Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Big 12 Preview (Part 2): Intruder(s) In the Dust

Already blabbered about: SEC West, SEC EastACC Coastal, Big 12 (Part 1) 

It's time to finish up the Big 12 by taking a look at Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech, TCU, and West Virginia. Yes, West Virginia in the Big 12 is still not something that I have completely assimilated into my college football worldview. 

Say, man, you got a bad defense? It'd be a lot cooler if you did. 
The 2011 season for the Oklahoma State Cowboys might have been its most exhilarating and disappointing season at the same time. As for the exhilarating part, the Cowboys went 12-1, winning a Big 12 championship along the way for the first time since the league formed in 1996. Excluding the 2010 season, it was their first double-digit win total since 1988. It was a wildly successful season built on the back of a juggernaut of an offense that didn't miss a beat at all even with OC Dana Holgorsen's departure for Morgantown. New OC Todd Monken called the plays for an offense that finished 3rd in total offense (behind only Houston and Baylor) and second in scoring offense (behind only Houston). Led by AARP member Brandon Weeden (GET IT BECAUSE HE WAS 28 AND THAT'S OLD FOR A COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYER), receiver Justin Blackmon, and tailback Joseph Randle, the offense essentially was an athletic refurbishing of Russia's "scorched earth" policy. Only, instead of scorching its own earth, they, you know, incinerated Big 12 defenses instead. 

As for the disappointing part, I think you know what I mean. Their one loss on the road against Iowa State, combined with an SEC favoritism built on the back of the previous five seasons, led to the Cowboys getting passed up by Alabama for the second national title berth. It's difficult to argue that Alabama did not have the look and feel of a national title team, but the strange, labyrinthine non-logic of college football would seem to do away with the notion that a "best" team could ever truly be decided. By that I of course mean that maybe the Cowboys would not have fared better against LSU than Alabama did, but I see no reason why they should have been denied the chance. 

In lieu of criticism of Oklahoma State's defense--and by extension Big 12 defense as a whole--mostly finding its source in Dixie, the most under-the-radar stat of the 2011 season was the fact that OSU ended the season with the #1 turnover margin. I don't remember people offering undue criticism to Auburn in 2010 for having a less than stellar defense, so I still don't understand why OSU was hammered for not putting up the same defensive stats that teams like LSU and Alabama did. Regardless, it was a wildly successful season for Mike Gundy, one that will be remembered for many years to come in Stillwater. 

The Texas teams presented a bit of a mixed bag. Mack Brown's Longhorns bounced back after a horrible 5-7 season in 2010 to go 8-5 last season. However, it was still a disappointing season for Texas in a number of ways. Despite having a ferocious defense and a pair of very good tailbacks in Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron, the Longorns's quarterback play let them down. Its been two seasons since Colt McCoy left for the NFL, and Mack Brown is still looking for a capable signal caller. After the collapse of the Garett Gilbert experiment in 2010 (and his ensuing transfer), the position shifted its focus to two youngsters in Case McCoy and David Ash. Ash put up better numbers across the boards but didn't exactly separate himself from McCoy in the race to secure the position. 

Despite the much-maligned Greg Davis's resignation in 2010, the 2011 offense wasn't much better, co-coordinated by former UT QB Major Applewhite and Bryan Harsin. The Longhorns finished 55th in scoring, 54th in total offense, and 89th in passing efficiency. With most of 2011's staunch defense and Bergeron and Brown both returning, its fairly clear that one of these two quarterbacks will need to seize the position and provide at minimum reliable play if this team is going to approach its former formidability. 

Texas Tech, on the other hand, was quite the opposite in almost every way. Quarterback Seth Doege put up monster numbers all season, most notably against Oklahoma in what was the Sooners' home loss since 2005. Unfortunately, the defense was still the sieve that you would imagine it to be. The Red Raiders finished 144th in total defense and near the very bottom in scoring defense (117th). No matter how potent your offense is--a notion that is still kind of amusing when attached to a head coach of Tommy Tuberville's decidedly conservative offensive reputation--you are not going to win very many games. And, in 2011, they didn't. After the Oklahoma upset took them to 5-2, TTU lost out, finishing 5-7, their first sub-.500 season since 1992

Next, we have the newcomers from Fort Worth. TCU started the season with a disheartening loss at Baylor that officially set RGIII mania into motion and also forced people to ask questions about what used to be an indomitable defense. Fortunately, on the back of QB Casey Pachall, the Horned Frogs finished what was otherwise a strong season. After a slip up in OT against SMU, TCU won out, including wins against Boise State and a bowl win against a sneakily solid Louisian Tech team. It is probably a testament to Gary Patterson's coaching acumen that an 11-2 (7-0) season could even be slightly painted with the brush of disappointment. With that said, while TCU was not exactly terrible on defense last season (as mentioned yesterday, most of the important metrics put them right on the fringe of the top third in the country), they will need to return to their defensively elite ways if they want to hope to keep the offenses in their new conference in check. 

