NCF Nation: Baylor Bears

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WACO, Texas -- Last season, Baylor won 11 games, claimed a Big 12 championship and played in a BCS bowl game -- all first-time accomplishments for the once-woebegone program.

But as much as the Bears accomplished last season -- they also scored more points (52.4 per game) and gained more yards (618.8) than any other FBS team in the country –- their last performance left a bitter taste in their mouths.

Kind of like Texas dust.

After starting the 2013 season with a 9-0 record and then beating then-No. 25 Texas 30-10 to win a Big 12 championship, the Bears were embarrassed in a 52-42 loss to Central Florida in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. The Knights, who were 17-point underdogs, piled up 556 yards of offense and scored on four straight possessions after Baylor tied the score at 28 in the third quarter. The Bears were penalized 17 times for 135 yards.

[+] EnlargeArt Briles
AP Photo/LM OteroArt Briles and Baylor have the talent to be considered the favorite to repeat as Big 12 champs in 2014.
“It was disappointing because that’s the only game you remember,” Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty said. “I had to be reminded that we won a Big 12 title. I didn’t even remember it because of what happened in the bowl game, and it’s the best thing that’s happened to Baylor football in a long time.”

Baylor coach Art Briles and his players haven’t forgotten the ugly loss more than five months after the bitter defeat in the Arizona desert. It figures to provide the Bears with plenty of motivation as they head into an unexpected Big 12 title defense this coming season.

“I don’t know how you describe sickening,” Briles said. “You hate to have your motivation fueled by getting slapped in the face, but that’s kind of what happened. We know [UCF] has a good football team, but we had to listen to how good we were for more than a month. Sometimes, reality isn’t perception. There was a hungry team on the field and a happy one on the field. We were the happy one.”

While its lackluster performance in the Fiesta Bowl might have sullied what had been a magical season, Baylor will enter the 2014 season as the team to beat in the Big 12. For a program that hadn’t been to a bowl game for 13 consecutive seasons when Briles arrived in 2008, it’s a rare position for the Bears.

“I think we take being the Big 12 champions as a challenge,” Baylor receiver Levi Norwood said. “Guys are targeting us and wanting what we have. We have to go out and do it again. We all know that when we got here, we weren’t that good and it’s not normal for us to be winning. We’re trying to make it normal.”

There’s nothing normal about Baylor under Briles. The Bears bring back much of the offense that shattered nearly every school record last season, although they’ll miss leading rusher Lache Seastrunk (1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns in 2013), All-America guard Cyril Richardson and receiver Tevin Reese (38 catches for 867 yards with eight touchdowns).

Petty, a senior from Midlothian, Texas, is back after completing 62 percent of his passes for 4,200 yards with 32 touchdowns and three interceptions in his first season as a starter.

“He needs to be better and he should be,” Briles said. “He’s expected to be better. You can have a lot of money, but you can’t buy experience. Some things should happen on pre-snap reads. We should know what happens before it happens. He’s a good player and a great leader. That’s why he’s who he is.”

Petty will be surrounded by plenty of proven playmakers in Briles’ high-octane offense. All-America receiver Antwan Goodley is back after catching 71 passes for 1,339 yards with 13 touchdowns last season, and three other Bears wideouts caught at least 32 passes. Tailback Shock Linwood returns after running for 881 yards with eight touchdowns.

“We’ve got some people who can play,” Briles said. “We feel really good about everybody who is around [Petty] offensively. We can be very diverse with everybody around him.”

Petty I had to be reminded that we won a Big 12 title. I didn't even remember it because of what happened in the bowl game, and it's the best thing that's happened to Baylor football in a long time.

-- Baylor quarterback Bryce Petty
The Bears must replace seven starters on defense, but Briles feels much better about his defensive front. Boise State transfer Sam Ukwuachu and sophomore tackle Javonte Magee, who sat out last season after unexpectedly leaving the team, are expected to bolster the defensive front.

“You’d have to shake the tree pretty hard to find three or four universities that have what we have up front,” Briles said.

Now, Briles’ challenge is to make sure his team doesn’t become complacent after last season’s unexpected success.

“That’s the first thing we talked about when we got back to campus,” Briles said. “We had to learn and grow up. We thought we were an accomplished football team and program. We lost [our edge] and got happy. We have to stay humble.”

If the Bears don’t, they might be a one-hit wonder. The Big 12 figures to be even more rugged this coming season. Oklahoma stunned Alabama 45-31 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl to finish 11-2 last season, and former Louisville coach Charlie Strong replaced longtime Texas coach Mack Brown.

