The Big XII has been the major epicenter of conference realignments to date, as Colorado and Nebraska dropped the conference to 10 members but other rumors regarding Texas fizzled. Although it is unclear if the 10 team league will stay how it is with Texas A&M looking to bolt, the games will go on with a full round robin and 10 teams for 2011. Last year five teams ended the season with 6-2 conference records to split the two division titles, and Oklahoma knocked off Nebraska for the conference title one more time before the rivals were split by realignment. With the North division now moving into full competition with the six former South division teams, will these teams from the North be able to keep up with the talented teams in Texas and Oklahoma? Will Texas turn around in 2011 as quickly as they fell to a 5-7 last place finish last year? Will Oklahoma be able to run the table and play for another national championship? These questions will be answered as the games begin this week.
Bob Stoops laid the foundation for a great season in 2011 when he involved many of his younger and highly rated recruits during last years 12-2 campaign. This year Oklahoma has 16 returning starters and is most likely the most talented overall team in the country. Junior Landry Jones is already within 500 yards of the school record for passing yards coming into this season and will put up a number that will be nearly impossible to match if his next two seasons are anything like his first two. Expect another year of 300-350 passing yards per game as Oklahoma breaks in a new starting running back Brandon Williams. Both Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills should go over 1000 yards receiving this season, which will be a huge test for all Big XII defenses. Speaking of defense, Oklahoma will likely show that last year's 150 yards per game rushing was an aberration rather than a trend. Look for DE Ronnerll Lewis and linebackers Austin Box and Tony Jefferson to make better reads and dusrupt opposing running backs more quickly this season. If Oklahoma has any weakness, it may be the middle of the defensive backfield where two new safeties will be starting. However, the safeties may be helped by the strong linebackers if a team sells out to pass the ball without threatening the run. Oklahoma is also strong in special teams with K Jimmy Stevens and one of the best punters in the country Tress Way. The schedule is highly favorable to running the table with two exceptions: roadtrips to Florida State in September and Oklahoma State in December. If OU can cure their road woes from a season ago, they will play for a national championship.
Texas A&M Aggies
Although Oklahoma may have a highly talented team, A&M beat them last season and returns 18 starters from the co-division champs. Mike Sherman initially struggled to get the Aggies going but now has a team that could easily top double digit wins for the first time since 1998. The only starter being replaced on offense is on the line, although QB Ryan Tannehill split time about equally with Jerrod Johnson a season ago. Tannehill will try to break a recent trend of the last 4 senior quarterbacks at A&M struggling, but it will be surprising if he throws many interceptions considering all his receivers are back. Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael will again split some time at running back and both should be successful again this season. The Wrecking Crew defense was officially back last season as the rushing and passing yards allowed per game plummeted from the first two years under Sherman. The Aggies return all four starters in a defensive backfield that was one of the top 10 or 15 defensive backfields in the country a season ago. Against Terrence Frederick and Coryell Judie, most teams will find it hard to get anything going in the passing game. The only potential weakness may be the defensive line, which includes two new starters but looked solid in spring ball. A&M does receive five conference home games but one of the road games is at Oklahoma, which may make the difference between a conference title and a second-place finish.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State appeared to be in for a down year with only 4 starters back on offense and defense a season ago, but Mike Gundy surprised everyone with the school's first 11 win season and almost a division championship. This season, 9 starters return from an offensive unit that averaged an amazing 520 yards per game in 2010. Brandon Weeden will likely not be able to come close to the 4277 yards and 34 touchdowns from a season ago despite having his entire offensive line and most of his receivers back (offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen is gone to coach West Virginia). Joseph Randle will fill in for Kendall Hunter after running for 463 yards a season ago, and Randle should easily reach 1000 yards behind this line. The defense did take a step back last year, giving up 410 yards but still being relatively tough against the run. This year those rushing defense numbers may take a further step backwards with five new starters among the front seven. DE Richetti Jones will be a key player to ensuring that the Cowboys pressure opposing defenses into bad throwing situations. OSU was very opportunistic with turnovers last season and will need the defensive backfield to rack up a high number of interceptions again to keep the pressure off the high powered offense. OSU gets to host Oklahoma for a second year in a row thanks to a scheduling quirk, but Texas, Missouri, and A&M are all road games in the first half of the conference slate. With that schedule, expect Oklahoma State to take a small step back while remaining in close contention for a BCS bowl bid.
