Oklahoma Sooners Top List Of Big 12 Contenders

By: Bruce Marshall | Monday, July 30, 2012

A year ago at this time, we weren’t sure how much longer we were going to be writing about the Big 12.  The league had seen four member schools peel away in a 12-month period and barely survived a pair of raids from the Pac-12.  There was talk of more defections, including conference glue sides Texas and Oklahoma.  The future hardly seemed promising.

Now, however, things are looking much brighter in the midlands.  Texas, with its own Longhorn Network spooking several suitors, for the moment seems content in the Big 12.  Further defections seem unlikely.  A new mega-TV deal for the conference has been signed.  And in the new order of college football with a four-team playoff now just two years away, the Big 12 has positioned itself pretty well, locking itself into a new bowl featuring its champ against the SEC champ (providing neither are in the four-team playoff) in what could also become a staple of the mini-tournament.

And while the league won’t have 12 teams for the second consecutive year, it has at least replenished the most-recent defections of Missouri and Texas A&M (off to the SEC this year) by adding West Virginia and TCU.  A return to a 12-team loop (or perhaps 14 of 16 team) appears a near certainty in the near future, with several targets from the Big East and ACC (including Florida State) already having been identified.  We’re betting that it won’t be a "10-team Big 12" too much longer.

Plenty of intriguing storylines are on deck for the league this fall.  Let’s hopscotch around the landscape and seek out the top contenders, top performers, top newcomers and coaches on the hot seat before providing some technical pointspread info and analyses of pricing on the conference title and, where applicable, season wins.

Team To Beat
Oklahoma: Last season ended with a very sour taste in Norman as the Sooners collapsed in November, losing a shootout at Baylor and wiped in the Bedlam matchup at Stillwater vs. hated Okie State.  Defensive meltdowns proved costly in those games and an earlier shock loss vs. Texas Tech, but Bob Stoops thinks he might have found an answer to any stop unit woes with brother Mike, recently head coach at Arizona but now on board in Norman as the new defensive coordinator.

More intense than predecessor Brent Venables (now at Clemson), Mike S. altered the scheme in spring, looking to shore up the secondary.  But he also inherits a senior pair of defensive tackles (Jamarkus McFarland and Stacy McGee) to control the defensive middle from a line that generated 41 sacks a year ago.  One of Stoops’ adjustments in the secondary has moved Tony Jefferson from his former hybrid LB/DB role to being a full-time free safety.

But it’s on offense where OU believes it can really fly, and why not with senior QB Landry Jones (4,463 YP in 2011), a peripheral Heisman Trophy threat.  Remember, injuries decimated the OU skill positions last year, but RB Dominique Whaley should be good to go this fall after making a surprise breakthrough before getting hurt last October.  The receiving corps should be lethal, too, with former ballyhooed recruit Trey Metoyer finally putting grades and other issues in the rearview mirror.   Metoyer, the nation’s top  WR recruit a couple of years ago, had a monster spring.

Oh, yes, and what is effectively 17 starters are also back in the Sooner fold.  The schedule is also tailor-made for a run at the BCS, especially if OU can get past you-know-who in Dallas on October 13.

Top Contenders
West Virginia: When last seen, the Mountaineers were dropping a 70-point bomb on Clemson in the Orange Bowl.  Now they enter the Big 12 as one of the new kids on the block (along with TCU).  How the adjustment phase for both WVU and league foes evolves makes for a fascinating storyline this fall.

The Mounties’ bread-and-butter remains head coach Dana Holgorsen’s pet spread attack that should be even more lethal after QB Geno Smith's breakthrough 2011 campaign in which he passed for 4,285 yards and 31 TDs.  Holgorsen was even more excited after spring work after Smith demonstrated even further competence with the added freedom he is giving to his QB.  Wideouts Tavon Austin and Steadman Bailey combined for 173 receptions last fall.  There are also a slew of capable RBs on hand, as Holgorsen can go quick with whippet-like Dustin Garrison (recovered from a knee injury suffered prior to the Orange Bowl) or big with power back Shawne Alston (12 rush TDs in 2011).

Holgorsen might have some issues on defense, however, as the WVU stop unit lost plenty of key playmakers from a year ago, including DE Bruce Irvin, the Seahawks’ top draft pick, and others who combined for 19½ sacks.  Remember, the Mountaineers allowed 27 ppg last fall, so maybe it’s a good thing that co-defensive coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson are dumping WVU’s familiar 3-5 looks for combo 3-4 and 4-3 deployments instead.

West Virginia should get off to a flying start with four straight at Morgantown out of the chute, although the slate becomes considerably tougher once October rolls around, beginning with a trip to Texas on October 6.

Texas Christian: The other new kid on the block, arriving from the Mountain West, rejoins a familiar neighborhood after having been linked with several Big 12 entries from days in the old Southwest Conference.  In the 17-year interim, the Frogs have evolved from an also-ran into a national power, a multiple-qualifier for the BCS under head coach Gary Patterson and winner of the Rose Bowl two years ago.

