2011 Big 12 preview

The National Football Post continues its College Football Kickoff Week with the third of six BCS conference previews. Today, the Big 12.

Let’s take a look at how the conference could shake out this season, in order of strength of team.

Oklahoma: Head coach Bob Stoops has his team positioned as the No. 1 team in both the USA Today and AP Top 25 polls, and the Sooners are No. 2 in the NFP’s preseason Top 25 poll. Despite losing offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson to the head-coaching job at Indiana, the offense is in good hands with co-coordinators Josh Heupel and Jay Norvell. The duo will keep this offense productive behind quarterback Landry Jones and receiver Ryan Broyles. And while all-purpose DeMarco Murray has departed, Roy Finch and Co. will be running behind an experienced offensive line. Defensively, the Sooners started to play better as the 2010 season came to a close, but OU will have to weather the storm without star linebacker Travis Lewis for about the first third of the season, while end Ronnell Lewis remains questionable because of a personal issue. If the Sooners get by Florida State in Tallahassee, only the Bedlam game against Oklahoma State stands between them and a trip to New Orleans.

Brandon WeedenICONBrandon Weeden leads a prolific Cowboys offense.

Oklahoma State: Like rival Oklahoma, the Cowboys will continue to roll offensively despite the loss of Dana Holgorsen to West Virginia. New coordinator Todd Monken has not changed much, as there wasn’t a whole lot to tinker with on this explosive offense. Quarterback Brandon Weeden and receiver Justin Blackmon lead a returning pack of starters on offense, and either one could find himself with a seat in New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony at the end of the season. Running back Kendall Hunter is tough to replace — he was one of the more underappreciated backs in the country — but sophomores Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith will form a productive 1-2 combo in the backfield. Randle recorded 89 all-purpose yards per game last season while Smith’s straight-ahead style helped him find the end zone seven times in 2010. The major question for the Cowboys is whether or not Bill Young’s defense is good enough to claim a Big 12 championship. OSU needs to be better defensively on third down, and that starts with getting a consistent pass rush from the front four. If not, we could see the Cowboys live and die with the blitz.

Texas A&M: Are the Aggies the most hated team in the Big 12? Well, more than likely, as it looks increasingly like A&M is this year’s Nebraska — one foot out the door en route to the SEC. On the field, Mike Sherman’s squad should enjoy a productive season with quarterback Ryan Tannehill, running backs Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael and receivers Jeff Fuller and Uzoma Nwachukwu headlining a prolific offense. But it will be up to second-year coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s defensive unit to give A&M a chance at a league title. Linebacker Von Miller will be difficult to replace, but the Aggies have a veteran-laden defense that should be more comfortable in their scheme. Most importantly, the entire secondary that started the Cotton Bowl game against LSU is back.

Missouri: James Franklin takes over for Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick Blaine Gabbert, and the dual-threat signal-caller is about the only question mark on a Missouri squad going under the radar nationally. Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith should help make up for the loss of defensive end Aldon Smith, and there is good depth all around up front. The secondary also returns two starters from a unit that played much better last season. We know that the offense will do its part, as is always the case in Columbia. But Mizzou will be an intriguing squad this fall because of its defense, as we saw in the highly anticipated game against top-ranked Oklahoma last fall.

Texas: Mack Brown used his team’s 5-7 disastrous 2010 campaign to reassess the program, and he struck gold by bringing in new coordinators Bryan Harsin from Boise State and Manny Diaz from Mississippi State. Now the question is whether he will get the desired results. On defense, Diaz will work with plenty of talent such as four-year starter at safety Blake Gideon, linebacker Emmanuel Acho, end Alex Okafor and tackle Kheeston Randall. And with that talent, Diaz will present the opposition with multiple looks — a controlled chaos that will wreak havoc on offenses. Speaking of offense, the Longhorns clearly must perform better than they did last fall. While all the talk was about the competition for the starting job under center, which was won by Garrett Gilbert, the Longhorns’ fate rests in the hands of a rushing attack that must be more productive behind an offensive line that needs to play more physical. Can top 2011 recruit Malcolm Brown make an instant impact?

Texas Tech: Tommy Tuberville is putting his stamp on the Red Raiders as he enters his second season replacing Mike Leach. Upon arrival in Lubbock, the former Auburn head coach stated that he wanted to run the ball more effectively while keeping the passing attack just as potent. The team has good backfield depth, especially after bringing in their best batch of backs perhaps in decades in the latest recruiting class. And expect more sets with tight ends. Of course, the Red Raiders have too many weapons to stray away from their customary aerial attack, so new starting quarterback Seth Doege will have plenty of chances to put up numbers. The real issue in Lubbock is on defense, where new coordinator Chad Glasgow must get his unit to play faster than it did in 2010. The former secondary coach at TCU may need another recruiting class, however, to bring more speed and better playmakers into the program. But the Gary Patterson disciple is too good of a coach not to take a horrid defensive unit and make it respectable.

Robert Griffin IIIICONRobert Griffin III and the Bears will score points. But can they stop the opposition?

Baylor: The Bears have one of the nation’s elite players in Robert Griffin III, and the dual-threat signal-caller has playmakers all around him on offense. Expect an exciting season for RGIII, who would be more well-known nationally if he didn’t play in Waco. But the real question is whether new coordinator Phil Bennett can shore up a defensive unit that was embarrassed in its bowl loss to Illinois. The Bears are solid up front with nose guard Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and ends Gary Mason, Jr., and Tevin Elliot. But how will Baylor do against the pass? The Bears will employ a nickel back position this season in their new scheme.

Kansas State: Junior Collin Klein will be Bill Snyder’s starting quarterback in Manhattan after winning a competition that went down to the wire. Klein, who is an accomplished rusher, will get help in the backfield from Tennessee transfer Bryce Brown. Many football fans, especially those in Knoxville, are wondering if Brown will develop into a top-tier running back. John Hubert and Angelo Pease could also receive a nice amount of carries unless Brown races away from the pack. They will be running behind an offensive line that replaces three starters. Can the defense play well enough to get this team to a bowl game for the second year in a row? That’s the bi g question, especially against the run. Opponents averaged 231.4 yards per game last season against the Wildcats, which was the second-worst in the country. Junior tackle Meshak Williams must be the leader of the defensive front, while freshman Ian Seau — nephew of former NFL All-Pro Junior Seau — could contribute as well.

Iowa State: Austen Arnaud’s eligibility finally ran out in Ames, so the offense will be led by new signal-caller Steele Jantz, who has a great name and should be exciting to watch this fall. But who will step up on offense to give Jantz some playmakers? Aaron Horne broke out this spring at receiver, hauling in eight catches for 124 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. But the Cyclones will need more firepower, especially to compensate for a defense that recorded just 11 sacks in 2010. Linebacker Jake Knott is the best player on the unit and fourth-year starter Leonard Johnson is one of the best cover corners in the league, but Iowa State faces a difficult slate of games in 2011.

Kansas: Head coach Turner Gill has stressed throughout the offseason the need for more speed on the field. He wants the Jayhawks to play much faster in all phases — offense, defense and special teams. Kansas was grilled in most of its contests in 2010, and it’s going to take time for Gill to get things turned around in Lawrence. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Webb, running backs James Sims and Darrian Miller and receiver Daymond Patterson should continue to mature, but will they deliver enough explosive plays to allow this offense to score points? Five of their seven conference losses last season were by 28 points or more. Becoming more competitive in 2011 is a good start on the road to respectability.

Check out the 2011 Big East preview
Check out the 2011 SEC preview

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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