Remember all those reports about the Big 12’s imminent collapse a couple summers ago?
Well, not only is the conference still around, it’s as strong as ever. Missouri and Texas A&M bolted ship to join the SEC, but the conference replaced them with two strong programs in TCU and West Virginia. The Horned Frogs were undefeated in 2010, knocking off Wisconsin en route to a #2 final ranking. In its first year under Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia earned a share of the Big East title and laid a whuppin’ on Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
The rest of the league are no slouches, either. Oklahoma went 10-3 last year and enters this season on the shortlist of national title contenders, ranked #4 in both the AP and USA Today Polls. Led by bruising quarterback Collin Klein, Kansas State came out of nowhere to go 10-3 and is that team no one wants to play. Texas looks to be returning to form after a couple of less-than-stellar years. Heisman Trophy-winner Robert Griffin III is no longer at Baylor, but the Bears are on the upswing and eager to prove last year’s 10-3 finish was not a flash in the pan. Oklahoma State enjoyed its best season ever in 2011, going 12-1, and while the Cowboys lost a lot of key pieces, they remain a talented team. Even Iowa State is dangerous, having knocked off several of the big boys the past few years, including ruining Oklahoma State’s national title chances a year ago.
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Cream of the Crop
Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas State, West Virginia
Oklahoma entered 2011 as the preseason favorite to win it all, but things didn’t go according to plan. After a 6-0 start, the Sooners stumbled against Texas Tech, lost to Baylor for the first time ever, and then got trounced 44-10 by in-state rival Oklahoma State. The Sooners still managed to win 10 games, but it was not the season they were hoping to have. They enter 2012 ranked #4 in both major polls yet are seemingly under-the-radar when it comes to national title contenders. Nobody is really mentioning Oklahoma, which may be a good thing as the team has struggled under the weight of lofty expectations. With Heisman candidate and future first-round pick Landry Jones at the quarterback, the offense will again light up scoreboards. Running back Dominque Whaley returns healthy after breaking an ankle last year and will team up with Roy Finch to give the Sooners a formidable ground game. Losing Ryan Broyles, the NCAA’s all-time career leader in receptions, hurts, but Oklahoma is well-stocked at the receiver position with Kenny Stills, Jaz Reynolds, and Trey Metoyer. Defense was the strength of Oklahoma’s 2000 title team, but over the past few years, the unit has hardly been a dominant force despite churning out a plethora of NFL talent. Former coordinator Mark Stoops, head coach Bob Stoops’ brother, has returned to take the unit back to elite status. He’ll have to cut down on big plays; the defense was riddled in each of the team’s three losses. If the defense can plug some holes, a Big 12 championship is likely, and a national title game appearance is well within the realm of possibility.
Texas was the national runner up just three years ago but has been on a downward cycle ever since, missing a bowl in 2010 and going 8-5 (4-5 in league play) a year ago. The main reason: poor quarterback play. Garrett Gilbert went from nearly being a hero by coming off the bench to replace an injured Colt McCoy and almost leading Texas to a victory against Alabama for a national title to no longer being on the team. Case McCoy, Colt’s brother, split time with David Ash last year, but neither was particularly effective as the Longhorns averaged a measly 190 yards a game through the air. The running game will be powerful with sophomores Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown and incoming freshman Johnathan Gray, the nation’s career high school touchdown leader. The defense was among the nation’s best last year and should be just as ferocious this year. Led by ends Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, two likely first-round picks, Texas was 6th in the nation against the run and gave up about 210 yards a game through the air. For Texas, it all comes down to quarterback play. The Longhorns will go only as far as their quarterbacks can take them. The defense will stifle most competition, but the lack of a true star quarterback will likely prevent the Longhorns from winning the Big 12 or a national title.
Bill Snyder did it again. The man who originally put Kansas State on the map returned and led the Wildcats to their first 10-win season since 2003. K-State came out of nowhere to go 10-3 and earn a Cotton Bowl berth, having failed to qualify for a bowl game in the previous two years. Hulking quarterback Collin Klein tied the NCAA single-season record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback with 27 and rushed a staggering 317 times for 1,141 yards. He’ll have to improve upon his passing to keep defenses honest, and the running backs will have to step up to reduce the toll on Klein’s body from running the ball all the time. Senior linebacker Arthur Brown was the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year last year and teams with second-team All-American corner NIgel Malone to anchor a solid defense that needs to do a better job against the better offenses in the Big 12. In a three-week stretch last year, the defense gave up over 50 points to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, it is highly unlikely they will replicate last year’s success this season. Eight of their wins last year came by a touchdown or less, and relying on close wins and catching all the breaks is not the way to sustain success. The schedule does them no favors as they have to play Oklahoma, West Virginia, and TCU on the road. Still, Kansas State is a good team that is tough, sound, and plays smart. The Wildcats won’t beat themselves. Eight or nine wins is a good bet for this team.
