By Tony George
A new horizon for the Big 12 Conference in the 2011 season, as the mighty Huskers have ventured north into the Big 10 conference taking out a major force to be recokned with in this conference and removing a huge obstacle for many teams from the south, as well as nemisis Missouri breathing easier, and the Colorado Buffs limped into the new Pac 12 conference taking away a guaranteed win for many teams and offering the PAC 12 a temporary patsy for the short term. There are 5 teams in the USA coaches’ poll out of the Big 12 in the Top 25, and Okalhoma is ranked first in the nation.
There will be no season ending conference championship game in this conference, not until they have 12 teams and divy it up into North and South divisions again, so it is winner take all in the regular season standings this season. This is a solid conference overall, it should be noted as many as 8 Heisman Trophy candidates are in this conference and chances are that award more than likely will come out of the Big 12 this season.
Offense will be showcased all season with some big time stud quarterbacks front row and centrer, some exciting skill players also will share the limelight. But it will be the team with the best Defense that ultimatley wins this conference and perhaps a BCS Bowl Championship bid. It would not surprise me again if 2 teams out of this conference make it to a BCS Bowl game and one of them contends for a national title.
The conference lacks overall parity, but it is top heavy with very good and experienced football teams with good coaches, and high octane offenes with playmakers all over the field on both sides of the ball.
Oklahoma is the Las Vegas odds on favorite to win this conference and play for a national title, but I assure you the path is not easy, and while Texas is way down this season, Okie State and Texas A&M are way up, and Mizzou will make it a difficult win as well, especially in Columbia for all who visit. There are some landmines as well with Robert Griffen and Baylor and Texas Tech is always a hair rasing experience when playing in Lubbock. The bottom half is about even in this conference so you may see some very close games even between the also rans, but the Top 5 teams in this conference are Top 25 ranked teams overall and at least 3 of them in the top 9 in country. My breakdowns are in condensed form this year, but very well researched and should hold true to form unless injuries ravage a team, here we go: THE RANKINGS
Offensive Units 1. Oklahoma2. Oklahoma State
3. Texas AM
Defensive Units 1. Oklahoma2. Texas AM3. Missouri
Oklahoma Sooners - 1
Bob Stoops can win the whole shooting match this season on the national landscape but winning the Big 12 is a huge feat in the process. The Sooners are ranked number 1 in ther nation to open the season. OU has a stud QB in Laundry Jones, a great playmaer in Broyles at WR, an awesome defense, and of course depth and experience. They also won a BCS Bowl game last year albeit it was against U Conn in a snoozer. Returners: 8 on offense, and 6 on defenseStrength: Passsing game and playmakers at WR. Linebacking unit best in Big 12
Weakness: Defensive line, inexpereince at Running back
Overall OU’s biggest issue is their schedule. An early game at Florida State who wants some pay back after a 31-7 beating last year at the hands of the Sooners in Norman, and a lot of presure on Laundry Jones at QB to win a Heisman is also a distraction. They also have Missouri after FSU on the road at home, but expect Mizzou to have the Sooners full attention after beating them last year in Columbia. They have the depth overall in skill positions to compete with anyone in the nation, an offense that can play from behind, and while they may give up some yards on defense, overall they will not give up huge plays or allow teams with OUs skill at linebacker to rack up huge yards rushing the ball. If you can out score OU then you can beat them, and there are maybe 2 teams on their schedule that can do that. A home game against Texas AM November 5 will be a huge test, and the big game, featuring 4 Heisman canidates will be December 3 in Stillwater against in state rival and very talented contender Oklhoma State. They get past Okie state either undefeated or with one loss and you may have a BCS Championship Bowl contender. This will be a close race between the top 3 teams in the Big 12, a SLIGHT lean to OU to get it done. I assure you the path this year will not be easy for OU, even without a championship game to deal with.
Texas A&M Aggies - 2
I never was a huge fan of Mike Sherman, but I give him credit, he has flat out recruited and coached this team into a spoiler and major contender this season. The defense of this team overall is close to being the best around and ranked 14th nationally last season and were number one in the conference at stopping the run, and with 9 starters back, look out! They also have a balanced attack with all world QB Ryan Tannehill and a solid running game that is 3 deep along with WR Fuller back as well. Texas AM CAN win this confernce, have no doubts. Returners: 9 on Offense, and 9 on defenseStrength: Expereince, QB, overall Defense, DBs, RB
I am hard pressed not to take Texas A&M as my pick to win it all, with a 1-2 punch at RB, a great QB in Tannehill, a solid 1-2 at WR and a great defensive unit with the best DBs in the Big 12 conference, and they have depth at skill positions. The only reason I am not taking them to win it is they have to play Oklahoma in Norman in early November I just do not think they can beat OU at home.
