Simply put, it’s hard to find a conference with a more interesting and dynamic group of players, teams and coaches than the Big XII in 2012. Between the new programs joining up (helloooooooo West Virginia and TCU), the new coaches and coordinators in town, and plenty of returning talent both on the field and in the coaching box, this is a league that appears to be as strong as it has ever been.
It is also a league that has plenty of questions entering the 2012 season as well.
So what are the Five Big Questions on the Big XII this fall?
Let’s take a look.
5. How Will the New Guys Hold Up?
The first “biggest” question will come from two different corners of the country, where the fan bases in both Morgantown, WV and Ft. Worth, TX are asking themselves the same thing: How will our beloved Mountaineers and Horned Frogs hold up as they transition to the Big XII?
The early returns indicate an easier change for West Virginia. After all, the Mountaineers come to college football’s heartland from the more competitive Big East, and enter Big XII play with a bona-fide stud at quarterback (Geno Smith) and an unafraid head coach in Dana Holgorsen, whose offenses have put up points everywhere he’s gone. Sure everyone remembers the 70 the Mountaineers hung on Clemson in the Orange Bowl in January, but what might be more relevant is the 44 points a game Oklahoma State averaged in 2010. It’s a number that put the Pokes at third in the country, in a season where Holgorsen just so happened to be their offensive coordinator. It’s safe to assume that Holgorsen’s group will score and score in bunches in 2012 as well.
But while the general college football world seems to like West Virginia, don’t sleep on TCU either. The Horned Frogs have been itching for the opportunity to step up a level in competition from the Mountain West, and even in year one in the Big XII they have the talent to compete right away. Casey Pachall is a straight baller at quarterback (as well as in life in general, come to think of it) and has skill position talent around him that’s as good as anyone’s in the Big XII. Matthew Tucker and Wayman James each went over 700 yards rushing last season, and wide receiver Skye Dawson is the type of small, slippery scat type that gives defenses fits. Speaking of defenses, we know TCU is losing a lot off last year’s unit… but come on, it’s TCU! How bad do you think they’re going to be?
Point being, these two programs didn’t come to the Big XII to play second-fiddle to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State or anyone else. They came to win, and it’s something that they should both do a heck of a lot of in their first year in conference.
4. Who is Wes Lunt, and how good can he be?
Simply put, the last 24 months or so have proven to be a “Golden Age” of Oklahoma State football. After being a Sooner State afterthought for close to a century, the Pokes- under the leadership of America’s favorite man in his mid-40’s, Mike Gundy- have won a staggering 23 games in their last two years. The 2012 season was especially special, as Oklahoma State notched their first 12-win season in school history.
But with as much fun as Cowboys fans have had these past few years, the reality of 2012 is going to hit hard: It isn’t going to be so easy this time around. Brandon Weeden is gone. Justin Blackmon is gone. And their success could very well rest on an 18-year-old, pimply faced kid who was graduating high school just months ago. Welcome to the show, Wes Lunt. Hope you’re ready to ball right away.
That’s right, after a highly competitive spring practice battle it is Lunt- a true freshman from Illinois- who is tasked with taking over for one of the most successful quarterbacks in Oklahoma State history in Weeden. Thankfully he’ll have plenty of help around him, including an established 1,000 running back (Joseph Randle), a go-to wide receiver (Tracy Moore had 45 catches last season playing alongside the great Justin Blackmon) and a defense which returns starters. That’s not exactly the stuff that National Champions are made of, but frankly, things could be a lot worse.
Of course if things do go bad, it won’t be Randle, Moore or anyone else who the burden will fall upon. Nope, it’ll be the true freshman under center.
Will he be ready by September 1? It’s one of the biggest questions entering the Big XII season, and college football as a whole.
3. What about Kansas State?
So seriously, I’ve got to ask: What can we say about Kansas State that hasn’t already been said?
Wait a second, has anything been said about Kansas State? Like, ever? There hasn’t been much that I can remember and to put it simply, it’s hard to think of another 10-win team from the last few years who has flown more under the radar than the Wildcats did last year.
That’s right, Bill Snyder again proved to be one of the most underrated coaches in the history of college football in 2011, leading a rag-tag group of underachievers to 10 wins, a mere 24 months after taking over the program for a second time. Included in the surprising season last fall were victories over Baylor, Missouri, Texas and Texas A&M, giving the Wildcats a surprising second place finish in the Big XII.
