As we hit the midpoint of the Big 12 season, the title game picture is crystal clear in the South, yet still murky in the North. Up until Saturday most people agreed that Colorado and Nebraska were by far the class of the Big 12 North. Sure Missouri was 2-1, but their wins came against conference bottom feeders Iowa State and Oklahoma State and they now had to play Nebraska! Many claimed that Nebraska's vaunted defense would shut down the Tiger offensive and roll on their way back to the top 25. But someone forgot to tell Brad Smith.
The sometimes remarkable, sometimes maligned senior quarterback decided to have arguably the best game of his career Saturday. In throwing for 234 yards, plus a touchdown pass, and rushing for 246 and 3 touchdowns (setting a Mizzou record for total yards with 480), Smith single-handedly moved Missouri into the argument for North champ. This performance came after a week in which Smith's backup, freshman Chase Daniel, was garnering support for the quarterback job. The highly touted Daniel entered Missouri's game against Iowa State for an injured Smith and led them to a 27-24 overtime victory, throwing for 185 yards on 16 of 23 passing. Yet this week the only thing Chase Daniel did was disrupted Missouri's momentum. After four consecutive Smith scoring drives to begin the game, Daniel entered in the first drive of the 2nd quarter only to see nothing materialize. The drive turned out to be a major momentum swing for Nebraska. Although this was a pre-designed maneuver that was assumed 1 of 2 drives for the game for Daniel, Smith's performance dictated that he remained in the game.
Brad Smith's years at Missouri have had their major ups and downs, usually turning into results that did not live up to expectation. As a true freshman in 2002 Smith replaced accident starter Kirk Farmer and the Tigers went on to a 5-7 record. With raised expectations for 2003, Smith lifted the team to an 8-5 record and an Independence Bowl berth (a loss to Arkansas), behind a 1310 yard rushing, 28 total touchdown season. Coming into 2004, Smith was receiving a fair amount of Heisman hype, and did nothing with it. He was one of the biggest resignations of the 2004 college football season. Many attribute his drop off to mismanagement by Coach Gary Pinkel, but the decline in his numbers was severe. Although his passing yardage increased, his completion percentage dropped from 60.6 to 51.8 and his rushing yards plummeted to 553.
Although it seems like Brad Smith may never leave Missouri, it is now his senior season. 2005 is a year that Brad Smith can finally live up to his powerful potential. In running roughshod over the formerly top ranked rush defense in the nation on Saturday, Smith has both solidified his job and put Missouri into the hunt in the Big 12 North. His performance made him only the 6th player in NCAA history to throw for 200 yards and pass for 200 yards in a single game (the first since Indiana's Antwaan Randle El in 2000). In addition, he is currently the leading rusher in the Big 12 and the 10th leading rusher in the NCAA this season, already besting his total from 2004.
But several obstacles remain in both Smith's and Missouri's paths. This week they visit Kansas in the annual Border War. Kansas has won the last 2 meetings and has provided a big problem for Smith. In the past two games against them, Smith has rushed for a whopping 8 yards on 30 carries and the Kansas defense that he will face off against this season currently ranks number 1 in the Big 12 against the run. If they somehow manage to shake the demons in Lawrence they still have road games with current North favorite Colorado and Kansas State, who they have not beaten since 1992.
I quit to put my money on Smith, who has shown flashes of absolute brilliance before, rushing for 291 yards and 5 touchdowns in a 2003 win over Texas Tech. He has been one of the most inconsistent players in college football in the past several years. The question is did he turn a corner on Saturday against Nebraska or was it just another brilliant flash? You have to wonder if he will ever put it all together.
As for Missouri, I just do not think they have a team capable of winning the North. Outside of Brad Smith they still are not all that good. They currently rank 10th in the conference in total defense, allowing 375 yards a game, their schedule plays out poorly and lame-duck Gary Pinkel is still their coach. Missouri will only go as far as Brad Smith will carry them. If he plays even 80 percent as well the rest of the season as he did in the Nebraska game, he may give Vince Young a run for the finest player in the Big 12 and lead to their first big 12 championship game. But if he does not he could just as easily fade into oblivion after this season. Now is the time for Smith to either assert himself as a great quarterback or become the running version of Notre Dame quarterback Ron Powlus, a four year starter who could never quite live up to his full potential.