Editor's Note: This is the third of three articles examining the 2012 Big 12 football season and how the teams are projected to finish, based on early returns from the spring practice season.
The first thing you notice when you look ahead to the 2012 season in Big 12 football is how the projected contenders have a fresh, new look compared with years past. But there is one constant: Bob Stoops' Oklahoma Sooners appear to be the team to beat, again, this coming season.
This is not an uncommon position for the Sooners. They've been the preseason favorite of the league coaches seven times since Stoops took over the football reins in Norman back in 1999, three seasons after the Big 12 came into existence. Oklahoma has won the conference championship six times under Stoops.
What will be new for OU coming into the 2012 season in the fall will be a couple of new challengers for the conference crown. TCU and West Virginia, both nationally ranked in the top 20 at the end of last season, make their Big 12 debuts this fall. Both come into the league as reigning champions of their former conferences, the Mountain West and Big East, respectively, something Oklahoma did not do last season, despite being the preseason favorite.
Kansas State coach Bill Snyder has his team right back where they like to be, among the best in the conference. What's unfortunate for the Wildcats, though, is that there is no longer a north and south division in the Big 12. The divisional format was abandoned when the number of conference members went from 12 to 10. If there were a North division, however, K-State would be the best of the lot.
The combined 2011 won-lost record of the schools projected to finish in the top half of the Big 12 football race in the fall was 49-16, with TCU owning the best record at 11-2. That doesn't mean, of course, that the four teams I have picked to finish in the top-five in the league will repeat that performance in 2012, but the teams projected in the top four spots at this stage - what I call the 2012 pre-preseason - are pretty clearly the class of the league, barring any dramatic changes between now the start of the season four months from now.
So here goes, a capsule look at the best of the best in the early returns for the 2012 Big 12 football season:
A year ago at this time, the Sooners were being projected in some preview publications and early national polls as preseason No. 1. The first week for the BCS rankings last season, week No. 8 of the season, OU was 6-0 and ranked third behind LSU and Alabama. That weekend, the Sooners suffered an inexplicable upset loss at home to Texas Tech, which began a second half swoon that left Bob Stoops' team with a very mediocre 3-3 record over its final six regular-season games, including a humbling 44-10 hammering at the hands of Bedlam rival Oklahoma State. The Sooners got great news to start out the New Year when quarterback Landry Jones announced he was coming back for his senior season. Oklahoma loses All-American wide receiver Ryan Broyles, but with Jones returning along with one of the country's best group of wide receivers, the OU offense should again be one of the nation's most explosive. Bob's brother, Mike, is back in Norman as defensive coordinator, an area in which the Sooners have been up and down in recent years, especially in the deep secondary, and uncharacteristic of a Bob Stoops-coached team. Fifteen starters are back overall, along with a top-10 recruiting class.
It was touch and go for a while whether the Mountaineers would be able to join the Big 12 in time for the 2012 season. With that issue now resolved, West Virginia will come into the conference as one of the title contenders. The Mountaineers probably would have been the preseason favorite to defend their conference title in the Big East. Even though the level of competition is tougher in the Big 12, West Virginia should be one of the better teams in the league. Among the returning starters are quarterback Geno Smith, along with last year's leading rusher, Dustin Garrison, and top receivers Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey. If the Mountaineers have a weakness, it is on defense. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen, formerly offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State, has brought in another former OSU coach, Joe DeForest, to lead the defense. West Virginia hosts Oklahoma in Morgantown this season. The last time these two teams met was in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl, where the Mountaineers crushed the then-third-ranked Sooners, 48-28.
3. Kansas State Wildcats
Kansas State surprised a lot of people with its second-place finish in the conference and 10-2 overall record last season. The Wildcats won't be a surprise this season, with workhorse Collin Klein back at quarterback for his final season and with senior Arthur Brown manning the middle of the hard-nosed and disciplined K-State defense. The Wildcats always seem to be among the best in the conference running the football. That should be the case again in 2012, but the Cats will have to do it behind a rebuilt offensive line. Kansas State doesn't have the best talent in the league, but head coach Bill Snyder, a 20-year veteran on the Wildcat sidelines, always manages to get the best out of what he has.
Gary Patterson's TCU teams have won 11 games in seven of the last nine seasons, including an undefeated year and No. 2 in the national rankings after the 2010 season. They've also won six bowl games during that stretch. The Mountain West Conference is not the Big 12, though. Just ten days before the start of training camp this spring, four Horned Frog football players, including three defensive starters, were arrested for their alleged involvement in distributing marijuana. This will cause some adjustments on defense. TCU, which is being reunited with some of its former Southwest Conference members, returns most of its offensive leaders, including quarterback Casey Pachall, the team's two best running backs, Waymon James and Ed Wesley, and a pair of strong receivers in Josh Boyce and Skye Dawson. These are all names you will be reading about this coming season. The Horned Frogs do have holes to fill on the offensive line, which could limit their offensive effectiveness
They say you can't keep a good team down for long. Year after year coach Mack Brown's Longhorns bring in one of the country's top-five recruiting classes. Despite all the talent potential and Texas' rich football tradition, the last two seasons have been the worst in Brown's 14 seasons at Texas. The Longhorns always seem to have a strong defense, but the last couple of years the defense has been demonstrably better than the Texas offense. In two years since the departure of Colt McCoy, the Longhorns have not found a permanent starter at the quarterback position. That appears to be a continuing problem coming into the 2012 season. The Horns also will have some work to do replacing five starters lost on an outstanding defensive unit. Texas would like to run the ball better, but until the Longhorns are able to mount a respectable passing game, opposing defenses will be in a position to stack the box against the Texas ground attack.
Keep up with all the Big 12 sports news and developments throughout the year.