Today, Thursday the 23rd, marks one week until the start of the college football season. Let that sink in, football is almost here. The Big 12 conference hasn't won a national title since Texas in 2005, but I think it's consistently the 2nd best conference in college football. I don't think any Big 12 team will win the National Title this season, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of good teams that will provide some very entertaining games for us this fall. There isn't a perfect team with no weaknesses this season, so the conference appears to be wide open.
Conference Championship Contenders:
Texas - The Longhorns have national championship talent everywhere, except at quarterback. They've got probably the best defense in the conference, the best group of running backs in the conference, two talented receivers in Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley, and an improved offensive line; but can they trust their quarterback? Mack Brown has named David Ash the starter, he'll have to improve his play for the Longhorns to improve on their eight wins from last season. If he does improve, the Longhorns can win 10+ and possibly win the conference.
West Virginia - One of the best offenses in the nation, but lost a lot of talent on defense and are switching to a new 3-4 base defense.They can put 30+ on every team in the nation, but can they stop anybody? They got away with suspect defenses in the Big East where no one could outscore them, that won't be the case in the Big 12.
Oklahoma State - Lost 1st round picks Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon; I don't think they can overcome it. They're going this season from a 28-year-old 1st round draft pick to an 18-year-old true freshman. Freshman today are capable of playing well sooner, but Ty Duffy from The Big Lead points out:
No freshman finished in the Top 40 in passer rating last season. The top freshman with 400 or more attempts was Oregon State’s Shawne Mannion, who finished 67th.
Kansas State - Smoke and mirrors last year, they only outscored their opponents by 4 points a game. They also ranked 106th (two spots behind Rice) in yards per play on offense. Their success is completely dependent on one person, their QB Colin Klein and he'll have three new lineman blocking for him this season.
Oklahoma - They have issues on the offensive line and on defense, but they've been able to mask and overcome their issues better than other teams in the conference under Bob Stoops. I think the nickname "Big Game Bob" is ridiculous because he's barely .500 in big games recently, but he is a very good coach. I don't think they'll challenge for a national title because they'll lose a road game during the middle of the season like they always do, but they're rightfully the favorite to win the conference.
TCU - The Horned Frogs have lost a lot since their Rose Bowl Champion team two years ago and go into this season with questions at running back, offensive line, and on defense. TCU ranked 32nd in yards allowed last season after ranking 1st in 2009; moving to a better offensive conference will be a problem early on. QB Casey Pachall is a good, but I don't believe the Horned Frogs have enough to win the conference.
2. West Virginia
5. Oklahoma State
6. Kansas State
8. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State
Big 12 Best Quarterback: Geno Smith (West Virginia)
Most thought Smith would take awhile to adjust to the new pass-happy offense put in by new head coach Dana Holgerson, but just the opposite happened. Smith put up huge numbers during the regular season and seemed to improve as the season went on; he tore apart Clemson's defense in their bowl win with 407 yards and six touchdowns. Now with a full off-season in the system and a loaded group of receivers to throw to; the sky is the limit for Smith and the Mountaineers with their move to the Big 12.
Some of you are no doubt thinking, how could he not pick Landry Jones? Jones has a 7-8 record as a starter on the road, threw 0 touchdowns and 5 picks during their last three games last season, and his completion percentage (65.6 to 63.1%) and interception rate (one every 37.5 attempts) both dropped from 2010; that's how.
2011 Stats: 4,385 yards, 31 TDs, 7 INTs, 65.8%
Big 12 Best Running Back: Joseph Randle (Oklahoma State)
Randle goes into this season as the leagues only returning 1,000 yard rusher at running back so you have put him on top, but I'm not convinced he'll still be there by seasons end. With Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon gone, defenses will be keying in on Randle and he'll have to deal with eight guys in the box some this season; that didn't happen last year.
If he stays healthy, Malcolm Brown of Texas could take the top spot before the end of the season. Despite missing three game due to injury, Brown led the Longhorns in rushing; the first freshman to do so since Cedric Benson in 2001. The sophomore was the top recruit in the nation at running back last year and is the most talented back in the conference in my opinion. Brown proved to have a knack for finding the smallest of lanes and getting through it even though he doesn't have breakaway speed. He's tough, breaks tackles, shifty for his size, and loves to fall forward; could be a star for Texas. One thing that could hold him back, is that Texas has recruited extremely well at running back recently (unlike quarterback) and has great depth with sophomore Joe Bergeron and freshman Johnathan Gray who will take a few carries away from Brown.
Randle 2011 Stats: 208 att., 1,216 yards, 24 TDs, 43 rec., 266 yards, 2 TDs
Big 12 Best Receiver: Tavon Austin & Stedman Bailey (West Virginia)
Couldn't pick between the two of them; the Mountaineers are loaded at receiver. The two guys are different types of receivers, but both get the job done. Austin is small and quick and a bit of a running back/receiver hybrid who makes his living with underneath routes, whereas Bailey is more of the traditional down the field type of receiver. The combo makes Geno Smith's job a lot easier.
Austin 2011 Stats: 101 catches, 1,186 yards, 8 TD
Bailey 2011 Stats: 72 catches, 1,279 yards, 12 TD
Big 12 Best Offensive Line: Texas
This would have been Oklahoma, but they've lost a lot recently due to injury, not to mention the loss of Donald Stephenson from last season. Over the last few months the Sooners have lost starting center Ben Habern who retired from football due to lingering back and neck issues, and starting guard Tyler Evans from an ACL injury during their first fall practice (was thought of as a possible All-Conference candidate). Their line still has talent, but they had to move their All-Big 12 player at guard Gabe Ikard to center which he's done before, but guard is his better position. They'll also have to rely heavily on Adam Shead and Bronson Irwin who were highly recruited players, but don't have much experience and won't have much time to build up a chemistry and continuity with their fellow starting lineman.
On Texas, they had a very talented group last season, but a very young group starting two freshman and two sophomores. Those four players return along with highly sought after junior college stud Donald Hawkins who is penciled in to start at left tackle. Second year offensive line coach Stacy Searels coached the line last year beyond expectation for mostly first time starters, now with a season and another training camp under the belt; the Longhorn line could be one of the best in the nation.
Big 12 Best Defensive Line: Texas
Tackle Kheeston Randall is gone, but the Longhorns still have a great defensive line. Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor are one of the nation's best defensive end duos and both players have the potential to be first-round picks in the 2013 NFL Draft. Texas finished sixth nationally against the run and ranked 29th with 30 sacks last year. The Longhorns have a lot of talent on the line and could improve those numbers in 2012.
The Sooners are a very close 2nd, but their rush defense was just average last year (43rd) and their two best pass rushers have left. They no doubt will have plenty of talent stepping in, but until they prove it, they'll remain second.
Big 12 Best Linebackers: Oklahoma
Travis Lewis was their leader and his presence will be missed but the Sooners are never short on talent at linebacker. Juniors Corey Nelson and Tom Wort have played well in lesser roles and should be ready to shine under new linebacker coach Tim Kish.
Big 12 Best Secondary: Texas
Corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs are two of the best young corners to ever play for Texas and when combined with the talented safety Kenny Vaccaro, they make up arguably the best secondary not just in the Big 12, but in the entire nation. Diggs and Byndom could both be 1st round picks and Vaccaro totaled 82 tackles and kept opposing receivers to less than four yards per pass attempt last season.