BIG 12 PREVIEW
The Big 12 might be in the middle of an existential crisis, with its number reduced to ten teams, its championship game gone and Texas A&M ready to leave the conference next. But that shouldn’t obscure that some very good football is going to played here this fall and an exciting conference race is ahead.
Oklahoma is the preseason #1 and they will be able to score points with Landry Jones throwing the ball to Ryan Broyles as the key to the offense. The offensive line also returns four starters, but it’s “young experience” with only senior starter. An inexperienced secondary is also a problem with a lot of good passing games in the Big 12, plus a September trip to Florida State. Bob Stoops has the best program in the conference and has earned the right to be considered the team to beat—but make no mistake, his Sooners are beatable.
A challenge is most likely to come from Oklahoma State or Texas A&M. The Aggies have the same “problem” as OU, in that their offensive line is back, but still young—three sophomores handle blocking duties for A&M. They still rung up the points last year and should do so again, with Ryan Tannehill throwing and Cyrus Gray running. Defensively, they’ve improved from awful in 2009 to mediocre in 2010. If they jump to above average in 2011, we’re looking at a major bowl bid and possibly more. Oklahoma State has a hole in the linebacking corps, but nowhere else. Defensively they will be tough up front and against the pass, and like A&M and OU, they’re set to explode offensively with Brandon Weeden the triggerman and Justin Blackmon the Big 12’s best receiver. An experienced offensive front will give them every chance to succeed.
The conference champion will come from one of these three teams, but we can’t overlook the challenges that will come for a middle class that’s as good as any in the nation. Missouri will be a tough out for anyone, with quality play in the trenches and good passing targets in receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew, along with a nice pass-rush tandem at defensive end in Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith. It’s throwing the ball and stopping the same that will be the issue in Columbia. Texas Tech is another team that will be good at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and running back Eric Stephens is in position to have a good year. Baylor’s back seven defensively is a problem that will keep them from championship contention but the fact they’re good everywhere else, especially with explosive dual threat quarterback Robert Griffin, will make them a bowl team again.
Then we come to Texas. The Longhorns economic muscle casts a large shadow over this league, and perhaps no sports entity outside Yankee Stadium has as much influence over the affairs of its brethren. The debate over the new Longhorn Network is just the latest example. It didn’t help on the football field last year as the ‘Horns only won five games and quite frankly a repeat performance is possible. UT is very young with eight sophomores in the starting lineup, a surprise development for a program that should recruit well enough to consistently start upperclassmen. Garrett Gilbert will have a tough time having a big year at quarterback with this supporting cast. It wouldn’t surprise me if Kansas snuck in ahead of Texas in the final standings. Returning sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb has some great tutors in head coach Turner Gill and offensive coordinator Chuck Long, as KU has decided to bring some of the 1980s top college QBs together. I also like the Jayhawks offensive line and expect them to get bowl-eligible this year.
The only teams that aren’t going to contend are Kansas State and Iowa State, each with substantial rebuilding to do.
Who’s going to win it? On paper I think Oklahoma State is the best, but I’ve come to distrust their ability to take care of their in-state rival in a big game. Texas A&M has no such problem—they beat both Nebraska and Oklahoma a year ago, and this year Mike Sherman’s program finishes the job and wins the Big 12.
Alabama comes into the season ranked #2 in the nation and the favorite in a conference that’s produced the national champion every year since 2006, including ‘Bama’s 2009 crown. A closer look at the SEC does suggest that this conference could be up for grabs in 2011.
The Crimson Tide looks very good defensively, and has a good offensive line. But the top three skill position players—quarterback Greg McElroy, running back Mark Ingram and receiver Julio Jones are all gone, and as such we have to consider alternatives in the Western Division and the conference at large.
LSU is ranked in the Top 5 nationally and set up for a monster showdown with Oregon on Saturday night that we’ll take a closer look at in a couple days. They are young on the defensive front though, and already have quarterback problems due to Jordan Jefferson’s off-the-field problems. Arkansas reached the Sugar Bowl a year ago, but have to rebuild both lines and replace quarterback Ryan Mallett. Running back Knile Davis and receiver Greg Childs are all-conference caliber at their positions, but a back and a receiver can’t carry a team anywhere, much less in this neighborhood. Auburn is being discounted for another national title run, and with nine sophomores set to start that seems reasonable. I do look for the Tigers to run the ball well, with seniors on the offensive front and Michael Dyer, whose big run in the BCS National Championship Game set up the winning field goal over Oregon, running behind them. I like Mississippi State a lot, with good play in both lines and the secondary, a good running game with Vick Ballard and scrappy Chris Relf at QB. The only team you don’t have to consider in the West is Ole Miss, who has to retool its entire defense.
Florida had long been the class of the East, but fell off the pace last year, and Urban Meyer retired. The Gators have brought in Wil Muschamp, assistant head coach at Texas to run the show. In the Notebook’s Big 12 preview I noted the surprise in that Texas had to start eight sophomores. How much more surprising is it that Florida has 10 underclassmen in its starting lineup? Something’s gone awry in recruiting decisions and I don’t see Muschamp making a fast return to the top.
South Carolina won the division last year and it’s QB-RB-WR combo of Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey is one of the best in the country. But of the nine linemen that will start on both sides of the ball, three will be freshmen. That’s a problem anywhere, especially in a league like this. One team who got familiar with starting freshmen was Tennessee, as Derek Dooley returns a lot of sophomore starters, including on the offensive line The most important player though is a senior and that’s running back Tauren Poole, one of the country’s underrated runners. Georgia’s Mark Richt is on the hot seat and should win enough to save his job, but this doesn’t look like a division-winning team right now. Kentucky has its lines and secondary back, but has to replace all its skill position talent, including dynamic receiver Randall Cobb. Vanderbilt has 16 starters back, and after winning two games in 2010 the Commodores could make a run at bowl eligibility.
Everyone is flawed and normally this is an area where I like to take a shot with a darkhorse. Not in this case. I’ll give South Carolina an edge over Tennessee in the East, thanks to the coaching of Steve Spurrier. And in the West, Alabama is tough in the areas where it counts and I think they can fill in the quarterback spot with a game manager. Look for the Crimson Tide to then win its second SEC title in three years.
The Notebook will makes its final BCS bowl picks tomorrow before the season kicks off, and NFL division previews also start up on Thursday.
*It's Closing Week at Saratoga as the track runs through Labor Day, while Del Mar out west is set to wrap it up September 7. Live racing resumes today. Visit Bloodhorse.com for updates on the doings here and at major tracks around the country.
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