BIG 12 CONFERENCE
1. Oklahoma Sooners
At 75-16 in his seven years at Oklahoma, Bob Stoops could probably run a successful campaign for governor at this point. I know it’s cliché-ish, but it’s true. Stoops owns this state, and for good reason.
The Sooner Schooner needed a makeover in the late 1990s. The hiring of the immortal John Blake led the Sooners into an unheard-of tailspin. In the five seasons before Stoops’ arrival in 1999, OU had gone a very un-OU-like 23-29-1 overall, and just 14-24 in conference play. Only in the 1994 season did Oklahoma appear in a bowl game. Stoops led the Sooners to a bowl game in his first season, and the program took off from there, appearing in four BCS bowl games, three of them for the national championship. Stoops’ 75-16 overall record is supplemented by a 4-3 record in those seven bowl appearances.
All the accolades aside, the Sooner Schooner sputtered a bit in 2005. OU dropped their home opener to heavy underdog (25 points, to be exact) TCU, got blown out by Texas, and ended up with an uncharacteristic four losses on the season. Don’t expect that to happen again in 2006.
In good shape: Um, running back? I know it’s probably too easy, but I am allowed a few layups during the preview. Adrian Peterson ran behind a poor offensive line, missed two full games with an ankle injury, and still ran for over 1,100 yards and 14 scores. Peterson went for eight touchdowns on 101 carries in the final four Big 12 games, while rushing for around 156 yards per game. With a healthy Peterson back, and four offensive linemen back with starting experience, there’s little doubt that Peterson will have another big season. He’s set a goal of 2,200 yards. That’s attainable, but only if you-know-who gets better.
Needs work: Quarterback. This is all about Rhett Bomar and how much he can develop this year. There were signs of promise a year ago, including 269 yards and two TDs against Baylor, 298 yards against Texas A&M, and an okay performance in the bowl loss to Oregon. But the body of work wasn’t impressive, as Bomar hit just 54 percent of throws while posting a mediocre 10-10 TD-INT ratio. He was only a freshman, and his star offensive talent was hurt for at least part of the season, but Bomar has to get better. With star-in-the-making Malcolm Kelly back at WR, and Peterson back in the backfield, there’s little question that Bomar will be at least in a good position to improve.
Overview: I don’t want to ignore the OU defense, but Bomar and Peterson will drive the Schooner in 2006. With nine starters back, including stud corners Reggie Smith and D.J. Wolfe, and senior linebackers Rufus Alexander and Zach Latimer, the defense should be nothing short of outstanding. They have good size, athleticism, and playmaking ability, and they’re exceptionally well-coached by Stoops and co-coordinators Brent Venables and Bobby Jack Wright. The schedule shows a trip to Oregon, a very tough place to play, the annual Texas State Fair game with Texas at the Cotton Bowl, and four road games in five weeks from late October through Thanksgiving weekend. It’s a doozy, but Oklahoma has the goods for another national title run.
2. Texas Longhorns
I may have mentioned this before, but I think it’s a really big deal that Mack Brown got the “HAHAHAHAHA YOU CAN’T WIN THE BIG GAMES!” ape off his back. Even with the roster turnover that you get in college football, it’s nice for the coaching staff that they (along with the aforementioned players) don’t have to hear about it every time they give an interview to a non-Texas-based reporter. The question heading into 2006 changes: How can Mack Brown and his team follow up on the national title?
13 starters return, leaving the Longhorns in good shape. However, two of the departed are do-it-all QB Vince Young and secondary stud Michael Huff. Also missing is Ramonce Taylor, who scored 12 touchdowns last year but has been asked not to return because of off-field issues.
