The Teams That Stand Between Texas and a Big 12 Title
Claiming to know what will happen in the Big 12 this year would be an exercise in pomposity.
Parity is a great word to describe the Big 12, as the conference contains many good teams but no one that stands out from the rest. There are at least three teams that could, depending on how things shake out, challenge for the conference title, or miss out on the bowl season altogether. And there are four other teams that would consider the season a disappointment without a Fiesta Bowl berth.
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How it shakes out is anybody’s guess, but one thing is for certain: the Big 12 is a conference with many questions, many challengers, and many exciting games ahead.
Let’s take a closer look at the teams standing between the Longhorns and a Big 12 title.
The Cowboys’ biggest strength continues to be head coach Mike Gundy and his fantastic offensive schemes. Gundy seems to have graduated from the Mike Leach School of Put Up As Many Points As Humanly Possible. Though this may result in fun, exciting football, such an education has its drawbacks.
Oklahoma State ranked 64th in defense last season, giving up over 28 points a game. As usual, the Cowboys’ saving grace was their prolific offense, ranking 3rd in the nation even while juggling three different quarterbacks.
Though the Cowboys finished the season with an 8-5 mark, they were really only a few plays from being 11-2.
It’s unclear whether Oklahoma State’s defense will improve, but what should improve is its already-fantastic offense. Bringing back one of the nation’s most talented crew of wide receivers and relying on a single QB in Clint Chelf, the Cowboys are gearing up to be a touchdown machine.
Oklahoma State’s bid for a conference championship will likely come down to the last three games. The Cowboys come to Austin and follow it up with tough matchups against Baylor and Oklahoma.
Prediction: 10-2 (2nd Big 12)
How can a team that went 7-6 last season and lost to a mediocre Michigan State team in its bowl game be considered a contender for the Big 12 title? Long answer short: the return of starting QB Casey Pachall.
To put this in perspective, imagine Colt McCoy leaving after four games in 2009 and Garrett Gilbert taking over for the remainder of the season. Pachall threw ten touchdowns to a single interception in just four games last season and led the 2011 team to a Mountain West title. TCU will be a much improved team with Pachall behind center, but whether the Horned Frogs’ young offensive line can protect him is the team’s biggest question mark.
Also returning is the Frogs’ stingy defense. In fact, TCU’s defense was the only one among the Big 12 to rank in the top 35 nationally last season. And with the majority of their secondary and defensive line returning, TCU will likely repeat as the Big 12’s best defense (essentially making them the skinniest kid at fat camp).
Most of TCU’s burning questions will be answered in the first game of the season, as the Horned Frogs face SEC powerhouse LSU. This game will also pique the interest of the rest of the Big 12, as this game will likely show us how the Big 12 sizes up to the SEC.
Prediction: 9-3 (3rd Big 12)
Say what you will about the Sooners, they are a resilient bunch. If history is any indication, head coach Bob Stoops will find a way to make this team full of question marks a legitimate contender. But every team must crumble to rise again, and this just might be the year Oklahoma crumbles.
All of Oklahoma’s hopes rest on the shoulders of junior QB Blake Bell. Like nearly every other team in the Big 12, Oklahoma’s saving grace last year was their high-scoring offense, ranking 5th in the nation in passing yards and 15th in points. With the absence of Landry Jones, one has to assume Oklahoma’s offensive efficiency will take a hit.
But I won’t be the first to assume such a thing.
Bell was Jones’ backup for the past two years and played as a running QB, rushing for 24 touchdowns. So it’s likely Bell will be a dual-threat QB. And with an excellent offensive line, OU could potentially pick up the slack Jones left behind.
Oklahoma has anything but a cupcake non-conference schedule, playing Notre Dame and a very good Tulsa team that can run the ball. In fact, there just aren’t as many teams that Oklahoma is obviously better than.
Maybe this is the year OU actually sucks, but probably not.
Prediction: 8-4 (4th Big 12)
The Bears have the potential to be scary good, and they’re a definite dark horse candidate to win the Big 12.
Much of this optimism stems from QB Bryce Petty. Despite this being Petty’s first year, the junior quarterback spent the last two seasons studying the position under Robert Griffin III and Nick Florence. An apprentice couldn’t wish for better mentors. Of course, this isn’t the sole reason for Baylor nation’s confidence surrounding the first-year QB. Petty brings with him size and an incredible arm.
Petty will also have plenty of help from Baylor’s excellent rushing game, which finished 12th in the nation last year.
The problem: the Bears’ defense won’t hold up (I’m sensing a pattern here). Baylor finished 113th in points allowed last season.
