Big 12 Football Preview

Big 12 football is sporting a new look this fall, as Missouri and Texas A&M have left for the SEC and the conference welcomes in West Virginia & TCU. Add that to the departures of Nebraska and Colorado prior to last season and this is not your father’s Big 12. Well, actually since the league has only existed since 1996 maybe we should say it’s not your older brother’s Big 12. Whatever it is, it’s a league trying to survive as a power league in an era of change and TheSportsNotebook previews the 2012 race…

The more things change the more they stay the same and that’s certainly true when it comes to Oklahoma. The Sooners are loaded for a big run this season. Landry Jones is back at quarterback and while he needs to prove he can come up with clutch throws in big games, no one doubts his ability to mass produce yardage. While favored target Ryan Broyles is gone, Jones should have no problem targeting Kenny Stills and the rest of the receivers’ corps. With four starters back on the offensive front, Jones will likely have plenty of time in the pocket and running back Dominique Whaley, back from a broken foot, will have plenty of holes to run through.

OU is similarly stacked on defense, with seven senior starters, including all four defensive lineman and cornerback Demontre Hurst, one of the conference’s best. Add to all this the fact that Sooner punter Tress Way is one of the nation’s best and Oklahoma will be using all this talent in good field position. This is indisputably the team to beat in the Big 12 with the only question being whether a national title is in the offing.

Oklahoma State won the conference championship a year ago and while the prolific passing duo of Brandon Weeden-to-Justin Blackmon is now in the NFL, the cupboard is not bare in Stillwater. A veteran offensive front, led by guard Lane Taylor will clear the way for Joseph Randle and the defense has a lot of experience, especially in the secondary with corner Broderick Brown. Freshman quarterback Wes Luntin has a learning curve ahead of him, but a team that can run the ball and play defense is a ideal place to do the learning. Texas went 7-5 last year, beat Cal in a bowl game and has a lot back this season. But it’s a mark of how young the ’11 Longhorns were that they still have 18 non-senior starters. Look for Texas to continue gradual improvement and get to the 8-9 win plateau in the regular season, but a big year is a season away in Austin.

Kansas State continues to be the no-respect team in this conference. The Wildcats went 10-2 last regular season, but were passed over for a Sugar Bowl bid by both Michigan and Virginia Tech, who produced a game excitingly because of shared mediocrity. Now the Wildcats aren’t getting respect in the Big 12 this season, in spite of having a veteran defense and the return of the magnificient Collin Klein at quarterback, who can run, pass and generally carry a team. He’s got his skill position people back, but the right side of the line has two freshman in starting jobs. That will keep K-State from pushing for a championship in a league with a clear dominant power, but they have enough to compete with everyone else.

The newcomers, West Virginia & TCU, each have a shot at making some noise, especially the Mountaineers, who are off their stunning 70-35 demolition of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Geno Smith will rival Klein as the most versatile quarterback in the conference, he’s got three offensive lineman back to protect him and two solid receivers in Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. What WVA does not have is a good back eight in their 3-4 defense and in a league where most everyone can score in a hurry that’s a problem. TCU has similar rebuilding to do in its linebacker and secondary groups and will have to rely on the defensive line to carry them on that side of the ball. On the other side, the trenches are lacking and we’ll have to see what quarterback Casey Pachall, running back Ed Wesley and an experienced group of receivers can do without any veterans to block for them.

Baylor’s been enjoying a golden age in its major athletic programs. The basketball team’s made a regional final of the NCAA Tournament twice in three years, the football team’s had success and the Heisman Trophy triumph of Robert Griffin III was the crowning moment. RG3 is now in Washington, trying to turn around the Redskins, but the Bears have a chance to still be competitive without him. The receivers are back, and tackle Cyril Richardson is a solid presence on the offensive front. The defensive ends and secondary return, but the defense is soft on the interior. And more to the point, the defense wasn’t any good a year ago. They have to at least be average this time around.

Texas Tech & Iowa State are on the fringes of the bowl picture. The Red Raiders lost their final five games a year ago to end up 5-7 and miss the bowl party. They have to rebuild the defense, but when the defense gives up 256 points in that five-game losing streak it’s not something anyone in Lubbock is really dreading. Seth Doege is back at quarterback, with a decent offensive line in front of him and favored target Eric Ward back at wideout. Iowa State made a bowl trip last season at 6-6 before losing to Rutgers and are more rush-oriented, with backs James White and Jeff Woody running behind a respectable line. But there is some re-tooling on the defensive side. Kansas is the one team in the league not really competitive. They went 2-10 last year and while Charlie Weis is now the head coach and has brought in old Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist to run the offense, the team has to rebuild its entire pass defense, from linebacker on back. We haven’t heard anything from Weis about a “decided schematic advantage” this time around in his efforts to enjoy long-term success as a head coach.

PREDICTIONS: I’ve made my view on the big pick already clear, and Oklahoma will win the conference championship. Next week there will be final picks on whether the Sooners will get to the next step and whether the Big 12 will get an additional BCS bid. For now let’s assume the answer to the latter question is no. Once the BCS is done, the conference’s next bowl slots are the Cotton (vs. SEC) and the Alamo (vs. Pac-12-runner up). Then there’s good midlevel games in the Insight, Holiday and Texas Bowls, two against the Big Ten and one against the Pac-12. Then the final spot is in Yankee Stadium against a middling Big East team.

I like Oklahoma State and Kansas State to get the quality runner-up spots in the Cotton & Alamo. Then fill in Texas, West Virginia and TCU for the middle three spots and Texas Tech to eke out the final bowl bid, as they flip places with Iowa State this time around.