Lastly, we have West Virginia, coming to the conference fresh of a national humiliation of Clemson during bowl season. Despite a puzzling 26-point loss at Syracuse in October and another loss at home against an improving but not exactly fearsome Louisville team, WVU proved themselves to be a team worthy of serious recognition by season's end. Additionally, despite losing by 26 to LSU at home, it was arguably one of the "closest" 26-point losses that I've ever seen (as I mentioned yesterday). The fact that Oklahoma State ran basically the same offense last season that they did when Holgorsen was in town lends some credence to the fact that the Cowboys would have had more success against LSU then SEC partisans would have led you to believe. 

In short, while the Big 12 still does not have enough teams for a conference championship game, this will yet again be the most exciting conference in America for the offensively inclined. It can be argued that the TCU and WVU additions were just as strong as the SEC's chosen pair of newcomers, but that will be proven or disproven in the years to come. 

Comings and Goings 
Key losses, by team (NFL departures bolded, via the CBS 2012 NFL Draft Tracker): 

  • Oklahoma State: Brandon Weeden-QB, Hubert Anyiam-WR, Josh Cooper-WR, Nick Martinez-OG, Grant Garner-C, Levy Adcock-OT, Justin Blackmon-WRJamie Blatnick-DE, Richetti Jones-DE, Markelle Martin-SS
  • Texas: Keenan Robinson-ILB, Emmanuel Acho-OLB, Kheeston Randall-DT, Cody Johnson-FB, Foswhitt "Fozzy" Whittaker-RB, Christian Scott-SS, Blake Gideon-FS, Tray Allen-OG, David Snow-OG
  • TCU: Tank Carder-ILB, Greg McCoy-CB, Antoine Hicks-WR, Jonathan Jones-WR, Logan Brock-TE, Jeff Olson-OT, Kyle Dooley-OG, Robert Deck-OT, Tekerrein Cuba-WS, Johnny Fobbs-FS
  • Texas Tech: Lonnie Edwards-OG, Justin Keown-C, Donald Langley-NT
  • West Virginia: Bruce Irvin-OLB, Najee Goode-ILB, Keith Tandy-CB, Don Barclay-OT, Tyler Rader-OG, Julian Miller-DT, CaseyVance-WLB, Keith Tandy-CB, Eain Smith-FS
Returning starters, from most to least (including special teams): 1) Texas Tech-20 2) Texas-17 3) Oklahoma State-16 5) West Virginia-16 6) TCU-13 

On first glance, Texas Tech brings back practically all of its 2011 starters this season, including QB Seth Doege. Whether or not this is actually a good thing is up for debate. 

In other "good things that might not be good things", Texas brings back 9 offensive starters from 2011's fairly bad outfit, but you have to figure that McCoy/Ash will be better. On the bright side, while the Longhorns have to replace two NFL draft picks at linebacker, the defense should be pretty good yet again. 

Outside of Ok. State, who will be starting freshman QB Wes Lunt, the rest of this group will see their 2011 starter at quarterback return for the upcoming season. With guys like Doege, Pachall, and Geno Smith, this should be a very strong group on the offensive side of the ball. 

Defense is another story. Texas will be strong once again, and TCU should at least tread water vis-a-vis last season's performance (which, as I said, was only "bad" compared to the benchmark set throughout previous seasons). Otherwise, Oklahoma State, despite its #1 TO margin, was not exactly a quality defense in 2011, and Texas Tech was simply horrible in every aspect. If you have a vault filled with Faberge eggs and blocks of pure gold bullion and wish to keep it safe from Oceans 11-esque heist, do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, ask the Texas Tech defense to guard it for you. 

WVU is of course known for its offense, but they were actually pretty decent on D last season. In total defense, they were only 1 spot below TCU in the rankings (at 33rd). However, they were tied with Oklahoma State for a pedestrian 61st in the country in scoring defense, relinquishing just under 27 point per game. This group of teams represent the story of Jekyll and Hyde draped over a college football framework. 

Games To Watch 
I covered this yesterday, but, needless to say this conference slate could prove to be the most exciting in the country. 

