on Sept. 14, when the Iowa Hawkeyes challenge Iowa State in Ames.
OU has interesting nonconference dates with Houston and UCLA, but the Sooners aren’t losing in either game. The most revealing of all Big 12 nonconference games should be LSU-Texas, scheduled for Sept. 7 in Austin.
Only a year after losing for a second time to Maryland, are the Longhorns really ready to beat a September opponent like LSU?
An impressive victory would elevate Texas to better levels of momentum and self-esteem. An ugly loss could result in a huge psychological setback for Tom Herman’s third Longhorn squad.
A month ago, I chose LSU-Texas based on the pedigree of the two programs, the fact they haven’t played a regular-season game since 1954, and the lure of the quarterback matchup between Sam Ehlinger and Joe Burrow. There is a lot to love here.
And yet I think I love OU-Houston even more.
Can Jalen Hurts win the matchup against Cougars dual-threat QB D’Eriq King? Can Alex Grinch win the matchup, or at least hold his own, against Dana Holgorsen?
How does OU’s offensive line look now that four 2018 starters are in NFL camps? How does Houston’s defensive line look now that Ed Oliver is a Buffalo Bill?
All of this intrigue, plus the novelty of Sunday night football at Owen Field.