Not bad at all. And what’s scary is, the pieces are in place for an encore.
For starters there’s quarterback Collin Klein, a guy who you can’t really call “dual-threat,” since he’s much more a runner than passer, and someone who- for all we know- might not be able to throw the ball more than five yards downfield. Regardless, when Klein does tuck the ball and run, he proved to be an absolute terror for defenses last year, finishing 2011 with more rushing touchdowns (27) than any quarterback in FBS history. Add in another seven starters on offense and a defense spear-headed by potential All-American Arthur Brown, and it’s easy to see why fans are so excited in the “Little Apple.”
Of course the one hold-up might be the Wildcats 2012 schedule. After benefitting from a favorable one in 2011, the tide has turned in 2012, with road trips to Oklahoma, West Virginia, TCU and Baylor highlighting this year’s campaign, as well as a home date with Texas to close out the season. That’s a whole heck of a lot of tough games, and most of them are on the road.
Then again, who saw the Wildcats winning 10 games last year?
As long as the Wildcats have Bill Snyder, success will come. The question this year is just how much.
2. Is Texas Back:
Ok, so “back” is a relative term, but after going a very un-Texas like 13-12 the last two seasons, it does seem like the Longhorns are finally in a place where they can creep back toward the top of the Big XII standings in 2012. The talent is there both on defense (where the entire secondary returns and bookend defensive ends Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor will be a terror up front) and at the skill positions offensively, where Malcolm Brown will get the carries (along with all-world recruit Jonathan Gray) and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley returns after grabbing 45 balls last year too.
But for this program to reach the success they’re capable of, what it will all really come down to is one thing: What the heck are they going to get at quarterback? The position has been nothing short of a black hole since Colt McCoy left at the end of the 2009 season with three different players getting shots to take over.
Thankfully, it does appear that the Longhorns do have some stability. After starting third on the depth chart last year true sophomore David Ash is back, and appears to be entrenched in the position. Mack Brown hasn’t said it officially yet, but read any Texas message board or ask any media member covering the team, and they all seem to be in unanimous agreement that Ash is the guy. His numbers weren’t great last year (57 percent completion percentage, four touchdowns, eight interceptions), but then again he also stepped onto Texas’ campus in the fall without a benefit of a spring practice before it. With 174 passes now under his belt, and an extra spring behind him, look for Ash to be much improved.
And beyond that, here’s the simple truth on Texas: Ash doesn’t even have to be significantly better than last year, as long as he isn’t flat-out terrible. Again, the pieces are there around him, and if Ash can just be competent, not turn the ball over and let his defense and running game take of the rest, Texas should be fine.
As a matter of fact, they very well could be competing for the top spot in the conference depending on…
1. How Oklahoma Handles A Bit of Off-season Adversity:
Say what you want about Bob Stoops, but since taking over in Norman over a decade ago, few programs have been more stable, and more consistently solid than his Sooners. But after coming off a disappointing 2011 season and with an off-season full of turmoil, it’s time to wonder: Are this program’s best days behind them?
Ok, so that’s probably a bit of a stretch, but this is a club that’s a long way from where they were one year ago, when they entered 2011 as an overwhelming BCS title favorite. And with real questions entering 2012, not only is a National Championship guaranteed (it never is), but a Big XII title isn’t either.
On offense we all know what Landry Jones is capable of, but admittedly, his senior season could be as tough as any since his freshman year, when he took over for an injured Sam Bradford. The simple truth is that Jones wasn’t the same after Ryan Broyles went down with an injury last year (the Sooners went 2-2 without him) and in the off-season, things didn’t get any better when three of Jones’ best targets (Jaz Reynolds, Trey Franks and Kameel Jackson, who combined for 75 catches last year) got in trouble, and indefinitely suspended. It’s impossible to say if any will return this fall. On defense, there is talent as always, but it will coached by Mike Stoops, who takes over at defensive coordinator after Brent Venables left for Clemson.
Again, no one is saying Oklahoma is going to fall off a cliff and into mediocrity. There is simply too much talent there. But in a rapidly improving conference, and with questions for the first time in a long time, 10 or 11 wins aren’t guaranteed either.
As a matter of fact, nothing is guaranteed in the Big XII, which might just be college football’s most interesting conference.
For all his insight, analysis and opinion on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.