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Big 12 picture clearing up at midway point

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Big 12 picture clearing up at midway point

The Big 12 season is halfway done, with every team having played at least four league games, and this Saturday shapes up as a big one for teams across the conference.

There have been plenty of surprises so far, none bigger than Kansas State being picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll and instead standing third in the country and second in the BCS.

Here's a glimpse at what's ahead, starting with the meaningful games this weekend:

CAN KANSAS STATE CLOSE IT OUT?

Bill Snyder's Wildcats (8-0, 5-0 Big 12) can eliminate nearly all the drama in the conference title race by winning at home against Oklahoma State (5-2, 3-1). With a victory Saturday night, K-State would then have to lose two of its remaining three games against TCU, Baylor and Texas to fall short of the conference championship.

Every game is huge at this point for any team in the national title chase but while this one may not get the same billing as the last two - against West Virginia and Texas Tech - the defending champion Cowboys pose the most direct threat to Kansas State claiming the conference crown. OSU doesn't need help from anyone else, but would have to win four straight games against ranked teams.

``I think they know that we have the opportunity to control our own destiny but they also feel like we're certainly not in any position to look beyond the next game,'' coach Mike Gundy said Monday.

``We're getting ready to play the second-ranked team in the country and we'll have our hands full just traveling up to Manhattan.''

None of the teams left on the Wildcats' schedule are currently in the Top 25.

``They've got a great chance to run the table. They're definitely one of the better teams in the country,'' Texas Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said, having lost 55-24 at K-State on Saturday.

``They're more like an SEC team than a Big 12 team, ho they play defense, how they play offense, so I think they've got a great chance.''

WILL WEST VIRGINIA REBOUND?

Not long ago, the Mountaineers (5-2) were preseason favorites and quarterback Geno Smith was the Heisman Trophy front-runner. Now, they're practically afterthoughts.

Dana Holgorsen and Co. had an off week to pick up the pieces and will host fellow Big 12 newcomer TCU on Saturday.

``There was a pretty good sense of urgency last week. The attention to detail tends to pick up when you get beat, if the makeup of your team is what you want it to be,'' Holgorsen said.

Holgorsen said he thinks players can forget their fundamentals during the grind of the season and the off week was a good chance to re-focus.

``There's a whole bunch of good 5-2 football teams out there. Just because we've dropped the last two doesn't mean that we're a bad football team,'' he said.

WHO'S PLAYING QUARTERBACK?

While there has been steady play at the top from the likes of Klein, Texas Tech's Seth Doege and Oklahoma's Landry Jones, there's been more shuffling than usual at the quarterback position in the Big 12.

Injuries forced Oklahoma State to replace Wes Lunt with J.W. Walsh and then bring Lunt back last week. TCU went with Trevone Boykin after Casey Pachall was arrested and suspended indefinitely.

And then there were the changes related to effectiveness: Kansas switched from Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist to Michael Cummings and a run-based attack, and Iowa State started with Steele Jantz, then turned to Jared Barnett and then back to Jantz in time for him to set career-highs with 381 yards passing and five TDs in a win over Baylor.

``He was not doing some things effective enough, and that's why we made a change at one point this season, but 4-1 as a starter is pretty dang good,'' coach Paul Rhoads said. ``I think it's overshadowed by the fact that he had his best game as an Iowa State Cyclone this Saturday night.''

Texas coach Mack Brown announced Monday that he was sticking with David Ash, even after Case McCoy replaced him for the game-winning drive against Kansas.

WHO'S HEADED WHERE IN THE POSTSEASON?

Kansas State, Texas and Texas Tech are already bowl eligible and another five teams are sitting on five wins, hoping to qualify for the postseason this week - Iowa State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU and West Virginia.

It's all but impossible at this point to project who will end up where among the league's six bowl partners, with the potential for two to make the BCS.

``We're trying to get one more ballgame so that we can get the extra practices and get to a bowl game,'' TCU's Gary Patterson said. ``And if you can get to six, then you're going to try to get to seven. If you get to seven, then you try to get to eight.''

WHO WILL FINISH LAST?

