Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Big 12 Preview (Part 1): Old Faces In Changing Times

Already blabbered about: SEC West, SEC EastACC Coastal, ACC Atlantic
Among many other things, 2011 gave us the Stoops face. I know that feel, Bob. 

I've covered the SEC and ACC at length already, coming to the conclusion that we're looking at LSU-Georgia and Virginia Tech-Florida State title games this season (despite my better judgment after jumping on the FSU bandwagon last pre-season). Now it's time to venture out westward to the new look Big 12. Since the conference no longer has enough teams for a conference title game as of last year, there are no divisions. So, I'm just going to break these previews down into two groups of five, alphabetically. Today I'll take a look at Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Oklahoma.

Prologue 
Last season was a mixed bag for this quintet of teams. Baylor of course jumped into the national consciousness for the first time in my sports watching lifetime, beginning with a thrilling victory at home against a top 15 TCU team. It seems strange to me that a lot of people didn't know who Robert Griffin III was before last season, because he was already very good before then. However, he took it to a whole different level, leading the Bears to its first 10-win season since 1980 and only its second such season in its entire history (dating back to 1889).

After starting 3-0, Baylor went on to drop 3 of their next 4, all three of those losses on the road: a 1-point loss at KSU and a pair of thumpings at the hands of TAMU and Oklahoma State. It seemed that the early feel good story had come to an end, but RGIII apparently had other ideas. Baylor went on to win out, winning five straight to end the regular season, including huge wins against the Big 12's old money teams, Texas and Oklahoma. They then finished the season with 67-56 bowl victory against Washington, a game that made the 2010 Michigan-Illinois game look like a classic 1970s three-yards-and-a-cloud of dust game by comparison. Baylor won ten games with a defense that was an absolute sieve; if the Baylor defense was a college hockey goalie playing in Yost, they would have been chased off in September with significant emotional bruising. The fact that Baylor finished a horrific 116th in total defense and 113th in scoring defense is perhaps the most incisive testament to RGIII's world-destroying ability. If anybody has ever truly put a team on his back, it was RGIII last season.

On the other side of the coin, Oklahoma started the season in the same plane of consideration as Alabama and LSU. I even had them going to the national title game last pre-season. Unfortunately for Bob Stoops, that did not happen. After breezing through the first half of the schedule--including what was then a big 10-point win in Tallahassee and an evisceration of Texas in Dallas--Oklahoma took on Texas Tech at home. OU completely collapsed on defense, surrendering 41 points in a 3-point loss against a team led, not by Mike Leach, but...by Tommy Tuberville. Ask any SEC person, and they'll tell you that giving up 41 to a Tuberville-coached team is probably one of the most insane things that a college football team can do. Despite his rep as a generic run the ball and play defense guy, Tuberville has carried on Tech's tradition of passing the ball with reckless abandon.

Texas Tech then went on to not make a bowl game, making things even worse for OU. After that debacle, OU's first home loss since 2005, the Sooners drubbed a GRITTY KSU team (once again led by chocolate chip cookie aficionado Bill Snyder), 58-17, followed by a home W against TAMU the next week. Then, of course, the wheels fell off the Boomer Sooner covered again in Waco, as RGIII once again set his blowtorch of an arm's sights on the OU secondary. OU's national title hopes were officially shot into the sun at this point, but the season was not entirely unsalvageable. After a win against ISU, the Sooners then traveled to Stillwater, where they were then waylaid 44-10. Even if you figure the somewhat underwhelming bowl win against Iowa, it's safe to say that expectations were not met in 2011 for the Sooners, and the defense was largely to blame.

Iowa State, under the SO PROUD Paul Rhoads, had an interesting season in 2011. The Cyclones went 6-7, going to a bowl game after missing the post-season in 2010. The awesomely named Steele Jantz quarterbacked ISU to a 3-0 start, including a big win 44-41 OT win against the Hawkeyes at home. Things fell apart like a Chinua Achebe novel after that, as the Cyclones dropped their next four, eventually leading to backup Jared Barnett taking the starting role from Jantz during the TAMU game. Barnett started the rest of the way, starting with three straight wins against Texas Tech, Kansas, and then the biggest upset of the season against Oklahoma State on Friday night in Ames. Unfortunately, ISU then lost out @ OU, @ KSU, and then against Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. It was an up and down season, but the Cyclones picked up some solid wins along the way.

