Berry’s college football buffet: Sorry, Mike Gundy; Ollie Gordon is going to get a bunch more credit

Berry’s college football buffet: Sorry, Mike Gundy; Ollie Gordon is going to get a bunch more credit

Berry Tramel: Ollie Gordon is the front-runner — and maybe the runaway leader — for the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Award.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 9, 2023, 9:00am CST

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 9, 2023, 9:00am CST

Mike Gundy keeps saying that Ollie Gordon is getting too much credit. Maybe so. But the credit is not going to stop anytime soon for the OSU tailback.

Gordon is the front-runner — and maybe the runaway leader — for the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Award.

If not Gordon, then who? OU’s Dillon Gabriel is the likely all-Big 12 quarterback. Gabriel is running virtually unopposed. Texas’ Quinn Ewers has been hurt a couple of games and wasn’t playing great even before the injury. Central Florida’s John Rhys Plumlee has been injured. Same with Kansas’ Jalon Daniels.

Heck, OSU’s Alan Bowman might be second-team, if Ewers doesn’t come back soon.

At tailback, Texas Tech’s Tajh Brooks and Texas’ Jonathan Brooks are having big years, both having already cracked the 1,000-yard barrier. But Gordon is up to 1,224 yards and 12 touchdowns, well ahead of his competitors, and his land run has transformed the Cowboy season.

Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year is Gordon’s award to lose.

But it’s no big surprise that a tailback might win it. When Texas Christian quarterback Max Duggan won the award in 2022, it ended a string of three straight seasons with a tailback as the winner — Iowa State’s Breece Hall in 2020 and 2021, and OSU’s Chuba Hubbard in 2019.

The Big 12 has had more than its share of great quarterbacks this century, but the league has honored other ballhandlers. OU flanker Dede Westbrook won in 2016, and OSU wide receiver Justin Blackmon won in 2010.

In the early days of the Big 12, tailbacks were the ticket. In four of the conference’s first seven seasons, a tailback won the award: Iowa State’s Troy Davis in 1996, Texas’ Ricky Williams in 1997 and 1998, and Colorado’s Chris Brown in 2002.

Gordon ran for 138 yards on 33 carries and two touchdowns in the Cowboys’ 27-24 Bedlam win last week. He was coming off back-to-back games of 271 and 282 rushing yards against Cincinnati and West Virginia, respectively.

“Obviously, he had a good game, he made plays, made key runs and broke tackles at times,” Gundy said. “Oklahoma inserted an extra player in the box to stop the run, which we knew they would, that was not a mystery.

“That’s what I would’ve done, and it helped. The other times he ran through the guy, and he rushed for about 130-140, something like that, against a team like that, they’re a good defense and pretty good against the run. So, it was a good day for him.”

But Gundy continues to stress that Gordon needs to stay hungry and humble. That OSU’s offensive line is the biggest reason for the turnaround.

And truthfully, a myriad of things has contributed to the Cowboys’ mid-season rise. Gordon’s heroics. A rejuvenated line. Bowman’s solid play at quarterback. A change in offensive philosophy, with a more downhill running attack.

“The reason we’re playing good is because our offensive line is playing good,” Gundy said. “Early in the year, for whatever reason, we weren’t, and we couldn’t manage anything.

“They’ve picked it up the last how many other games in a row playing physical, covering guys up, which allows us to throw passes, allowing us to become better pass protectors and a little more balanced and gives us a chance. Other than the years when we had NFL receivers and NFL quarterbacks, we’ve always had to stay balanced in order to be good on offense, and that’s where we’re at at this time.”

The Cowboys indeed are balanced. They also are top-heavy, with Gordon, who is in position to win the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Award.

Ohio State stays No. 1

The College Football Playoff is gaining some focus. Ohio State remains No. 1 in the CFP rankings, and that’s where I’ve got the Buckeyes, too.

We’re down to 11 contenders for the four-team field. That’s the number of teams with fewer than two losses, a club that OU left about 6 p.m. Saturday.

Next year, the playoff hopefuls will be at least double this time of year. When the 12-team format arrives, all kinds of teams will have life this late in the season.

