By Marc Lawrence
They gained notoriety as the ‘Sure We Cheat' (SWC) league in the 1970's. They then evolved into the Big 8 Conference before expanding into the Big 12. Where they go from here, no one knows.
What we know for sure is the Big 12 Conference is back for another college football season in 2010. And we can also likely expect another lackluster performance from this loop come bowl time.
Granted, Texas made it to the BCS championship game last year, a game in which Oklahoma has made four appearances this past decade. But the truth of the matter is unless the Big12 can improve on its blasé 39-38 SU and 32-45 ATS mark in bowl games since 2000, they will likely go down as another also-ran major conference that continues to shoot itself in the foot thanks to lackluster play on the defensive side of the ball.
In closing, despite the defensive deficiencies of the rest of the conference, beware of the Sooners. Other than the game with Texas, they figure to be double-digit favorites in every other contest this season. Remember, the last time Bob Stoops lost five games in the same season his team went on to go 13-0 and win a national championship (2000).
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
COLORADO - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW
When a coach goes just 10-22 in league play and his team finishes LAST in total conference offense two years running, one would figure a coaching change is in order. Not in Boulder. The Buffaloes rehired Dan Hawkins because they could not afford the cost of a buyout and a rehire. Talk about a sign of the times! The only team in the Big 12 not to use a spread offense, Colorado will turn to an offensive line that returns all five starters. A soft seven-game home schedule, only four true road games, revenge aplenty and an over-abundance of playing time for true freshman over the last three seasons, could actually find the Buffaloes roaming in a minor bowl. If not, the only sign you may see around the Boulder area is one that says ‘For Sale' - no matter what the cost.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Kansas (11/6)
IOWA STATE - *8 / 5
TEAM THEME: PEEPING PAUL
When newly-hired HC Paul Rhoads first met with the team, he told them that they were going to win a bowl game in 2009. Did Paul see something nobody else did? After all, the Cyclones had gone 2-10 in 2008 and had not won a bowl game since 2004. Despite an offense that ranked last in the Big 12 in 2009, Rhoads was true to his word as an Insight Bowl victory over Minnesota capped off a surprising 7-6 season. The offensive numbers should improve in 2010 as eight starters return to Ames, including QB Austen Arnuad. Defensively, only five starters are back in the mix but the linebacking unit - the strength of the defense - returns three starters including tackling machine, Jesse Smith. Here's some scholarly advice for Rhoads: with nine winning teams and eight bowlers on the docket, we suggest you take a long look at the schedule before making any promises.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Nebraska (11/6)
KANSAS - 8 / 7
TEAM THEME: WEIGHT AND SEE
After a mistreatment allegation, the big man has left the campus as Mark Mangino's eight-year stint in Lawrence comes to an abrupt end. New HC Turner Gill knows he'll have some big pants to fill and the former Nebraska star will bring along some heavy-hitting coordinators in Chuck Long and Carl Torbush. Star QB Todd Reesing and his 11,194 total yards and 90 TD's have also departed. Not to worry. Gill turned a dormant Buffalo program into a conference champion in three years. Imagine what he could do with a team that has won 25 games over the past three seasons and returns 15 starters, including an entire offensive line. We realize the Big 12 is a large leap from the MAC but we also recall that Gill is a perfect 20-0 versus the conference in his playing days as a star QB. Been there - done that!
KANSAS STATE - 5 / 7
TEAM THEME: PHASE TWO, YEAR TWO
Kansas State's silver-haired HC Bill Snyder proved age is only a number when he guided the 2009 Wildcats to bowl-eligible status. After a 3-year hiatus, the 70-year old Snyder returned to the Manhattan sidelines and looked to shore up a defense that was scorched for over 36 PPG, 479 YPG and 5.2 YPC the previous season. And shore up he did. The ‘Cats held seven opponents to under 20 points as the defense improved by 13 PPG and an incredible 139 YPG while allowing just 3.5 YPC. The combination of a now well-fortified defense (seven returning starters), a top-notch RB in Daniel Thomas (the Big 12 newcomer of the year) and a favorable early schedule (first true road game not until mid-October) holds promise for 2010. Old habits never die.
PLAY ON: vs. Oklahoma St (10/30)
MISSOURI - *8 / 8
TEAM THEME: CAT SCRATCH FEVER
Expect a big year from Missouri in 2010. Many believe that following their breakout season in 2007 (12-2), Gary Pinkel recruited a slew of talent - and that investment is about to pay some dividends. Not only do the Tigers return eight starters on each side of the ball, but 30 of the 44 players on the season-ending two-deep roster were either freshmen or sophomores - the second most in the nation last year. A season opening five-game schedule that includes three home games against FBS foes with a combined 8-28 record, a fourth home game against McNeese State and a neutral site match-up with 3-9 Illinois, should help these Tigers catch their tail early. If the Cats are going to have the year we think they'll have, a 5-0 start is critical with only two of the season's final seven games at home, including trips to Lincoln and Lubbock. Nonetheless, we'll take the bait.
PLAY ON: vs. Nebraska (10/30)
NEBRASKA - *10 / 7
TEAM THEME: TWO YEARS GONE BY
Have the Huskers turned the corner? Bearing in mind they ranked No. 116 in scoring defense in 2007 (37.9 PPG) - the year before HC Bo Pelini arrived - and No. 1 last season (10.4 PPG), the answer is a resounding yes. Also consider they were 1-20 SU versus Top 20 ranked teams before a promising 3-2 showing last season. The former NFL assistant also has the Kids of the Corn playing their best ball late in the season, posting a stout 9-2 record from November out, including 7-1 in November alone (Bill's Callahan's previous 4-year regime only won a total of six November contests). 17 returning starters, with every ball carrier back in the mix and a favorable schedule that includes Texas at home and is sans Oklahoma, makes Nebraska worthy of a BCS futures play. Is that Springsteen's ‘Glory Days' we hear playing in those Lincoln cornfields?
