Injuries, early losses have marked Big 12 in 2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

After all of the excitement from last season’s memorable South Division race, more of the same was expected this season in the Big 12.

The return of Heisman contenders like Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Dez Bryant would make this season perhaps even more exciting than last.

But that outlook hasn’t been fulfilled as the first half of the Big 12 season has been marked largely by what could have been. Instead of action on the field, the infirmary has been filled with Big 12 quarterbacks during a disappointing first half of the season.

No injury was bigger that Oklahoma’s loss of Bradford in the opening game of the season with a third-degree sprained shoulder. Bradford made it back for one game and part of another, but reinjured his shoulder and likely will never play college football again.

His injury, along with the season-ending loss before the season of preseason All-American tight end Jermaine Gresham and the loss of breakaway receiver Ryan Broyles for much of the season, has stripped the Sooners of much of their offensive firepower. It’s understandable why the Sooners have started 3-3, losing three games by five points.

But other injuries have also affected the Big 12’s national stature. Robert Griffin’s knee injury has made Baylor’s hopes of making a bowl game iffy. The league's leading rusher from a year ago, Kendall Hunter of Oklahoma State, has missed most of the season with a cracked foot. Bryant has been idled for three games with eligibility issues from his suspension by the NCAA. Texas Tech has lost starting quarterback Taylor Potts and his productive backup Steven Sheffield also appears to have been knocked out of the lineup.

It’s made the first half of the season a battle of attrition. The South appears to be a two-team race between Texas and Oklahoma State. And every North Division team has at least one loss with surprising Kansas State in first place and perhaps headed for an unlikely North title.

The deflation of the Big 12’s image also came because of the conference’s struggles with opponents from other BCS conferences. A disappointing 4-7 record in the nonconference part of the season didn’t turn many heads -- especially with three of those wins coming on the opening weekend. The conference also lost a pair of tough one-point games to non-BCS schools when Texas Tech fell to Houston and BYU beat Oklahoma.

Texas at No. 3 is the highest-ranked Big 12 team in the BCS. Oklahoma State is ranked No.15 and Kansas is 25th. It’s a far cry from last season, when the Big 12 had three teams ranked among the top seven in the BCS’ final standings and four among the top 13 teams.

Here's a quick look at the first half of the season in the Big 12.

Offensive player of the first half: Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley. This multi-talented receiver/returner was the Longhorns’ biggest offensive weapon in the first half of the season with consistent play throughout. Shipley ranks second in the conference with 51 catches for 605 yards. But where he sets himself apart from players like Danario Alexander, Kerry Meier and Dezmon Briscoe is with his punt returns, accounting for 16.4 yards per return, including two TDs. Mack Brown advised him earlier in his career to give up because of frequent injuries. Today, Brown is glad that Shipley didn’t listen to him.

Defensive player of the first half: Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. After his performance against Missouri, some pundits were hyping Suh for the Heisman Trophy. Some of that blather had died down since the Cornhuskers’ loss last week to Texas Tech, but Suh assuredly is the Big 12’s best defensive player. He leads the Cornhuskers in solo and total tackles, tackles for losses and hurries, and ranks second in sacks. Most amazingly, he paces the team with seven passes broken up, which is tied for second in the conference. NFL scouts are lining up to check him out.

Biggest surprise of the first half: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders have struggled with injuries to Potts early and an apparent one to Sheffield last week. But after early growing-pain losses to Texas and Houston, the Red Raiders have rebounded with impressive wins over Kansas State and Nebraska to have them solidly in third place in the South Division. After the suspension of Brandon Carter and the Twitter controversy involving Marlon Williams, it would have been understandable if Tech had cratered. Instead, Mike Leach has kept his team afloat and likely headed to a nice bowl trip.

Biggest disappointment of the first half: Oklahoma. The Sooners came into the season with legitimate national title hopes that were killed by their season-opening loss to BYU along with the loss of Bradford. Another loss at Miami under backup Landry Jones continued the spiral downward. But the biggest capper was last week’s 16-13 loss to Texas in a game where the Sooners defense played well enough to win, but Bradford again was hurt early. Now, the Sooners' hopes of an unprecedented four-peat of conference championships look dim, considering their three losses to ranked opponents and tough upcoming schedule.

Best game: Houston 29, Texas Tech 28. This game had a little bit of everything as the two teams played a memorable game on a hot, sticky night in Houston. The two teams combined for 1,063 yards, 60 first downs and one memorable comeback, capped by Case Keenum’s game-winning 4-yard keeper with 49 seconds left that stamped him as a Heisman contender. Tech had its chances to put the game away earlier in the fourth quarter, but the momentum changed when Potts was stopped on a fourth-and-goal sneak from the 1.

Best coach: Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy. The Cowboys were expected to challenge for the Big 12 South Division this season, but Gundy has done a nice job of keeping the Cowboys together despite the loss of top playmakers like Hunter and Bryant. Even after an early loss to Houston that was decided on two plays involving tipped passes, Gundy has the Cowboys pointed to a pivotal Oct. 31 showdown against Texas that likely will decide the Big 12 South title. Honorable mention has to go to Bill Snyder, who surprisingly has Kansas State in first place in the North Division despite a 66-14 loss at Texas Tech earlier this season.