Heck, let’s check it out.

Considering power-conference champions will be virtual automatic selections to the bracket, here’s who would remain in contention:

Big 12: Texas, OSU, OU, West Virginia, Iowa State, all in legitimate contention. Maybe even Kansas State and Kansas, though they would need extraordinary tiebreaker help, having lost to both OSU and Texas.

Southeastern Conference: Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Tennessee. Maybe Louisiana State.

Big Ten: Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State.

Atlantic Coast: Florida State, Louisville, North Carolina.

Pac-12: Washington, Oregon, Oregon State, Southern Cal (yes, USC), Utah. 

So that’s 20 teams totally in the picture, with three on the fringes. And that’s not even counting the load of mid-majors still in the running for their conference title and the one bid that almost surely will be reserved for a mid-major.

It’s always fun to check out how a 12-team bracket would look at any point. So let’s use the CFP rankings to see the first-round games:

12th-seeded Tulane at fifth-Michigan, with the winner getting fourth-seeded Washington.

9-Ole Miss at 8-Alabama, with the winner getting 1-Ohio State.

11-Louisville at 6-Oregon, with the winner getting 3-Florida State.

10-Penn State at 7-Texas, with the winner getting 2-Georgia.

Fun bracket. But not great. Louisville-Oregon doesn’t light the furnace, Ole Miss-Alabama is a rematch and Tulane-Michigan seems a mismatch. But you never know.

It would at least be fun.

Here’s my top 10 this week, based not on what I think will happen but on what has happened. Who did you play, where did you play, how did you do?

  1. Ohio State (9-0): Winning at Rutgers represents the Buckeyes’ third-best win, behind Penn State and Notre Dame.
  2. Washington (9-0): Huskies piling up some quality victories. Oregon, USC, Arizona.
  3. Georgia (9-0): Ole Miss this week, Tennessee next week.
  4. Florida State (9-0): The Seminoles’ resume’ gets weaker each week, as the ACC teams decline.
  5. Texas (8-1): The Longhorns won at Alabama. How could Oregon be rated ahead of UT (as the committee has done)?
  6. Alabama (8-1): The Crimson Tide has earned its stripes. Texas, Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU. Tough schedule.
  7. Oregon (8-1): The Ducks’ schedule isn’t awful, but their best win was at Utah.
  8. Ole Miss (8-1): Mississippi can upset the entire sport with an upset in Athens.
  9. Michigan (9-0): I make no apologies for the Wolverines’ lower ranking. Their best non-conference win was Nevada-Las Vegas. Their best Big Ten win was Rutgers, I suppose.
  10. Penn State (8-1): The Nittany Lions’ two best wins were home games against West Virginia and Iowa.

Coaches on the hot seat

Big 12: OU’s Brent Venables. Venables’ Sooners were staging a magical season a mere two weeks ago. Then OU went to Kansas. And Bedlam happened.

Now OU is 7-2 and has fallen to 17th in the only ranking that matters. Questions galore reign about Venables’ staff.

In other words, the Sooners are having a season like most good teams.

But Saturday night, OU hosts West Virginia in a game matching two of the five teams tied for third place in the Big 12. And the winner is in great shape to win out and potentially make it to Arlington for the Big 12 Championship Game, should Texas or OSU fall.

WVU is a good team. The 6-3 Mountaineers allowed a last-play Hail Mary touchdown against Houston, else they would be tied for the Big 12 lead.

Beat West Virginia, and things look much better for Venables. The turmoil caused by Venables’ quicker-than-anticipated success this year? It all calms down with a win.

But lose to WVU, and the turmoil increases.

National: California’s Justin Wilcox. Cal-Berkeley is not an easy place to coach. Since the great Pappy Waldorf’s final season with the Golden Bears, 1956, only three coaches have left the job with a winning record: Mike White, 34-31-1, 1972-77; Bruce Snyder, 29-24-4, 1987-91; and Jeff Tedford, 82-57, 2002-12.

We all can agree that Sonny Dykes is a heck of a coach, right? Dykes went 19-30 at Cal.

But Justin Wilcox seemed to be bucking the trend. The defensive coordinator from Oregon came on board at Cal in 2017, and after three seasons the Bears were 20-18.

Things have not gone well since. Cal was 1-3 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and is 5-7, 4-8 and now 3-6 in the last three years.

The Pac-12 has imploded, and Cal is headed for the ACC, where the Golden Bears might be able to compete with many of the teams, but they’re three time zones away.

Cal’s financial crisis continues to mount, with the Golden Bears getting only a partial ACC payout the first seven years. Cal figures to get $20 million a year, compared to the $37 million it was getting in the Pac-12.

That could help Wilcox’s job status. Hard to pay off a coach when the athletic department is taking a haircut. On the other hand, Wilcox’s buyout reportedly is only $3.75 million, and the Golden Bears should be able to handle that.

On Saturday, California hosts struggling Washington State. If the 3-6 Golden Bears lose, they are eliminated from bowl eligibility. Cal likes Wilcox, but that hasn’t stopped schools from firing a coach and getting a fresh start in a new league. 

Big 12 rankings and bowl outlook

The Big 12 added four schools and one bowl game to its postseason this season. The math doesn’t sound good, right?

The Big 12 has had a stable lineup of seven bowls for several years — Sugar (or another major bowl, if the Sugar is hosting a playoff game), Alamo, Orlando Junior (Camping World, Cheez-It, now Pop-Tarts), Texas, Liberty, Phoenix Junior (Cactus, Cheez-It, now Guaranteed Rate) and either the Armed Forces or First Responder. This year, the Big 12 added the Independence Bowl.

With Big 12 bowl participation running above 60 percent most years, one bowl for four extra teams didn’t seem to be enough.

But maybe it will all work out. The Big 12 has eight bowl slots, and that number moves to nine if the Big 12 places a second team in one of the six major bowls. For instance, if the Sooners win out to finish 10-2 and don’t make it to Arlington for the Big 12 Championship Game, they could finish in the top 11 of the playoff rankings and be selected for a major bowl. Or if OU wins out and wins the Big 12 title over Texas, an 11-2 Longhorns team likely would stay in the top 11 and make a major bowl, too.

So how many bowl teams will the Big 12 have?

Seven already have qualified with the six required victories.

But the only other Big 12 team with five wins is Brigham Young. The 5-4 Cougars host Iowa State on Saturday, then finish with the Oklahoma schools. BYU could get a win, but it won’t be easy.

Texas Tech, TCU, Houston and Central Florida all are 4-5, so they need to go at least 2-1 down the stretch.

Houston could make it. The Cougars still host Cincinnati and OSU, and play at UCF.

Central Florida could make it. The Knights host OSU and Houston, and play at Texas Tech.

Texas Tech could make it. But the Red Raiders would have to win in Austin, unless they sweep road games at Kansas and UCF.

TCU could make it. But the Frogs must beat either Texas in Fort Worth or OU in Norman, to go with a likely home win over Baylor.

But it looks like only one or two of those teams will qualify for a bowl. It appears the Big 12 had it about right.

Here are the Big 12 rankings for this week:

  1. Texas (8-1, 5-1): Ewers is listed as “day-to-day” for the TCU game. Backup Maalik Murphy was shaky down the stretch vs. K-State.
  2. Oklahoma State (7-2, 5-1): Not since 2001 had OSU won Bedlam with a point total under 30.
  3. Kansas (7-2, 4-2): The Jayhawks are legit. They have played only two of the Big 12’s second-division teams, while playing four of the Big 12’s upper-division teams.
  4. Oklahoma (7-2, 4-2): This is the fourth straight year OU has lost at least two Big 12 games. The previous five seasons, the Sooners lost four conference games total.
  5. Iowa State (6-3, 4-2): Cyclones becoming bowl eligible this early is remarkable, considering how they looked in September.
  6. Kansas State (6-3, 4-2): Kicking game failed K-State in Austin. That’s rare.
  7. West Virginia (6-3, 4-2): Neal Brown gets more right every week, after being so hacked off in the summer that his Mountaineers were picked last in the conference.
  8. Texas Tech (4-5, 3-3): Making a bowl would be quite the achievement after Tech’s 1-3 start.
  9. Texas Christian (4-5, 2-4): Will the Horned Frogs have any momentum when they come into Norman on Thanksgiving Friday?
  10. Houston (4-5, 2-4): The Cougars are perilously close to a 2-7 record. They’ve won one game in overtime (Baylor) and another via a Hail Mary (WVU).
  11. Brigham Young (5-4, 2-4): Cougars are 4-0 at home, though the schedule has been slight.
  12. Baylor (3-6, 2-4): Home loss to Houston makes this season an unqualified disaster.
  13. Central Florida (4-5, 1-5): UCF has two chances left at a win over a Big 12 legacy school, OSU this Saturday and Texas Tech next week.
  14. Cincinnati (3-6, 0-6): Better luck next year.

