Teams: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech, and West Virginia
Best Team: Texas
Best Coach: Art Briles (Baylor) AND Bill Snyder (Kansas State) AND Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State)
Top Players: RB Lache Seastrunk (Baylor), WR Josh Stewart (Oklahoma State), OG Cyril Richardson (Baylor), DE Devonte Fields (TCU), DE Jackson Jeffcoat (Texas), LB Jordan Hicks (Texas), LB Steve Edmond (Texas), CV Aaron Colvin (Oklahoma), CB Jason Verrett (TCU)
Top Storyline: Can Mack Brown get Texas back to playing Top-10 caliber football?
The Big 12 conference is not what it used to be, not only because it now only has ten teams, but because its powerhouse schools (Texas and Oklahoma) have not lived up to the hype in recent years. Both programs are feeling the heat as expectations are always high there, and programs like Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, and Kansas State are building consistent winners.
While it is unlikely that Texas would choose to fire head coach Mack Brown, the seat is certainly warm nonetheless. After several years of disappointing teams, the Longhorns will put the most talented team on the field once again in 2013 and anything less than a conference title will cause increased calls for the once revered Brown to lose his job.
For Brown’s 16th season with the Horns, junior quarterback David Ash will once again man the quarterback position after throwing for 2699 yards last season. Ash, who is among the better signal callers in the conference this year, could step aside for either converted quarterback Jalen Overstreet or star freshman Tyrone Swoopes for different looks, but count on the starter to throw for big numbers in 2013.
Elsewhere on offense, the Longhorns return a stable of talent. The running back position is held be sophomore Johnathan Gray (701 yards) who is poised for a big year but junior backups Joe Bergeron (16 touchdowns in 2012) and Malcolm Brown could start for most teams. At wide receiver senior Mike Davis (939 yards) and junior Jaxon Shipley (737 yards) return looking for big numbers. All five offensive linemen return.
Defensively, the Longhorns are even more loaded. Senior defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat missed half his season last year, but still managed 31 tackles, 4 sacks, and 7 TFLs and will be one of the nation’s best now that he is healthy. Likewise, junior linebacker Jordan Hicks went down early in 2012 and was the team’s leading tackler at the time. He is considered one of the most talented linebackers in the nation and is joined by junior Steve Edmond (103 tackles, 1 sack, 5 TFLs, and 1 interception) to form one of the country’s top linebacking corps. Junior cornerback Quandre Diggs (59 tackles, 4 interceptions) is also a standout and tackles Malcolm Brown (sophomore) and Chris Whaley (senior) could be poised for breakout years after Ashton Dorsey chose to transfer leading up to the 2013 season.
Prediction: Texas does not have the talent of, say, Alabama or Ohio State, but they are not too far behind. This team, on paper, should be in the national title discussion, but the past few years have caused many to sour on the Longhorns. Games against Mississippi (9/14), Kansas State (9/21), Oklahoma (10/12), at TCU (10/26), Oklahoma State (11/16), and at Baylor (12/7) could all trip up the Longhorns. While I do not think they make it through the schedule unscathed, they should be favored in each of those contests, and I would peg Texas for a triumphant return to title relevance with an 11-1 season.
Typically two heads are not better than one when it comes to the quarterback position, but Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy will use the strategy once again in 2012. Clint Chelf (1588 passing yards) and JW Walsh (1564 yards) will both see significant action in 2013. Aiding the odd situation will be the trio of top returning receivers led by junior Josh Stewart (1210 receiving yards) who will look to make up for the loss of running back Joseph Randle’s production. Defensively, the Cowboys return leading tackle, senior safety Daytawion Lowe (75 tackles) and elite cornerback/kick returner Justin Gilbert (827 return yards and 9 PBUs to go along with 63 tackles). Also, they have several players capable of creating havoc in the opponent’s backfield, including senior defensive tackle Calvin Barnett, who emerged as a star out of the JUCO ranks in 2012, and senior linebacker Caleb Levey. The two combined for 12.5 TFLs last season.
Prediction: While Texas is clearly the best team in the conference, not much separates the Cowboys, Oklahoma, TCU, or Baylor for the #2 spot. However, Mike Gundy was one of three coaches picked as the conference’s best for a reason. His teams consistently perform at a high level, and, while this will not be his most talented team, he will find a way to put points on the board. Also, his defense in 2013 should be solid. The opening game against Mississippi State should be a good indicator of where this team is, but they have it relatively easy (outside of a 10/19 contest against TCU) until they play at Texas and against Baylor and Oklahoma in the final three weeks. I expect this team to finish 9-3 or maybe even 10-2.
