2010 Big 12 College Football Preview: Oklahoma reclaims top spot

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - OCTOBER 3:   Quarterback Landry Jones #12 of the Oklahoma Sooners hands the ball off to teammate runningback DeMarco Murray #7 in the first quarter against the Miami Hurricanes on October 3, 2009 at Landshark Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Here’s a quick and dirty look at how I see things playing out in the Big 12 this season:

#1 Oklahoma
In Sam Bradford, Gerald McCoy, Trent Williams, Jermaine Gresham, Keenan Clayton, Brody Eldridge and Dominique Franks, there’s no doubt that the Sooners lost a ton of talent from last year. However, this season is all about two names: Landry Jones and DeMarco Murray. Jones filled in admirably when Bradford went down last season, throwing 26 touchdown passes and gaining valuable experience throughout the year. Murray’s health history is a major concern, but if he can stay upright he’s scary good. He’s more versatile than Adrian Peterson was in that he can catch the ball out of the backfield or beat teams as a rusher. He’s big, he’s fast and he can get north and south in a hurry. He’s also going to get a ton of opportunities to shine this year as both a runner and a pass-catcher and again, if he can stay healthy he has the ability to be one of the best backs in college football. Defensively, Bob Stoops’ team has good depth and while the loss of McCoy hurts, don’t forget that Jeremy Beal was fifth on the team in tackles last season and first in sacks with 11. The linebacker corps has a chance to be special thanks to redshirt freshman Tom Wort and sophomore Ronnell Lewis. I know many pundits still like Texas in the South, but with Landry, Murray and nine starters returning on offense, I think Oklahoma reclaims the conference this season.

#2 Texas
Given the circumstances, I thought youngster Garrett Gilbert handled himself extremely well against Alabama in the national title game last season – especially considering his running game was non-existent. Now that Colt McCoy and Jordan Shipley have moved onto the NFL, we’re going to see a new-look offense in Austin this year. And ironically, Mack Brown and company will actually get back to what Texas football used to be: pounding the football. While there won’t be wholesale changes to the offense, we won’t see too much of the spread under Gilbert. The quarterback is likely to lineup under center more this year and UT will look to set up the pass with the run. Defensively, the Longhorns are thin on the line but the secondary may be even better than it was in ’09. As a group, the defensive backfield is fast and littered with guys that can cover. The schedule is somewhat favorable, although the Longhorns have a nasty four-game set starting in the middle of September when they travel to Lubbock to take on Texas Tech (remember what happened last time the Longhorns visited Lubbock), then play host to UCLA before taking on Oklahoma in Dallas and Nebraska in Lincoln. How Gilbert plays on the road might determine how good the Longhorns are this season.

#3 Nebraska
I almost ranked the Cornhuskers ahead of Texas but then I remembered the name Zac Lee. If Lee, who has been pushed by backups Cody Green and Taylor Martinez this spring, can’t play more consistent this year then he’s going to limit how good the Huskers will be in 2010. In the team’s four losses last season, Lee threw eight interceptions and no touchdowns. And while there’s no doubt Nebraska will rely on running backs Roy Helu and Rex Burkhead to carry the offense this year, Lee still has to step up and make plays in crunch time. There’s just no other way to say it – he has to be better. Defensively, replacing Ndamukong Suh, Larry Asante, Phillip Dillard, Barry Turner and Matt O’Hanlon will be tough and really, you can’t replace a guy like Suh. But with players like Jared Crick, Pierre Allen and Prince Amukamara coming back, Bo Pelini’s defense will be just fine. He has established great depth on that side of the ball and thus, once again, everything rides on Lee and the offense. Can this team avenge its loss in the Big 12 title game last year and beat Texas in Lincoln on October 16? If they can, there’s no reason to think that Nebraska can’t win the conference, especially considering they avoid Oklahoma on this year’s schedule.

#4 Missouri
After finishing 8-5 last season, MIZZOU is kind of flying under the radar heading into 2010. But I see you, Tigers – shaking that ass. I know with quarterback Blaine Gabbert coming back this year that you’re probably headed for your seventh straight winning season. After throwing for over 3,500 yards and finishing second in the Big 12 in pass efficiency, Gabbert is due for another great year and there’s no reason the Tigers can’t compete with Nebraska in the North. Defensively, Aldon Smith (11 sacks as a freshman) is a freaking pass-rushing monster and as a whole, the defense has a ton of speed. The only thing that keeps me from growing a pair and ranking this team ahead of Nebraska heading into the season is that opponents completed 64% of their pass attempts against MIZZOU’s defense last season. Ouch isn’t even a good starting point for how bad that stat hurts.

