For the first time in quite a while, the Big 12 may actually be the fourth best conference in the country. Although there are teams that will rebound to have great seasons, there really isn’t any BCS title contenders like the SEC, Big Ten and Pac 12 have. We saw disappointments from Oklahoma and Texas and growing pains from TCU in their first season in the conference. However, we saw Baylor’s offense continue to flourish with RGIII’s successor, and Oklahoma State kept running up and the down the field with their Oregon-esque combination of helmets and jerseys. I’m here to break it all down for you top to bottom with each team’s strengths, weaknesses and what stumbling blocks (or momentum builders) they have on their schedule. The last non-SEC team to win the National Championship came right out of this conference. It’s unlikely to break that streak, but there are some teams that will make BCS noise in 2013. Let’s break it down.
1) OKLAHOMA STATE (2012 record: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12; Defeated Purdue 58-14 in Heart of Dallas Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: With eight returning starters on offense, including quarterback Clint Chelf and a bevy of receivers, Mike Gundy’s offense will be quite stacked again. Chelf started five games last season and racked up almost 1600 yards passing and 15 touchdowns. He now has the role to himself and will have a bevy of returning receivers like Tracy Moore and Isaiah Anderson trying to continue the tradition this decade of top ball catchers like Bryant and Blackmon. The offensive line is mixed experience-wise with seniors Parker Graham and Brandon Webb at guard but newcomers at the other three slots. The secondary was torched last year, giving up almost 280 yards per game and they will be tested against good offenses again this year. This group with three seniors (Justin Gilbert, Shamiel Gary and Daytawion Lowe) will have to be better. A myriad of sophomores along the front seven is more evidence that unless adjustments are made, there will be some pretty high scoring games at Boone Pickens Stadium.
Key Games: There are three games that Oklahoma State will have to win for both the conference title and a BCS birth. Opening week they host the SEC’s Mississippi State. The Bulldogs aren’t the upper echelon of the conference but definitely no pushover. Their two toughest games in conference are both on the road in November. On 11/2 the Cowboys head to Lubbock to face Texas Tech and new coach Kliff Kingsbury who will definitely test the revamped OSU defense. Two weeks later on 11/16 they’ll head to Austin and face the retooled Texas Longhorns. If they can win one of these two, the conference title is theirs. The Bedlam game with the Sooners is 12/7 but both teams can be winless and it won’t matter.
Player to Watch: Running back Jeremy Smith will be getting a bulk of the carries this season after rushing for 646 yards as a part timer in 2012. He will be brought on to sustain drives and give Chelf more options on offense and keep conference defenses on their toes. Regardless of how good OSU will be, 3rd and 3 is much easier to convert than 3rd and 11.
Up or down?: After losing shootouts to Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma last season, Oklahoma State will have a more experienced defense to learn from their mistakes. They will get revenge on the Sooners and Wildcats, but the rematch with Texas will decide who wins the Conference Title. Definitely up.
Final Thoughts: Mike Gundy is a Cowboy true and true and after losing games last year due to defensive lapses, they will rebound this year and win games with defense late. They will win either at Texas Tech or Texas and that will be enough to win the conference title. Beating Mississippi State will put them at 12-1, and depending on what happens elsewhere in the country, that could cause some BCS Title talk. It all depends on how many SEC teams finish with one loss or two.
2) TEXAS (2012 Record: 9-4, 5-4 Big 12; Defeated Oregon State 31-27 in Alamo Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: The Texas defense was a huge problem in 2012 (Mack Brown still has nightmares of last year’s Red River Shootout). With Kenny Vaccaro and Alex Okefor gone, defensive coordinator Manny Diaz will have a couple big holes to fill. The remaining nine all return and Texas will need to tighten up particularly up front where they gave up 192 YPG on the ground. That may not make too big a deal in this pass-happy conference but it still helps to block some holes. Jackson Jeffcoat returns to help tighten that front four. Jeffcoat had 31 tackles last season, seven for losses. The offense is loaded with David Ash at quarterback trying to improve on 2699 yards and 18 touchdowns. Jaxon Shipley returns as well as Mike Davis so Ash will have his familiar targets as well as sophomore Johnathan Gray behind him. Gray led a balanced Horns rushing attack with 701 yards and three TD’s. Joe Bergeron, who led the team with 16 rushing TD’s returns as well.