Kansas dropped its 16th straight conference game Saturday, falling just short when Texas scored with 12 seconds left for a 21-17 win. But the Jayhawks (1-7, 0-5) can climb out of the cellar this week at winless Baylor (3-4, 0-4), which has reverted to its pre-Robert Griffin III ways.

``There's definitely things you can look at and say you're getting better here, you're getting better here, you're getting better here. But still at the end of the day, it's still about winning,'' Weis said. ``Regardless of whether you played tough, played close,

``Are there silver linings? Yes, there are. But it still comes down to you've lost 100 in a row in the Big 12, at home and on the road, and you need to beat somebody so you can start moving that trend in a different direction.''

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Key Caps questions: How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?

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Key Caps questions: How will the Caps look different under Todd Reirden?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir and Capitals correspondent JJ Regan are here to help you through the offseason doldrums. They will discuss key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: How will the Caps look different under new head coach Todd Reirden?

Tarik: It’s an important topic, but let’s not overthink this one. Since winning the Stanley Cup on June 7, the organization has pretty much telegraphed EXACTLY what it hopes will occur in 2018-19. Consider:

  • Todd Reirden was promoted after spending four years as Barry Trotz’s assistant, including the last two years as an associate coach with an expanded role. Reirden already knows everyone, from the players to the trainers and other support staff. He knows what buttons to push and when to push them. There’s a built-in comfort level and trust that should allow everyone to hit the ground running in September.
  • Four of Reirden’s assistants are holdovers, too. The one newcomer, Reid Cashman, is joining the group from Hershey and is a Reirden disciple. So, no adjustment period there, either.
  • Assuming restricted free agent Tom Wilson re-ups (and that would seem to be a very safe assumption), the Caps are bringing back 11 of the 12 forwards that were on the ice for Game 5 in Las Vegas. They’re also bringing back five of six defensemen. And the starting goaltender. Chemistry is a hard thing to explain and/or quantify. But you know when a team has it. And the Caps had it at the end of last year.

So if you look at what GM Brian MacLellan has been doing in recent weeks—and have been listening to what Reirden has been saying publicly—you can only come to one conclusion. The decision-makers feel they discovered the right mix of personnel and systems play at the end of the playoffs, from the defensive structure to special teams. In fact, they were first in goals per game, second-best on the power play and the fourth stingiest team in the postseason.

“Many of my [philosophies] were involved in how we were going to play, how our team was going to look, the identity that we had,” Reirden said on The Junkies recently, referring to last year’s game plan. “So, from a systems standpoint, I would say not much is going to change, at least initially, just because it seemed to work. …You’ll see much of the same.”

That doesn’t mean Reirden won’t make adjustments. He will because he’ll have to over the course of an 82-game regular season and, hopefully, another long postseason run. But it does underscore the fact that the foundation upon on which last year’s championship team was built is going to look awfully familiar. And that's clearly by design.

JJ:  The message from the Caps ever since Reirden was promoted to head coach has been one of consistency as they try to make a seamless transition to the new head coach. In that sense, we probably won't see many changes at all to start the season.

The Capitals just won the Stanley Cup and general manager Brian MacLellan worked to bring almost the exact same roster back for next season. Coming into the locker room saying there's a new sheriff in town and making drastic changes is not the way to go here

But that doesn't mean Reirden will do things the same way.

Reirden has coached at the college, AHL and NHL level. He has seen firsthand how Dan Bylsma won the Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins and how Trotz did it in Washington. He also saw what didn't work.

Reirden got to this point by developing relationships with the players. He is much more of a players' coach than Trotz and that will be evident in training camp. I also expect there will be a much greater emphasis on development. Trotz famously said to the media that the NHL was not a development league, but a performance league. I expect Reirden to take a different approach.

After failing to win with veteran-laden teams, the Caps finally hoisted the Cup last season after getting significant contributions from young prospects such as Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey. Like it or not, the Caps' core will not last forever. Every year those players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and John Carlson get another year older. I do not believe a coach who is as good at reaching players and developing them as Reirden is will be quite as reluctant to reach down onto the farm and sprinkle youth throughout his lineup whenever the team needs a spark.

