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Big 12 Football Preview
by Scott Spreitzer - 07/19/2011
The Big-12, now made up of 10 teams and no conference championship game is made up of four groupings in 2011, as far as I'm concerned. The conference is quite top-heavy, but then again, that was the case even when Colorado and Nebraska were still members.
Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State are the top grouping, if you will. The next tier includes Texas and Missouri, while the third group of teams is interchangeable in my eyes, made up of Baylor, Kansas State, and Texas Tech. And then there's the Iowa State Cyclones and Kansas Jayhawks, who have virtually no chance of a bowl berth unless major changes and improvements take place between now and November.
Oklahoma is not only the best team in the league...by a touchdown on a neutral field over A&M in my book, but they also may be the best team in the nation. However, OU still must overcome the belief that Bob Stoops can no longer win "the big one." OU returns 29 players who have started at some point during their collegiate careers. They parlay their experience with a rather easy conference schedule. The Sooners play road games against Kansas, Kansas State, and Baylor, before getting their only true conference road test of the season in Stillwater to end the season. Oklahoma does have a date with Florida State in Tallahassee on September 17 and they do have their annual neutral site battle with the Longhorns. But they get Mizzou, A&M, and Texas Tech at home, and their home date with Iowa State could be a walkover. A potential best bet spot for OU backers could come on the road at Kansas State on October 29. The game in Manhattan falls in between dates with Texas Tech & Texas A&M. I'm down on the Wildcats and will explain later, but the 'Cats may get too much value, not unlike they did last season when Nebraska rolled into town, thumping K-State 48-13 as a 10 1/2 point favorite. There are simply no weaknesses to speak of when you bring up the 2011 Sooners, other than the fact that they had a strong positive turnover margin last season. However, with the return of so many experienced players, we may not see the typical reversal in the turnover category. If Bob Stoops is going to win his second NCAA championship, this will likely be his best chance. And he did "get the monkey off his back" winning a BCS bowl game last year after dropping five in a row SU/ATS.
Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are extremely close on paper and should fight it out for runner-up in the Big-12. The Aggies return no less than 18 starters (10 offense; 8 defense) from last year's 9-4 squad than ended in a Cotton Bowl berth. It's a little worrisome that A&M had as many close calls last year as they did -- and they were handed the Nebraska game on a silver platter. But the only position with a new regular starter on offense is at RG where senior Evan Eike takes over. But it must be noted that Eike has made 26 starts, mostly at LG in his collegiate career. Five of their top six linemen are back on the defensive side of the ball - and HC Mike Sherman has a "keeper" in NG Eddie Brown, who is a new starter, but should have little trouble anchoring the line. The D-line dominated in spring practice and should carry the stop unit all season. I like the Aggie secondary, which returns everyone in the 2-deep from last season. The one area of concern is the linebacking corps which loses Von Miller, the LB who put the "wrecking" in the wrecking crew. Miller led FBS in sacks two years ago and led the Big-12 last season. Also missing will be Michael Hodges, who led the team in tackles. The unit graded out an A+ last season, but I have to drop them to a B- before we see how the new starters perform in competition. A&M opens with a decent SMU squad, and they do have back-to-back games with Oklahoma State and Arkansas to end September and begin October. And playing successive games at home against Mizzou on October 29, followed by roadies at Oklahoma and Kansas State, could provide too much resistance for a double-digit winning season.
The main reason I would make Oklahoma State about a 2-point underdog to A&M on a neutral field is the Cowboys defense. OSU loses seven starters from last year's unit, and the team is short on both experience and overall talent. But how about that Cowboys offense! Oklahoma State should have little trouble out-distancing most of their opponents with their high-powered attack. Every starter is back on the offensive line, and the Brandon Weeden / Justin Blackmon QB / WR combo may be one of the five or six best combos in the nation. The Cowboys open with home games against Louisiana and Arizona, but the Wildcats are middle-of-the-pack in the Pac-12 this season. OSU does have a date at Tulsa on September 17, just one week before a date in College Station. The battle in Tulsa could be interesting provided new Hurricane HC Bill Blankenship can figure it out on the fly, in his first season as a head coach. With road games at A&M, Texas & Missouri back-to-back, Texas Tech, and then with their finale against the Sooners, I have to keep the Cowboys and their suspect defense a couple of points below A&M. Assuming the Cowboys survive the mid-October roadies at Austin & Columbia, the home game with Baylor on October 29 ought to be one heckuva shootout. OSU's best bet of the season could very well be an Over call with the Bears in late October.
I have the Texas Longhorns slated for 4th in this season's 10-team league, ranked about a field goal better than Missouri, as far as my preseason power rankings are concerned. The Longhorns will incorporate a new offensive coordinator and I am one who believes Garrett Gilbert is a tad overrated at QB - relative to what we have seen out of Austin during the Mack Brown-era. Malcolm Brown is a blue-chip frosh to lead the RB corps, but I expect capable opponents to load up against the run until Gilbert can prove his worth as a passer. The defensive front-seven will be better than last year's version, but the secondary does have some question marks. Opening with Rice and BYU is no easy task. The Owls gave Texas all they could handle last year, easily covering a 31-point spread in a 31-17 Texas win. And the Cougars are much improved over last season. UT does get Oklahoma State at home, but there's no guarantee home field will mean a lot after what we saw in 2010. Texas finishes the season with a road game at Mizzou, a home game against Kansas State, and then back-to-back roadies at A&M and Baylor. Any slip-up along the way and this team could stumble again. I believe the mental state of this squad is just as fragile as last year's team. But I also believe the defense will carry the team until Gilbert is ready to lead with his arm. After just five wins in 2010, I expect Texas to finish with at least 8 wins in 2011.
