2007 was a breakthrough year for the Big 12 Conference as four teams finished the season in the top 10, including Missouri and Kansas out of the North Division, two teams that came out of nowhere. This season, the conference has clearly emerged as the second best league in America as for the 2nd straight year, it will have as many as five teams finish in the Top 25, all of which will probably be in the Top 15.
Oklahoma is the consensus favorite to win the conference for a third straight year while Texas Tech is being heralded as the top sleeper team in the country. Over in the North, Missouri and Kansas have a combined 29 returning starters. We haven?t even mentioned Texas yet! After the Longhorns, there is a sizable dropoff, but the fact remains that this may be the deepest edition of the Big 12 in history.
The Oklahoma Sooners opened the season ranked #4 in both polls and are clearly the most talented team in the conference. Their only problem is winning BCS Bowl Games. ?Big Game Bob? Stoops? reputation has taken a bit of significant hit with four BCS losses in the past five years, including humiliating losses to USC in the ?04 Title Game and to Boise State in the memorable ?06 Fiesta Bowl. Last year, they were favored by a touchdown against a West Virginia team that had been besieged by coaching turmoil and lost outright 48-28. I do give the Sooners a great shot at going unbeaten this regular season as they get all the important games at home (Kansas, Texas Tech), with the exception of the Red River Shootout vs. Texas (in Dallas) and avoid Missouri out of the North.
Missouri lost only two games a year ago, both of which came against Oklahoma. This year they don?t play the Sooners in the regular season and are my favorite to repeat as North Champions and thus give us a rematch of last year?s Conference Championship Game. Just to illustrate how far the Tigers have come, they remain 5-17 vs. ranked teams under coach Gary Pinkel, but four of those wins came last year. Their toughest regular season test comes at Texas. Mizzou hasn?t won in Austin since a 10-0 shutout in 1896!
As mentioned above, Texas Tech has become a fashionable pick to go to a BCS bowl this year. They have the most returning starters in the entire conference and this will be the best team Mike Leach has fielded in his nine years at Lubbock. Consider that the Red Raiders are the only program never to have posted a losing campaign since the Big 12 was formed! They have a great shot at being 10-0 heading into the Oklahoma game. Remember that Tech has beaten OU two of the last three seasons.
Kansas stunned the College Football world last season with a 12-1 season and an Orange Bowl victory over Virginia Tech. The Jayhawks only loss was on a neutral field to a Missouri team that was ranked #1 in the country at the time. Despite 15 returning starters, KU may take a step back this season. They must play all the major contenders in the Big 12, something that no other team can say. They also have a tough non-conference road game at South Florida early in the year.
Under Mack Brown, Texas has never finished lower than 2nd place in the Big 12 South. That is likely to change this year with the improved Texas Tech squad and due to the fact that the Longhorns return the 2nd fewest starters in the league (11). Unlike, OU or Tech, they must play both Mizzou and Kansas out of the North. They also play both OU and Tech away from home.
Here?s how the rest of the league breaks out. Nebraska comes off a disastrous season that got Bill Callahan fired. Bo Pellini is the replacement and he inherits just 11 returning starters from a team that underperformed. The Cornhuskers will be switching to more of a run-based attack. Back to the South, both Oklahoma State and Texas A&M should be bowl teams. The Cowboys have a tough schedule, however, with Mizzou, Tech, and Texas all on the road. A&M has a favorable schedule, but returns a Big 12 low 10 starters. After a stunning 20-point win over Texas in Austin last year, Kansas State faded down the stretch, allowing 198 points in its final four games. They too draw a killer schedule. Colorado may field its best team yet under Dan Hawkins, but their rough schedule also includes West Virginia and Florida State on the non-conference slate. Baylor and Iowa State are both looking at potentially terrible years and will finish in the cellar of the respective divisions.
Here?s some key notes on some of the big games this year in the Big 12:
Oklahoma vs. anyone: The Sooners are 21-0 at home since 2002 in conference play winning by an average of 28 PPG. They draw Kansas, Nebraska, and Tech amongst others in Norman this year.
Oklahoma vs. Texas (10/11): Last year?s 28-21 win by OU was the first time since ?97 that the Red River Shootout did not see a double-digit margin of victory.
Texas Tech at Oklahoma (11/22): Home team is 8-2 L10 and Tech?s only win in Norman came in 1996.
Texas at Texas Tech (11/1): The Over always looks like a good play here as the teams have combined to average 79 PPG the last six meetings.
Missouri at Texas (10/18): Mack Brown has never lost to the Tigers and as mentioned above Mizzou?s last win in Austin came in 1896.
Texas at Kansas (11/15): Kansas has not beaten Texas since 1938 with the average loss coming by 31 PPG.
Kansas vs. Missouri (11/29): The winner has prevailed by double-digits in 12 of 15 meetings.
Good luck, Lenny.