In good shape: Linebacker. Actually, “in good shape” is a gross understatement. When redshirt freshman Rashad Bobino stepped in and made 58 tackles, 7 sacks, and 8 tackles for loss, it only added to a pretty formidable group. Junior Robert Killebrew returns after a strong season, and junior Drew Kelson should be the other starter. Shockingly, Texas has plenty of blue-chip talent here, led by redshirt freshman Roddrick Muckelroy and sophomores Jeremy Campbell and Nic Redwine. There’s plenty of speed and strength here, and the middle of Texas’ defense is certainly in good hands.
Needs work: Quarterback. This is hardly meant as a knock on Colt McCoy, the presumed starter as a redshirt freshman, or on true freshman Jevan Snead, who could be the top backup. Both are great talents who should eventually be very good at Texas. But neither are Vince Young, and despite that, they’ll both have to live with the unending comparisons to the departed star. Young ran for 1,050 yards and still found time to throw for more than 3,000 yards, and he was responsible for 38 touchdowns. Need I remind you what he did in the Rose Bowl? McCoy and Snead could split time at the start of the season, and I promise you that, while neither will do what Young did, both will be better by the end of the season.
Overview: Replacing Huff at corner/safety won’t be easy, but the ‘Horns also have to replace CB Cedric Griffin. Luckily for them, they have senior Michael Griffin back at free safety, and two seniors (Aaron Ross and Tarell Brown) slated to start at cornerback. The secondary should be okay, and the defense in general won’t drop off much from the group that permitted just over 16 points per game last year. It’s the offense that should concern Texas fans. The line loses two All-Big 12 players in Will Allen and Jonathan Scott), Young is gone, and Taylor is also gone from the backfield. Selvin Young is back at running back, along with youngster Jamaal Charles, who was the second-leading rusher as a freshman last year. I think Texas will be in the mix for a national title, but they will have a hard time dealing with tests against Ohio State and Oklahoma in the first half of the season without stumbling at least once.
3. Texas Tech Red Raiders
After being known for his wide-open, take-no-prisoners offensive philosophy, it appears that Mike Leach is starting to understand something very important in the Big 12:
You don’t go anywhere without a defense.
The Red Raiders are on the way to becoming more consistent in this department. They allowed only 18.8 points per game last year, and actually pitched a shutout in Big 12 play (albeit against Baylor). It was the first Big 12 shutout for Tech since 2001. Suddenly, the defense doesn’t appear to be Tech’s biggest issue. In fact, it’s well on its way to becoming a strength.
In good shape: Wide receiver. I wanted to choose the defensive line, but it’s hard to ignore this group. Starters Jarrett Hicks, Robert Johnson, Joel Filani, and Danny Amendola combined for 241 catches last year, along with 25 of the 34 passing touchdowns that Tech recorded. Filani was over 1,000 yards, while Johnson was close. Johnson, Hicks, and Filani made the all-conference team last year. Sophomore Todd Walker also fits into this mix with his 4.25 speed, and sophomore L.A. Reed also should see some action.
Needs work: Believe it or not, the offensive backfield. It’s not a shock that Tech loses a starting quarterback. Cody Hodges did what B.J. Symons, Kliff Kingsbury, and Sonny Cumbie did. He ran the offense well. And he’s moved on. Also gone is star running back Taurean Henderson, who ran for 17 scores and also caught 67 passes out of the backfield. The Red Raiders have to replace both backfield stars this year, and will try to do it with highly-touted sophomore QB Graham Harrell (the first “NFL arm” they’ve had in this system) and sophomore RB Shannon Woods, who made an impact last year returning kicks. For some reason, I’m sure Leach isn’t worried too much about this, but it’s the most glaring question mark on this football team.
Overview: I will ask no questions about the offense, because despite the major losses I already chronicled, I’m not the least bit concerned about their ability to score a ton of points. The defensive line is going to be good, led by hulking DT Ken Scott and speedy DE McKinner Dixon, and the Red Raiders should be able to start three seniors at linebacker. If the secondary can recover from some big losses (safeties Vincent Meeks and Dwayne Slay will be tough to replace), Tech might have their best team under Leach. Leach owns a school record for most wins by a coach in his first six years (48). Expect him to add nine or ten more to that career total by year’s end.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
What has become of the Wrecking Crew defense?
