Oklahoma State Cowboys
(12-1, 8-1 in the Big 12 in 2011)
Oklahoma State had been close to reaching the Big 12 summit before, but not until the 2011 season did the Cowboys finally complete the task. And they did so in dominating style. It was OSU's first conference championship since 1948.
Were it not for a shocking overtime loss to Iowa State in the 12th game of the season last fall, coach Mike Gundy's group would have played for the BCS National Championship against LSU. The Cowboys have won 41 games the last four seasons, an average of 10 per year. OSU's 11 wins in 2010 were the most ever in a single season for the Cowboy program, and they topped that again in 2011.
Brandon Weeden, the 28-year-old man-child at the quarterback controls for Oklahoma State the past two seasons, is gone to the NFL, and his favorite receiving target, Justin Blackmon, has jumped to the next level as well. The Cowboys will have 18-year-old freshman Wes Lunt under center this year, and Gundy is mindful that his freshman signal-caller will have to go through a learning curve.
He (Lunt) is not going to step in and play like Brandon Weeden," Gundy said to reporters on the Big 12 media Skywriters' Tour. ""He can't put a lot of pressure on himself. You can't perform well in any sport playing under pressure. We just want him to give us what he's got, and the other guys have got to rally around him."
The Cowboys don't intend to back off of the hurry-up, pass-heavy spread offense they have run for as long as Gundy has been coach at his alma mater, but they probably will bring it more into balance with heavier use of the running game than has been the case the last several years. After all, OSU may have the best one-two ground tandem in the conference in juniors Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, who rushed for a combined 1,800 yards and 33 touchdowns in the Cowboy's 2011 championship season.
The defense, under assistant coach Bill Young, has been very good at times, but also highly inconsistent. Young is looking for a stronger output in 2012. One thing that was consistent about the Cowboys' defense a year ago is how tough it got when opponents got down close to the OSU goal line. The Cowboys had a nation-leading 44 takeaways last season, which created more opportunities for their prolific offense.
All three starting linebackers are back again in 2012 and the corner tandem of Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown is as good as they come in the Big 12.
You can't evaluate Oklahoma State without also taking into account the Pokes' strength in special teams. Quinn Sharp, who doubles as the team's punter and kickoff specialist, is among the best, if not the best, in the nation. Sharp made 22 out of 25 field-goal attempts last season and only missed one extra point out of 80 tries. He also averaged 46 yards per punt.
It will be a tall order for Oklahoma State to repeat its 2011 championship season, but don't expect Gundy's forces to retreat much, either. My prediction for the Cowboys in 2012 is 6-6 and 5-7 in the Big 12. Projected finish in the Big 12: Sixth.
Iowa State Cyclones
(6-7 overall, 3-6 in the Big 12 in 2011)
Iowa State is one of those teams that never looks as good on paper as the team that actually takes the field and plays the games. And that is to the credit of fourth-year coach Paul Rhoades, who is 18-20 at Iowa State and has lead the Cyclones to bowl games in two of the three seasons he's been there.
The Cyclones always have one of the toughest schedules in all of college football by the very fact that they are competing in the Big 12. And every year they manage to pick off someone they shouldn't. Last year, Oklahoma State, then No. 2 in the country, was one of their victims, as was 2010 Big East champion Connecticut in a huge road win.
Rhoads has the luxury of having two talented quarterbacks to choose from, both with game experience. Senior Steele Jantz started the first seven games last season for the Cyclones. Then sophomore Jared Barnett took over at QB for Iowa State's final five games, including the shocking upset over Oklahoma State. "Jared does a better job of managing the game and the football team, while Steele does a better job right now of making plays," Rhoads said in an interview with Sports Illustrated for its "Big 12 Preview" special edition.
Whoever wins the quarterback battle will be operating and learning a new system under new offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham. The good news is Messingham won't need to change that much. The Cyclones averaged 386 yards a game on offense last season. Their biggest problem was protecting the ball. Iowa State was last in the Big 12 a year ago in turnover margin.
The Cyclones will again feature a balanced run-pass offense, with the rushing attack coming from juniors James White and Jeff Woody. The two running backs combined for over 1,000 yards rushing in 2011. White is the break-away threat, while Woody's role is to be the short-yardage battering ram. At receiver, senior Josh Lenz is Iowa State's top returning player, with 39 catches for 510 yards a year ago, and Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year Aaron Horne is also back for his final year.
Iowa State is led on defense by two of the best linebackers in the Big 12. A.J. Klein was the Big 12's Co-Defensive Player of the Year last season (along with Frank Alexander of Oklahoma), and his teammate Jake Knott was a second-team All-Big 12 selection. The Cyclones were third in the conference a year ago in defending against the pass, which is a significant statistic in the pass-happy Big 12.
This year's schedule doesn't get any easier for Rhoads and his 2012 squad. The Cyclones get a favorable break in getting Oklahoma, Kansas State and West Virginia at home, but they also have to travel to Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU, which will be far from a walk in the park.
Iowa State is another Big 12 team that should be stronger man-for-man this season but probably won't match its won-lost mark of a year ago. The X-factor in this prediction is not so much what happens on the field but rather the power of the decisions made on the sidelines by Rhoads and his coaching staff.
One Big 12 coach had this to say about what Rhoads means to the Iowa State program: "He gets the absolute best out of every player and fives Iowa State the chance to win more games than they have any business winning." This season I predict that win total will be heavier on the loss side than it was a year ago: 4-8 in all games, 2-7 in the Big 12. Projected finish in the Big 12: Tied for Seventh.
On Tuesday: Texas
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