Key Games: For me, the biggest game of the year in the Big 12 will be 11/16, when Oklahoma State comes to Darrell Royal Stadium. The winner of this game could win the conference title, but doesn’t have to. Before this game, the Longhorns have BYU in Provo on 9/7 as well as Ole Miss the following week. Hugh Freeze had a loaded recruiting class so that won’t be a cakewalk. They do get Texas Tech at home but end with a toughie on 12/7 at Baylor. Plenty of big wins (but plenty of pitfalls) for Mack on the schedule.
Player to Watch: Jeffcoat at defensive end. The Horns secondary only allowed 212 yards in the air last season, so what hurt Texas was their rush defense. Jeffcoat is the senior anchor buoyed by fellow senior Ashton Dorsey, and they will have to help sophomore starters Malcom Brown at end and Peter Jinkens at linebacker. If Jeffcoat can dominate and help seal the gaps and force more throwing situations, the experienced Longhorn secondary will feast.
Up or Down?: After a strong finish to a disappointing season (nine wins and a six touchdown loss to Oklahoma is certainly and up and a down) things are on the upswing in Austin. Plenty of starters return and it’s set up for a double digit win season and a BCS berth. Definitely an up.
Final Analysis: After making it to the 2009 BCS Championship (and a loss to Alabama), Texas’ combined record the past three years is 21-16. That doesn’t fly in Austin, considering two BCS Title appearances in a four year stretch before that. Mack Brown’s job was rumored to be on the line during this offseason but this team is exceptional with talent everywhere. They definitely rebound and will be in the top 10 all season, but Texas will lose one of those early non-conference games and it will cost them a BCS Title bid. Still a 10-2 record is nothing to sneeze at. Mack Brown’s job will be secure and if they beat the Cowboys at home, the conference title is theirs.
3) OKLAHOMA (2012 Record: 10-3, 8-1 Big 12; Lost to Texas A&M 41-13 in Cotton Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: The Sooners had some highs and lows throughout 2012. They ran Texas out of the State Fair 63-21 with 677 total yards, and topped 50 points against West Virginia and Oklahoma State. Then there was the home loss to Notre Dame that saw the quicker Irish defense mangle OU’s running game, and Johnny Football lighting them up in the Cotton Bowl. Bob Stoops has had some great seasons during the 15 he’s been in Norman, but hasn’t kissed the crystal football since 2000’s Cinderella season. Even ten wins last year isn’t helping things with the fan base. They could be just as good this year as last year with four returning starters on the offensive line and the lightning quick Blake Bell at QB replacing the popular but inconsistent Landry Jones. Damien Williams returns at tailback after a thousand yard season and 11 TD’s a year ago, and with returning receivers Sterling Shepherd and Jalen Saunders at wideouts, Bell will have plenty of options. Bell’s 11 TD’s on the ground make him a dual threat that lacked when Jones was behind center. The defense is the wild card here, as seven new starters will wear crimson on D this season, trying to improve on solid numbers, particularly against the pass. OU’s defense allowed a mere 206 yards in the air last year, but with only CB Aaron Colvin returning, there will be some growing pains.
Key Games: After three games at home to start the season, The Sooners head to South Bend for a rematch with the Irish on 9/28. The first two games in October will tell the tale of the season as they face TCU and then Red River. Oklahoma could be in the mix for the Big 12 title when they face Oklahoma State in the Bedlam Game 12/7. That game is in Stillwater.