Missouri is the final team that can "hang" with a couple of the upper-tier teams I have already previewed. They aren't in OU's class, but they also aren't that far off from challenging A&M and Oklahoma State. However, the team is going to need sophomore James Franklin to step-up big and stay healthy at the QB position. It was recently announced that Tyler Gabbert will transfer to Louisville, rather than attempting to win the starting nod that his brother owned last season. They now have just three scholarship QBs and just 14 pass attempts among them. The Tigers will be improved at RB and WR, and I expect more from the offensive line despite Travis Ruth likely taking over at center. Defensively, the Tigers will be in the front-seven, but the secondary is in for a big hit after losing some key, top-shelf players. Three of Mizzou's first five games come on the road against Arizona State, Oklahoma, and Kansas State. A 1-2 mark in those three is likely in store for Gary Pinkel's troops. Mizzou ought to be 4-2 SU through October 15. But then comes back-to-back dates with Oklahoma State (home) and at A&M. There's a good chance I'll be looking to bet against them in both of those contests. However, as the season plays out, we do reserve the right to change our mind. While the talent is there, the Tigers have an extremely tough schedule. It's going to be awfully tough to top 8 wins and I believe there's little chance to match last year's win total of 10.
The six through eight spots in the Big-12 are interchangeable, as far as I'm concerned. Baylor, Kansas State, and Texas Tech are quite even on paper. However, I will give an edge to the two Texas schools to out-distance Kansas State. The Wildcats proved to be a "paper tiger" after last season's 4-0 start. We had a huge play on Nebraska in Manhattan in the 'Cats 5th game of the season and we easily won 48-13 as a 10 1/2 point favorite. I mentioned in my analysis that K-State was a slow football team with little more than RB Daniel Thomas on offense. The better teams on K-State's slate knew all they had to do was slow down the run and the Wildcats could be had. K-State has a new center, new RB, and new QB going into this season and I expect Bill Snyder's squad to struggle. They do get Eastern Kentucky and Kent State before playing at Miami-Florida on September 24. Road games at Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, and Texas, along with a homer against Oklahoma are going to make it extremely tough for K-State to top last year's win total of seven. The 'Cats also have to play A&M and Missouri at home.
I expect the Baylor Bears to go bowling again, thanks to QB Robert Griffin and a strong set of WRs. But the defense leaves a lot to be desired. Six starters are gone from last year's stop-unit, but then again, that may be a good thing after the team gave up almost 470-yards per game in conference action. The Bears will be pushed around in the trenches by strong offensive lines, and the secondary has a lot of new faces. The October 29 game with Oklahoma State could be a serious track-meet as
I mentioned earlier. The Bears open the season with a winnable game against a TCU team with just eight returning starters. Waco ought to be rocking and ready for revenge after getting blasted by the Frogs last year. A second straight 7-win season is quite possible, but it means Baylor can't slip-up in games they're "supposed" to win, i.e., home games against Rice & Iowa State. BU closes the season wtih games in each of the final six weeks. Those weeks include trips to Stillwater and Lawrence, with a neutral site game against Texas Tech, and home games with Mizzou, Oklahoma, and Texas. Robert Griffin better stay healthy.
The Red Raiders are strong in the trenches on offense heading into this season, which should make the transition at QB a little easier to deal with. The problem though, is that the receiving corps is dropping in talent level quicker than most expected with the departure of Mike Leach. The secondary brings everyone back who started in 2010. The LB corps is down a notch and the down linemen are going to have to get used to a return to a four-man line, rather than the 3-4. Tech's early season schedule is not a tough one, and there's a great chance they could be 4-0 when they host Texas A&M on October 8. I truly hope they make it to 4-0, because I do believe we'll get solid value with the Aggies, who defenitely own the defense to expose the Red Raider offensive question marks. I expect Tech to stand 6-5 SU when they meet Baylor in the season finale in Arlington.
That leaves us with Iowa State and Kansas. Cyclone HC Paul Rhoads has done a fine job in Ames. But he's lost some key parts from last year's version, including QB Austin Arnaud. They're new "up the middle" with a new QB, new RB, and new starting center. The Cyclones are "loaded," relatively speaking at LB and in the secondary. The defense is going to have to carry the load early on. After opening in Ames against Northern Iowa, the Cyclones host the Iowa Hawkeyes, followed by a roadie at UConn. Their next five games include a home game against Texas (UT in revenge), followed by road games at Baylor and Missouri, a homecoming date with A&M, and another road game at Texas Tech. There a chance ISU could have seven straight losses by the time they host Kansas on November 5. The Cyclones then finish with a home game aganst OSU, followed by road tilts with Oklahoma and Kansas State. Three wins may be too much to ask for in 2011.
Finally, Kansas has yet another year of serious rebuilding on their hands. Mark Mangino didn't exactly leave the cupboards full for Turner Gill, who'll enter his second season in Lawrence. He does return 15 starters, and maybe...just maybe, they could be 2-0 when they play their first road game of the season at Georgia Tech. The Jackets will be looking for revenge after losing in Lawrence a season ago. KU does return more starters than last year's team, but they also lose more lettermen than any other team in the league. There's a huge question under center, and the defense leaves a lot to be desired in overall team-speed. After 3 wins in his first season, I'm not sure Gill can win more than 2 games in 2011.