For five straight years from 1997 to 2001, the Aggies allowed fewer than 20 points per game to opposing offenses. At no point during that run did they win fewer than seven games or lose more than five in a season. They won eleven games in 1998.
Since then, things have been tough on the A&M defense. The 4-8 disaster that was 2003 found the Wrecking Crew wrecked, having allowed just short of 40 (!) points per game, including 59 to Texas Tech, 48 to Nebraska, 77 to Oklahoma, 45 to Missouri, and 46 to Texas. Last year, the defense regressed again, allowing over 30 points per game for the second time in three years (they dropped the average to 24 in 2004). So entering 2006, it’s pretty obvious what Texas A&M has to improve if they are to return to the bowl picture.
In good shape: Running back. The Aggies jumped all the way to 235 rushing yards per game last year, and they posted 200 or more yards in eight of eleven games. The key to the running game was a two-headed monster at running back. Courtney Lewis is the starter, but he has had trouble staying healthy, which opened the door last year for Jovorskie Lane, who scored nine touchdowns as a true freshman. Assuming Lewis can stay healthy, he is a 1,000-yard back, and Lane is a great complimentary back. Also a part of the running game will be athletic QB Stephen McGee, who got some time last year when senior Reggie McNeal was banged up. His signature performance came against Texas, when he went over 100 yards and scored twice.
Needs work: Secondary. The Aggies took some shots in 2005, giving up an incredible 305 yards passing per game, while not generating much pass rush or picking off a lot of passes (12 in 11 games). The secondary looks like it could emerge as a strength this year, but only if every starter steps up and plays much better than anyone did a year ago. The key player is probably senior safety Melvin Bullitt. He needs to be more of a factor in the passing game (two picks a year ago), but he’s a good tackler and a strong presence in the secondary. The Aggies get five players back who have started games, and there is a good chance they’ll be improved. That’s not saying much, however, and the coaching staff knows that they have a lot of work to do to round this group into form.
Overview: The Aggies will score plenty of points, as they have basically every year under Dennis Franchione. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether or not they’ll be able to stop anyone from scoring plenty of points. The Wrecking Crew is missing and needs to return to College Station, or the Aggies won’t return to the bowl season, and Franchione might find himself not returning next season. My guess is that the restless fanbase and alumni will find more reasons to smile in 2006, as an eight-win season wouldn’t be a surprise. McGee looks like a good one, and the running game is very good. Franchione has recruited some talented wideouts, and they should mesh well with McGee. But can the young defensive line and linebackers mask a secondary that just doesn’t look like it’s much improved on paper?
5. Baylor Bears
Let’s see here. Where to start on the history of Baylor in the Big 12?
Heading into 2005, the Bears had been outscored by averages of 35.8, 32.5, 27.5, 34.2, 30.7, and 21.3 in Big 12 games the previous six seasons (HT: Phil Steele). They were a sparkling 6-66 in Big 12 play entering 2005. They had lost 24 straight road games, and 37 straight Big 12 road games, entering 2005.
Last year represented a great improvement for Guy Morriss and his Bears. Baylor won five games, their highest single-season total since 1995. They improved in almost every measurable statistical category.
And now they’re playing the role of copycat. As Blue Ribbon notes, Morriss has brought in new offensive coordinator Lee Hays, late of West Texas A&M, to install a hybrid of the Texas Tech offense, Hal Mumme’s “Air Raid”, and the old BYU system taught by LaVell Edwards. Hays wants to run plenty, but expect Baylor to employ plenty of three- and four-receiver sets.
