Berry’s College Football Buffet: Ollie Gordon leads a tailback revolution

Berry’s College Football Buffet: Ollie Gordon leads a tailback revolution

Berry Tramel: The Big 12 is back in the tailback business. A conference that for a generation set the standard for quarterbacking has migrated to more tailback-centric offenses.

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

| Nov 2, 2023, 12:00pm CDT

Berry Tramel

By Berry Tramel

Nov 2, 2023, 12:00pm CDT

STILLWATER – OSU phenom Ollie Gordon leads the nation in rushing. Last week, Gordon ranked fourth in rushing. In the Big 12.

I know, it makes no sense. Part of the explanation comes from Gordon’s 271 yards against Cincinnati last Saturday. Rush for dang near 300 yards and you can pass a lot of people.

But the rest of the story is this. The Big 12 is back in the tailback business. A conference that for a generation set the standard for quarterbacking has migrated to more tailback-centric offenses.

Not totally. Half the Bedlam showdown Saturday in Stillwater will feature an offense that relies heavily on its quarterback.

That would be the Sooners and Dillon Gabriel. But OSU is fueled by Gordon, the sophomore star who has rushed for 553 yards the past two weeks and shoved himself onto lists normally reserved for Barry Sanders.

And Gordon is not alone. Among the 69 teams in power conferences, four of the top six rushers are from the Big 12: Gordon 1,087 yards; Texas’ Jonathan Brooks, 923; Texas Tech’s Tajh Brooks, 891; and Texas Christian’s Emani Bailey, 851.

What in the name of Dwayne Crutchfield is going on?

Mike Gundy says it’s a natural evolution of football. Defenses have gradually found a way to slow the uptempo, spread, high-powered passing attack, usually with a three-man line.

“As we have learned to try to attack three-down fronts, one of those ways is to find creases rushing the football,” Gundy said. “What you’re seeing is teams realizing that if you have to find a way to overcome that, it’s gonna be rushing the ball.”

But Brent Venables suggests it’s more personnel. If you’ve got a big-time tailback, use him. If you’ve got a big-time quarterback, use him.

“When you get a good back, No. 1, you want to ride him — and there’s nothing like game control, being able to run the football and bloody somebody’s nose,” Venables said.

“For the last several years, maybe that wasn’t as sexy, but for whatever reason — I can’t say what the shift is other than they got a good player at that position. ‘Let’s utilize him the right way.’ Game control, efficiency, I think all of those are indicators of winning a lot of games.”

The Cowboys haven’t run the ball great the last couple of years. We’ve spent a lot of time working over the OSU offensive line. Perhaps deservedly.

But when OSU had Jaylen Warren at tailback two years ago, the Cowboys effectively ran the ball. Same with Chuba Hubbard before that. And Justice Hill. And Joe Randle. And Kendall Hunter.

OSU shifted its offense after a rough September start. Less run/pass option. Less read option. Less sideways handoffs. More downhill. More Pistol formation, with Gordon lining up right behind quarterback Alan Bowman.

“You still have to have the ability to throw the football to win at the highest level,” Venables said. “But having the right balance and having good players there probably is what you’re seeing.”

The Sooners have been looking for that balance. They’ve had their moments running the ball this season, but mostly OU has been searching for a tailback and searching for more run production.

So the Sooners have been relying on Gabriel, much in the same way OU has relied on its quarterbacks for a decade. Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts, Caleb Williams. Probably a good idea.

This year? Gabriel has been a quality quarterback, probably the Big 12’s best. But the league that once had the corner on great QBs — the Texas Tech Patrick Mahomes was the Kansas City Patrick Mahomes, yet he didn’t make first-team all-Big 12 – now has a shortage.

Gabriel probably will be all-Big 12, without much competition.

Texas Tech lost quarterback Tyler Shough to injury early in the year and has relied heavily on Tajh Brooks. TCU is trying to regroup without Max Duggan, who as a senior a year ago quarterbacked the Horned Frogs to the national championship game. TCU now is relying more on Bailey. Same with Texas and Jonathon Brooks.

Two weeks ago, Gordon was no shoe-in to make all-Big 12. Now he’s a front-runner for all-American and coming up fast as a darkhorse for the Heisman Trophy, perhaps in this part of the country becoming the face of a tailback revolution.

National rankings: Committee still likes OU

The release of the initial College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night provided good news for OU. The Sooners still are held in high regard.