It should not be lost on anyone that one of Reirden's new assistant coaches this year will be Reid Cashman, promoted from being an assistant with the Hershey Bears in the AHL. This is all good news for players like Lucas Johansen, Jonas Siegenthaler and Connor Hobbs, the team's three best defensive prospects who are hoping to have an impact at the NHL level sooner rather than later. The Caps roster is pretty loaded, but at the very least you can expect Reirden to have a hand in helping those players along at training camp.

Ultimately, the product on the ice is going to look almost exactly the same at the start of the season with the biggest changes coming off the ice. We won't see who Reirden is as an NHL coach, however, until we let the full 82-game season play out.

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Redskins 2018 position outlook: Defensive line

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Redskins 2018 position outlook: Defensive line

Redskins 2018 position outlook: Defensive line

Training camp opens next week, and we have a break here, giving us time to put the depth chart under the microscope. Over the coming week, we will look at every position, compare the group to the rest of the NFL, see if the position has been upgraded or downgraded from last year, and take out the crystal ball to see what might unfold.

Defensive line

Additions: Daron Payne (drafted in first round), Tim Settle (drafted in fifth round)
Departures: Terrell McClain (released)

Starters: Payne (NT), Jonathan Allen, Matt Ioannidis
Other roster locks: Stacy McGee, Anthony Lanier, Settle
On the bubble: Ziggy Hood, Phil Taylor

How the defensive line compares

To the rest of the NFL: We are going to have to see about this. Over the last couple of years the D-line has been transformed from an aging group into one where youth is in good supply. Ioannidis is the oldest of the starters at age 24. Allen is 23 and Payne just turned 21 in May. It looks like there is great potential there but we haven’t seen enough of it on the field to make solid comparisons to other lines around the league. Allen missed 10 games of his rookie year with an injury and Ioannidis missed two and was hampered in a few more with a broken hand. Payne, of course, is a rookie. Let’s check back in late October and see how things are going then. 

To the 2017 Redskins:  The primary reason that the line should be significantly better this year is the presence of Payne and Settle on the roster. That means that it is very unlikely that Hood will have to play nose tackle. He has been the starter there for the past two years, forced there by injuries. Jim Tomsula that Hood is not well suited to play the nose. So they have an improvement there. If they get a mostly healthy season out of Allen and if Ioannidis continue to improve this will be the best defensive line they have had since moving to the 3-4 defensive in 2010. 

2018 outlook

Biggest upside: As noted, Payne just turned 21. He seems to have a rare understanding of the game for a rookie. You often see rookies just trying to survive on physical ability early one. Payne has plenty of that, but he also seems to realize that strength and ability alone won’t let him thrive at this level. He pays close attention to his technique during drills, making sure he does things the right way the first time. If he builds on this for the next year or so the Redskins could have a legitimate star. 

Most to prove: Since so many Redskins fans are accustomed to seeing veteran defensive linemen the team signs as free agents play poorly, they automatically put McGee in the “bust” category. But many of his teammates said he was the most consistent player on the line last year. It’s safe to say that he played better than the popular perception. Next year, he will carry a $4.8 million salary cap number and like most players who are not starters but making good salaries, he will need to play well enough to justify that cap number.  

Rookie watch: The Redskins did not expect Settle to be available in the fifth round and he was too good to pass up when he was still on the board. He should get some opportunity as a rookie. He is likely to be the only other nose tackle on the roster besides Payne (sorry, but the numbers make it unlikely that Phil Taylor will make the roster). That could have him active on many game days and that usually means getting some snaps in the rotation. We will see what he can do with his chances. 

Bottom line: The Redskins were last in the league in rushing defense in 2017. It wasn’t all on the line—in particular, injuries to the inside linebackers hurt a lot—but the simple fact is that the organization long neglected the line. The philosophy was to create a patchwork unit from aging free agents. That has changed now with three homegrown players set to start and Settle and 2016 undrafted free agent find Anthony Lanier providing reserve help. It’s going to be a better unit, no question. But improvement over the last several years is a low bar and we’ll find out if this develops into a quality line over the next few months. 

Quote-unquote

Greg Manusky on Payne:

Payne is doing a great job. He’s trying to get acclimated to some of the calls, hasn’t had a lot of mental errors. He’s done a great job. Physical player.

2018 position outlook series

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler