Big 12 fall football preview: As new-look conference moves forward, league crown remains OU's to lose
It's easy to forget how much has happened with the Big 12 Conference in the last year.
Just one summer ago, the Big 12 was on the brink of extinction, stuck in the every-school-for-itself realignment mess that altered the landscape of collegiate athletics.
Nebraska said adios and joined the Big Ten, while Colorado, fearful with the league on life support, bolted for the Pac-10.
Texas heavily considered joining Colorado in the Pac-10, whose commissioner Larry Scott had a vision of starting college football's first 16-team super conference. Instead, the Longhorns remained in the Big 12, saving the league from crumbling. The Pac-10 added Colorado and Utah and became the Pac-12.
The other nine Big 12 schools remained loyal to the league, and the Big 12 moved forward without Nebraska and Colorado.
Reasons vary for UT staying put, but the Longhorns could not have started their own television network as a member of the Pac-12/16. They could, however, in the Big 12. In April, UT agreed to a 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN for a 24-hour television network to broadcast Longhorn sports. It's set to launch in August.
Essentially, TV revenue was the focus of last summer's realignment talks.
The Big 12 strengthened its long-term stability in April by signing a 13-year deal with Fox Sports that will bring in $90 million per year — more than four times the current deal — starting in the fall of 2012. Combine that with the conference's ABC-ESPN deal that runs through 2015-16, and the Big 12 is looking at roughly $130 million in annual TV revenue.
It's been a roller coaster of a last year, but Dan Beebe's conference is finally stable again. New deals are in place, TV revenue is flowing and Big 12 members appear pleased with the new configuration.
When the 2011 college football season kicks off — the first Big 12 game is Friday, Sept. 2, when Baylor plays host to TCU — the race for the Big 12 Championship will have a bit of a different feel.
For the first time in 15 years, there will be no Big 12 Championship game in December. The NCAA requires a conference to have at least 12 teams to stage a championship game.
There won't be North or South divisions, either. Big 12 teams will play each other once in a round-robin format every year.
The absence of a conference championship game should make it easier for a Big 12 school to reach the BCS Championship. It's one fewer game a powerhouse team like Oklahoma has to trip up and have its BCS title hopes destroyed.
As it is, the Big 12 has put a representative in the national title game seven times in the 13-year history of the BCS. That number should continue to grow without a Big 12 Championship.
That brings us to right now, roughly two months until college football begins. Which team from the Big 12 has the best chance at securing a BCS title berth?
Welcome to Conference Chatter's Big 12 fall football preview. Here are my league rankings heading into the 2011 season, with analysis to follow:
Good news: Remember the 2008 OU offense led by Sam Bradford that put up 51.14 points per game? The 2011 edition is just as talented.
The Sooners are loaded. With junior Landry Jones (4,718 yards, 38 TDs, 12 INTs) back at quarterback, along with senior receiver Ryan Broyles (131 catches, 1,622 yards, 14 TDs) back at wide receiver, OU should average 40 points per game at minimum.
Sophomore receiver Kenny Stills (61 catches, 786 yards, five TDs) is one of the most explosive deep threats in the league. Senior tight end James Hanna (seven TD grabs) also has all-league potential.
If that's not enough, four of five offensive linemen are back for the Sooners. Jones should have plenty of time to locate his weapons. Broyles and Jones are early-season Heisman Trophy candidates, and the Sooners could enter the season ranked No. 1 in the country.
Oklahoma will have to replace DeMarco Murray's production at running back, but that shouldn't be a problem. Sophomore Roy Finch has experience and a lightning-fast running style, while incoming freshman five-star recruit Brandon Williams should be one of the top newbies in the country.
All the defense has to do is hold the opposition to a respectable number. Senior linebacker Travis Lewis has led OU in tackles since his freshman year, accumulating a ridiculous 362 stops in three years. Senior defensive end Frank Alexander could crack double-digit sack totals.
Bad news: Honestly, not much. A difficult road matchup in week 2 against Florida State could threaten a perfect season. The secondary is somewhat inexperienced and returns only one starter in junior cornerback Demontre Hurst. That's about it.
Bottom line: Similar to Kansas in men's basketball, Oklahoma football has a certain aura about it that screams 'class of the Big 12.' Since the Big 12's inception in 1996, no football team has been more consistent or dominant. The Sooners have won the Big 12 seven of the past 11 years, and four of the past five years. This season, coach Bob Stoops' squad is in a class of its own atop the conference in a quest to repeat as Big 12 champs and play for a national title.
2. Oklahoma State
Good news: A message for college students, ages 21 and up, in Stillwater: Do not play drinking games involving OSU quarterback Brandon Weeden and OSU wide receiver Justin Blackmon, or you'll run the risk of being blitzed by halftime. Seriously, though, this duo was the most lethal pass-catch combo in college football last season, and they both return, Weeden (4,277 yards, 34 TDs, 13 INTs) for his senior season and Blackmon (111 catches, 1,782 yards, 20 touchdowns) for his junior campaign. It's quite possible the Heisman Trophy candidates match or eclipse their staggering numbers from last year. Reason numero uno: All five offensive linemen are back. Hello end zone.