West Virginia enters its inaugural season in the Big 12 riding a wave of momentum. The Mountaineers won their final four games of 2011, including a 70-33 thrashing of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Quarterback Geno Smith is being touted as a Heisman contender after throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns last season. He has a pair of dynamic playmakers at receiver in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and West Virginia’s prolific offense should be even scarier in its second year under Dana Holgorsen, a thought that should keep Big 12 defensive coordinators awake at night. West Virginia will also benefit from the fact that its coaches are familiar with the Big 12. Prior to taking over at West Virginia, Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State and also spent several years on Mike Leach’s staff at Texas Tech. Co-defensive Coordinator Joe DeForest joins the team from Oklahoma State. Like Oklahoma, the Mountaineers will only go as far as their defense will take them. They’re switching from their old 3-3-5 stack scheme to a more conventional 3-4 system and will have to become stouter against the run. If the defense holds up, big things are in store for West Virginia.
Middle of the Pack
TCU, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa State
The Horned Frogs are finally back where they belong after bouncing around from league to league following the demise of the old Southwest Conference in 1996. TCU now shares a league with fellow Texas schools Texas, Baylor, and Texas Tech. More importantly, TCU has shown it belongs. Under coach Gary Patterson, TCU has been one of the best programs in the country the past few years. In 2009, TCU earned its first-ever BCS berth and likely would have played for a national title if Texas had lost to Nebraska in the Big 12 title game. In 2010, the Horned Frogs capped off a perfect season by beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and earning the #2 ranking. Last year was a bit of aberration, however. Common belief was that the offense would struggle with the loss of star quarterback Andy Dalton. Instead, the normally vaunted defense faltered. The offense was 9th-best in the nation in points-per-game under quarterback Casey Pachall, but the defense, usually one of the best in the land, dropped to 28th. With Pachall, receiver Josh Boyce, and running backs Waymon James and Matthew Tucker, TCU’s offense will put up plenty of points and can keep up with anyone in the Big 12. Graduation and a drug scandal have ravaged the defense, though, especially at linebacker. On the bright side, defensive end Stansly Maponga returns and is one of the best in the country. This year’s defense won’t be up to TCU’s usual lofty standards, but with that offense, they won’t have to be. Asking to compete for a conference title this year is a bit much, but make no mistake, TCU will be competitive in the Big 12, more so than Utah in the Pac-12 a year ago.
Oklahoma State is coming off the best year in school history. The Cowboys went 12-1 en route to their first-ever Big 12 title and BCS appearance. A loss to Iowa State prevented them from playing in the national championship game, but the Cowboys still managed to finish the season #3 in the polls. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon were first-round picks in the NFL draft. The future appears bright. The present should be pretty good, too. Losing Weeden and Blackmon hurts, no doubt, but running back Joseph Randle had one of the best seasons you didn’t hear about last year, rushing for 1,216 yards and 26 touchdowns. With true freshman Wes Lunt set to replace Weeden, Randle will have to carry the load and take some of the pressure off the young QB’s shoulders. The emphasis on the run game will also help a defense that led the nation in takeaways a year ago but was 107th in total defense by keeping them off the field more often. Oklahoma State also caught a break in the schedule. The Cowboys get Texas, TCU, and West Virginia at home, and they have bye weeks in favorable places. Oklahoma State likely won’t win 12 games again and won’t compete for a national title, but 8-10 wins are probable for a team that should be scary good in 2013.
Like Oklahoma State, the Baylor Bears are coming off arguably the greatest season in school history. Baylor went 10-3, beat Washington in a memorable 67-56 Alamo Bowl, and finished the year ranked #13 in the AP poll and 12th in the coaches poll. Oh yeah, quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy and was the second overall pick of the NFL draft. Unlike Oklahoma State, the Bears don’t have a track record of sustained success, so the challenge is to make sure last year was a breakthrough season and not a one-year wonder where the stars aligned.There are significant questions facing the Bears. Besides Griffin, Baylor lost receiver Kendall Wright (108 receptions), running back Terrance Ganaway (1,547 yards, 21 TDs), and offensive linemen Phillip Blake and Robert Griffin (no relation) to the NFL. That’s a significant chunk of an offense that had to make up for an atrocious defense that gave up over 37 points a game. This year, the offense won’t be good enough to mask the defense. A bowl game is likely, but double-digit wins and a top-15 ranking like last year is too much to ask.