Upset specials

National: Penn State over Michigan. Michigan is a mystery team. For two reasons.

First, the Wolverines haven’t played much of a schedule. Their toughest opponent probably has been 6-3 Rutgers. Maybe 5-4 Nebraska or Minnesota.

But second, the narrative around Michigan has flooded into scandal around coach Jim Harbaugh — his early-season suspension over NCAA violations for impermissible conduct with recruits, and now the sign-stealing saga that has the Big Ten in an uproar.

Maybe the Wolverines don’t care about that. But at some point, you have to think all the drama is hurting the Michigan cause.

And now the Wolverines go to Penn State on Saturday for a game against a legitimate foe. The Nittany Lions are 8-1, and while they were somewhat ridiculed for a lack of offense in a 20-12 loss at Ohio State, remember that Penn State is a rock-solid team.

A year ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan broke away from the Nittanys for a 41-17 rout.

But Happy Valley will be different. Penn State is good enough to keep it close, and the spotlight of scandal has to be wearing on the Wolverines. Michigan is a five-point favorite, but let’s go with Penn State in the upset.

Big 12: Texas Tech over Kansas. Big 12 football has a clear line of demarcation this season. The top seven teams and the bottom seven teams. Only one time this season has a bottom-seven team beaten a top-seven team — the aforementioned Houston Hail Mary to beat West Virginia.

But there might be a bridge between the two, and that bridge might be in Lubbock. Texas Tech is the league’s only 3-3 team in the conference. The Red Raiders have had an easy schedule, playing four of the lower-tier teams and losing to upper-tier West Virginia and Kansas State. 

But Tech played an above-average non-conference schedule, going to Wyoming, where the Raiders lost in overtime, and hosting Oregon. Tech lost both games, hence its 4-5 overall record.

Tech’s curse is close games. Last season, the Red Raiders won thrice in overtime, fueling all kinds of optimism, leading coach Joey McGuire to declare that all college football roads go through Lubbock. But close wins are fool’s gold. Tech is paying penance this year; the Red Raiders were 0-3 in one-possesion games until beating Texas Christian 35-28 last week.

Saturday, Tech plays at Kansas, and the Jayhawks are 3½-point favorites. But my Big 12 efficiency ratings say these teams are close in performance. Part of that is schedule; the Jayhawks have played four top-tier teams.

But Kansas is due a letdown. And Tech is due some luck. Replace McGuire’s road with a bridge. Let’s go with the Red Raiders in the upset.

Ranking the Big 12 games

It’s not showdown week in the Big 12. Only one game matching contenders to reach Arlington:

  1. West Virginia at Oklahoma, 6 p.m., Fox: Fox is about to lose OU as a partner, and the network is milking the Sooners for all they’re worth, going with the primetime window.
  2. Texas at TCU, 6:30 p.m., ABC: This isn’t Bedlam, but the emotions will be high. Texas left the Horned Frogs once before, to join the Big 12, and it took TCU 17 years to get back to major-conference status. The Frogs will be summarily informed of UT’s indignity.
  3. Texas Tech at Kansas, 11 a.m., Fox Sports1: Tech quarterback Behren Morton was back from injury last week against TCU and produced good numbers – 28 of 36 passing, 282 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions. Morton missed Tech’s loss at BYU.
  4. Oklahoma State at Central Florida, 2:30 p.m., ESPN: The Cowboys don’t win Bedlam often, but when they do, they make a splash. According to OSU historian Chris Putnam, of OU’s six Bedlam wins this century, four were against Sooner squads ranked in the top 10. OU was No. 4 in 2001, No. 3 in 2002, No. 10 in 2021 and No. 9 in 2023.
  5. Iowa State at Brigham Young, 9:15 p.m., ESPN: A sneak preview of next year, with the Big 12 After Dark series. Should be fun, watching Big 12 football as we got past midnight.
  6. Baylor at Kansas State, 2 p.m., ESPN Plus: Hey, this reminds me. No conference games so far for OU or OSU on the dreaded ESPN Plus. Probably won’t be, now.
  7. Cincinnati at Houston, 6 p.m., Fox Sports1: An American Conference reunion. But funny, the Bearcats and Cougars didn’t meet last season, and they played in 2021 only because both qualified for the league title game.

Ranking the top 10 games nationally

  1. Michigan at Penn State, 11 a.m., Fox: Second straight year this is a top-10 showdown, but just the fourth time since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten in 1993.
  2. Ole Miss at Georgia, 6 p.m., ESPN: A top-10 showdown that is symbolic of the Southeastern Conference’s scheduling problem. Ole Miss and Georgia have played three times since 2007, after just two years of not playing between 1965 and 2003.
  3. Southern Cal at Oregon, 9:30 p.m., Fox: Five years ago, Lincoln Riley’s Sooners played a little bit better defense — just a little — after firing coordinator Mike Stoops in mid-stream. Now Riley has fired d-coordinator Alex Grinch in mid-stream.
  4. Texas at Texas Christian, 6:30 p.m., ABC: TCU held Texas without an offensive touchdown last season, en route to the College Football Playoff. Now it’s the Longhorns who are playoff contenders.
  5. Miami at Florida State, 2:30 p.m., ABC: A generation ago, the Hurricanes routinely broke Seminole hearts. From 1987-96, Florida State lost six times to Miami as a top-10 team. Of course, those were much better Hurricane squads.
  6. West Virginia at Oklahoma, 6 p.m., Fox: OU has played the tougher conference schedule (Texas, OSU, Kansas, Iowa State; WVU has played only OSU among the top seven in the league). But the Mountaineers played the tougher non-conference schedule (Penn State).
  7. Tennessee at Missouri, 2:30 p.m., CBS: Quite an even series since Mizzou joined the SEC; the Vols lead 6-5, including a 66-24 rout last season.
  8. Utah at Washington, 2:30 p.m., Fox: Unbeaten UW has a tough finishing trio – the Utes, at Oregon State, hosting Washington State in an Apple Cup farewell. All three schools were left behind with Washington’s move to the Big Ten, though Utah had a parachute with the Big 12.
  9. Florida at Louisiana State, 6:30 p.m., SEC Network: Not a big game on the national or SEC level, but man, what a coaching intrigue game. The Gators and Tigers compete with Auburn for the most unstable coaching posts in college football. And both second-year coaches could find some trouble. LSU’s Brian Kelly went to the SEC Championship Game last year, but the Bayou turns on coaches quickly, and LSU has fallen to 6-3. Florida’s Billy Napier is 11-11 in two seasons.
  10. Duke at North Carolina, 7 p.m., ACC Network: Usually a hardwood rivalry, but the winner stays in the chase for a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game.
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Berry Tramel is a 45-year veteran of Oklahoma journalism, having spent 13 years at the Norman Transcript and 32 years at The Oklahoman. He has been named Oklahoma Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sports Media Association. Born and raised in Norman, Tramel grew up reading four newspapers a day and began his career at age 17. His first assignment was the Lexington-Elmore City high school football game, and he’s enjoyed the journey ever since, having covered NBA Finals and Rose Bowls and everything in between. Tramel and his wife, Tricia, were married in 1980 and live in Norman near their daughter, son-in-law and three granddaughters. Tramel can be reached at 405-760-8080 or at [email protected].

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