FIVE DAYS before his Cornhuskers hosted No. 4 Missouri, Nebraska coach Bo Pelini shared with the world his team's goal against the Tigers: "We're going to play the best we possibly can and try to shut them out." � Oh, don't go there, Bo. Pelini lost his goose egg exactly 59 seconds into last Saturday night's game, when ever-dangerous Jeremy Maclin snagged a short pass from Chase Daniel and motored 58 yards to the house. Final score: 52--17. While the 52 points Mizzou hung on the hosts were the most scored against the Big Red in Lincoln since World War II, it barely rated a second glance around a conference whose teams have gone over the half-century mark 18 times this season.
The guard isn't changing just yet. Having given us the last two national champions, the SEC has earned its reputation as the deepest, most talented conference in the country. Six weeks into this season, however, the Big 12 is closing the gap. And fast. While college football's nastiest defenses still reside in Dixie, its most high-flying aerial attacks can be found in flyover country. Defense may win championships, but the ability to spread the field and "hang half a hundred" on opponents, as former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer liked to say, has propelled six teams from this conference into the Top 25.
That includes a logjam of Big 12 teams in the top 10: Oklahoma, Missouri, Texas and Texas Tech are Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 7, respectively. While that concentration will be diluted after this Saturday, when Oklahoma and Texas renew acquaintances in the Cotton Bowl, the question will remain: What's going on in the Big 12? The league formerly known as the Big Eight, which spawned such antediluvian offenses as the power I and veer option and Switzer's baby, the wishbone, is now home to the nation's most cutting-edge passing attacks.
Scanning a list of NCAA leaders last week, Daniel couldn't help noticing that, while his 193.4 passing-efficiency rating was fourth-best in the country, it only rated third in his own conference, behind those of Colt McCoy at Texas and Oklahoma's Sam Bradford. The news that six more Big 12 signal-callers were in the top 20 was less surprising than the fact it was Texas Tech's Graham Harrell, the league's alpha gunslinger, sitting at No. 20.
On Saturday, Harrell moved up in the ranking, to 12th (chart, page 42), by throwing six touchdown passes in a 58--28 annihilation of Kansas State. Despite leaving early in the fourth quarter, the senior completed 38 of 51 passes for 454 yards. To keep himself interested, he ran for a touchdown.
"It's ridiculous—the quarterback play we have in the Big 12," says Daniel, who after completing 18 of 23 attempts for 253 yards and three touchdowns against Nebraska dropped a spot in the passer ratings.
Each of the conference's ranked teams is blessed with a seasoned quarterback who operates a spread offense designed to distribute the ball to as many playmakers as possible. Each employs a no-huddle attack that has been made more potent by the NCAA's new 40-second play clock. How so? "The old rule was that, when play stopped, the ball was spotted and the referee stood over it" until play was whistled to begin, says Oklahoma State co--offensive coordinator Gunter Brewer. "Sometimes it could take 12, 14 seconds for that to happen. Now, they set the ball down and it's off to the races."
The result: an explosion of points and an epidemic of frazzled defensive coordinators across the Great Plains.
BRENT VENABLES remembers the good old days. Today he is the defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. A decade ago he was an assistant at Kansas State, his alma mater. "In 1998 we were the Number 1 defense in the nation going into the last game of the season. We would play two or three [defenses] the entire game.
"Now, it's all about matchups. You're dialing up all kinds of coverages and pressures. You've got to play games up front"—twists and stunts by defensive linemen—"to take away running lanes. It's much more challenging."