For the past two years, the Big 12 was dead. Or, so we thought.
But, throw in an interim commissioner, a new TV deal and a postseason partnership with the SEC, and suddenly the Big 12 is the cool conference in an ironic way that only a hipster would understand.
The additions of TCU and West Virginia help. What the Big 12 lost in TV markets and footprints with Missouri and Texas A&M, it gains in recent on-the-field success with the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers. Looking ahead to the 2012 season, here’s how the Big 12 should shake out.
(Let it be known that I reserve the right to change my mind at any time without notice.)
1. Oklahoma (last season: 10-3; won Insight Bowl)
From injuries to departures to losing defensive coordinator Brent Venables to Clemson, Oklahoma has experienced plenty of turnover this offseason. But, Oklahoma also returns quarterback Landry Jones and leading rusher Dominique Whaley, and new DC Mike Stoops is a solid replacement for Venables too. OU’s schedule this year is manageable, though perhaps its two toughest tests could come against the Big 12’s two newest members: at West Virginia on Nov. 17 and at TCU to close out the regular season. If the Sooners can stay healthy — that’s already an issue along the offensive line — there’s little reason to think Bob Stoops‘ (pictured, with QB Blake Bell) team won’t win the Big 12.
2. West Virginia (last season: 10-3 in Big East, won Orange Bowl)
Placing the Mountaineers to finish second in the Big 12 is a bit risky, but we’re betting with house money, right?. Hanging 70 on Clemson in the Orange Bowl helps — points aside, it was the most cohesive WVU looked on offense all last year — and returning nine offensive starters helps even more. Still, the Mountaineers have two very important questions left to be answered: how will a young defense fare under new co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson, and can the team rise to the occasion in the face of stiffer competition? Remember, this is a team with a recent history of struggling unexpectedly against weaker opponents.
3. Texas (last season: 8-5; won Holiday Bowl)
Texas’ Holiday Bowl win over Cal gave the Longhorns some momentum heading into 2012 and there’s a lot of upside in Austin. Until that upside is reached, though, I’m going to put the Longhorns at No. 3. In fact, Texas is still about a year away from realistically competing for a conference title. David Ash looks like he’s the guy at quarterback despite what Mack Brown says and the offensive line should be better. The Longhorns are scary talented on defense, but I’m not sold on the offensive consistency yet.
4. TCU (last season: 11-2 in Mountain West; won Poinsettia Bowl)
The Horned Frogs could easily have been No. 3 or even has high as No. 2, but given the offseason attrition, I’m going to put them at No. 4. Like West Virginia, I’m curious to see if TCU can succeed against better competition. The Frogs are 5-5 against Big 12 opponents under Gary Patterson, with a few of those wins coming against Baylor when the Bears were … not so good, shall we say. That said, there are few coaches in college football better than Patterson, who is a big reason why TCU is even in the Big 12 to begin with. Though I don’t expect TCU to win the Big 12 in their inaugural season, I’m never one to count out Patterson.
5. Kansas State (last season: 10-3; lost Cotton Bowl)
I’m going to have to agree with ESPN’s Big 12 blogger David Ubben. The Wildcats are the Big 12’s wild card, equally capable of either another 10-win season or a .500 record. Not coincidentally, K-State is my No. 5 team. Last year, K-State made a habit of pulling out close games, winning eight by a touchdown or less. This year’s schedule is a coin flip too. Bill Snyder‘s team has to play at Oklahoma (the Sooners almost never lose at home), at Iowa State (don’t laugh), at West Virginia, at TCU and at Baylor. Back is quarterback/tough guy Collin Klein, who needs to improve his passing game if he’s to become a true dual-threat.
6. Oklahoma State (last season: 12-1; won Fiesta Bowl)
2011 was a memorable year for the Cowboys. Mike Gundy guided his alma mater to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Stanford after winning the first Big 12 title in school history. But boy, oh boy, does Oklahoma State lose some firepower with the departures of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Replacing Weeden will be true freshman Wes Lunt, who faces a backloaded schedule with games vs. West Virginia and at Oklahoma.
7. Texas Tech (last season: 5-7)
The Red Raiders return plenty of starters on offense and should finally have a healthy backfield again with the return of Eric Stephens and DeAndre Washington; injuries were unforgiving to Texas Tech last season. I like Tech’s home schedule too and Lubbock can be somewhat of a Twilight Zone for opponents. Oklahoma, West Virginia, Texas … I get the feeling Tech’s going to knock one of ‘em off at home.
8. Baylor (last season: 10-3; won Alamo Bowl)
Oklahoma State loses some key playmakers, but Baylor loses more in Heisman winner RGIII, receiver Kendall Wright and running back Terrance Ganaway, all of whom were statistical leaders in their respective positions. 2011 was a dream season for Baylor, but it’s back to reality in 2012. The Bears’ defense needs to get significantly better too under defensive coordinator Phil Bennett. I like Art Briles, but he has a lot to work on this season.
9. Iowa State (last season: 6-7; lost Pinstripe Bowl)
By now, you should know I’m an unabashed Paul Rhoads homer. If for nothing else, the man grows a hell of a mustache. That said, it pains me to predict that 2012 will be a rough season for the Cyclones. There’s no frontrunner at quarterback, but ISU does have two All-America candidates at linebacker in Jake Knott and A.J. Klein. The schedule is balanced and you know the Cyclones are going to give some team much better than them a scare, if not a check mark in the loss column.
10. Kansas (last season: 2-10)
Charlie Weis will get some immediate help in his first year with the Jayhawks thanks to Notre Dame transfer Dayne Crist. Beyond that? Ouch. Kansas can’t get much worse, but road games at Kansas State, Oklahoma, Baylor, Texas Tech and West Virginia won’t make getting better much easier. Weis may get it turned around eventually, but I don’t see it happening, or being anywhere close to happening, this season.
Interested in our other 10 conference projections along with Division 1-A (FBS) Independents? View ‘em all below by clicking the individual links or our projections landing page HERE. And don’t forget to check out CFT’s preseason Top 25.