TCU is well-set to trade points in its new league with returning starter junior QB Casey Pachall, who matured into a top-flight leader by the time last season concluded.  Pachall, who completed 66 percent of his throws and recorded 25 TD passes last fall, welcomes back three of his top four receivers including big-play target Josh Boyce.  On the downside, top RB Ed Wesley had to leave the team due to off-field matters, although Waymon James and Matthew Tucker each exceeded 700 yard rushing in 2011.

Patterson’s pet 4-2-5 defense has been much mimicked, but the Frogs have the built-in advantage of stop unit mastermind Dick Bumpas still coordinating a platoon that has ranked tops in the country five different times in the past 11 seasons.  A complete rebuild in the secondary has Frog backers concerned, but three of four starters are back on the DL, led by sackmeister DE Stansly Maponga (9½ sacks in 2011).

Sources say Patterson and staff dealt quickly with off-season distractions involving academics and a campus-wide drug sting that also cost TCU key defenders LBs Tanner Brock and Deryck Gildon along with DT D.J. Yendrey.  Still, the residue from those developments can hardly be considered a positive.  We’ll see how the Frogs respond.

Oklahoma State: So far have the Cowboys progressed under head coach Mike Gundy that even the losses of a couple of NFL first-round draft choices (WR Justin Blackmon & QB Brandon Weeden) from last year’s 12-1, Fiesta Bowl-winner haven’t dampened enthusiasm in Stillwater.  The Cowboys are still loaded.

Interestingly, OSU goes from the oldest QB in college football a year ago (Weeden, then 28) to one of the youngest this fall in 18-year-old true frosh Wes Lunt, who wowed observers in spring.  Matching last year’s video football numbers (No 3 in total offense, No. 2 in passing, No. 2 in scoring at 48.7 ppg) might be a neat trick, but Gundy believes Lunt has what it takes to run the Cowboy spread effectively right from the opener vs. Savannah State on September 1.   Still, expect OSU to feature more of its ground game in the early going behind RBs Joseph Randle and Jeremy Smith, who combined for 1,862 yards rushing in 2011.  Gundy also expects this year’s receivers, led by senior Tracy Moore, to be highly productive.

Eight starters return from an opportunistic stop unit that forced a nation’s leading 44 turnovers last fall, including 24 interceptions; the Cowboys’ +21 TO margin was the nation’s best.  Replicating those numbers won’t be easy, but 3/4 of last year’s heat-seeking secondary returns, led by CBs Justin Gilbert and Brodrick Brown.  Touted juco DT Calvin Barnett figures to come in handy up front.

Top Performers
Landry Jones, QB, Oklahoma: Figures to be in the Heisman Trophy mix after passing for 29 TDs and better than 4,400 yards a year ago despite injuries to some of his key weapons.

Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia: The perfect triggerman for HC Dona Holgorsen’s spread offense, Smith dazzled in 2011 when tossing 31 TDs. No one in the Big 12 has had to face Smith yet, either, so the surprise factor might play in his favor.  A stealth Heisman candidate, perhaps?

Casey Pachall, QB, TCU: The Frogs might have to do a bit more leaning on Pachall with top RB Ed Wesley having departed the team.  Many believe the turning point for Pachall last fall was leading the late Frog comeback to a wild 36-35 win at Boise, when Pachall converted a daring 2-point conversion for the winning points.

Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: The rough-hewn Klein quarterbacks as a rodeo cowboy might, fearless and physical.  Klein carried the ball as many as 25 times in a game last season (vs. Texas A&M) and is the consummate field general.

Joseph Randle, RB, Oklahoma State: Randle rushed for 1,216 yards and caught 43 passes a year ago, but might be asked to do even more as the Cowboys break in a new QB.

David Ash & Case McCoy, QBs, Texas: If the Longhorns are to rally this fall they will need to get it right at QB, where there have been nothing but problems since Colt McCoy’s graduation.  Now that Garrett Gilbert has transferred to SMU, one from among sophs, Ash or Case McCoy, has to emerge.

Top Newcomers To Watch
Johnathon Gray, RB, Texas: Perhaps the most-ballyhooed newcomer in the conference and regarded by many as the nation’s top prep RB last season.  Will compete for carries with holdovers Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron in what should be an upgraded Longhorn infantry.

Wes Lunt, QB, Oklahoma State: This 18-year-old frosh has pretty big shoes to fill, as predecessor Brandon Weeden is likely to be starting for the Cleveland Browns this fall.  The new trigger-man for what was one of the nation’s most-potent offenses a year ago has the full backing of head coach Mike Gundy.

Dayne Crist, QB, Kansas: The Notre Dame transfer is reunited with his former head coach Charlie Weis in Lawrence.  We hope the Jayhawks fans realize that Crist left something to be desired in his efforts at South Bend.

Trey Metoyer, WR, Oklahoma: The highest-touted WR recruit in the country two years ago, Metoyer finally gets on the field this fall and will be expected to be Landry Jones’ top target after the graduation of Ryan Broyles.

Coaches On The Hot Seat
Mack Brown, Texas: Although many in the region believe Brown will be safe as long as AD DeLoss Dodds is  in the fold, others aren’t so sure.  Mack is only 13-12 the past two seasons, and it doesn’t require a gridiron history major to recall what happened to past Texas coaches such as Fred Akers, David McWilliams and John Mackovic when their Longhorn teams started to list.