#5 Texas A&M
The Aggies remind me a lot of Arkansas (whom they play on October 9 in Arlington) in that I probably have them ranked too high but I just can’t stop starring at their offense. They’re like that girl in the gym with the so-so face that your buddies warn you about because she flirts with everyone and has an IQ of 50 but you just can’t stop zeroing in on her body. That thing intrigues you and you can’t help but to move in closer for a better look. Thanks to Jerrod Johnson, Christine Michael, Cyrus Gray, Uzoma Nwachukwu and a slew of offensive playmakers, the Aggies are going to break scoreboards this year. Unfortunately, they’re also going to have to because their defense can’t stop a nosebleed. Aside from Von Miller (a phenomenal pass rusher who racked up 17 sacks last season) and Trent Hunter, there aren’t a ton of playmakers on that side of the ball. That said, and this might just be the body goggles talking again, A&M was incredibly young on defense last year and do return nine starters. So can they be better? Absolutely. Will they? Look at that ass…

#6 Texas Tech
Thanks to a coaching change, the Red Raiders might be the most intriguing team in the Big 12 this year. Out is Mike Leach and in is Tommy Tuberville, who is coming off a successful stint at Auburn (although his tenure there didn’t end well, as he resigned following a 5-7 season in 2008). While Tuberville is still expected to throw the ball plenty with quarterback Taylor Potts, there’s little doubt that he’ll run more than Leach did. The offense will still be exciting, but Tuberville doesn’t coach finesse – on either side of the ball. Defensively, the Raiders were improved last year but they need to take the next step if they’re going to challenge the big boys in the conference. As with any change, there will be an adjustment period on that side of the ball as former Alabama linebackers coach James Willis takes over as the new defensive coordinator. Can Tech adjust to the 3-4 or will they need a year to adapt to Willis’ scheme? Either way, change is coming in Lubbock and this team will get tested right away when they take on Texas in the third game of the year.

#7 Oklahoma State
If you can’t beat ‘em, hire ‘em. After watching his offense rack up 45 points on their defense last year, the Cowboys hired former Houston offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen for the same role in Stillwater. The Cougars led the FBS in scoring and pass offense last season, so the Cowboys should score plenty of points in 2010. Gone is Zac Robinson, but 26-year-old Brandon Weeden could wind up being the newcomer of the year in the Big 12. The former minor league baseball player certainly has the right work ethic to be a great college quarterback and he’ll have plenty of help from running back Kendall Hunter, who will get a ton of opportunities to make plays this season. That said, the big concern is the offensive line, which lost most of its starters from a year ago to graduation. If the O-line can’t gel quickly, then Weeden and Hunter will be limited. Defensively, the Cowboys improved dramatically under coordinator Bill Young, but the secondary is still a big question mark. This is an intriguing team on the surface, but there are some underlying issues that teams like Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M and Nebraska can exploit. That’s why expectations should be tempered a little.

#8 Kansas State
This team will challenge opponents every Saturday thanks to running back Daniel Thomas, who led the Big 12 last year in rushing. He has great vision, cutback ability and excellent burst. He’s also strong and when he gets north south on a defense – look out. That said, this isn’t a very deep team and while I expect the Wildcats to challenge for a bowl game, I doubt they have enough overall talent to finish any higher than third in the North. I think they top out at six wins – just enough to make a bowl appearance.

#9 Iowa State
With players like Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson returning, it’s hard to not get a little excited about the Cyclones in 2010 – especially after they beat Minnesota in the Insight Bowl last year. If Arnaud can be more accurate and make more plays in the passing game, then the sky is the limit for this dual-threat quarterback. Robinson became only the 12th player in Iowa State history to rush for over 1,000 yards last season and while he’s not a tall runner, he’s big and he always keeps his legs churning. That said, this isn’t a very experienced defense and while depth isn’t as much of a concern as it has been in year’s past, you always wonder whether or not a smaller school has enough overall talent to compete in such a competitive conference. Plus, with Iowa, Kansas State, Texas Tech, Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Missouri on the schedule, the Cyclones have one daunting task ahead of them in 2010 as they try to make it back-to-back bowl appearances.

#10 Kansas
First and foremost, I love the hire of Turner Gill. He did wonders at Buffalo and he’s going to bring a sense of order back to Lawrence now that Mark Mangino is gone. I just don’t know how much success Gill will have in his first year. Players will certainly play hard for him, but gone are Todd Reesing, Dezmon Briscoe, Kerry Meier and Darrell Stuckey. Offensive lineman Jeff Spikes is also done for the year after suffering an Achilles injury this offseason and who knows what the team has in quarterback Kale Pick. I have little doubt that the Jayhawks will be competitive under Gill in time, but it’s going to take a couple of years.

#11 Colorado
The only reason I have the Buffaloes ranked higher than Baylor is because the experience they have on both sides of the ball. And even as I write this, I find myself more intrigued by Baylor’s chances of making a bowl than I am about the Buffs generating six wins. That may be harsh, but Dan Hawkins has done nothing since coming over from Boise State and I’m not sure he ever will. He’s 16-33 in four years at Colorado, with no winning seasons and just one bowl appearance. Thanks to Rodney Stewart, Scotty McKnight, Markques Simas and Tyler Hansen, there’s a good chance that the Buffs will prove me wrong. And Hawkins better hope they do, because another 3-9 season and he’ll likely be finished in Boulder.

#12 Baylor
I like this team better than their ranking suggests, but history just isn’t on their side. In 14 years since joining the Big 12, the Bears have zero winning seasons and are 14-98 against conference foes. Yikes. That said, Art Briles has this program moving in the right direction and the Bears will certainly be fun to watch thanks to dynamic quarterback Robert Griffin, III coming back from ACL surgery. Before going down in the third game of the year, Griffin had already totaled 481 total yards and four touchdowns. If he’s healthy, he’s going to give Baylor a chance to end its 16-year bowl drought. However, the Bears ranked 94th in total defense last year and they lack depth on that side of the ball. They’re going to need to catch some breaks to make a bowl appearance, especially with TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma on the schedule this season.

Check out other 2010 College Football Conference Previews: SEC | Big Ten | Big 12

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