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Colorado (11/26)
BAYLOR - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: LET'S GET PHYSICAL
Perhaps no team in the land figures to benefit more from the return of a key player from injury than Baylor, as star QB Robert Griffin III re-claims his starting spot after tearing an ACL in Game Three last season. After a promising 2-1 start, the Bears went into hibernation (2-7) when Griffin went down to stay. HC Art Briles, however, has more than the return of his star on his mind as he looks to address a defense that allowed over 400 YPG in 2009. After the spring game, Briles noted, "Those guys are strong, fast, mean and tough... that's what they need to be. They need to be aggressive and physical with a bad temper. That's what we have to get to and that's the way we have to play, because in the Big 12 South if you're friendly and nice, you're going to have a long season." If RG3 can stay healthy and Briles can impose his will, these Bears will be anything but average.
OKLAHOMA - *10 / 6
TEAM THEME: KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Despite losing three players in the first four picks of this year's NFL draft - including Heisman trophy winner and all-time NCAA passing efficiency leader Sam Bradford - 23 full or part-time starters return. Included is SO QB Landry Jones, who led the nation's freshman QBs in passing yards (3,198) and TD passes (26) last season. His yardage figure was also an OU record, breaking the mark set by Bradford in 2007. Expect Jones to surpass those numbers this season as all-everything RB DeMarco Murray and record-setting WR Ryan Broyles stay onboard the Sooner Schooner in 2010. Whether by land or air, the OU attack shouldn't miss a beat as Jones and company figure to keep up with the Bradfords. Remember, OU faced the 2nd toughest schedule in the land in 2009 and four of its five losses were by a total of 12 points.
PLAY ON: vs. Texas Tech (11/13)
OKLAHOMA STATE - 6 / 4
TEAM THEME: "O", NO
It's not often a 9-win season is considered a bummer. That may have been the case in Stillwater last season, though, when the Cowboys were shut out in their season finale at rival Oklahoma and then held to seven points in a bowl loss to Ole Miss. When the dust settled, a highly-touted, veteran offense saw their production fall 13 points and 120 YPG as injuries, player suspensions and being a ‘marked team' finally took its toll. The ‘D' was actually a bright spot last year but with only four starters back in the mix, HC Mike Gundy realizes he may have to win a few shootouts. Enter OC Dana Holgorsen. He brings his playbook from Houston where his offense was tops in the nation last season. Star RB Kendall Hunter is back to tote the pigskin but untested 26-year old JR QB Brandon Weeden takes over for Zac Robinson. It's time to man up, ‘Boys!
TEXAS - 6 / 7
TEAM THEME: BIG (12) BULLIES
The Horns were a shoulder-injury short of winning a national championship last season. When QB Colt McCoy went down in the BCS title game, so did Texas' hopes of beating Alabama. McCoy is off to the NFL and in steps Garrett Gilbert to direct an attack that will be moving away from the spread offense to more of a running game in 2010. This move will take some pressure off Gilbert, the 2008 High School Player of the Year, and hopefully improve a ground game that averaged a mere 148 YPG - their worst since 2002. No such adjustments are needed on the defensive front where the UT rush defense held opponents to a nation-low 72 YPG on the ground. Eight bowlers do roam this year's schedule but six of those come from the Big 12 where the Horns are 16-1 SU over the last two seasons. The first two games in October will likely decide their fate.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Texas Tech (9/18)
TEXAS A&M - *6 / 9
TEAM THEME: WHO STOPS J.J.?
The Jerrod Johnson show returns to College Station for its final season and it may draw a bigger audience in these parts than ‘Who shot J.R.?' Johnson, a second-team all Big 12 performer, keyed the 5th best offense in the land by throwing for a school record 3,217 yards and 28 TD's while adding another 455 yards on the ground. He saved his best performance for Texas, throwing for 342 yards and rushing for 97 more. J.J. is joined by a cast of kids that formed the youngest roster in the nation last year. While the offense will take the lead role, it's imperative for the defense to add some support. Mike Sherman will rely on new DC Tim DeRuyter to shore up a stop unit that ranked 105th in the nation. DeRuyter, who led Air Force to a No. 11 team defense ranking last season, will have eight starters to work with as he incorporates his 3-4 scheme. With a season-ender at Texas, the finale should be scintillating.
TEXAS TECH - *8 / 6
TEAM THEME: JAMES GANG
With Craig and Adam James' approval, Tommy Tuberville steps in to take over for Mike Leach, in one of the major coaching moves in Division 1 this season. After getting unceremoniously dumped by Auburn, Tuberville now walks into the Lubbock fire. Leach won 84 games in his 10 seasons with Tech - and along with Texas and Oklahoma, formed the winningest trio of teams in the nation from the same conference over the last three seasons (276 victories). Tuberville welcomes back 14 returning starters, including QB Taylor Potts. The word, though, is the QB job is open between Taylor and fan favorite Steven Sheffield (rumor has it that whoever completes more passes to Adam in the spring will likely get the nod). Whomever Tuberville decides on, he better make sure of one thing: he leads the Raiders to a bowl - ‘cause the fans sure got used to it with Leach.
PLAY ON: vs. Houston (11/27) - *KEY as dog