Organized spring football practices are over for schools in the Big 12 Conference, including Missouri and Texas A&M, which are still league members but won't be two months from now when they depart for a new future in the Southeastern Conference and TCU and West Virginia come into the Big 12 as new members.
There are some who believe that the loss of Missouri and Texas A&M will weaken the Big 12's status as one of the strongest football conferences in the country. It's hard to understand how those naysayers - who are most likely fans of those two schools - could come to that conclusion, though, when the conference's soon-to-be two new members had better records last season, and for the last five seasons, than the two original Big 12 members they are replacing.
As supporting evidence, consider abundantly definitive facts: TCU and West Virginia both won their conferences (Mountain West and Big East) last fall with a combined record of 21-5. Both also finished in the top 20 nationally. Missouri and Texas A&M completed their final season in the Big 12 in 2011 with very modest 8-5 and 7-6 records, respectively. Neither the Tigers nor the Aggies were ranked at season end.
Examining the record of the four teams over the past five years, the difference between what the Big 12 is losing and what it is potentially gaining becomes even more apparent. In the last five seasons,
TCU has won three conference titles (2011, 2010, 2009) and gone 55-10 since 2007, for an .850 winning percentage. In 2010, the Horned Frogs went undefeated at 13-0, defeated Big Ten champion Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and finished second in the country to Auburn. West Virginia were champions of the Big East in 2011 and 2007 and had a combined record of 48-17 (.740) over the last five years. West Virginia and Oklahoma were matched up in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, with the Mountaineers pulling off a stunning 48-28 upset of the Big 12 champion and fourth-ranked Sooners.
Over that same five-year time frame, Missouri and A&M had no conference titles to their credit, with the Tigers faring the better of the two teams overall record of 48-19.
If anything, the Big 12 should be stronger in football with the addition of the Mountaineers and Horned Frogs. Six of the 10 Big 12 teams won 10 or more games in 2011, best in the country. Basketball may be a different story, however.
Here is a pre-preseason, spring 2012 look at how I project the Big 12 race to end up this fall. Today we preview the teams projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference standings in 2012, sixth place through 10th. On Thursday, we examine the teams expected to be the top five in what could be the strongest football conference in the country.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
It's going to be extremely tough for the Cowboys to top what they have accomplished the past two seasons. All Oklahoma State has done the last two years is win 23 games and capture its first Big 12 championship in football. The Cowboys won more games in the past two seasons than they have in any two successive seasons in their history. Coach Mike Gundy will have to replace his two best offensive weapons, quarterback Brandon Weeden and the country's top receiver, All-American Justin Blackmon. It is similar to the situation OSU was in before the arrival of Weeden and Blackmon, having to backfill another outstanding quarterback-receiver tandem in Zac Robinson and Dez Bryant. Gundy came out of that one in good shape. Because of the system the Cowboys run, they should be able to plug in the parts they need to remain highly productive on the offensive end. Eight starters return off a very sound defensive unit.
7. Baylor Bears
How do you replace someone like Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III? That's the biggest problem facing coach Art Briles and his staff coming into this season. Gone also are bruising running back Terrance Ganaway and Griffin's favorite pass-receiving target, Kendall Wright. The Baylor offense was so prolific in 2011 that it was able to overcome some major flaws in the Bears' defense because of the offense's ability to outscore just about everybody. That won't be the case without Griffin at the offensive controls, making improving the defense an imperative this season if Baylor hopes to stay competitive with the league's best teams. Baylor set 129 school records in 2011 and earned its highest national ranking since 1986. Sixteen starters return (six on offense and eight on defense, plus two special teams' specialists).
8. Iowa State Cyclones
Iowa State recorded the biggest upset of the Big 12 and possibly the college football season in 2011, defeating then No. 2-ranked Oklahoma State and giving the Cowboys their only loss of the season. The Cyclones appear set at quarterback with sophomore Jared Barnett, who didn't become a starter until the second half of the season and threw for over 1,200 yards and ran for 400 more in six starts. They have holes to fill on the offensive line and in the secondary, but are solid up the middle with the return of linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, both All-Big 12 performers. Iowa State's bowl appearance last season was only its 11th in program history.
Charlie Weis is the new head coach of the Jayhawks. Kansas faithful are hoping that Weis can bring the Jayhawks' football program back to a competitive level and regain the respectability it has lost since Mark Mangino was dismissed as head coach. The good news is that things can't get any worse at Kansas. Weis inherited the country's 106th-ranked offense and a defense that was a nation-worst 120th. The Kansas defense yielded a league-worst 44 points a game last season, while the offense averaged only 22. Weis said he wants to ramp up the passing attack, and he has brought in Dayne Christ, who Weis signed when he was the coach at Notre Dame, to lead the Kansas attack at quarterback. Christ has already graduated from Notre Dame, so he is eligible to play immediately. Jordan Webb, the Jayhawks quarterback during the 2011 season, transferred out of the program when Weis was named head coach. With running backs James Sims and Tony Pierson returning (more than 1,000 rushing yards combined), the KU running game should be decent. Pierson stood out in the Jayhawks' spring game with a dazzling 88-yard touchdown run and 141 yards on just seven carries.
Like Baylor last season, Texas Tech was capable of scoring fast and often with quarterback Seth Doege at the offensive controls, but they couldn't stop anybody on defense (except Oklahoma, of course). The Red Raiders finished with a 2-7 league record (5-7 overall) and in ninth place in the conference last fall. It was their poorest season since the formation of the Big 12 in 1996. After beating Oklahoma in Norman, Texas Tech failed to win another game the rest of the season, dropping five straight. Coach Tommy Tuberville has brought in a new defensive coordinator, Art Kaufman, who is the third coach in that position since Tuberville took over the reins in Lubbock from Mike Leach. One area of immediate concern for Tuberville and Kaufman is run defense. Texas Tech was the worst in the nation last season in defending against the run. The Red Raiders will battle Kansas again in 2012 for the bottom spot in the conference.
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