Another one of the top coaches in the Big 12 has managed to do what few thought possible: make Baylor a consistent winner. Art Briles has done just that, and he returns a strong squad in 2013. However, a lot depends on two of the nation’s most intriguing players: junior quarterback Bryce Petty and junior running back Lache Seastrunk. Petty has barely played but rave reviews have many thinking he could be one of the best in college football. Likewise, Seastrunk was a non-factor for most of last season until he exploded in the final six games, rushing for 103, 91, 185, 136, 178, and 138 yards respectively. The former Oregon transfer is one of the nation’s most electric players, but can he replicate the numbers of the second half of 2012 over the entirety of 2013? If he can, watch out! Senior receiver Tevin Reese (957 yards) will have a lot of work to do to replace the 1832 yards of stud receiver Terrance Williams (now in the NFL). Look for Seastrunk to play a bigger role catching passes. Also, senior guard Cyril Richardson is a mammoth and brutish lineman who is one of the best in the country. Defensively, the Bears return seven starters and should be much improved. Senior Eddie Lackey (104 tackles, 2 sacks, 8.5 TFLs, and 4 interceptions) and junior linebacker Bryce Hager (124 tackles, 4 sacks, 5.5 TFLs) are a stellar combo. Senior safety Ahmad Dixon (102 tackles, 1 sack, 4.5 TFLs, and 2 interceptions) is a standout as well.
Prediction: The Bears are a real wild card, as so much depends on how well Petty and Seastrunk perform relative to expectations. Still, this is a good football team, and Briles is a very good football coach. The first seven games should be a breeze, and the Bears then face a tough home stretch against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State, at TCU, and against Texas. I do not see them losing more than three of those games, and this team has the POTENTIAL to win ten or eleven, though nine is the safer bet.
Like the Cowboys, TCU enters 2013 with a two quarterback system with senior Casey Paschall and Trevone Boykin likely to begin by splitting reps, with Boykin, who ran for 417 yards in 2012 to be used in more running situations . Both are capable, but unlike Oklahoma State this is a team built to grind win on defense. Running backs BJ Catalon and Nebraska transfer Aaron Green will critical to the success of the Horned Frogs and moving the chains. However, the pressure will fall to the defense, which is led by star sophomore defensive end Devonte Fields and senior cornerback Jason Verrett. Fields was supposed to be suspended for the first two games, but he may suit up against LSU. A freshman sensation, he had 53 tackles, 10 sacks, and 8.5 TFLs last season. Verrett, is one of the top corners in the country and had 63 tackles, 4 TFLs, 15 PBUs, and 6 interceptions in 2012. Together, they are a nightmare for quarterbacks and players like senior safety Elisha Olabode (71 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 4 interceptions), junior defensive tackle Chucky Hunter (35 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs), and junior safety Sam Carter (63 tackles, 3 sacks, 3.5 TFLs, and 4 interceptions) create a defense offensive coordinators do not want to see.
Prediction: Gary Patterson, who nearly made the top coach trio, has been at the pinnacle of the profession, quietly, for a long time. In the first year in the conference, the 7-6 record is likely an aberration. This is a stellar defensive team, and they should be improved in 2013. A tough opener against SEC powerhouse LSU will reveal a lot about this team, but that may be tough to win. However, I do not see this team being worse than 8-4, with three conference losses. They could be even better.
Oklahoma has been a little bit better than their rival, Texas, but they too have disappointed in recent years. As Bob Stoops enters his 15th year, many have the Sooners pegged as a top 15 team, and they do return some talent. With junior Blake Bell winning the starting job, Stoops may work harder to get the ball in the hands of running backs Damian Williams (946 rushing yards and 320 receiving yards) and Brennan Clay (555 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards). Traditionally, the Sooners also have a very good line and this year should be no different with senior center Gabe Ikard and junior tackle Daryl Williams as very strong returners. However, Oklahoma is not what they typically are defensively. They return some good players, most notably senior corner Aaron Colvin (61 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 interceptions) and junior defensive end Chuka Ndulue (45 tackles and 5 sacks), but they are not to the caliber of previous Oklahoma defenses.
Prediction: A lot of analysts are pegging the Sooners as a top 15 team in 2012, but I am not buying it. While they are not too far behind Oklahoma State, Baylor, and TCU, I do see a gap there, and there could be some real discontent in Norman if, as I predict, the Sooners lose three straight from September 28 to October 12 (at Notre Dame, TCU, and Texas) and then lose two of three at Baylor, at Kansas State, and at Oklahoma State. A 7-5 season is not seen as acceptable at Oklahoma, and Stoops could surprisingly find himself on the hot seat.