Kansas, on the other hand, was a complete disaster. After wins against McNeese State and Northern Illinois to start the season, the Jayhaks finished 2-10, leading to Turner Gill's firing after only his second season. Say what you will about the fairness of that outcome for Gill, the Jayhawks were simply horrendous and showed very little signs of improvement outside of a 3-point loss in Ames and a 1-point loss in OT against Baylor (both in Novemeber).

Kansas State, on the other hand, was perhaps one of the biggest bounceback stories in the country not involving the team in Ann Arbor. Bill Snyder came back for an encore in 2009 after the Ron Prince era came to an unsuccessful end, yielding yet another EDSBS meme. KSU finished 10-3 (7-2), with wins against Baylor, Texas, TAMU, and Mizzou. Despite being 101st in total offense and 72nd in total defense, the 'Cats were able to grit their way to 10 wins, largely on the back of Collin "Poor Man's Tebow" Klein. Regardless, it was a return to the 10+ win standard that Snyder built during his first coaching tenure in Manhattan. KSU achieved its first double digit win total since 2003 last season. Although Michigan ended up receiving the BCS bid that many argued a team like KSU should have gotten, it was an incredibly successful year for Kansas State, one that signals their return to conference relevance.

Comings and Goings 
Key losses by team (NFL draft picks in bold):
  • Baylor: Robert Griffin III-QB, Kendall Wright-WR, Phillip Blake-C, Terrance Ganaway-RB, Robert T. Griffin-OG, Zac Scotton-DE, Elliot Coffey-ILB, John Jones-OG
  • Iowa State: Kelechi Osemele-OT, Leonard Johnson-CB, Patrick Neal-DE
  • Kansas: Steven Foster-RB, Jeremiah Hatch-C, Steven Johnson-OLB
  • Kansas StateBryce Brown-RB, Tysyn Hartman-SS, Manase Foketi-OT, Raphael Guidry-DT
  • Oklahoma: Ryan Broyles-WR, Donald Stephenson-OT, Jamell Fleming-CB, Frank Alexander-DE, Ronnell Lewis-OLB, James Hanna-TE, Travis Lewis-OLB, Jimmy Stevens-K, Sam Proctor-FS, Stephen Good-OG, Jarvis Jones-OT, Brandon Williams-RB (transfer), Kameel Jackson-WR (dismissed)
Returning starters, from most to least (including special teams): 1) Kansas State-18 2) Oklahoma-17 3) Baylor-16 4) Kansas-15 5) Iowa State-13 

With 18 returning starters, KSU is obviously in good position to make some noise this season, especially with QB Collin Klein returning and Baylor and Oklahoma State not figuring to be as good this season as they were in 2011. Oklahoma, as always, returns quite a bit despite losing their usual army of players to the NFL. Additionally, the Sooners also added former Penn State WR Justin Brown to the field recently, which should lessen the significance of the recent dismissal of Kameel Jackson (one of a trio of Sooner receivers that had been suspended this offseason). 

Iowa State only returning 13 is not good for their hopes of improving upon last season's mark, but returning both options at QB and some solid position groups elsewhere could allow the Cyclones to tread water.  

Games To Watch 
Since divisions do not exist here, there would be no point in limiting this list to games featuring only this group of teams. So, I will include the rest of the conference.

1) Oklahoma-Texas, October 13th. In spite of the conference's significant turnover, this remains the premier game of the conference schedule. Texas was strong defensively last season but the offense has taken a significant nosedive in the post-Colt era. Case McCoy/David Ash need to get better if UT is going to have a chance. I don't see OU destroying Texas like they did last season, but the Sooners are still the better team as of right now. We'll see how things have shaken out come Red River Shootout time.

2) Oklahoma-West Virginia, November 17th. This could end up being one of the biggest games of the season, period. Although most people remember WVU for being the team that destroyed Clemson in epic fashion (resulting in Clemson DC Kevin Steele's firing), this is the same team that lost at Syracuse by 26. With that said, their only other two losses came against LSU in what might have been the "closest" 26-point defeat of all time and Louisville at home. WVU is getting a lot of hype these days even considering that they are moving up the conference hierarchy from the Big East to the much tougher Big 12. I think a significant percentage of that hype is justified. On the other hand, if OU handles KSU, Texas, and Notre Dame, they should be 9-0 before taking the field amid the fog of Morgantown. Emphasis on "should."