The have a balanced attack, are well coached, they are perhaps the most physical team in the Big 12,and they have a great home field advatage in big games as well, just ask Nebraska from last year. It will be the team who stops the other team with Defense that wins the Big 12, with all the talk of high powered offenses, and Texas A&M is the team who has the best overall unit. Does defense really wins championships? If so, then Aggie fans have no excuses and if they beat OU in Norman and they get Okie State, Texas, Mizzou and Baylor at home, then the 12th man may in fact help them to a championship, do not be surprised folks!
Oklahoma State Cowboys - 3
Mike Gundy has a team folks, have no illusions. Brandon Weeden at QB is a massive stud who led the Big 12 in pass efficiency last season with 34 TD passes and almost 5000 yards through the air, and his stud WR Justin Blackmon is also back. His team also has the best OL in the Big 12. Winning the big game has always been Head Coach Mike Gundys downfall and he has a monster game against hated OU to end the season in December in Stillwater, which may in fact decide the Big 12 and the national landsscape for the championship bowl game as well. Returners: 7 on Offense, and 6 on DefenseStrength: Offense, QB, WR and defensive backsWeakness: Linebacker unit, DL, Road game schedule
If Okie State can win on the road, they can win the Big 12 conference, which is the bottom line. Games at Missouri, Texas A&M and Texas are brutal. The Longhorns are down this year and beatable, so if they can go 1-1 against A&M and Mizzou on the road and not slip up along the way, they could potentially get OU for all the marbles at home for the season finale.
One point of concern is the fact this offense lost All Amercian Kendall Hunter at RB, and they lost their OC to West Virginia. Those are two question marks that have to be addressed to keep OSU on the path of winning.
The defensive line is a concern especially rushing the passer which is going to be key in this conference. They also have 2 linebacker spots up for grabs in fall practice and inexperience at defensive tackle. When you return an offense almost in tact that managed 570 yards and 44 ppg in 2010, you can overcome some defensive issues. They ranked 11th in the Big 12 last year in pass defense, that MUST improve.
Overall I like OSU and their offense to out score opponents, and any Cowboy backer must be hopeful that punter Quinn Sharp can replace stud kicker Dan Bailey pulling double duty this season. At days end QB Weeden and WR Blackmon are threat that all defenses must prepare for and they are going to win on field battles more than they are going to lose. Expect that 44 ppg on offense to remain the same this season and look for Okie State to be in thick of it and a possible Spoiler for Oklahoma in the final game of the season.
Missouri Tigers – 4
One thing is missing at Missouri this year, a returning stud quarterback. Gone are the days of having the luxury of Brad Smith and Chase Daniels returning and Gabbert is gone to the NFL and his heralded brother left the team in spring camp. Gary Pinkel has a way of getting and coaching up awesome QBs, so Jeff Franklin has to have a HUGE year in order for Mizzou to win big games. One thing Mizzou does have this year, unlike years past is a rock solid defense. Returners: 9 on offense, and 7 on defenseStrengths: WR and defensive end, DL, RB depth
Weakness: Inexperience at QB, DBs, road schedule
Hard to imagine that with 9 starters back on a solid offense from last year there is concern, but there is MAJOR concern at QB, which is new to Tiger nation. TJ Moe is a stud at WR and Egnew is an All American canidate at tight end. The OL is in tact, all the pieces are there is James Franklin can administer a revised spread attack with all 3 yard gaining rushers from last year in tact as well.
