The preseason ballots for Big 12 football are due back to the Big 12 Conference offices in Dallas today. There they will be tabulated and merged into the preseason football media poll recognizing the teams and individual players who are expected to be the class of the conference in the coming season.
I'm not one of the privileged participants around town and in the region who have a vote in the annual fall football poll that taps the heads and hearts of the so-called sports media thought leaders. I do, however, have quite a few thoughts and opinions of my own on the subject, which I am more than happy to share independent of the countless other preseason predictions that seem to litter the sports landscape this time of year.
The first thing to point out about this coming football season in the Big 12 is that it won't be the same as the previous 15 seasons in the conference's relatively short history. Although the conference will continue to brand itself as the Big 12, the league consists of only 10 teams after the July 1 departures of Nebraska and Colorado to new conference homes in the Big Ten and Pac-12, respectively.
As a direct result, the division format has been dropped, and the remaining conference schools will play a balanced, round-robin schedule (with all 10 teams having to play each other every year) for the first time in the Big 12 era, which should eliminate most all controversy about who the true conference champion is, especially given that a conference championship game will no longer be played.
Will the Big 12 Championship game in football be missed? Not if you ask Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, who has the best record of any coach in the conference title game, having won seven of the eight times his Sooners team played in the game as the South Division champion. "Those years when we were undefeated or looking at the national championship right in front of you, it was really difficult to play in that Big 12 Championship game," the highly successful OU coach said in a Big 12 coaches' spring conference call earlier this year. "But those other years where that wasn't the case, it was incredibly exciting to play in it."
Not all Big 12 coaches, however, shared their esteemed coaching colleague from Oklahoma's sentiments about discontinuing the championship game. "The championship game and the divisions, I think that's really good for college football," said Missouri's Gary Pinkel. "I think it's rather obvious, too, because the Pac-10 went to it (as did the Big Ten)."
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, the dean of Big 12 football coaches, who is starting his 20th season at K-State, has similar thoughts: "You look across the country, and we are one of the very few that had a championship game," he said. "And now, we're one of the very few that does not - if there's anyone else that does not have one."
Five teams from the Big 12 finished the 2010 season ranked in the top 25 in the final ESPN/USA Today college football coaches' poll: Oklahoma (9), Oklahoma State (12), Missouri (18), Texas A&M (19) and Nebraska (21). This year, three Big 12 schools - Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M - are getting the attention in most of the preseason and pre-preseason college football forecasts.
Which points out another seismic shift in the Big 12 landscape worth noting this season. We're a little more than a month away from the start of fall football practice on all the Big 12 campuses, and it's looking more and more like the road to the conference football crown definitely goes through Oklahoma and not the Lone Star state, as it has it the frequent past.
When Oklahoma's two best players - wide-receiver Ryan Broyles and linebacker Travis Lewis - declared that they were coming back for their senior seasons, along with returning redshirt junior quarterback Landry Jones, and when Oklahoma State and Texas A&M received similar commitments from their starting QBs and best receivers from last season, it wasn't too difficult to conclude where the strength of the conference resided coming into the 2011 season.
Now comes the defining moment. Here's how I see the order of finish in Big 12 football this coming season (still early enough to be considered one of the pre-preseason preview polls) and a few choice words on why:
2011 Big 12 Football Predicted Order of Finish
(Overall season record, predicted record in the conference)
1. Oklahoma Sooners
Coach Bob Stoops has won seven Big 12 championships in the 15 seasons a championship game has been played. The Sooners' schedule is not easy, but they are again loaded with skill and talent all over the field and well positioned - with home games against Missouri, Texas A&M and Texas Tech and away games at Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor - assuming they can get by another nationally ranked team in Florida State on the road in the second week of the season, to take home their eighth championship trophy and possibly play for another national championship (for the fourth time since 2000).
2. Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies won six of their final seven games a year ago and finished as one of the hottest teams in the country. They have their starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill (a former QB-turned-wide-receiver who converted back to the signal-caller position after A&M's sixth game last season) back for his senior year and one of the best pass-receiving targets in the conference, if not the country, in Jeff Fuller. Plus, coach Mike Sherman's team has arguably the best running-back combination in the conference with Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. Combined, the duo rushed for over 1,800 yards a year ago. The Aggies are fortunate to have Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas at home, but they do have to go to Norman to play Oklahoma, which has not ended well for 74 of the 72 teams that have played the Sooners on the road during the Bob Stoops coaching era. I see Texas A&M securing the No. 2 spot in the standings on a tie-breaker with Oklahoma State.
3. Oklahoma State Cowboys
The nation's best pass-and-catch combination is back wearing a Cowboys' uniform in 2011. I'm speaking of 27-year-old Brandon Weeden at quarterback and the country's best receiver in yardage gained in Biletnikoff Award-winner Justin Blackmon, who is only a sophomore. Weeden, voted All-big 12 first team last season by league coaches, ranked third nationally in passing yards (4,277) and set three of the top seven single-game passing record in OSU program history. The Cowboys' 11 wins in 2010 was the most in school history. They lose their offensive coordinator, Dana Holgorsen, who is now the head coach at West Virginia, but the Pokes have enough offensive firepower for that not to be a big adjustment. The potential stumbling block for this team is the conference's most difficult road schedule, with games at Texas A&M and at Texas and Missouri on back-to-back weekends. The Cowboys do have Oklahoma at home for Bedlam, but any league losses prior to that could be fatal to their title hopes.