3) TCU-Texas, November 24th. Nobody will ever replace Texas A&M, but TCU looks to be in prime position to attempt to do so for the Longhorns. The Horned Frogs travel to Austin on the penultimate weekend of the season in what should be a crucial game for both teams. We will have ample evidence by then re: whether or not TCU's 2011 performance on defense was an anomaly, as well as whether or not McCoy/Ash have gotten any better.

4) Kansas State-Oklahoma, September 22nd. After what was a wildly successful year for Bill Snyder in 2011, the 'Cats should be 3-0 heading into this trip to Norman. After getting annihilated at home last season, KSU will be looking to put up a better performance this time around. A win would obviously make KSU a legitimate contender for the conference title; as the Red Raiders proved last season, winning in Norman is difficult but not quite impossible. Either way, that defense will have to get better if KSU wants to have a hope of holding Landry Jones et all to a low enough point total to give Klein a shot to grit them to victory.

5) WVU-Texas, October 6th. This is the second of two "West Virginia meets Big 12 old money" games, although this one actually takes place before the one occupying the #2 slot on this list. Dana Holgorsen's high-flying offense, triggered by QB Geno Smith, will be the first real test of UT's excellent defense. In 2011, UT was #11 in total defense, with WVU coming in at #15 in total offense. Both units figure to be better than they were last season. Although many are justified in their criticism of the level of defense played in the Big 12 as a whole, the overall level of talent is much higher than it is in the Big East, and so this will be a real test of how ready for big time conference play WVU is.

LAZY NARRATIVES GALORE 
  • Kansas State "luck." Remember how everybody referred to Northwestern as the "luckiest" team in America when they won 9 games in 2008 and how everybody is predicting that Michigan's 2011 season was significantly aided by the invisible hand of Luck (mostly in the form of a ridiculous fumble recovery rate)? Well, many said those sorts of things about KSU last season, and not unjustifiably so. KSU put up pretty poor numbers (as mentioned above in the Prologue section) and still managed to eek out 10 wins. Can they do it again? KSU will need to come close to duplicating its top 10 turnover margin of 2011--second in the Big 12 only to Oklahoma State's #1 overall TO margin--if they want to have another 10+ win year. 
  • Schematic advantage redux! After an underwhelming season calling the plays at Florida--one that Spencer Hall hilariously summarized in expletive form--Charlie Weis is back in the head coaching game. After a 2-10 season, winning at a place like Kansas would seem like a complete impossibility if not for the fact that Mark Mangino did it not too long ago. It can be done, and Weis will probably receive the requisite amount of patience from the fans, athletic department, etc. Weis has been able to bring a miscellaneous bevy of transfers, 1-year grad transfers, and JUCO players to help the cause. The most notable addition was of course former ND QB Dayne Crist. Even with all these additions in mind, Kansas is still well behind the rest of their conference peers. 
  • O Brother, Where Art Thou? Oh, right here. Everybody knows that OU can score major points against pretty much anybody on its schedule. The issue, last season, was defense. With Brent Venables's departure for Clemson, Bob hired his brother, recently fired Arizona HC Mike Stoops, to run the defense. Mike's tenure in Tucson was kind of a disaster, but he does have a good history of coaching defense, dating back to his first tenure as the OU defensive coordinator from 1999 to 2003. The defense as a whole, especially the secondary, will need to improve if OU is going to avoid letdown games (e.g. 2011 Texas Tech) or complete collapse (2011 Oklahoma State and Baylor). UGA fans would nod their head knowingly at the fact that Willie Martinez, former UGA DC, was in charge of the defensive backs last season. Martinez resigned, eventually leaving to join DC Brian VanGorder at Auburn. It will be very difficult for the Sooners to win anything this season with the 79th best pass defense in the country
Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It is Anyway 
1) Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma
2) Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State 
3) Malcolm Brown, RB, Texas 
4) Kenny Stills, WR, Oklahoma 

OFFICIAL MEANINGLESS PREDICTION
Again, without divisions it is fairly meaningless to rank this arbitrarily selected group of five. I'll leave this section to tomorrow's post so that I can rank the conference 1-10. 

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