The Big 12 South was the focal point of the nation a year ago. Texas, Oklahoma and Texas Tech were all in position, at one point or another, to get into the BCS National Championship Game. The Sooners actually did get there, and quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Sam Bradford and Graham Harrell joined Tim Tebow at the center of the Heisman debate. Harrell is gone, and Tech is expected to fall back to the pack, but the Big 12 South is again getting a lot of attention as the 2009 season starts.
The division is tough, but I think it is also overrated. Oklahoma loses a lot and simply bringing Bradford back isn’t enough to make them a national title contender. The Sooners lose four starters on the offensive line and will start a freshman at center. They should be okay defensively and combined with Bradford, this will make them a good team, capable of reaching a big bowl game. But another run at the big prize is asking too much.
I have no such qualms about Texas, who not only returns McCoy, but gets their O-Line back intact. There’s some replacement work to do on the front seven, but overall I give the ‘Horns an edge on OU in a rivalry that’s one of the fiercest in the country. The big game is October 17, when these two square off in Dallas. Both programs hope it will be one of two trips to Big D, which also hosts the conference championship game in December.
A third wheel will be in the mix in the South, even if Tech is going to decline a bit. Oklahoma State is highly regarded in most preseason polls and that optimism is justified. Senior quarterback Zac Robinson will put himself into the Heisman conversation. Standout receiver Dez Bryant is one of the best in the country. The defense is tough up front and at linebacker and the offense is strong in the trenches. The one weakness Mike Gundy’s team has is in the secondary. In a conference with these kind of quarterbacks (what are the odds we’d have ever said that about the old Big Eight or SWC prior to the merger?), that’s a big enough flaw to keep them out of the championship game. But I do think they find a way to finish ahead of their in-state rivals from Norman.
Texas Tech went through offseason turmoil, as they were faced with the possibility of losing Mike Leach over a contract dispute with the administration. Leach is back and must deal with the reality of having lost most of his lineman on both sides of the ball, along with Harrell, the man I would have voted for in the Heisman race. Baylor and Texas A&M are both teams that went 4-8 last year and show no signs of getting any better this season.
The North Division is the weak sister in this league and none of their teams could finish in the top half of the South. But there will still be interesting football, including a resurgent Nebraska. The Cornhuskers won the Gator Bowl last season and they have a little defensive re-tooling to do, enough so that they are not an elite team. But they are respectable up front and that will make them respectable in the final standings. Nebraska makes a non-conference road trip to Virginia Tech on September 19, an opportunity to dramatically heighten Big 12 prestige as well as their own recovery.
A storied program in Lincoln being on the way back is the best storyline in the North, but they are not yet the best football team. Kansas brings back Todd Reesing behind center and all his weapons are in place, led by receiver Dezmon Briscoe. Reesing will be the fourth Heisman contender out of this quarterback-rich league. The offensive line must be rebuilt and for me, that’s enough of a reason to say they can’t win the league championship. But in this watered-down division, a great quarterback and a veteran defense are enough to get them to Dallas on December 5.
Missouri has won the North two straight years and gotten smoked by Oklahoma for the championship both times. Last year was a disappointment, as the Tigers were supposed to contend for national honors, rather than simply back into a weak division crown (they only went 5-3 in conference play) and then take a 62-21 shellacking from OU. Mizzou went on to need overtime to win its bowl game against Northwestern. With Chase Daniel departed along with the offensive coordinator and most of the defense, there’s some major rebuilding ahead for Gary Pinkel.
Kansas State and Iowa State are the other teams with a feasible hope of stealing first place. Veteran coach Bill Snyder has come out of retirement to prevent K-State from falling into obscurity. Snyder won the Big 12 back in 2003 when he shocked top-ranked OU in the title game and he took the ‘Cats to BCS games twice in his career. With only five defensive starters back, there’s not enough for him to win big, but it’s enough to at least give a vet coach a puncher’s chance to steal a division that’s anyone’s for the taking. Iowa State is weak in the secondary, but will be adequate everywhere else. Again, it doesn’t take much to at least have a chance on this side of the draw, where only Colorado looks truly hopeless.
It all adds up to another top-heavy year in the Big 12, as the action centers around the three big programs in the South. Look for Texas to win the division and administer the obligatory thrashing of Kansas in the championship game. I like Oklahoma State to pick up an at-large bid to the BCS, while OU settles for the Cotton Bowl. Will Texas get over the hump and play for the national championship? That’s something I’ll look at after the conference previews are done and it’s all coalesced into national predictions. But surely, just taking their revenge on Oklahoma will soothe a lot of wounds in Austin.
Up Next: Pac-10 on Friday