Player to Watch: Blake Bell. After being mostly a situation quarterback for Bob Stoops, he is the regular quarterback now and though he doesn’t have nearly the arm that Landry Jones has he can still be a menace both ways. It will be up to the Sooners’ defense to keep Oklahoma ahead in games so Bell can run the ball. If games late have to rely on his arm OU may have issues. Bell only attempted 16 passes last year. Trevor Knight is waiting in the wings if Bell falters.
Up or Down?: They should be about even. A change in offensive philosophy with a new quarterback but big losses on defense makes thing difficult to predict. Right now I’d put them slightly down, as Bell needs to prove he can win as the every down guy.
Final Analysis: Bob Stoops was the man in Norman after winning it all in 2000, but they haven’t been close since the shellacking USC gave them in the 2004 BCS Title game. They were preseason #1 in 2011 but faded in mid-season. They started top five last year and are highly ranked to start this season. Double digit wins is probable, but that could be an empty statistic if they don’t win the conference and make a BCS game, which happened last season.
4) BAYLOR (2012 Record: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12; Defeated UCLA 49-26 in Holiday Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: So after two seasons of bowl appearances and unbelievable moments from that Griffin guy, most thought 2012 was a rebuilding year for Art Briles’ Bears. In stepped Nick Florence, who did nothing but set the school record for passing yards (4,309) and another bowl appearance. With Florence gone, the QB mantle is occupied by junior Bryce Petty. Petty has thrown only 14 passes in his career but he has got a lot of help from easily the best backfield in the conference, if not the nation. Junior Lache Seastrunk and senior Glasco Martin combined for close to 2,000 yards and 22 TD’s last year and Seastrunk has already said he’s gunning to be Baylor’s second Heisman winner in three years. Petty has the arm to put up great numbers as well so once again Briles has a myriad of offensive options. Baylor’s problem is defense and it showed many times last season. The defense did hold UCLA to 33 yards rushing in the bowl win, but the secondary was lit up for 324 passing yards allowed per game. In this conference that is not good. There are some new additions sprinkled throughout the D, so it may be more of the same. Expect some high scoring games in Waco this season.
Key Games: They don’t play a game outside of Waco until 10/12 when they play Kansas State in Manhattan. Their last three games are a gauntlet: At Oklahoma State, at TCU and home to Texas. A porous secondary could lead to three losses there regardless how many points they score. They do get Oklahoma at home on 11/7.
Player to Watch: Bryce Petty. After a pair of stalwarts in Griffin and Florence, Petty must keep up the pinball statistics and help keep Baylor in games. If the secondary struggles early in games and Baylor trails, that could take Seastrunk and Martin out of the equation which severely hampers Baylor’s offense. Petty will have a lot of pressure on him. With early cupcakes like Wofford and Buffalo, Petty will get time to warm up before the conference opener against West Virginia on 10/5.
Up or Down?: Like Oklahoma, there’s uncertainty at quarterback but unlike the Sooners Baylor has an exceptional backfield that can dictate pace and keep Baylor in games. The defense was mediocre to bad last year, and this year there’s no real change. I’d say down, with Petty being untested at the moment.
Final Analysis: Art Briles is an offensive wizard who has so many weapons that Baylor shouldn’t have a problem scoring points this season. However like Texas the secondary is weak and if they fall behind early in games his weapons could be taken away. Baylor could reach double digit wins this season, but if Petty struggles and the defense gets torched they could hover around .500. I think they’ll pick up a lot of wins early on, so if they beat Texas at home and win at either Oklahoma State (unlikely) or TCU (possible) they could win nine or perhaps ten games.