If Mizzou can rush the ball better and set up their offense not to rely on a QB making plays 80% of the time as in years past, they can nuture Franklin and balance an attack that has talent and great guys up front with experience. The offense and Mizzou goes as far as Franklin and quite frankly the play calling. They do have the best kicker in the nation in Grant Ressel which will help in close games without a doubt. The defense is KEY for Mizzou this year to stay in games, and they have the 3rd best in the Big 12 in my opnion. It has been their downfall over the years, score plenty of points but cannot stop anyone, especially good running teams. No one will run the ball well against Mizzou, they are stacked up on the DL, but the secondary is weak. Hopefully this talented front line can rush the passer and get some heat on opposing QBs as so the defensive backs can cover in zone more often. With all the great passers in the Big 12, I just see Mizzou giving up too many big plays to contend in big games against the likes of Jones, Tannehill and Weeden at QB. Games at Texas AM and Oklahoma loom very large as well as a national TV game against Arizona State in the second week of the season on the road. Mizzou will contend in every game they play.
Texas Longhorns – 5 Not gonna be a Texas Longhorn dominant year for once in the Big 12. With all their dominance in this conference, money and power, and now their own TV Network with no shared revenue, this is one of the reasons Nebraska bolted and rival Texas AM wants out of the Big 12 and Texas has a bullseye on them. A tough year last year and another this year is a real possibility. The Longhorn faithful may again call for Mack Browns job, which is insane to be honest. Only 4 returners on offense is a huge problem, and a tough schedule that for once many teams in front of them are just better this season.
Returners: 4 on offense and 6 on defenseStrengths: QB experience, defensive line, special teams
Weakness: New offensive scheme, pass defense, scoring offense
Texas has a new guru on offense as coodinator in Breyan Harsin outr of Boise State. Lots of shifts and motion may in fact confuse opposing defenses, but I doubt the execution will be stellar out of the gate. With only 4 returning starters, QB Garret Gilberts will have a load on his shoulders to put points on the board. The Longhorns averaged only 23 ppg last year which ranked 88th nationally, that has to change in order to keep pace with the Big 12 elite, I just do not see it happening with a young team and a weak OL.
Defense will have to carry Texas in many regards, and again with many 3 and outs on offense, I just do not see this defense with 6 returners being able to do it against good teams. Long time DC Will Muschamp is now Florida’s head coach, so there is a new DC in town here as well. That is a HUGE hit for the defense at Texas. All in all, there is a ton of new schemes on both sides of the ball with new coaching, and while there is young talent here, it is inexpererinced and in a scenario of learning all new schemes in a year where the Big 12 elite is top notch, Texas is looking at 4 to 5 losses this season.
Baylor Bears – 6 Art Briles got Baylor to a Bowl Game last year. That is a huge step for this downtrodden program, and the Bears have the best dual threat weapon in the country at QB, in Robert Griffen. A true Heisman trophy canidate, he can litterally turn a game around with 1 play. He gets 8 players back on offense. That is HUGE for the Bears. Baylor has a tough schedule opening up against TCU and should get through their first 5 games at 4-1. Returners: 8 on offense and 5 on defenseStrengths: All world QB, depth on offense, confidence
Weakness: LB and secondary, new DC
I honestly feel with an offense that put up 31 ppg last year and with 8 returners and Griffen being healhty, Baylor will win some games they are not suppose to somewhere along the line, and surely cover bigger spread numbers when a dog, Griffen is that good and a huge playmaker. Covering spreads does not get you to 7 or 8 wins and a bowl game however. Defense is an issue again, and with a new DC in town, and many switches in positions in spring camp for numerous players, it is a work in progress here. While I think Baylor can get a big win against a good opponent like Texas on the road, it is apparent that another 5 or 6 loss season is upon them, but they will compete, are well coached and have the most dangerous player in the nation at QB. They will cover some spreads and make some noise this season, and a bowl game is very possible. If you overlook this team, you will get stung.
Texas Tech – 7
Well it did not take long for Tommy Tubberville to learn about the Big 12. It is every bit as tough as the SEC. He had 2 veteran QBs last year and now both of them are gone and he faces an uphill climb with a tough schedule in 2011. The won 4 out of their last 5 games last year, one of them against a good Mizzou team, and won a bowl game. I do not think that happens this season. I do not see them as a contender this year, just too many holes at skill poistions to overcome. Returners: 6 on offense and 5 on defenseStrength: OL is veteran, secondary
Weakness: new QB, DL, new DC and scheme
The bottom line is that the Mike Leach leftovers are still in house in some respects and those players do not fit the offense they like to run. Seth Dodge has little experience at QB and was highly recruited out of high school, but he is in a dog fight with 3 other players for the starting QB positrion. That is not something in the high octane Big 12 that you want to have. If that is not enough, the top 2 leading WRs from last year are gone and the RB postion is iffy at best.
