The season is done, but ask any coach and he'll tell you the 2013 season already has begun. That's true on this blog, too. So, how would I slot the Big 12 heading into the fall? With a month before national signing day and a couple of months before spring football kicks into high gear, here's my first crack at slotting the conference.
To me, it looks as if we have four legitimate contenders for the conference title and three possible dark horses. We'll see how the latter three develop, but I'm sold on the top four as teams that could realistically win the league next season.
1. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys will be loaded, and that's especially true if running back Joseph Randle comes back. Cornerback Justin Gilbert is returning, but we saw this season that they can win with any one of their three quarterbacks. That's a recipe for success in this league. The defense was a bit streaky; this season was the first under defensive coordinator Bill Young that the Cowboys didn't finish in the top 15 in turnovers forced. If they can get back to forcing turnovers in bunches next season, another Big 12 title could be headed to Stillwater.
2. TCU: The Frogs are growing up fast, but their spot here is assuming that quarterback Casey Pachall will be back on the field this spring to reclaim his job. The defense looks likely to be the best in the Big 12, and as much offense as this league has, you can't win it without a solid defense. TCU's offense will win it some games; its defense might win it a Big 12 title. Look out for Devonte Fields' encore.
3. Oklahoma: The Sooners look like they may lack a true star on next season's team, but they are still solid across the two-deep and will be good enough to be in the mix for a title even without quarterback Landry Jones. A wealth of losses on the defensive end is a bigger concern, but receivers Jalen Saunders and Sterling Shepard also will have to navigate a transition to a new QB after three-plus years with Jones. The Sooners ought to feature fullback Trey Millard a bit more in the offense next year.
4. Texas: Believe it or not, but David Ash is the Big 12's most experienced passer. Can he look the part on the field? We'll see, but the biggest problem for Texas is continuing its defensive improvements. Jackson Jeffcoat could be back, and Jordan Hicks will be one of the league's biggest talents if he is able to recover from a hip injury. The time is now if the Longhorns' trio of backs are going to mature into true impact players.
5. Baylor: I'm a believer in the late-season run for these guys translating to 2013. The defense made big strides, and we'll see if those continue, but the offense will be fine. I buy Bryce Petty as a big talent and the next in the long line of Art Briles' quarterback disciples. Lache Seastrunk will help him out early, too. Don't be surprised if he surpasses Randle next year as the Big 12's best back.
6. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are a huge wild card and might have the biggest upside of any team in the bottom half of these rankings. Michael Brewer is a promising QB, and he now has Kliff Kingsbury -- the former Texas A&M offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach who helped the Aggies far surpass expectations -- as his new head coach. Could Tech do the same? The Red Raiders have tons of talent on both sides of the ball, thanks to a couple of great recruiting classes from Tommy Tuberville (who left to become the coach at Cincinnati).
7. Kansas State: No Collin Klein and Arthur Brown? You know about that, but there's no Chris Harper, Travis Tannahill, Braden Wilson, and the entire defensive line is gone, including star DE Meshak Williams. Both starting cornerbacks are gone, too. Point is, K-State's probably a bowl team next season, but to come back from that mountain of losses and be in the top half of the Big 12 is going to be a tall, tall task.
8. West Virginia: The Mountaineers' trio of wide receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin and quarterback Geno Smith was outstanding this year. Not much else in Morgantown was. All three are gone, and that team only went 7-5. Coordinator Keith Patterson has got to fix this defense in the spring and apply some lessons learned in a disappointing Year 1 in the Big 12. The QB derby between Paul Millard and Ford Childress should be interesting.
9. Iowa State: Sam Richardson was severely ill while playing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, but he still didn't inspire a lot of confidence in the future of the QB spot in Ames, despite a strong finish to the season. With linebacking pillars A.J. Klein and Jake Knott both headed to the NFL, the odds once again will be against Iowa State winning six games and getting to a bowl. Without consistency at the quarterback spot, it's going to be tough, especially with the defense likely to take a step back.
10. Kansas: Gotta prove something before the Jayhawks move out of the basement. Charlie Weis is bringing in tons of juco talent, but after the Dayne Crist experiment didn't work, BYU transfer Jake Heaps simply must be better for KU to begin its climb back to the postseason.