OU was ranked ninth, despite its 39-33 loss at Kansas on Saturday. The Sooners’ relatively weak schedule will hurt OU throughout the CFP process, but it appears the committee isn’t penalizing the Sooners too much.

Texas, Alabama and OU are ranked 7-8-9 by the committee. Chairman Boo Corrigan, athletic director at North Carolina State, was asked about that order, considering Texas beat Bama and OU beat Texas.

“A lot of discussion,” Corrigan said. “You go back to, we want to get this right as we look at it. A wonderful win by Oklahoma (vs. Texas), last-second drive to win this game.

“When you factor in a two-loss Kansas team this past weekend, getting the win over Oklahoma, Kansas with the two losses to Texas and Oklahoma State, while they continue to improve and play better, body of work, if you will, looking at this, Texas over Alabama, winning there in Tuscaloosa, similar to Texas-Oklahoma but then add in the factor that Oklahoma lost that game to Kansas as well as a close game with UCF. But primarily the loss to Kansas.”

Granted, lots of stream of consciousness thinking. But you can’t complain about the committee’s rankings much. Texas and Alabama both have played tougher schedules than has OU; the Sooners should consider themselves fortunate to still be in the top 10.

Here are my rankings, based on who teams have played, where they have played and how they did:

  1. Ohio State 8-0: The Buckeyes are No. 1 in the CFP rankings. They have an excellent resume’. They have looked vulnerable, and in the kooky college football world, how you look matters to some. But it shouldn’t. This is not a style show.
  2. Florida State 8-0: The CFP committee ranked the Seminoles No. 4. Too low.
  3. Washington 8-0: The committee has the Huskies No. 5. Again, too low. Washington has one of the nation’s best wins (Oregon) and no losses.
  4. Oregon 7-1: Ranked sixth by the committee, the Ducks deserve a little better. The smashing at Utah was impressive.
  5. Texas 7-1: The committee has UT seventh. A little low, considering the Horns’ loss is a good loss (OU on a neutral field) and Texas won at Alabama.
  6. Georgia 8-0: The committee ranks the Bulldogs No. 2. Too high, but football people love to use their eyeballs.
  7. Alabama 7-1: No. 8 by the committee, I like Bama a little better, because of all those good wins (Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee).
  8. Ole Miss 7-1: The committee has the Rebels 10th. Mississippi’s good wins (Tulane, Louisiana State) seem a ways back.
  9. Michigan 8-0: The committee, of course, has the Wolverines No. 3. Michigan is fortunate that I’ve got its rating this high. The Wolverines’ best win is at Minnesota.
  10. Oklahoma 7-1: The only other one-loss teams from Power Five leagues are Louisville, Penn State and Missouri.

Big 12: Bedlam winner Arlington bound?

The Big 12 has turned into the nation’s funnest conference. A five-way tie for first place. Two more teams a game back.

Parity reigns in this conference. In the last three years, six schools have either won the Big 12 Championship Game or finished first in the league standings. And none of those teams is Texas, Kansas or West Virginia, all of which remain in contention this year.

OU hasn’t made the Big 12 Championship Game since 2020; OSU was there in 2021.

The winner of their game Saturday in Stillwater will be favored to reach Arlington. Same with the Texas-Kansas State winner Saturday in Austin.

Iowa State can stay in a tie for the league lead with a victory over Kansas, but the Cyclones have the toughest remaining schedule among the tied teams

Neither OU nor OSU have Kansas State or Texas remaining on the schedule, so the Bedlam loser isn’t in shape to take matters into its own hands. 

Last year, after beating Texas, Texas Tech coach Joey McGuire famously said “the country’s going to find out … everything runs through Lubbock.”

But here in November 2023, everything runs through this final Bedlam.

Here’s how I rank the Big 12 teams:

  1. Texas (7-1, 4-1): The Longhorns’ résumé is the Big 12’s best, but UT has a rough finishing stretch among the five teams atop the conference. UT finishes with Kansas State, at TCU, at Iowa State, Texas Tech.
  2. Oklahoma (7-1, 4-1): The Sooners have an easier route than does Texas – at OSU, West Virginia, at Brigham Young, TCU – but still not easy.
  3. Oklahoma State (6-2, 4-1): The Cowboys have the easiest path of all – OU, at Central Florida, at Houston, BYU.
  4. Kansas (6-2, 3-2): The Jayhawks aren’t in the five-way tie, but if they beat Iowa State on Saturday, KU will be in a tie for third place, with only two teams ahead. The Jayhawks finish with Texas Tech, Kansas State, at Cincinnati.
  5. Kansas State (6-2, 3-2): The Wildcats are playing great. But their finishing schedule is rugged — at Texas, Baylor, at Kansas, Iowa State.
  6. West Virginia (5-3, 3-2): Oh for a Hail Mary, the Mountaineers would be in a six-way tie for the conference lead. WVU finishes with BYU, at OU, Cincinnati, at Baylor.
  7. Iowa State (5-3, 4-1): The Cyclones have scratched their way to the Big 12 lead, but finishing strong won’t be easy – Kansas, at BYU, Texas, at K-State.
  8. TCU (4-4, 2-3): And finally we reach the non-contenders. The Horned Frogs need two more wins to reach a bowl – they finish at Texas Tech, Texas, Baylor, at OU.
  9. Brigham Young (5-3, 2-3): One more win to become bowl eligible. But the schedule is brutal. At West Virginia, Iowa State, OU, at OSU.
  10. Texas Tech (3-5, 2-3): Picked fourth in the Big 12 preseason, the Red Raiders will be hard-pressed to make a bowl. They finish with TCU, at Kansas, Central Florida and at Texas.
  11. Baylor (3-5, 2-3): A totally disastrous season will finish with Houston, at K-State, at TCU, West Virginia.
  12. Houston (3-5, 1-4): A bowl is unlikely but possible. The Cougars finish at Baylor, Cincinnati, OSU and at UCF.
  13. Central Florida (3-5, 0-5): A team far better than its record. Not that that makes anyone feel better. The Knights finish at Cincinnati, OSU, at Tech, Houston.
  14. Cincinnati (2-6, 0-5): Better luck next year. UC hosts UCF, then goes to Houston, goes to West Virginia and hosts Kansas.

Coaches on the hot seat

Big 12: UCF’s Gus Malzahn. Few expected the Big 12 newcomers to make a big impact on the conference race. But even fewer expected UCF to be at the bottom of the standings.

Yet that’s exactly where the Knights find themselves going into a game Saturday at Cincinnati, which also is 0-5.

UCF appeared to be the best-equipped newcomer, with lots of talent and a veteran coach in Malzahn. But the Knights have been snakebit by injuries (quarterback John Rhys Plumlee missed most of five games with an injury) and inexplicable play. UCF blew a 25-point fourth-quarter lead in Waco and lost 36-35 to Baylor.

Malzahn is a good coach and UCF knows it’s lucky to have him, Auburn having fired Malzahn for no good reason. But an 0-6 conference record would create doubts for any coach.

National: Arkansas’ Sam Pittman. Pittman was the toast of the Ozarks in 2021, when the Razorbacks beat Texas, Texas A&M and LSU, before whacking Penn State in the Outback Bowl.

But the Razorbacks slipped to 7-6 a year ago, earning a winning record only when they outlasted Kansas in a triple-overtime Liberty Bowl.

And now Arkansas is 2-6 overall, 0-5 in the SEC. The Hogs’ only victories are over Western Carolina and Kent State.

It’s not that Arkansas is a bad team. The most lopsided of the Razorbacks’ six losses was 34-22 to Texas A&M. Every other game has been a one-possession finish, including road games at LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss.

But 2-6 is 2-6, and the Hogs could be staring at a winless SEC record.

Arkansas plays at Florida on Saturday, and a loss eliminates the Razorbacks from bowl eligibility. Pittman not long ago was a favorite of the Hog crowd. But not anymore. Lose again, and Pittman could be out of a job by season’s end.

Ranking the Big 12 games

  1. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: May this finale be as great as that of “Newhart.”
  2. Kansas State at Texas, 11 a.m. Saturday, Fox: Not that long ago, K-State dominated the series. The Wildcats won nine of the first 13 meetings in the Big 12 era. But now the Longhorns have won six straight against KSU.
  3. Kansas at Iowa State, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Quite cool that this massive game is on the original ESPN. The likes of KU and ISU don’t get on the main channel often, especially in prime time.
  4. Brigham Young at West Virginia, 6 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports1: From the Rockies to the Appalachians, the Big 12 is stretched.
  5. Texas Christian at Texas Tech, 6 p.m. Thursday, Fox Sports1: Nobody could blame Fox for thinking in August that this would be a showdown fit for Thursday night.
  6. Houston at Baylor, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPN Plus: Quite the even series — Baylor leads 14-13-1.
  7. Central Florida at Cincinnati, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox Sports1: Loser seems destined for last place in the Big 12.