The Cowboys must replace running back Kendall Hunter, but sophomores Joseph Randle (82 carries, 452 yards, two TDs) and Jeremy Smith (56-262-7) are more than capable. Oklahoma State was the top-scoring offense in the Big 12 and third in the country last year with 44.23 points per game. They shouldn't be far off that pace this year, even with the loss of offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen (head coach at West Virginia). Todd Monken, previously the wide receivers coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and a former OSU receivers coach, should pick up right where Holgorsen left off as offensive coordinator.
Bad news: The defensive line might struggle to put pressure on the quarterback, as the unit returns one starter in senior defensive end Jamie Blatnick.
Bottom line: If any league team challenges Oklahoma this year, it's the in-state rival Cowboys. OSU faces difficult road tests at Texas A&M, Texas and Missouri. If the Pokes survive those tests, a Dec. 3 Bedlam meeting against OU in Stillwater could decide the conference race.
3. Texas A&M
Good news: The Aggies possess the top one-two running back combination in the Big 12 with senior Cyrus Gray (200 carries, 1,133 yards, 12 TDs) and junior Christine Michael (126 carries, 631 yards, four TDs). Michael missed the last five games last season with a broken leg, but is back to full strength. Gray excelled in Michael's absence, rushing for at least 100 yards in A&M's last seven games.
To label the Aggies as a one-dimensional offense that can only run the ball would be a huge mistake. Senior Ryan Tannehill is a legitimate threat at quarterback, steering A&M to a 5-1 record in games he started after taking over for Jerrod Johnson at the midway point of last season. Tannehill will have the luxury of the top three receivers from a year ago returning to College Station. Senior Jeff Fuller (72 receptions, 1,066 yards, 12 TDs) is one of the most physically-imposing receivers in college football. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, Fuller isn't necessarily a burner, but his strength in fighting off defenders, particularly on jump balls, will play to Tannehill's advantage. Any pass in Fuller's vicinity has a chance of being caught.
Bad news: Replacing Von Miller, the No. 2 overall pick by the Denver Broncos in April's NFL Draft, will be difficult. The top two candidates to replace Miller at the 'jack' position, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position, are sophomore Damontre Moore (Miller's backup last season, 5.5 sacks, 40 tackles) and junior Caleb Russell (impressed in spring).
Bottom line: A&M has the talent to win the Big 12. Coach Mike Sherman enters his fourth year with higher expectations than in his previous three seasons in College Station. This is an A&M team that should be disappointed if it doesn't reach double-digit win totals. Sherman has gone 4-8, 6-7 and 9-4 in three seasons at A&M. Time for the next step.
Good news: The Tigers should be able to maintain the defensive standard set last season when they led the Big 12 in scoring defense with only 16.1 points allowed per game (sixth in country). It's tough to imagine Missouri actually better without defensive end Aldon Smith, taken by the San Francisco 49ers with the No. 7 overall pick the draft, but that may be the case.
MU will boast a ridiculous front led by Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith on the ends. Madison was a pest last year in the backfield, accounting for 7.5 sacks despite starting only two games. Imagine what he can do as a starter. MU has incredible depth on the ends, with freshman Kony Ealy impressing coaches in the spring, and sophomore Sheldon Richardson, a highly-touted former recruit whose eligibility is still in question. If Richardson suits up this fall, the Tigers will have four starting-caliber ends.
Bad news: The Tigers will enter the season with an unproven quarterback in sophomore James Franklin, who will take over for Blaine Gabbert (10th overall pick, Jacksonville Jaguars). On the positive side, Franklin will have returning stud receiver T.J. Moe (92 catches, 1,045 yards, six TDs) and tight end Michael Egnew (90 catches, 762 yards, five TDs) back this year.
Bottom line: Missouri will face two early tests, the first in week 2 at Arizona State, and then in week 4 at Oklahoma. It's a stretch to suggest the Tigers will win the Big 12, but double-digit victories are not out of the question.
Good news: Surely, it can't get much worse than last year, when the Longhorns sputtered to a 5-7 record, lost seven of their last nine and missed a bowl game. The uncharacteristic finish prompted coach Mack Brown to bring in five new assistant coaches and a new strength and conditioning coach.
UT's strength figures to be its defense, led by returning seniors Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson at linebacker, and senior safety Blake Gideon.
Bad news: Quarterback Garrett Gilbert appeared to have his confidence shattered last season, throwing 10 touchdowns compared to 17 interceptions. As a junior, he's the most experienced option the Longhorns have, and should start in the fall. He must be better.
What really would help Gilbert's cause is the threat of a running game. Freshman Malcolm Brown may be just what Gilbert needs. The five-star running back figures to make immediate impact this fall. UT hasn't had a reliable tailback since Jamaal Charles in 2007.
Bottom line: UT has as much talent as anyone in the conference, especially on defense. But for Texas to win the Big 12, it will need a playmaker to break out on offense (like Brown, or sophomore receiver Mike Davis, for instance).