While I feel the offense will be able to get some points up, the Red Raiders success hinges on the defense which now goes to a 4-2-5 scheme and is brand new under new DC Chad Glascow out of TCU. That is the third DC in as many years for Tech. Enough said, 6 losses and a 4 straight losses at the end of the season is very possible and a tough year in Lubbock.
Kansas State – 8
Bill Snyder returns for another year, and he has his hands full. KSU lost a thriller of a bowl game last year and finished better than I expected. They are physical and well coached, but bottom line is they lack talent and depth to compete this season to the level of the 7-6 record they has last year. They only won 3 Big 12 games last year, and while nemisis Nebraska is gone, it is no easy road to 6 wins this year for K State. Returners: 5 on offense and 7 on defenseStrength: WR, Secondary
Weakness: Depth, RB, DL
While QB Collin Klein returns at QB, the job is up for grabs. KSU also has to replace NFL RB Daniel Thomas who was a massive stud and had over 50% of the entire offense last year and they also have to replace key players on the OL. The good news is Chris Harper is back at WR and Brodrick Smith is back and healhty at WR as well. K State can stretch the field vertically. Balancing an attack might be a problem, but Klein at QB will run it and spread the field with his legs if need be. At days end I think he wins the starting job. Defense is nother issue with experience but while K State cannot stop anyone running it, they can stop the pass with an experienced and big hitting secondary. Improvement at LB is needed and some young players look promising. The first road game for this young team is against Miami and they have to play Kansas in Lawerence this year. Just too many question marks and youth, but if anyone can coach them up and get 5 or 6 wins, it would be Bill Snyder.
Iowa State – 9 The Cyclones underperformed last year and now have to replace the entire offense from a skill position standpoint, and that is a huge task considering the talent level in house at tthe moment. A QB shuffle is in place in fall camp and it looks to be a junior in Jerome Tiller but Steele Jantz is sharing equal snaps. The entire season hinges upon the offense clicking and they never completed a pass over 39 yards last year. This is a work in progress on offense and in the Big 12 you have to score 28 ppg to compete, I just do not se it fro ISU this year. Returners: 5 on offense and 7 on defense Strength: OL and LB
Weakness: QB, RB, lack of depth at skill poistions on offense The Cyclones go as far as the offense will take them. A 2 man race for QB still ongoing, issues with RB and uncertian talent at WR is a huge problem. ISU will play good defense, they like to blitz and have some good players at LB in and the secondary, but with no offense to sustain drives against good teams, the defense cannot carry them. I see 4 wins for ISU this year and a brutal schedule with Iowa and U Conn before the Big 12 schedule even hits. Another long year in Ames with this team who will struggle big time on offense.
Kansas – 10
Hate to say this about my friend Turner Gill, but keep your head down or the fans may chop it off this year. Kansas was litterally a train wreck last season as they lost all skill players the year before and ex Nebraska superstar and coach Turner Gill was handed a losing hand on the deal and it showed. More of the same with some improvements this year, but with the entire athletic program a wreck and in scandal at KU, it simply does not look good for Kansas this year in football. Returners: 6 on offense and 7 on defenseStrength: Coaching, RB
Weakness: everything else including QB
With 13 rerturners you might think the Jayhawks could play some spoiler role, but a true freshman is beating out last years starer Jordan Webb at QB. High hopes for incoming frosh Brock Burgland at QB, a Colorado commit that came to KU after the dust settled, but I do not feel a true frosh at QB in the Big 12 will prosper. James Sims is back at RB and 2 new frosh with 4.3 speed back him up so they can muster up a running game somewhat. Look for Gill to make some changes, try some trick plays and expose his speed on offense. KU was ranked 111th in scoring nationally last year, so anything is an improvement.
The defense was a mess, and while they have 7 players back, they will be a mess again this year. Giving up 34 ppg and not being able to stop anyone running the ball needs to improve. The days of Mark Magino are gone and Carl Torbush at DC has a work in progress on defense. Kansas has huge special team’s issues and talent and depth issues on defense. KU will be the whipping boy again in 2012. At least there is always basketball at KU.
FUTURES: Okie State and Texas AM OVER 8.5 wins Each
Laundry Jones to win Heisman 15 to 1