Besides, at 73 years of age and having successfully launched the Longhorn Network, Dodds might not be far from retirement, when Mack could be losing his safety blanket.  Sources tell us the Texas-exes will not accept another 7-8 win season.

Tommy Tuberville, Texas Tech: Tuberville politicked hard to get this job two years ago, but so far his Red Raiders have not quickened pulses in Lubbock as did predecessor Mike Leach’s teams.  Injuries wrecked Tech a year ago, but Tuberville is best advised not to tempt fate and miss a bowl game for a second year running.

Charlie Weis, Kansas: This was perhaps the most-curious coaching hire of the offseason, one that apparently only the new Kansas AD, Sheahon Zenger, thought was a good idea.  Weis also inherits a mess in Lawrence, and he didn’t do all that well with all of the advantages in the world at previous head coaching stop Notre Dame.  The Bill Belichick disciples (Weis, Josh McDaniels, Romeo Crennel) have not exactly lit the world on fire as head coaches, either.

Conference Win Odds
Oklahoma 5/6
Texas 7/2
TCU 11/2
West Virginia 11/2
Kansas State 11/1
Oklahoma State 14/1
Texas Tech 28/1
Baylor 33/1
Iowa State 66/1
Kansas 100/1

Best value?  West Virginia, which could catch new league foes a bit flat-footed.  Worst value?  How about Texas, which will be hard-pressed to exceed last year’s eight wins (which included a bowl victory over Cal) if Mack Brown can’t find a QB.

Season Wins
Oklahoma 10: If the Sooners avoid the injury mess they did a year ago, 'over' looks a decent risk.

Texas 9: Unless Mack Brown settles his QB issues, the 'Horns not only fail to get beyond nine wins, but Mack might be out of his job.

TCU 8½: Tough call in Fort Worth, as despite all of the success in the Mountain West, it will be a much-tougher slog in the Big 12, and offseason distractions make us think 'under' might not be a bad idea at Amon Carter Stadium.

West Virginia 8½: The dynamic QB Geno Smith and the high-powered Mountaineers offense might catch the rest of the Big 12 off guard.  A fairly easy non-conference slate (three games at home) should get WVU off and flying in September and help the 'over' prospects in Morgantown.

Pointspread Notes
Baylor: Let’s see how the Bears react post-RG III; with him on the field and Art Briles’ team involved in shootout after shootout, Baylor was the premier 'over' play (21-3) in the country the past two seasons.

Kansas: The Jayhawks were the beneficiary of some huge pointspreads during Turner Gill’s ill-fated two-year run, but still covered just four of 11 away from Lawrence the past two seasons.  Note new head coach Charlie Weis’ many pointspread failures from his five seasons at Notre Dame, where the Irish didn’t cover often at home (only 7-14 vs. the line as host and 4-10 as home chalk).

Kansas State: As he did in his first stint at K-State, Bill Snyder continues to overachieve as an underdog, now 14-7 in that role since returning to Manhattan in 2009.  Snyder was also 9-4 overall vs. the line a year ago and is 20-11 vs. the number his last 31 on the board.  Oh yes, he makes sure to beat rival Kansas, winning and covering the last three vs. the Jayhawks And dropping 59 points each of the past two years on KU) after similarly dominating the Lawrence bunch in his earlier regime.

Iowa State: Underrated HC Paul Rhodes covered seven of 11 tries as an underdog last season.  Note that the Cyclones had also covered six straight trips to rival Iowa before a 28-0 loss in 2010; ISU is at Iowa City on September 8.

Oklahoma: The Sooners have been a 50-50 proposition in most spread categories for the past couple of years.  Bob Stoops has, however, won and covered his last two vs. blood rival Texas (and it was big, by a 55-17 count last year) after failing to cover the previous five vs. Mack Brown.  OU had also won and covered six straight vs. Ok State prior to being ambushed at Stillwater last December.

Oklahoma State: The Cowboys were 18-7 vs. the number the past two seasons under Gundy, and OSU had covered 10 straight as a true visitor prior to the late-season loss last November at Iowa State.  The Cowboys are also 19-9 laying double digits since 2005.

Texas: Here’s another reason why Mack Brown is in some hot water in Austin; the Longhorns are just 4-9 vs. the number as a host the past two seasons.

TCU: Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs are 26-12 vs. the number at Fort Worth since the 2005 season, although they covered just two of six at Amon Carter Stadium during its remodeling phase last fall. In what have been rare underdog roles, Patterson’s Frogs are 8-3 since 2005.

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are only 2-5 vs. the line in conference games at Lubbock since Tuberville arrived in 2010.

West Virginia: Note that Holgorsen covered all three chances as an underdog last season, which continues a Mountaineer trend that dates to the Rich Rodriguez and late Bill Stewart regimes  (WVU is 10-2 as an underdog since 2005).

Follow Don Best throughout the preseason as we preview each and every football conference: ACC ... Big 12 ... Big East ...

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