Good news: Quarterback Robert Griffin proved last season his surgically repaired right knee was fine. He's back this season as a junior because he was granted a medical redshirt after the injury in 2009. As long as Griffin is leading the offense, the Bears, who went bowling last season for the first time since 1994, have a chance to reach the postseason again.
The dual-threat Griffin (3,501 passing yards, 22 TDs, eight INTs; 635 rushing yards, eight TDs) will engineer an offense that returns its top four receivers, led by senior standout Kendall Wright (78 catches, 952 yards, seven TDs).
Bad news: The Bears won't have any trouble putting points on the board. But can they stop anybody? Baylor ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 last season in scoring defense, rushing defense, passing defense and total defense. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett (previously defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh) has a tall task ahead.
Bottom line: Briles, entering his fourth season in Waco, has gone 4-8, 4-8 and 7-6 in three years. The Bears were 7-2 at one point last season, but lost their final four contests. Expect a similar record to last year in 2011.
7. Texas Tech
Good news: The schedule sets up nicely for the Red Raiders to start the season 6-0 or 5-1. Tech, which will enter its second season under Tommy Tuberville, faces the unusual position of being deeper at running back than at receiver. Junior Eric Stephens (127 carries, 668 yards, six TDs) and senior Aaron Crawford will receive the bulk of the carries.
Bad news: Trivia question: After Oklahoma State's Blackmon (20 TD catches), who was second in the country in TD grabs last year? The answer may surprise you: Texas Tech's Lyle Leong (19).
The Red Raiders no longer have reliable receivers Leong or Detron Lewis. Junior Alex Torres has the talent to be a No. 1 receiver, but battled a back injury all of last year. If he's fully healed for 2011, he must provide consistency, especially with Tech breaking in junior quarterback Seth Doege.
Bottom line: Tech should make a bowl game in Tuberville's second season. Fun fact: The Red Raiders have been bowl eligible for 18 straight seasons. Only three other teams — Florida, Florida State and Ohio State — have longer active bowl eligibility streaks.
8. Kansas State
Good news: Bryce Brown, the former Rivals.com No. 1 recruit in the country in the Class of 2009, transferred to K-State from Tennessee and will join the Wildcats this fall. The Wichita native rushed for 460 yards his freshman year in 2009 at Tennessee, and sat out last season due to transfer rules. Brown should create some buzz around Manhattan.
Bad news: The Wildcats still need to replace Daniel Thomas. Brown carries incredible hype, but he's still unproven. And, let's be honest, Thomas was the K-State offense. Handoffs. Screen passes. Shotgun/wildcat formations. KSU will miss Thomas, who rushed for 2,850 yards and 30 scores in two masterful years in Manhattan after transferring from Northwest Mississippi CC.
Bottom line: K-State has some pieces on defense (like Bryce Brown's brother, Arthur, a transfer linebacker from Miami), but the Wildcats must improve their defensive front, which was routinely gashed last season. KSU surrendered a whopping 231.4 rushing yards per game in 2010, dead last in the league and 119th in the country. If that number doesn't improve quite dramatically, KSU could struggle to reach a bowl game.
9. Iowa State
Good news: The Cyclones have some solid pieces on defense, particularly at linebacker with returning junior starters A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, who combined for 241 tackles last season. ISU also returns three of four in the secondary, including senior cornerback Leonard Johnson, who has all-league potential.
Bad news: The Cyclones lack playmakers on offense. Even with quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson, who exhausted their eligibility, Iowa State failed to make big plays last season. ISU's longest pass from scrimmage was 39 yards. In the age of the spread offense? Come on, fellas.
Bottom line: Iowa State has a rough nonconference slate, with games against Iowa and at Connecticut. Combine that with the newly-designed Big 12 schedule (i.e. no avoiding Big 12 South teams), and the losses could start to pile up.
Good news: Well, it's not 2010, when the Jayhawks finished 3-9 and 1-7 in Big 12 play. Kansas must run the football as much as possible with talented backfield options at its disposal. Sophomore James Sims (742 yards, eight TDs) was fantastic last season. True freshman Darrian Miller electrified spring onlookers with his home run potential. Red-shirt freshman Brandon Bourbon could get looks, as could true freshman Anthony Pierson. Junior Rell Lewis, if healthy, could also be in the mix. Run. The. Football.
Bad news: Quarterback issues still linger. Freshman Brock Berglund's status remains in question. Jordan Webb looks like he'll start. But the sophomore threw more interceptions (eight) than touchdowns (seven) last season. Senior Quinn Mecham, more of a game manager under center, appears to have a limited ceiling. The Jayhawks don't need a game manager at QB, though; they need a playmaker.
Last season, KU quarterbacks tossed only 11 touchdown passes, and had 14 passes picked off.
Bottom line: The schedule is brutal, with nonconference tilts against Northern Illinois and at Georgia Tech. The Jayhawks are also at Oklahoma State, at Texas and at Texas A&M. There's not a game on the schedule that can be pinpointed as a guaranteed victory. The Jayhawks should play better than last year, but it may not reflect in their record.
That should be all for now, friends. Agree with the picks? Disagree? As always, discuss.