In good shape: Quarterback. Hopefully, Morriss realizes that Shawn Bell is the best of the bunch. Bell has to improve his consistency, but he’s a good fit for this wide-open attack. He already owns the school record for pass completions in a season (190), and his career completion percentage of almost 60 is also a school record. He doesn’t have a rocket arm, but he probably won’t need it in this offense. He has to be able to make quick decisions and quick throws, and he should excel at both. With top pass-catchers Dominique Zeigler and Trent Shelton back, the Bears should be able to move the ball through the air as long as Bell is healthy.
Needs work: Secondary. Morriss’ toughest task at Baylor is building the depth to a Big 12-caliber level. Because of that, losing safeties like Willie Andrews and Maurice Lane can be a tough blow. Baylor does have some good size at corner, as both C.J. Wilson and Anthony Arline both stand over six feet tall. With good skill at corner, Baylor is halfway to having a good secondary. But unless one of the new safeties steps up, it will be a long year for Baylor’s pass defense, especially in the highly-skilled Big 12.
Overview: In three short years, Morriss has brought the Bears quite a long way. Almost overnight, they went from a true laughingstock in the Big 12 to being a team that could actually win a few games, and one that looks like it may be on the verge of a bowl bid. That bid might have to wait one more year, though. As good a fit as Bell is for this wide-open attack, one has to expect a little bit of period of adjustment to be needed. If the defense can continue its gradual improvement under coordinator Bill Bradley, despite losing eight starters, the Bears might have an outside shot at seven wins, and they do stand a chance of returning to the bowl season for the first time since 1994.
6. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Phil Steele made a really good point in his OSU preview. The 2001 upset of national title contender Oklahoma really started something good for the Cowboy program. Oklahoma State won eight games in 2002, nine in 2003, and seven in 2004. Coach Les Miles left for LSU, though, and OSU never found themselves in a trying 2005 campaign.
New coach Mike Gandy tried to open up the offense, implementing the spread, but he didn’t have the quarterback to do it. The running game was good, but not good enough to carry the offense, which dropped 12 points per game off its 2004 average. The defense also took a hit, allowing more than 30 points per game for the first time in over a decade.
Suddenly, Gandy has a rebuilding project on his hands. And it won’t be an easy one.
In good shape: Running back. Mike Hamilton did eventually emerge as a feature back a year ago, setting an OSU freshman record with over 900 yards rushing (but only one TD). Backup Julius Crosslin accounted for 12 scores in just 71 attempts. Both backs are physical, but Hamilton is more of a home-run threat than Crosslin. JUCO transfer Dantrell Savage adds significant depth to the position. It’s a school that is known for churning out running backs, and OSU will continue the tradition this year, despite the fact that they want to run more of a pass-based offense.
Needs work: Quarterback. You can run the ball out of the spread, but you need to have an efficient quarterback to bring it all together. Sophomore Bobby Reid distinguished himself as the top quarterback a year ago, but that’s like being the skinniest guy in a sumo wrestling tournament. Reid took over full-time for Donovan Woods – who moved to safety and should start there this year – in the third game. Reid ended up losing the job to Al Pena when he injured his foot, but Pena never really did anything to show he was the best fit for the job, throwing 13 interceptions in seven appearances (four starts). Reid should start the season, but look out for redshirt freshman Zac Robinson, who has upside as both a passer and a runner, and ultimately could be the best fit for this attack.
Overview: Gandy needs to find a way to get the offense going. Expect to see Robinson quickly if Reid falters, because Pena just isn’t the right guy to run the spread unless he starts making better decisions. The running game looks good, and D’Juan Woods is back to catch a bunch more passes after nabbing 56 last year. So it really is about the quarterback play here. The defense loses six starters, but still could be improved. The schedule, however, is only favorable until the conference season starts. The “winnable” games against North Division teams (Kansas, K-State) are both on the road, where OSU’s only win last year was against Florida Atlantic. Outside of a visit from Baylor, the home schedule is unbelieveably tough, with visits from Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Six wins is realistic, given the non-conference slate, but only if the defense gets better and Gandy finds a quarterback.