Under former coach Mike Leach, Texas Tech featured a high-powered passing attack and a porous defense. After Leach’s acrimonious departure, the school brought in former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, hoping his pedigree with elite SEC defenses–where offenses go to die–would rub off on the Red Raiders. It’s safe to say that hasn’t happened yet. Last year, the Red Raiders were done in by a defense that was horrid even by their standards. Texas Tech was last in the nation in rushing defense–impressive in the pass-heavy Big 12–and 117th in scoring defense. Texas Tech yielded 258 yards a game on the ground, and opponents scored an average of 39.3 points per game. As a result, the team is on its fourth defensive coordinator in four years. Improvement is practically a given–after all, they can’t be any worse–but the defense will still struggle this year. It’ll be up to quarterback Seth Doege and Tech’s vaunted passing attack to win shootouts. A favorable non-conference schedule, potent offense, Tuberville’s experience, and a propensity for pulling off an upset every year means the Red Raiders should become bowl eligible. However, their margin for error is extremely thin.
During Paul Rhoads’ tenure, Iowa State has hovered around mediocrity, going 7-6,5-7, and 6-7 while making bowl games in 2009 and 2011. They have also developed a knack for pulling off an upset, knocking off Nebraska in Lincoln in 2009, Texas in Austin in 2010, and #2 Oklahoma State at home last year. Who will the victim be this year? Big 12 contenders better be on their toes when they face the Cyclones. What’s kept Iowa State from getting over the hump has been a weak offense, specifically spotty quarterback play. Despite having one of the best names in football, quarterback Steele Jantz was erratic last year, completing only 53 percent of his passes for 1,519 yards and throwing more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). He split time with sophomore Jared Barnett, who wasn’t any better (50 percent for 1,201 yards, 6 TDs, 6 INTs). If one of those two can be consistent in the passing game, running back James White could have a breakout season. On defense, the Cyclones are led by linebackers A.J. Klein, the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2011, and Jake Knott, a first-team All-Big 12 selection. They’ll have to live up to their billing as there are significant questions in the secondary. The schedule does Iowa State no favors, either. The non-conference portion is no cakewalk with Tulsa and in-state rival Iowa, and there are two murderous stretches: at TCU, Kansas State, and at Oklahoma State in consecutive weeks in October, Oklahoma and Texas in back-to-back weeks before to start November. It won’t be easy, but Paul Rhoads’ team is a tough bunch. They’ve shown by now that they’ll contend for a spot in a bowl game while taking out one of the big boys along the way.
Bottom of the Barrel
Poor Kansas. It’s been a rough few years since the Jayhawks’ 12-1 season and Sugar Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. The Jayhawks finally hit rock bottom a year ago, going 2-10 and firing coach Turner Gill. In steps former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who once boasted about his “decided schematic advantage.” He’d better hope that’s the case because this team is going to need all the help it can get. Kansas was 110th against the pass last season, a worrisome statistic in the pass-happy Big 12. Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist should provide a boost at quarterback since he is familiar with the offense, but he needs to stay healthy. Weis may improve things this year, but it likely won’t be reflected in the record. Aside from South Dakota State and Rice, the Jayhawks will be an underdog against whoever they play.
Texas has the best defense, but while defense wins championships, having a stud quarterback helps. Let’s face it, Texas does not have a stud quarterback, and the lack of an elite QB will keep the Longhorns from winning the conference. Kansas State is a gritty team, but they lack the talent and athleticism of the rest. Bill Snyder is one of the best coaches in the game, but there is no way the Wildcats win all those close games like they did a year ago.
TCU is good, but as Utah showed a year ago, jumping from a mid-major to a power conference is a huge adjustment. The Horned Frogs are more talented and possess way more firepower than Utah did, but adapting to play tougher competition week-in and week-out will take some time. Next year, perhaps, but not this season. Oklahoma State and Baylor have to reload after their great seasons last year.
West Virginia and Oklahoma are mirror images of one another: potent offenses with questionable defenses. However, Oklahoma's defense is more talented than West Virginia's. Landry Jones & Co. can keep up with the Mountaineers in a shootout, and Oklahoma's defense will make more plays than West Virginia's. Edge: Sooners.