5) TCU (2012 Record: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12; Lost to Michigan State 17-16 in Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: The Horned Frogs definitely felt some growing pains leaving the cozy Mountain West conference for the tougher Big 12. TCU did lose a couple of OT heartbreakers to Texas Tech and West Virginia, but did manage to upset Texas in Austin. Casey Pachall is now the full time QB, after throwing 10 TD’s with only one INT in limited duty last season backing up Trevone Boykin. The running game will be suspect as newcomer and Sophomore Aaron Green will be the starter after a platoon system last year produced three backs rush for over 400 yards each and nine TD’s. Sophomore BJ Catalon led the team with 582 yards but will fight for time. Brandon Carter returns at wideout after a year in which he had almost 600 yards receiving and six TD’s. TCU returns nine defensive starters from a squad that was tough last year, particularly against the run. Only a pair of sophomores (James McFarland and Deryck Gideon) are newbies on defense. TCU’s issues are the opposite of most teams in the conference: Their defense is stacked all around, but it’s their offense full of newcomers that could struggle to score points.
Key Games: TCU jumps right out of the gate with a big time matchup at Cowboys Stadium against LSU on 8/31. That will be a solid indicator of whether both the defense still has what it takes and whether Paschall can handle the big lights as a starter. Their tougher conference games are at home except for trips to both Norman and Stillwater, neither of which could end well.
Player to Watch: Aaron Green. This fresh-faced sophomore will be relied upon to run the ball and sustain drives against solid rushing defenses like Texas. Catalon will be there as well, but coach Gary Patterson seems to want Green to carry the load.
Up or Down?: Just like a majority of the conference, a new starter at quarterback always brings doubt going into a season. However TCU has an experienced defense with a few highly touted sophomores that will shut down weaker conference offenses. I’ll say up, if they can keep games low scoring.
Final Analysis: After dominating the “fly in the ointment” department during the Andy Dalton years, Gary Patterson had a rough first year in the Big 12. Still, he was close in many games. Only Oklahoma State beat the Horned Frogs by more than two touchdowns last year and with uncertainty in a good portion of Big 12 offenses this year, TCU will be in games again. They will lose both games in the state of Oklahoma and will finish in the middle of the pack, but in just their second year in the conference they’ll continue to sow their oats.
6) TEXAS TECH (2012 Record: 8-5, 4-5 Big 12; Defeated Minnesota 34-31 in Meineke Car Care Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: The biggest addition in Lubbock is their head coach. Kliff Kingsbury is the second all-time leading passer in Red Raiders history and now returns to keep the points coming in. As is the trend this year in the Big 12, we have another new starter at quarterback. Gone is Seth Doege’s 4,205 yards and 39 TD’s. In is sophomore Michael Brewer, who in spot duty completed 70% of his passes with 4 TD’s. Junior tailback Kenny Williams returns to improve on 824 yards and five TD’s a year ago. Tech’s high scoring offense includes four starters at wide out. Experienced starters Eric Ward and Jace Amaro will combine with new starters Jakeem Grant and senior Javon Bell to give Tech loads of speed. The defense is solid up front with all starters returning, but the secondary only has cornerback Bruce Jones returning. I haven’t mentioned many punters, but Tech does have Ryan Erxleben, son of legendary Texas and NFL punter Russell Erxleben.
Key Games: Texas Tech could conceivably be 6-0 when they head to Morgantown to face West Virginia on 10/19. Only TCU at home on 9/12 could stop that. After that it’s back to back games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which they could split or get swept. They end the year at Texas.
Player to Watch: Michael Brewer. Considering the legacy of great Texas Tech slingers (Doege, Graham Harrell and of course Coach Kingsbury), the sophomore has some huge cleats to fill. With the soft opening month against the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Texas State, he could get comfortable before jumping into the teeth of the conference slate. That 9/12 game against TCU’s stingy D could be a template for how the rest of the season goes.
Up or Down?: I will say even with a new coach and quarterback.
Final Analysis: Kingsbury is going to run these receivers like crazy so Big 12 secondaries better be ready to stay on their toes. Tech’s secondary is going to cost them games against big offenses like Oklahoma State and Texas, and that means the middle of the pack like TCU and Baylor. Don’t sleep on the red and black though, as an upset here and there could propel them to eight wins and a bowl berth.