Kansas State lost two of college football’s top performers in Collin Klein and Arthur Brown, but Bill Snyder has proven he can win for Kansas State no matter what. All eyes will be on JUCO quarterback Jake Waters who takes over the reigns. Waters was a standout in the JUCO ranks, and it should be a pretty seamless transition. If he is as good as I think he can be, the offense should be humming with senior running back John Hubert (947 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns) and all five linemen returning. Defensively, however, is where the problems lie. The defensive backfield should be solid with both (yep, only two) defensive starters returning. Junior cornerback Randall Evans (76 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFLs, and 1 interception) and senior safety Ty Zimmerman (50 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 5 interceptions) are some of the best in the conference but the front seven will struggle.
Prediction: Never count out a Bill Snyder-coached team, but the Wildcats will not reach last year’s 11-2 mark. Although the out of conference schedule is light, I do not see them beating any of the aforementioned five programs, and the November 9 match up against Texas Tech will be close. 7-5 is a realistic goal for Kansas State, and 8-4 would be somewhat of a coup.
I really think Texas Tech made a great long term hire in young alum Kliff Kingsbury. However, it may be a rough inaugural season. Kingsbury has a quarterback battle on his hands between sophomore Michael Brewer and freshman Davis Webb. That may hurt the rhythm of the offense, and, in turn junior running back Kenny Williams (824 rushing yards) will be leaned on as will senior receiver Eric Ward (1053 yards and 12 touchdowns) and one of the nation’s best tight ends in junior Jace Amaro (409 yards). While Kingsbury knows how to score points, the Red Raiders lost their three top tacklers. Junior defensive tackle Dalvon Simmons (27 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 TFLs) should have a breakout year, and senior linebacker Will Smith (55 tackles) is a candidate to lead the team in tackles in 2013.
Prediction: Although there is a distinct drop between Oklahoma and Kansas State, Texas Tech is neck and neck with the Wildcats. Kingsbury could develop into an elite coach, but it will be a tough road to bowl eligibility. I think they will get there, but 6-6 may be a top end record for the Red Raiders. First opponent SMU and the 11/9 game against Kansas State will be close ones to watch.
On paper, there is not a whole lot to like about Iowa State. However, Paul Rhoades has done an amazing job with this blue collar team, and they will not roll over for any one. Still, senior running backs James White (505 yards) and Shontrelle Johnson (504 yards) are nothing spectacular, yet will be heavily relied upon in a running offense. Sophomore quarterback Sam Richardson should be a solid dual threat option for the Cyclones (541 passing yards and 233 rushing yards) but cannot carry an offense. Defensively, senior linebacker Jeremiah George (87 tackles, 4 TFLs) leads a unit that returns only 4 starters.
Prediction: The Cyclones are well coached and will play fundamentally sound football. However, there is not a lot of talent on this team. They will struggle against out of conference foes Iowa and Tulsa and may only be competitive in conference against Kansas and West Virginia (its last two games). Still, the Cyclones always win one that they are not supposed to, so put them down for four or five wins despite having the talent level of a lesser team.
West Virginia will benefit from a pair of transfers in quarterback Clint Trickett (from FSU), who is still battling for the quarterback job and former Houston running back Charles Sims. Sims could be a standout for WVU who will inexplicably redshirt junior running back Andrew Buie after he led the team in rushing last season. Outside of those transfers, the Mountaineers are desperately looking for playmakers. Defensively, a pair of sophomores look to lead the way in linebacker Isaiah Bruce and safety Karl Joseph who were the top two tacklers last season and each had six tackles for loss.
Prediction: The Mountaineers looked like world beaters early in 2012 and Dana Holgorsen looked like a top-notch head coach. However, the team faltered late, and they lost a lot of talent. Unless Sims can take over the Big 12, this team should be better defensively but not capable of doing what they need to do offensively. Looking at their schedule, this could be a 4-8 team.
The last two hires for the Jayhawks have been high profile. Turner Gill did not work out, and Charlie Weis looks like a similar bust. For Kansas to have any success in 2013 after going 1-11 in 2012 and returning only 9 starters, junior quarterback Jake Heaps, the former starter at BYU will have to be awfully good. However, Weis could get little production in the passing game last year, so it is hard to imagine a total rejuvenation. Running back James Sims, a senior who ran for 1013 yards in 2012 leads a solid group of running backs. Junior linebacker Ben Heeney returns after leading the team in tackles (112) and tackles for loss (11) in 2012, but there is little else to inspire confidence defensively.
Prediction: The Jayhawks SHOULD beat South Dakota in Week 2 (after a Week 1 bye), but they will be underdogs against everyone else. Another 1-11 season is a real possibility, and, if the Jayhawks fired Gill for five wins in two years, will Weis return for a third season after two wins in two seasons?
For more college football insights and analysis, follow Cole Muzio on Twitter @ColeMuzio