IN THE MIX
Although Missouri was unable to knock off Nebraska and lost the tiebreaker for the division title last year, the season was still a success with 10 wins and a victory over Oklahoma. The offense loses all conference quarterback Blaine Gabbert and his brother Tyler to transfer, but sophomore James Franklin had already won the job when Tyler transferred so not much has been lost by the transfer. Franklin looked solid in spring practice and will benefit from a veteran offensive line (4/5 returning) and all of the same skill position players from last season. The Tigers will run the ball with a committee of running backs: De'Vion Moore, Henry Josey, and Kendial Lawrence. It can be difficult to prepare for all three of these running backs, especially when the quarterback is on fire like Gabbert was at times last year. The defense surrendered over 150 yards per game on the ground last year but made up for it by being incredibly tough against opposing passing games, which is rare in the Big XII. This year the rushing defense should improve dramatically as five starters return in the defensive line and linebackers, and new DE Brad Madison looks like a game changer to plug in. Look for LB Zaviar Gooden to break out after leading the team in tackles a season ago. The special teams may be slightly worse when breaking in a new punter, but K Grent Ressel is one of the better conversion men on field goals in the conference. The schedule is brutal this season with Oklahoma, A&M, and Baylor on the road. Unless Franklin surprises with an outstanding season, Missouri will take a slight step backwards in wins from last year but will still easily be bowl eligible.
Kansas State Wildcats
Although Bill Snyder has taken a couple of years to get his read option attack back in gear after taking a three year break from coaching KSU from 2006-08. This season Snyder will break in a group of skill position players that may not have much starting experience but do have enough talent to continue improving. Justin Tuggle appears poised to take the starting quarterback job as he best fits the system with running and passing ability perhaps on par with Cam Newton. Although team MVP RB Daniel Thomas is now departed for the pros, sophomore Bryce Brown could match his numbers immediately as the most talented running back of his recruiting class. The offensive line does replace three starters, which could slow the running numbers a bit. However, Snyder usually gets the most out of his offensive lines and this year should be no different. The defense returns eight of the top nine tacklers from 2010, and the numbers should improve this season on that side of the ball. The two leading tacklers last year were in the defensive backfield: CB David Garrett and FS Tysyn Hartman. KSU will hope that their production levels remain high with fewer tackles at that back line of the defense. The linebackers should be the largest improving unit on the team with Tre Walker and Arthur Brown returning. Kansas State has a manageable schedule with only one really tough road game at OSU, so the Wildcats may improve on their 7 wins from a season ago. Another bowl game should be expected in the Little Apple.
After making the National Championship two seasons ago, the Longhorns appeared poised for another run at a conference title when the wheels fell off after a 3-0 start last year. With the exception of a surprising upset at Nebraska, Texas lost every single conference game the rest of the way, ending up going first to last in the conference. Now Mack Brown will be looking to getting right back to the winning ways of the previous nine double-digit win seasons, with 12 starters returning overall. Garrett Gilbert threw for 2744 yards in his first season of starting, but also had 17 interceptions to go with only 10 touchdowns. True freshman RB Malcolm Brown could be the best recruit Mack Brown has landed since Cedric Benson and Colt McCoy. Brown will need his offensive line to come together quickly with three new starters in order to have big holes to run through. After five straight seasons of dominance against the run, last year saw the Longhorns defense drop to allowing 139 yards per game on the ground. Senior linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho led the team in tackles last year and should snuff out most running plays once again. Also look for DE Alex Okafor to be a dominating force on his end of the line. Justin Tucker will return as both punter and kicker, and he needs to stay consistent for Texas to steal a couple of close wins this year. Most of the sure wins for Texas come at home this season, so Texas will improve but probably not back to their double-digit win standard.
ALL THE REST
Texas Tech Red Raiders
While Tommy Tuberville was able to maintain the high octane Red Raiders offense last season, the defense gave up 456 yards per game, which forced the Red Raiders into too many shootouts they couldn't win. Tuberville's new offensive coordinator Neal Brown is installing a pistol and run-option system instead of the wide open passing attack that has been the staple in Lubbock this decade. Thus, although Seth Dodge and Eric Stephens are new starters at quarterback and running back, the change in personnel may come at a good time considering the change in scheme. All five starters return on the offensive line and should thus improve the run numbers dramatically, especially considering the Big XII is not used to a pistol attack on a regular basis. The Red Raiders defense returns seven starters but only two of their top five tacklers. A high number of sophomores will take over the defense as Tuberville uses his recruits to run his system, but many of those sophomores (DT Kerry Hyder, CB Jarvis Phillips, CB Derrick Mays, and FS Tre Porter) all cut their teeth starting as freshman. Major improvements should be expected from this unit, although perhaps not back to 2009 levels quite yet. Tech has a brutal road schedule including Oklahoma, Texas, and Missouri, so the Red Raiders may once again finish on 7 wins.
