Texas & Oklahoma are the powers-that-be in Big 12 football. Their programs have brand-name power and from 2002 to 2010 it was either the Longhorns or Sooners winning the conference championship in every year but one—and in the “out” year of 2003, Oklahoma was still ranked high enough to make the BCS National Championship Game.
But the last two years have been different, with Oklahoma State and Kansas State coming in and winning outright league championships. Is there more rebellion lurking in 2013, or is the Establishment ready to reassert themselves? That’s the focus of today’s college football coverage.
SIZING UP THE ESTABLISHMENT
The Sooners have some challenges ahead of them after a somewhat disappointing 2012 season. OU had a prolific veteran quarterback in Landry Jones, what should have been a solid defense and a schedule that had key games at home. But they lost to Kansas State and Notre Dame in Norman, both times because the Sooners were outhit in the trenches. Then it was capped it off with a Cotton Bowl massacre at the hands of Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.
Jones is gone, and the defense is very young. Bob Stoops has good talent at the skill positions, with Damien Williams back at running back and a tough fullback in Trey Millard. The slot receivers, led by Jalen Saunders are solid. Up front, center Gabe Ikara leads what should be a solid offensive front.
The problem is, with a young defense, you’re going to need to score a lot of points, at least early in the year when the D is still growing. The lack of a quarterback prevents that. I can see Oklahoma coming on as the season goes on, but this isn’t a sport where you can come together midway through and win a championship. A second-place finish and maybe even a BCS at-large might be in OU’s reach. More realistically, a nine-win year, a nice bowl win and some good feeling for 2014. I don’t see a Big 12 title in Stoops’ immediate future.
Texas is different. The Longhorns have gone through some trying years since reaching the BCS National Championship Game in 2009. Their fortunes have mostly ebbed since early in that game when Colt McCoy got hurt in the first quarter and all but ceded the national title to Alabama. After making good strides in 2012, Mack Brown looks to have UT ready to seriously compete for championships, both in the league and nationally.
David Ash returns at quarterback after he gave some needed stability to this spot last year, and all five starters return on the offensive front. The veteran line means whomever gets the ball is going to pile up yardage.
The defense is experienced throughout, and they’ll also get defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks back, after both key players were lost to injuries midway through last season. Jeffcoat is a potential havoc-wreaker on the edge, with Hicks a steadying force in the middle.
If you’re looking for the Establishment to reassert themselves, cast your eyes to Austin.
REBELS AT THE DOORSTEP
This group includes the last two conference champs in Oklahoma State and Kansas State. I’m also including TCU in this group. The Horned Frogs’ unbeaten years in 2009-10 and their Rose Bowl win following the ’10 season given them a demonstrated ability to reach Big 12 championship level, even if it happened prior to their days in this league.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys look good defensively, returning seven starters and having the experience where it can count the most, in the secondary, and at both safety positions. Offense will be the challenge for Mike Gundy in Stillwater.
OSU has a returning starter at quarterback—three of them in fact. Wes Lunt, J.W. Walsh and Clint Chelf all took their turns in 2012 and all are back for more. It didn’t seem to matter which one played last season and it likely won’t this year. Whomever plays is good enough to get the ball to game-breaking receiver Josh Stewart.
The Cowboys’ ultimate offensive success—and therefore their conference championship hopes likely rest on the ability to establish a running game, with a moderately experienced offensive line coming back.
Kansas State: Collin Klein led this team to last year’s conference title, but the Wildcats looked much more normal after he was banged up in November. Even though Klein continued to play, he was not the same as K-State was blown out by Baylor, ending their national title hopes. Then the Wildcats were beaten by Oregon in a Fiesta Bowl that was Chip Kelly’s swan song to college football.
None of that augurs well for this year, as Klein as gone, as most of the defense. Bill Snyder will rebuild around a good offensive line, running back John Hubert and fans will hope that receivers Tyler Lockett and Tremaine Thompson are good in their own right, not just beneficiaries of Klein throwing them the ball.
TCU: The Horned Frogs went through turmoil last year, as quarterback Casey Pachall left the team to go into substance abuse rehab, and running back Waymon James was lost to an injury. Both are back, but it’s a sophomore-laden offensive line that’s entrusted with blocking for them.
Patterson’s best teams have always won with defense, and he’ll do the same this year. TCU has a tough defensive front, led by Devonte Fields. With 10 sacks, Fields was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. The five-man secondary has all its starters back, including lockdown corner Jason Verrett.
If you’re looking to step outside the Texas/OU establishment, you can safely rule out Kansas State, with both Oklahoma State and TCU bringing both intrigue and some question marks.
FOUR BOWL HOPEFULS
Baylor, Iowa State, Texas Tech and West Virginia aren’t serious contenders for a Big 12 championship nor a BCS at-large berth. The four teams are all angling to return to bowl games, and see who can get in that 8-9 win range that enhances the quality of the postseason invitation.
Baylor: The Bears finished strong, beating Kansas State, Oklahoma State in November, losing a close one at Oklahoma and then thrashing UCLA in bowl season. But they do have to make another quarterback change. Nick Florence made the first year of the post-RG3 era in Waco manageable, but now Florence is gone.
Baylor will have to win with defense and the running game this year. At least they have some experience on both fronts, and a good backfield tandem of Lache Seastunk and Glasco Martin. A young line that’s already hit by spring injuries though, is going to be hard to overcome.
Iowa State: Paul Rhoads has taken this program to three bowls in four years, which in Ames is not easy to do. But his composite record of 24-27 tells you that those bowl seasons were like last year—of the six-win, barely-make-it variety. Rhoads has a nice young quarterback in sophomore Sam Richardson and a good secondary, but nothing in the trenches on either side of the ball.
Texas Tech: Kliff Kingsbury is the new head coach, and he was once a very good quarterback here in Lubbock, and last season he coached Manziel at A&M. Unfortunately, Kingsbury’s eligibility is used up and he left Manziel behind. The Red Raiders have no quarterback, and no offensive line, so the talents of Eric Ward at receiver, running back Kenny Williams and tight end Jace Amaro will likely go to waste.
West Virginia: Geno Smith, who should have won last year’s Heisman Trophy is gone, as is Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey. Which means the Mountaineer defense will, at some point, have to explore the idea of tackling an opposing ballcarrier. They bring back seven starters, but this defense was just so bad a year ago, that I can’t see them improving enough to take any real responsibility for team success.
Kansas head coach Charlie Weis called his team “a pile of crap” in the offseason. You might debate the appropriateness of that remark, but the hard reality is that KU is a long way away. They’ve got a new line, a new defense and a head coach whose track record is…well, it’s a pile of crap.
I see Texas as a clear favorite to win this conference—not overwhelming, and I’m not saying I’d be shocked if someone else wins the Big 12. But the Longhorns’ edge looks clear enough that I don’t have any hesitation in making them my pick.
TCU merits a slight edge among the ranks of the challengers, and I think both they and Oklahoma State will be running right alongside Oklahoma in the races for second place and a possible BCS at-large. And if this conference does produce a second BCS team that makes the prize for third place a Cotton Bowl bid and a chance for some validation against a good SEC West team.
Everyone else besides Kansas will joust to fall between five and seven wins.