7) KANSAS STATE (2012 RECORD: 11-2, 8-1 Big 12; Lost to Oregon 35-17 in Fiesta Bowl)
Key Additions/Subtractions: Clearly Kansas State’s 2012 season rose and set with Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein. Klein had one of the best seasons in Wildcat history, better than even Michael Bishop. Klein had over 2600 passing yards, over 900 yards rushing and a combined 39 TD’s rushing and passing. The Wildcats were ready to punch a ticket to the BCS Title game before the defense collapsed in a loss at Baylor. He is gone, as is leading receiver Chris Harper and pretty much the entire Wildcats defense. Only cornerback Randall Lewis and Safety Ty Zimmerman return from a defense that in 2012 allowed less than four yards a carry on the ground and less than 250 yards passing. It is going to be a long year for the Wildcats as a bevy of offensively-dominant teams will feast on this group that does have seniors, but nine new starters. At Quarterback replacing Klein is junior Jake Waters, who has never thrown an NCAA pass. That doesn’t bode well either for wins against strong Big 12 defenses. Senior Tremaine Thompson returns to anchor the wide receivers, but it’s a question of whether Waters can get the ball to him, The entire starting offensive line from 2012 returns, which gives hope for Waters to establish himself.
KEY GAMES: After three cupcake games Waters will be tested on 9/21 at Texas against that vaunted secondary. They do get a bye after that before travelling to Stillwater where that inexperienced secondary faces Mike Gundy’s Fun and Gun. They do get TCU and Oklahoma at home.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Tremaine Thompson is one of the conference’s best wide receivers, and Waters will give him so many opportunities to shine as he is the focal point of the offense.
UP OR DOWN?: No Collin Klein? Nine starters gone on defense? Way down.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Bill Snyder is one of the game’s greatest coaches. He’s had some great seasons with good talent and great talent. However if they can finish with six wins and steal a bowl berth it would be an absolute miracle. Another conference team that starts a new quarterback, but unlike teams like Oklahoma State and TCU the Wildcats have an equally suspect defense. There may be a glimmer of hope here and there but otherwise it could be a long year in the Little Apple.
8) WEST VIRGINIA (2012 Record: 7-6, 4-5 Big 12; Lost to Syracuse 38-14 in Pinstripe Bowl)
KEY ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Five games into the 2012 season, the West Virginia Mountaineers were flying high. They were 5-0 and Geno Smith was getting a myriad of Heisman talk after a ridiculous performance in week 4 against Baylor, leading the WVU offense to a 70-point outburst. Then after a win at Texas things were really looking up and West Virginia was #5 in the country. Then came Black Saturday, literally. The Mountaineers went into Lubbock against Texas Tech, and everything fell apart. They take a 49-14 shellacking, Geno Smith looked mortal, and the Mountaineers lost the next four in a row as the defense not only got exposed but run over by a train. They gave up in consecutive weeks, 49 points to the Red Raiders, then 55 to Kansas State, 39 to TCU, 55 to Oklahoma State, and then 50 to Oklahoma. They rebounded to win their last two, then got crushed in Yankee Stadium by Syracuse. Well with Geno Smith gone, part of nine of last year’s offensive starters, coach Dana Holgersen could be in big trouble. The QB battle will be between Juniors Clint Trickett and Paul Millard. The defense has returnees on the front line and the secondary but that may not be a good thing. Karl Joseph led the team in tackles last year. Problem is he is a safety.
KEY GAMES: After what should be a cakewalk opener against William & Mary, West Virginia jumps into the fire 9/7 against Oklahoma. They have Oklahoma State and Texas at home but that may not help. They end with doormats Iowa State and Kansas.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Left Tackle Quinton Spain is the anchor of the offensive line and one of the few returning starters. He’s the blind side blocker for whoever is the starting QB and will be counted on to protect the passer. They’ll need to be upright to score points considering how bad the defense will be.