  • THIS OFFENSE WON'T WORK HERE PAWLLL NO WAIT IT PROBABLY WILL.  This is basically a diluted version of the same point vis-a-vis Texas A&M and Mizzou's transfer of the spread to SEC country, but WVU's offense will see a much higher baseline level of defensive talent in the Big 12 than it did in the Big East. WVU will still put up points as voraciously as Dana Holgorsen consumes Red Bulls.
  • TCU defense.  Was 2011 just a blip on the radar or is Gary Patterson not quite the defensive sorcerer that we thought he was? The answer, I think, is probably more the former than the latter, but it's not completely unreasonable to ask the question. TCU was 32nd in total defense last season and 28th in scoring defense, both respectable marks but not quite equal to the standard that Patterson had built up in previous seasons.     
  • UT quarterback carousel. Simply put, it must get better. McCoy and Ash are both still very young, but the defense cannot be left out to dry in a conference that still features a number of great offenses, even with RGIII and Brandon Weeden's departures. Various reports indicate that Ash might have the edge at this point, but odds are a starter won't be named until well into August. With a solid defense and their top two tailbacks, Malcom Brown and Joe Bergeron, both returning, quarterback play will determine whether or not Texas can return to the top of the conference standings. 
  • Life on the margins. Even taking into consideration Oklahoma State's exceptional offense, the Cowboys were living dangerously with a defense that could at best be termed "adequate." They finished 107th in total defense and 61st in scoring defense, numbers which you would think at least partially served to exclude them from ending the season in NOLA against LSU. Most importantly, OSU's #1 TO margin from 2011 is something to think about, a factor which many will mention in lieu of vague formulations of "luck" (see 2011 Michigan and Kansas State, 2008 Northwestern). Some of it may have been luck, some of it not, but it does beg the question: can the OSU defense force enough turnovers to mitigate the defense's overall mediocrity? We shall see. On the bright side, most of the 2011 defense returns, including leading tackler, safety Daytawion Lowe. DC Bill Young has some work to do if OSU wants to mitigate the losses of Weeden and Blackmon on offense. 

Obligatory Heisman Candidate Section That Nobody Cares About But Here It Is Anyway
1) Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
2) Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
3) Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State 
4) Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia

This is going to be another exciting year in the Big 12. Quality additions in West Virginia and TCU could make Big 12ers forget about Mizzou and Texas A&M very quickly, but both additions have some questions to answer. TCU was a mediocre 60th in the nation in passing defense last season; needless to say, they'll need to get their issues in the secondary figured out, because the Big 12 is decidedly a passing league. 

Still, the Big 12 newcomers are in a much better position to compete and succeed in their new conference right away than Mizzou and TAMU are in the SEC. Oklahoma is still Oklahoma, and two of the QBs that tormented them last season--RGIII and Brandon Weeden--will be plying their trade in the NFL this season. 

Here's what it boils down to. Texas will put up better numbers on offense this season because they just simply have to. There is too much talent on defense and at wide receive and especially tailback for this team to only win 8 games again. West Virginia's offense will continue to put up points like it did in the Big East, and Geno Smith, not Landry Jones, could very well end up being the quarterback representing the Big 12 at the Downtown Athletic Club in NYC. 

As for Kansas State, I completely agree with Bill C.'s assessment. I don't think KSU can do what it did last year, grinding away with Klein and winning games by a hair despite getting outgained multiple times. At the same time, I think Bill Synder should be afforded the benefit of the doubt at this point. Will they win 10? No, but I don't think that 8 wins would be unreasonable. In fact, 8 wins, not including the bowl game, is what I think is in the cards for the team from Not That Manhattan. 

Oklahoma State still has talent on offense, especially at tailback. No matter how good Wes Lunt ends up being, however, he's still a freshman, and I can't get too excited about a team that has a somewhat sieve-like defense--TO margin notwithstanding--and an offense that is replacing a pair of first-rounders at QB and WR. 

TCU is a little more difficult to get a handle on. Are they the team that lost to Baylor and SMU, or are they the team that breezed through the back end of the 2011 schedule? They're probably more the latter than the former, but they have issues in the secondary 

As fun as Baylor was in 2011, 2012 will likely not be a good one for Art Briles and Co. The defense will in all likelihood continue to be not very good. The good news is Baylor will trout out a senior QB in Nick Florence. Plus, the Bears boast a deep and talented group of receivers, including Terrence Williams, slot guy Tevin Reese, and Michigan transfer Darryl Stonum.* Baylor will likely be sitting on the bowl eligibility bubble come the last couple weeks of the season. 

Things are not completely hopeless at Texas Tech and Iowa State, but neither provide enough substance to really get excited about or getting anywhere near the "darkhorse" label. Iowa State needs to settle on a quarterback and replace quite a few 2011 starters. Texas Tech needs to learn how to play even a modicum of defense. 

Kansas should be fairly horrible despite adding the schematic advantage, however, having added a handful of solid players in college football free agency, I would not be surprised to see Kansas win a conference game this year after going 0-9 last season. 

It's a boring prediction, I admit, but I think that Oklahoma brings back the strongest team and should end up taking the conference title after a disappointing 2011 season. Texas will improve considerably, but I think they will still find themselves looking up at OU and West Virginia in the standings. 

*Sad face. 

2012 Big 12 Standings 
1) Oklahoma 
2) West Virginia 
3) Texas 
4) TCU
5) Oklahoma State
6) Kansas State 
7) Texas Tech 
8) Baylor
9) Iowa State  
10) Kansas  

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