The Big 12 should be among the nation’s most interesting in 2013. Not because there’s an obvious BCS contender, but because of the parity. Six teams look capable of winning the conference. Those same teams also look capable of finishing sixth.
Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were the nation’s best eight-win team last year. They regrouped after the Rich Rod blowout. Their record resulted from multiple, heartbreaking defeats. Oklahoma State’s offense cycled through three quarterbacks, lost Justin Blackmon, Brandon Weeden and Kendall Hunter to the NFL Draft. It still finished third nationally in yards per play. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken departs, but, after Spring ball, the most glaring issue seems to be which successful quarterback with experience to start. Their defense should be (Big 12) strong up the middle and hopefully benefit from a bounce back season from corner Justin Gilbert. Mike Gundy’s team may not be a budding juggernaut. But, in a conference with many ifs, it may have the fewest.
Texas Longhorns: Texas looks stocked for a return on paper. They >also did before 2012, 2011 and, without hindsight, 2010. The Longhorns, as always, have the flashiest talent in the Big 12. They return 19 starters for 2013, tied for the most in FBS. The ingredients are there. But what about the cooking? The offense will switch to an up-tempo attack with Bryan Harsin leaving, which will place even more pressure on the Longhorn defense. Expected to be a rock, Manny Diaz’ group was abysmal last year. From that group they lost two NFL draft picks in Alex Okafor and Kenny Vaccaro (though Jeffcoat and Hicks come back from injury). The numbers got better toward the back end of the schedule, though much of that was having already played West Virginia, Baylor and Oklahoma. Considering raw material, the Longhorns may be the favorites. We’d like to see them keep it within 35 against Oklahoma before granting them that.
TCU: Gary Patterson has nine starters back from a Top 25 yards per play defense last year, most notably defensive end Devonte Fields, the conference’s defensive player of the year as a freshman in 2012. The sophomore, who had 18.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks, has been suspended for the first two games, but should be rolling by conference play. On offense, Casey Pachall rejoins the team after substance problems and running back Waymon James returns from injury. Both were heading toward breakout seasons last year before being derailed. Patterson’s team entered the conference BCS-ready. With better fortune they could have challenged in 2012. The ceiling in 2013 could be even higher.
Oklahoma: Quarterback is an uncertainty. The last two years where that was a serious doubt for Stoops, 2005 and 2009, were dour, eight-win affairs. The Bell-dozer probably wins the job. He has talented support at the skill spots, a much healthier offensive line than Jones had last year and an ability to run. The defense may be the greater problem. Four starters return from a unit that was underwhelming. Oklahoma struggled getting pressure last year (70th in sacks per game, 120th in tackles for loss per game). They lost so much depth from that defensive line this offseason they have been considering a shift to a 3-4. It’s hard to discount Oklahoma under Stoops, but they will need
much everything to go right to get back into the national discussion this season.
Baylor: The Bears kept rolling without Robert Griffin. Now, they must perform the trick again in 2013 without Nick Florence. They have talent at receiver. Lache Seastrunk being a potential Heisman candidate (according to himself) behind a strong offensive line should ease that transition. Art Briles knows offense. Whether Baylor climbs the next rung to conference contention, however, depends on their defense. The Bears progressed in 2012, but from 107th nationally in yards allowed per play to 94th. As Kansas State learned, this team can get on a roll and beat just about anyone. To beat everyone weekly, they must present some form of impediment. Baylor, as Kansas State learned, can get on a roll and outscore just about anyone. To win weekly, though, the defense must pose some form of an impediment. They held one team in 2012 to fewer than four scores against them. That was Kansas.
Kansas State: Kansas State is under the radar heading into 2013. They never have the best talent. They win through consistency and cohesion on both sides of the ball. They convert manageable third downs on key drives. They stop other teams from doing so. With so many starters leaving, those facets could suffer dramatically in 2013. On defense, the Wildcats lose 10 of 11 from last year. More of the offensive players return, but Heisman candidate quarterback Collin Klein is a substantial loss. The Wildcats must be considered a long shot. But they were a long shot last season before going to the Fiesta Bowl. They were an even longer shot the year before when they won 10 games. Bet against Bill Snyder at your own peril.
The Unwashed: West Virginia was not ready last year. They lose the Smith/Austin/Bailey triumvirate. Kingsbury has swagger, but he needs a couple years of recruiting. We’re so proud of Paul Rhoads but he is hitting Iowa State’s clear ceiling. Kansas…will look for lightning in a bottle and, judging from Charlie Weis’ track record, find smoke, mirrors and a stale fart.
[Photo via USA Today Sports]