Iowa State Cyclones
Although Gene Chizik did not find success in Ames, he did stock the cupboards with good players that Paul Rhoads has used to middling success the past two seasons. Now Rhoads will really be tested as the Cyclones reload with only 37 returning lettermen. The offense achieved decent balance with 143 yards rushing and 174 passing per game in 2010, but now all starters must be replaced except for a pair of receivers and three linemen. With Steele Jantz taking over at quarterback and sophomore Shontrelle Johnson at running back, the Cyclones will struggle to reach last year's output. However, the defense should make some slight improvement with seven starters returning. Iowa State has struggled mightily against the run the past few years, but outside linebackers AJ Klein and Jake Knott each had more than 100 tackles last year thanks to sniffing out running plays. Expect more good play from the linebackers and improvement in the defensive backfield with Leonard Johnson and Terran Benton returning. Iowa State plays five conference road games alongside out of conference battles against Iowa and Connecticut, so bowl eligibility will be a stretch in this rebuilding year in Ames.
Baylor had not been to a bowl game since 1994, but Art Briles found a good offense in his third season at the helm and led Baylor to 7 wins and a bowl game last year. That offense now brings back 9 starters including do-it-all QB Robert Griffin III. Griffin threw for 3500 yards and rushed for 808 more in his sophomore season, and has already set the school record for passing yards in just two years. Griffin will have all three starting junior receivers back in Josh Gordon, Lanear Sampson, and Kendall Wright. The only question is whether the high powered rushing offense will be as god now that Jarred Salubi replaces Jay Finley. The Bears defense struggled last year, allowing most teams in the conference to score 40 points against them. However, the offense bailed them out last year and will again at times this year. The defense does lose six of their top seven tacklers and therefore could take a few steps back in efficiency early. Senior LB Elliott Coffey will need to rally his teammates to get better quickly for the Bears to have a chance to seriously compete. The defensive line is highly experienced and should be the strength of this unit. Baylor will need to steal a couple of road wins to get back to a bowl, but it will be surprising if this offense does not carry them to at least six wins.
Turner Gill struggled through his first year as a head coach of a major BCS program as Kansas was outgained by an astounding 220 yards per game in conference play. Gill was able to play many young players and will see some of those players develop into much better quality units this season. Jordan Weeb could return as starting quarterback, but he will likely split time with dual threat freshman QB Brock Berglund. Berglund will find some openings in opposing defenses thanks to a much improved offensive line. James Sims led the team in rushing as a freshman and will be expected to carry more of the load in 2011. Eight starters return on defense including all four in a defensive backfield that was not terrible against the pass last season. The key will be limiting the damage in the running game, as KU gave up over 200 yards per game on the ground last season. Young sophomore linebackers Darius Willis and Huldon Tharp will be the core of the future defense and should be exciting to watch for Jayhawks fans. The schedule is not favorable for Kansas to even get back to three wins, so this will be a long season in Lawrence.
The Big XII might be shrinking from 10 to 9 in the future, but that will not stop the conference from seeking new members and maintaining their BCS AQ status. For this season, ten teams will do battle on the field in a round-robin that will truly test the mettle of some very good teams in Oklahoma, OSU, and A&M. Oklahoma has more than enough talent to win a national championship, but their record in road openers and road games in general is troubling considering they are headed to a big September showdown at Florida State this year. Texas and Missouri will be hoping to get back in the mix and it could happen, although it will be difficult to see either of them having a better chance than Oklahoma State to knock off the Sooners. The Bedlam Game has had division title implications the past few seasons and this year it should decide the conference title, perhaps even a national championship. With that, this ends the previews of each major conference on SCS for 2011, with the Sun Belt thrown in as a primer bonus. Tomorrow I will briefly run through the remaining conferences that we did not do full previews for, including the four independents. Football in only a couple days away, and it will be fun to join all you readers for the ride in another season.