Friday, August 12, 2011

2011 College Football Preview: Big 12

As usual, my 2011 College Football Preview includes information compiled from a variety of sources, most notably the work of Phil Steele. Check out his preview publications and material on his website. I also scour local newspapers and school websites for updated information, but it should be noted that all information contained in team and conference previews is only current up to the date of that post's publication.

Predicted Order of Finish
1. Oklahoma
2. Texas A&M
3. Texas
4. Oklahoma State
5. Missouri
6. Baylor
7. Texas Tech
8. Kansas State
9. Iowa State
10. Kansas

Top Storylines in the Big 12

Texas is king; will they play like it? With Colorado and Nebraska gone, the Big 12 has ten teams. Texas is the league's crown jewel, owners of their own (somewhat controversial) television network. But the Longhorns are coming off a 5-7 season, and there are some issues to resolve if they are to return to the top of the mountain. For one, quarterback Garrett Gilbert has to cut down on the turnovers. Secondly, the Longhorns could stand to find a feature back. Unless Gilbert -- assuming he beats out the likes of Case McCoy for the starting job -- is set to become a Vince Young/Colt McCoy type who can run this offense and be the alpha dog, they need someone in the backfield to step up. That could be highly-touted freshman Malcolm Brown, who has impressed the Texas veteran players so far. The Longhorns have talent all over the field, but the offense will sputter if Gilbert struggles, and Gilbert will likely struggle if Texas doesn't find a running back to carry the load the way Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson did in years gone by.

Can Justin Blackmon do it again? In an otherwise non-descript season for Oklahoma State, wide receiver Justin Blackmon was special last year. He caught an incredible 111 passes and scored 20 touchdowns, numbers that will be difficult to build on, or even match, though it helps that triggerman Brandon Weeden returns, and running buddy Josh Cooper, an outstanding possession receiver, both return for OSU. Oklahoma State also brings back its entire offensive line intact, and there are some strong pieces on defense like cornerback Brodrick Brown and linebacker Shaun Lewis. I'm not sure they can win 11 games again, but the Cowboys are definitely a threat in a league that has one top dog (Oklahoma) and a bunch of teams with question marks.

Oklahoma is a heavy favorite. There is no getting around this, really. Junior quarterback Landry Jones threw for over 4,700 yards last year, and he's on track to become OU's all-time leading passer by the team's second game this season. The Sooners do have to replace dual-threat back DeMarco Murray, but there is an impressive stable of backs ready to take a shot. There are indications OU will use a group of guys to fill the position, instead of a single feature back. That opens the door for true freshman Brandon Williams to make a huge impact. Junior Jermie Calhoun could also be a guy to watch, along with sophomore Roy Finch. Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills return to catch Jones' passes, and eight starters are back on defense to improve a unit that allowed 362 yards and 22 points per game last year. those aren't bad numbers at all, but it's expected that OU will be just as dangerous defensively as they look to be offensively. Don't overlook the loss of tackle Trent Williams, even though he primarily played on the right side.

We'll keep seeing how good Robert Griffin III is. Baylor hasn't exactly been known for producing legendary quarterbacks over the years. In fact, until 2010, something called J.J. Joe was the school's all-time leading passer. That is no more, thanks to now-junior Robert Griffin III. Griffin shook off the torn ACL that ruined his 2009 season by making The Leap last year. He hit two-thirds of his passes for over 3,500 yards with 22 touchdowns. He chipped in eight rushing touchdowns for an even 30 on the season. He showed his potential brilliance in ten starts as a true freshman in 2008 before the injury washed away 2009. Last year, Baylor reached a bowl game for the first time since 1994, losing to Illinois in the Texas Bowl. Griffin led the Bears to a win at Texas, their first in Austin since 1991, when that Joe guy was the quarterback. Griffin has a chance to take Baylor to consecutive bowls for the first time in 20 years, and he is only going to become a bigger name in Waco with every game he wins. The Bears have 14 starters back, could field an elite offense in the Big 12, and are a far cry from the outfit that was routinely getting blown out in conference play even a few years ago.

The Rest of the Story

Mike Sherman has his quarterback at Texas A&M, and it's Ryan Tannehill. The senior took over for the last six games last season and made a huge difference for a then-struggling team. With receivers Jeff Fuller and ryan Swope both back, this offense could be scary good. ... The loss of Blaine Gabbert will be felt at Missouri, though there's no doubt that sophomore James Franklin is a talented quarterback. What will also be interesting is how the Tigers replace impact players Aldon Smith and Andrew Gachkar from the defensive front seven. ... They might not run the same mad offense in Lubbock, but Texas Tech can still score points. I expect they'll be a little wobbly this season as they continue to adjust to Tommy Tuberville's ways. Look for the defense to be vastly improved. ... Transfers like Bryce Brown (Tennessee), Meshak Williams (JUCO), and Justin Tuggle (JUCO) will make an impact at Kansas State, but the Wildcats will feel the loss of star running back Daniel Thomas despite Brown's presence. ... Iowa State continues to get better on defense, but Paul Rhoads will again struggle to get his team's offense up to snuff. Losing dual-threat quarterback Austen Arnaud won't help matters on that side of the ball, but the Cyclones do have seven starters back on defense, including linebacker Jake Knott, who is capable of 150 tackles this season. ... Last year started with a whimper for Kansas, as they lost 6-3 to North Dakota State. They then scored 24 points in their last three games of the year, losing by a combined 69 points. They were outgained by 131 yards per game, including a staggering 219 in conference play. 15 starters return, but this isn't going to get better fast.

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