UP OR DOWN: Clearly down. Another Big 12 team with a new QB and a pretty awful defense.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Geno Smith had West Virginia talking BCS. Then he couldn’t score on every play and the defense was giving up over 470 yards of total offense per game. No Geno Smith, same awful defense. Against the upper echelon team’s high octane offense, West Virginia will be falling behind early in games and not able to keep up. Five wins is a push.
9) IOWA STATE (2012 Record: 6-7, 3-6 Big 12; Lost to Tulsa 31-17 in Liberty Bowl)
KEY ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Iowa State opened last season with impressive wins over Tulsa and then Iowa, winning the Cy-Hawk trophy for the first time in a while. The rest of the year had its highs and lows, like a big win against Baylor and a ranked TCU team on the road. They were in a lot of close heartbreakers, including a back and forth season-ending loss to West Virginia. Iowa State had one of the conference’s most balanced running attacks in the conference, with James White and Shontrelle Johnson rushing for over 500 yards each. They both return to give the Cyclones some stability on offense, particularly since Sam Richardson takes over under center, but unlike some of the new QB’s in the Big 12 this year he has some experience. Last year he completed 58% of his passes with 8 TD’s and only 1 pick. Defensively Iowa State has a balance of returning and newbies all around. Willie Scott returns on the line to balance with three new starters, including true freshman Collin Bevins.
KEY GAMES: 11/14 is the annual Cy-Hawk game in Ames. They do get Oklahoma State at home but the rest of the toughies (Texas, TT, Oklahoma) are on the road. The rematch with West Virginia is 11/29 in Morgantown.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Tom Farinok was the glue that held together that line which blocked and helped Iowa State rush for almost 2000 yards as a team. They’ll need to do that again if they intend to win some games for Paul Rhoads.
UP OR DOWN?: I will say slightly up as the key returnees on offense will help dictate tempo and maybe keep the Cyclones in games.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Iowa State could have won more games than they did if they hadn’t made crucial mistakes on offense late in games. They were even in turnover ratio, which means what ever they took, they gave right back. The problem on their schedule is that both byes are in September, which means they must face the Big 12 gauntlet with no break. That will wear this team down and by November teams will be picking the bones.
10) KANSAS (2012 Record: 1-11, 0-9 Big 12; No Bowl Game)
KEY ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Kansas’ 2012 season started well with a win over South Dakota State. That was it. Eleven losses later and Charlie Weis’ first season in Lawrence ended the same way many football seasons end in Lawrence. This basketball-heavy school doesn’t have nearly the scholarships it needs to compete. They didn’t get blown out every week, staying close with Texas and going double OT with Texas Tech. James Sims rushed for over 1000 yards and nine TD’s and he will be back to anchor Kansas’ backfield. Jake Heaps will take over at QB for former ND standout Dayne Crist. Heaps will be watched closely with Michael Cummings and Jordan Darling in the wings. On defense Kansas has a brand new set of starters in the secondary which could lead to some long nights watching Texas and other passing offenses take their shots at them. Jordan Tavai and Marquel Combs return to keep the front seven stable.
KEY GAMES: The in-state war with Kansas State is 11/30 and this year they may have a puncher’s chance of winning that game. I don’t see many other wins on the schedule besides South Dakota.
PLAYER TO WATCH: James Sims. He and Tony Pierson form a solid combo in the backfield but it’s Sims that’s the headliner. He will get a majority of the carries and that could ease the pressure of whoever is at quarterback.
UP OR DOWN?: Anything’s better than 1-11. I say up, a little.
FINAL ANALYSIS: I am a big Charlie Weis fan. Being a big ND fan, I know what Weis is capable of when he has the talent. Sadly he doesn’t have much of it yet. Sims is a stud and with Pierson helping out Kansas can move the football a little bit. They may win two games this season, but I don’t expect them to be blown out of too many games. They’ll hang around and get revenge on Kansas State for the 40-point shellacking Collin Klein gave them last year.