Upset specials

Big 12: OSU over OU. Years ending in 3’s have not been kind to the Cowboys in this lopsided series. 

2013: The favored Cowboys led late, but OU’s third quarterback of the game, Blake Bell, led a touchdown drive, and the Sooners won 33-24. 

2003: The Sooners were top-ranked, OSU was No. 14, yet OU famously routed the Cowboys 52-9, with Sooner defensive coordinator Mike Stoops motioning to State coach Les Miles, asking if OSU wanted more.

1993: At  least a normal defeat, 31-0.

1983: The Sooners rallied from a 20-3 deficit in the final 10 minutes to win 21-20, on Tim Lashar’s 46-yard field goal.

Now comes 2023, the last scheduled Bedlam football game.

Somehow, the Cowboys are ranked, 22nd by the College Football Playoff committee. The Sooners are No. 9 and still clinging to playoff hopes, but their Big 12 Championship Game hopes could expire with a loss in Stillwater on Saturday.

OSU has staged a remarkable rally from a woebegone start. The Cowboys were 4-0 in October, beating three solid teams and routing Cincinnati.

Meanwhile, OU has struggled in two games since heroically beating Texas. The Sooners squeaked past Central Florida 31-29, then lost at Kansas 39-33. 

The Sooners are six-point favorites, but maybe the end of Bedlam ends the curse. Let’s go with OSU in the upset.

Big 12 upset special record: 5-4.

National upset special: Southern Cal over Washington

It’s hard to believe, but USC’s football season still has a pulse. The 6-2 Trojans were trucked by Notre Dame, but otherwise, SC’s only loss was 34-32 at home to Utah. 

USC is 4-1 in the Pac-12, and a victory over Washington on Saturday would put the Trojans into a tie for the conference lead.

It won’t be easy. Despite a recent skid, unbeaten Washington has quarterback phenom Michael Penix Jr., and USC has a famously awful defense.

The Trojans are a lot closer to 5-4 than 9-0, and even with a victory over UW, USC faces a tough finishing schedule. At Oregon, UCLA.

But USC still has Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, and Lincoln Riley was mostly sensational as a November coach at OU. Washington is a three-point favorite, but let’s go with the Trojans in the upset.

National upset special record: 3-6.

Ranking the nation’s 10 best games

Here are the 10 best games across college football on Saturday:

  1. LSU at Alabama, 6:45 p.m., CBS: Nick Saban wants no part of LSU as an annual Bama opponent, and who can blame him? Even when the Tigers are down, they’re hard to beat.
  2. Washington at Southern Cal, 6:30 p.m., ABC: Surely USC can’t stay down this long. The Trojans lost to Notre Dame and Utah, sandwiched between a triple-overtime survival of Arizona and a 50-49 survival of California, the latter won with a failed 2-point conversion in the final minutes.
  3. Missouri at Georgia, 2:30 p.m., CBS: Probably Mizzou’s biggest game since the 2014 SEC Championship Game.
  4. Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: Mike Gundy is 3-15 against the Sooners, but win this one, and Gundy can say he won two of the final three Bedlams.
  5. Kansas State at Texas, 11 a.m., Fox: While UT apparently still will be without quarterback Quinn Ewers, K-State QB Will Howard has emerged from a slump to play very well. The last two games, Howard has completed 25 of 33 passes for five touchdowns, no interceptions and 318 yards.
  6. Texas A&M at Ole Miss, 11 a.m., ESPN: Mississippi quarterback Jaxson Dart hasn’t been spectacular this season, but he’s kept ex-Cowboy Spencer Sanders on the bench. Dart has completed 64.5 percent of his passes, with 14 touchdowns, four interceptions and 260 passing yards a game.
  7. Virginia Tech at Louisville, 2:30 p.m., ACC Network: VPI coach Brent Pry has done a remarkable job, similar to Mike Gundy, taking a team from the abyss to conference championship contention in about a month.
  8. Ohio State at Rutgers, 11 a.m., CBS: The Scarlet Knights have carved out a 6-2 record, against a soft schedule. Rutgers’ losses are at Michigan and at Wisconsin.
  9. Kansas at Iowa State, 6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN: Lots of candidates for Big 12 coach of the year, and this features two. KU’s remarkable rise under Lance Leipold continues, and Matt Campbell has coached ISU’s stunning rebound from a 10-7 loss at Ohio.
  10. Notre Dame at Clemson, 11 a.m., ABC: Clemson’s last losing season? 2010, Dabo Swinney’s second full year coaching the Tigers. Now Clemson is 4-4.
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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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