Nonetheless, in a conference that has no clear standout, Baylor could be a big surprise.
Prediction: 8-4 (5th Big 12)
Most good Iowa State seasons see the Cyclones playing spoiler while sneaking into a bowl game. In 2011, Iowa State ended Oklahoma State’s bid for a national title with an incredible overtime upset, and in 2009 the Cyclones defeated an incredibly good Nebraska team 9-7. This will be another one of those years.
Now that QB Jared Barnett transferred to Illinois State, the Cyclones will turn the keys over to sophomore Sam Richardson. Richardson is a run/pass-style quarterback who, according to many reports, has the potential to be a special player (Richardson tossed eight touchdowns to single interception in limited play last season).
The defense is halfway decent, at least by Big 12 standards, and that won’t change much.
The schedule looks daunting, though. In addition to their annual matchup against in-state rival Iowa, the Cyclones will play Tulsa in non-conference play; the same team that wiped the deck with Iowa State at the Liberty Bowl.
Prediction: 6-6 (6th Big 12)
The Wildcats will start the year 3-0. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.
Kansas State likely lost its only legitimate shot, in the foreseeable future anyway, to go to a national title game last season. Yet, one has to believe that legendary head coach Bill Snyder will take this group of fresh faces (most coming in from junior college) to a bowl game, no less.
It’s difficult to use last season as a barometer for this season, so many pieces have changed on both sides of the ball. However, the Wildcats do have a couple of wildcards that could be difference makers at quarterback.
Daniel Sams backed up Collin Klein last season and performed well in his place against Oklahoma State. Jake Waters is the reigning NJCAA Offensive Player of the Year and the No.1 junior college recruit. Waters set a junior college record last season, completing 73.3 percent of his passes, and 39 touchdowns to just three interceptions.
Those who doubt Kansas State need a history lesson; the Wildcats under Snyder have a knack for performing their best when expectations are low.
Prediction: 6-6 (7th Big 12)
I still don’t know whether West Virginia overachieved or underachieved last year. It will remain one of the great questions of 2012, at least for a college football geek like me.
Is it strange to think that the loss of Geno Smith could open the door for a fantastic running game? Probably, but the return of Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, who led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2011 and 2012 respectively, is intriguing to say the least.
And with a starting quarterback yet to be named, one must assume head coach Dana Holgorsen will lean heavily on his star running backs.
The biggest problem (I feel like I’m sounding like a broken record now) is defense. The Mountaineers allowed over 38 points per game last season. However, this mark should improve as their returning starters gain more experience.
West Virginia is a question mark. They could sneak into a bowl game, or they could go 8-4, but in a stacked Big 12, I’d bet against it.
Prediction: 5-7 (8th Big 12)
New coach, new quarterback and a whole new litany of questions. The Red Raiders have enjoyed selecting the “mystery box” as of late.
The selection of Kliff Kingsbury as head coach was a great long-term solution, but the Raiders’ performance in the short term could be rough.
Tech finished 2nd in the nation in passing yards last season, and they’ve never been much of a running team. This will place a lot of importance on first-year QB Michael Brewer, who, unlike Baylor’s Petty, isn’t inspiring the same confidence from Raider nation. Much of this could be because the job might end up in the hands of freshman David Webb.
The defense showed signs of improvement last year, and most of Tech’s front seven will return. It’s very un-Big 12 of them, but the defense is the only thing Tech can hang its hat on at the moment.
The Big 12 is stacked with good teams, albeit not great teams, but good teams nonetheless. This Raider team will have a tough time accumulating wins in such a conference.
Prediction: 4-8 (9th Big 12)
The Jayhawks will be better this year. I can say this with much certainty after Kansas went 1-11 last year. There’s nowhere to go but up.
How improved will the Jayhawks be? An additional two wins and a likely egg against Big 12 competition yet again.
Kansas, much like their in-state rival, has infused their team with junior college players and dejected transfers. Concerning the latter, former BYU QB Jake Heaps and WR Nick Harwell, are the most intriguing.
That duo will attempt to better last year’s mark of zero wide receiver receptions in the end zone (yes, you read that right. Kansas had zero touchdowns by a wide receiver last year), and seem poised to accomplish this feat.
Problem is, Heaps never returned to the form that made him the first freshman to lead BYU to a bowl victory. In 2011, Heaps was benched in favor of his back-up and never completed a pass longer than 37 yards. If Heaps struggles in the Big 12, it will be another season of Kansas fans looking forward to basketball.
Prediction: 3-9 (10th Big 12)