Baylor Bears (10-3 overall, 6-3 in the Big 12 in 2011)
Baylor is coming off what senior quarterback Nick Florence called an "unbelievably believable" 2011 season. Ten wins, a postseason bowl victory and the Heisman Trophy winner in do-it-all, double-threat quarterback Robert Griffin III all contributed to probably the greatest year in the history of Baylor Football.
The Bears' 10-win season represented the most wins by the school since Baylor joined the Big 12 in 1996 and tied the most wins in program history, previously held by the 1980 Southwest Conference champions.
Replacing a superstar like the man who goes by the nickname RG3 will be an extremely tall order - in fact, most college coaches will tell you that you don't replace a player with the extraordinary talent and ability of a Griffin III, you just adjust and move on. Florence is the man who has the dubious distinction of taking over the quarterback reins following the departure of Griffin.
The good news for these Bears is that it won't be the first time that Baylor coach Art Briles has had Florence step in for RG3. As a freshman in 2009, the 6-1, 205-pound Florence filled in for the injured Griffin for more than half the season.
"The thing about a quarterback's play is that you have to be consistent, aware and, to a certain extent, predictable," Briles said during the recent Big 12 media Skywriters' Tour. "So what we are looking for is someone who is able to get the ball to the proper place in the proper situation.
"Nick (Florence) certainly has the ability to do that as did Robert Griffin III," he said. "The only difference was that Robert had the ability that when things broke down to make them special. Nick will have his traits that might not work as dramatically, but will be effective."
Losing Griffin III is difficult enough to deal with, but the 2011 consensus All-American QB isn't the only key offensive player the Bears will have to do without in trying to sustain the momentum and respect the Baylor program has earned over the past two seasons. Gone also are running back Terrance Ganaway, the Bears leading rusher a year ago with 1,547 yards on the ground, and their leading pass receiver, the fleet-of-foot Kendall Wright. These three guys, alone, all now in the NFL, accounted for a huge part of Baylor's No. 2-rated offense nationally, which rolled up close to 600 yards per game.
Baylor's high-output, high-scoring offense, the fourth-best in the country in total points, simply outscored everybody last season. Consequently, the Bears were able to get by with a largely ineffective defensive presence (116th nationally in total defense and 113th in scoring defense). With a likely drop off in offensive effectiveness, given the key personnel losses, the Bears defense is definitely going to have to improve this season if Baylor hopes to maintain its winning momentum.
One Big 12 writer wrote that the Bear's high-powered offense was the story in 2011 and that the defensive unit was simply along for the ride. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, who once was at Kansas State, knows better than anyone that this has to change in 2012. "We were in dire straits in our secondary last year; we had no sub packages," Bennett said. "I honestly believe we will be able to do so much more, (especially) on third down, than we have in the past."
Under Briles, who has a history of designing effective offensive game plans and putting together the right personnel to execute them and is a master at exploiting mismatches, the Bears should be all right on offense in the coming season. Florence has some big shoes to fill, but he will have ample weapons to provide Baylor with a good pass and run balance.
Baylor's success this season, while still dependent on the offense to lead the charge, will be measured more by how much improvement Bennett can wring out of the Bears' defense. I predict Baylor will go 5-7 in all its games, but just 2-7 in Big 12 games in 2011. Predicted finish in the Big 12: Eighth.
Texas Tech Red Raiders (5-7 overall, 2-7 in the Big 12 in 2011)
Texas Tech pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year in college football last season in beating Oklahoma in Norman 41-38, handing the then-No. 1 Sooners their first defeat of 2011 and ending OU's 39-game home winning streak.
It didn't get any better than that for the Red Raiders last season. In fact, it all rolled downhill from there. Texas Tech did not win another game the rest of the season, losing its last five games after the stunning defeat of Oklahoma, at which time the Red Raiders' record stood at 5-2 overall.
In a conference loaded with offensive firepower and the country's most dynamic aerial attack, including what coach Tommy Tuberville, and Mike Leach before him, is able to dial up year after year, defense doesn't get nearly the attention, at least according to the standardl statistical measures, as it does in say, the defensive-dominant Southeastern Conference. Tech is another poster-board example of that fact: Terrific on offense, terrible on defense.
The Red Raiders ranked in the upper half of teams nationally last season in most offensive categories, but were at the opposite end of the scale when it came to defensive proficiency. The defensive side of the ball has long been a problem for Tech, which is one of the areas the defensive-minded Tuberville was brought in to correct when he replaced the iconoclastic Leach four years ago.
Tuberville, whose time at Tech may be numbered if he's unable to get things turned around this season - last year was the first time in twelve years that the Red Raiders did not qualify for a bowl appearance and their first losing season since 1992 - is on his third defensive coordinator in four years in Lubbock. Art Kaufman is in the role this season, replacing Chad Glasgow, who replaced James Willis.
"You have to have a system simple enough where they know what to do in a limited time," Kaufman told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mahr. "A lot of what happens with these high-powered Big 12 offenses is the defenses aren't lined up right."
The Red Raiders are loaded on offense again in 2012, with senior gunslinger Seth Doege back at quarterback along with their leading rusher Erik Stephens, who missed half of last season with a knee injury, and top two pass receivers in junior Eric Ward and senior Alex Torres. Tech also has a very good backup to Stephens in sophomore DeAndre Washington.
On defense, Kaufman will go with a 4-3-4 alignment, changing from the 4-2-5 scheme that the Red Raiders employed last season. In addition to being a simpler defense to execute, Kaufman believes it will put the talent he has to work with in a better position to make defensive plays.
An encouraging sign for Texas Tech coming into the new season was the play of the defense in spring practice. "Our defense outplayed our offense in the (spring) scrimmages," Tuberville said. "It's the first time that's happened since I've been here."
With the experience Tech has coming back on offense, many people believe the Red Raiders should be even better this year than last. Count Tuberville among that glass-half-full group. "We didn't get off to great starts (in 2011). If we can play well early on offense and not wait until the second half of games, we can be a good team," he said.
Texas Tech may have a lot of starters returning this season, but the rest of the league is just too good for the Red Raiders to make much headway on bettering last year's record. How well Tuberville's troops do in October, when they face Oklahoma and West Virginia at home and travel for games at TCU and Kansas State, will go a long way toward determining how well the season goes.
I'm betting that there record won't be as good as 2011. And if that is the case, Tech will most likely be looking for a new head coach for 2013. I predict the Red Raiders will go 4-8 overall and 1-8 in the Big 12 in 2011. Predicted finish in the Big 12: Ninth.
On Monday: Oklahoma State and Iowa State
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