4. Missouri Tigers
Missouri, hands down, is the best of the former northern schools. The fact that the Tigers lost quarterback Blaine Gabbert and All-Big 12 defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith to the NFL draft (both taken in the top 10 overall picks) and are still expected to be one of the top teams in the conference this season speaks to the talent Missouri has coming back (including all 14 players who caught a pass last year) and the coaching ability of Gary Pinkel, now in his 11th season at MU, and his staff. In wide-out T.J. Moe and tight-end Michael Egnew, the Tigers have two of the best receivers in the Big 12. Replacing Gabbert at quarterback will cause a slight hiccup, but expected starter James Franklin does have some game experience. Look for Missouri's defense to continue to be strong this season, which will help keep them in games when the offense struggles.
5. Texas Longhorns
In 2010, Texas went from playing in the BCS National Championship game (against Alabama) to one of the most disastrous conference seasons in the Longhorns' storied program history. Texas finished 5-7 overall and only 2-6 in Big 12 action, their worst performance in coach Mack Brown's 13 years at the school. After the season, Brown did what he had to do, replacing a handful of assistant coaches. Among those staff changes are new offensive and defensive coordinators. Bryan Harsin, formerly the offensive guru at Boise State, is now in Austin, and Manny Diaz, previously at Mississippi State, has replaced Texas' head-coach-in-waiting and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, who left to take the heading coaching reins at Florida. Texas struggled to establish an identity on offense last season after beginning the year with the goal of running the ball more. The Longhorns didn't have the right personnel to pull that off and, as it turned out, they missed the departed Colt McCoy and his favorite pass-catching target, roommate Jordan Shipley, more than they thought they would. There still are a lot of adjustments to be made, especially on the offensive line, but the Longhorns should be better than last year. They have too much talent not to be.
6. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Texas Tech will have a new quarterback this season. What else is new? Second-year coach Tommy Tuberville, a veteran in coaching circles, still is of the mindset that better defense is the Red Raiders' ticket for future success. That was Tuberville's goal last year, but his defense finished 114th in the country. Tuberville is looking for better success from his defense this season, and he has brought in a new defensive coordinator, Chad Glascow, who led TCU's highly touted defense a year ago, to assure that gets done. Junior Seth Doege is the gunslinger at the QB position, and there's no reason to think that the Red Raiders won't be a threat to score and strike from anywhere on the field again this season. Tech lost a very good running back in the graduation of Baron Batch, but the team's talent at the running back position may be the best of any position on the team. The Red Raiders have been bowl-eligible (six or more wins) for 18 consecutive seasons. This year will make it 19.
7. Kansas State Wildcats*
There is a pretty steep dropoff from the top half of the conference and the teams expected to finish in the bottom tier of the league. Coach Bill Snyder, the dean of all Big 12 coaches, who is in his 20th season leading the Wildcats, always manages to put tough-minded, well-disciplined teams on the field, and if you're a fan of Texas, you can vouch for what I'm saying. But you can only get so much out of what you have to work with, and I'm afraid this is going to be one of those years in the Little Apple. There's still uncertainty about who the quarterback will be (the battle is between junior QB Colin Klein and junior college transfer Justin Tuggle (son of former NFL Pro-Bowl linebacker Jessie Tuggle). The Cats return seven starters on defense, but from a unit that ranked near the bottom of the NCAA Division I rankings in stopping the run and total defense. Kansas State's schedule sets up nicely with Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas A&M at home, but other than attract attendance, that won't mean much for the Wildcats this season.
8. Baylor Bears
As a matter of full disclosure, a number of sports publications and preseason polls have Baylor finishing better in the league than I see them. Robert Griffin III, RG3 as he's known to Bears' fans, returns at quarterback for his third year as the starter. Griffin has proven he can beat you with his legs as well as his arm, which makes him a major offensive threat and a potential nightmare for most defenses. The Bears have strength at wide receiver, but they have a big hole to fill at running back after losing Jay Finley, who set several school records in the rushing category. Baylor's biggest question mark, though, is will they be able to stop anybody on defense. The offense is good, but not good enough to have to outscore every opponent as the only way to secure a win.
9. Iowa State Cyclones*
The Cyclones are one of the conference teams rebuilding at quarterback this year, and they are hopeful of stepping up their passing game. Iowa State longest pass from scrimmage a year ago was only 39 yards. Junior QB Jerome Tiller has started three games for the Cyclones in the past, one of which was their stunning 9-7 upset over Nebraska two seasons ago. But at this point, it looks likely that the starting call will go to junior college transfer Steele Jantz, who led City College of San Francisco to an 11-1 record and accounted for 3,676 total yards and 37 touchdowns. With the new balanced schedule, Iowa State may struggle more to find wins - and even stay in games - than most every other team in the league.
10. Kansas Jayhawks
The Jayhawks won one conference game in coach Turner Gill's first season at the helm, and they had to make one of the greatest fourth-quarter comebacks (28 points down) in the fourth quarter against Colorado to win that one game. Like Iowa State struggled to get big-gainers out of its passing game, Kansas had trouble breaking way for major yards in its running game last season. The Jayhawks broke off just one run longer than 28 yards a year ago, and that was in the opening game and by a receiver on an end-around. KU got good yardage (742 yards) from now-sophomore running-back James Sims last year. The speed is there in the backfield, but Gill would like to see more break-away ability. The Jayhawks don't have much experience at quarterback. It's looking like they may go with true freshman Brock Berglund, who decommitted from Colorado to come to Kansas. Berglund is considered to be a dual-threat quarterback. But there are conflicting reports this week that Berglund may have left school, or at least won't be on the active roster when the season starts. Kansas should be improved over last season, but its chances of moving up in the standings are not that promising.
*Tie-breaker determined position in projected standings.