“To be honest, we got too happy with where we were,” Petty said. “We became complacent. Every game is a big game that you have to prepare for as a hunter. We kind of bought into what everybody was saying about us, and unfortunately UCF put us in our place. You don’t lose; you learn. We learned a lot from that game, and we’re not going to let it happen again. When you’re building a tradition and dynasty, you can’t talk about complacency. It’s not something that Coach Briles is going to allow.”

The Bears open the 2014 season against SMU on Aug. 31 at McLane Stadium, their new $260 million riverfront stadium. They’ll play at Texas, West Virginia and Oklahoma and versus Texas Tech in Dallas -- opponents they defeated at home last year.

“I think it’s always tough,” Briles said. “If we jump back a year ago, I don’t think people were picking us to be an outright champion. We’ve got to lock our doors and windows. Everybody is coming for us, but we’re going to protect what we got.”
Bryce Petty can be better.

Sounds odd, doesn’t it?

Yet, it’s true. The Baylor quarterback destroyed Big 12 defenses in his first season as a starter, earning Big 12 offensive player of the year honors in 2013. He finished with 4,200 passing yards and accounted for 46 total touchdowns.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsBaylor's Bryce Petty aims to become more poised in the pocket as a senior.
But Petty strives for perfection and fell short of his goal as a junior. Thus, he entered the offseason with a clear area of improvement in mind.

“A focus for me this offseason is within the pocket,” Petty said. “I felt like there were a couple times where I escaped too soon or my eyes dropped and I looked at the rushers, not really trusting the guys up front. For me, it was a learning year, I saw different looks I hadn’t seen before, and that comes from experience.”

Petty put up big numbers, but his completion percentage dropped when he was blitzed. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Petty’s completion percentage dropped from 63.8 percent against a regular rush to 55.3 percent against a blitz. He didn't make the big mistake, with zero interceptions against blitzing defenses, but his efficiency did drop when opponents brought additional pressure.

Oklahoma and Texas were two of four teams that held Petty to less than a 57 completion percentage, and both squads did it largely with the blitz. He completed 6 of 22 combined passes against the blitz (27.2 percent) when facing OU and UT, two of the Big 12’s better defenses a year ago.

Thus, Petty wants to get more comfortable in the chaos of the pocket with the knowledge that teams are likely to take their chances by coming after him instead of hoping to find a handful of defensive backs to deal with the Bears’ receivers. With that focus in mind, Petty spent his spring break with quarterback guru George Whitfield to help accomplish his goal.

“I wanted to put my body in situations were I stay relaxed in the pocket,” Petty said. “That’s what I wanted to do with George and that’s what I did with George. He’s great about the way he explains things and the way he says things to help it make sense in your mind.”

Petty was the Big 12’s best quarterback in 2013, but his hunger to be even better in 2014 could make BU’s offense more explosive than ever.
WACO, Texas – As the story goes, and Phil Bennett likes telling this one, Baylor’s coaching staff held a meeting in the fall of 2011 to discuss bringing in a junior college linebacker.

They pulled up the film from Riverside City College in California. This juco squad had three studs at linebacker.

[+] EnlargePhil Bennett
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBaylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and the Bears staff take pride in finding under-the-radar gems.
The heavily recruited member of the unit, Zaire Anderson, would sign with Nebraska. Will Smith landed at Texas Tech, where he’d start 24 games and win Holiday Bowl defensive MVP.

But Bennett, Baylor's defensive coordinator, had his eyes on the other guy. When he asked the staff to raise their hands for which one they’d take, the vote was unanimous. They wanted No. 10.

That was Eddie Lackey, a former Division II player whose only offers were Hawaii and New Mexico State. So, naturally, he’d verbally committed to Hawaii. Bennett made him a Bear that December.

“I told him, ‘You better be 6-foot or we’re gonna send your ass home,’” Bennett joked last week. “And how good a player was Eddie Lackey?”

A first-team All-Big 12 player, in fact. Nine other Baylor players earned that honor in 2013, including a former Hurricane Katrina refugee whose only offer was BU (Cyril Richardson), a receiver who weighed 138 pounds in high school (Tevin Reese) and a quarterback who’d been dumped by Tennessee (Bryce Petty).

If that’s not enough proof of Baylor’s impressive knack for evaluating talent, Bennett can tell plenty more stories. Like the time his brother tipped him off to go after running back Shock Linwood, the No. 176-rated athlete from a Class 2A school in Linden, Texas, who eventually flipped from TCU and will likely start for Baylor this fall.

Coach Art Briles says he isn’t one for telling these recruiting tales, but he’s proud of plenty of these finds. When he arrived in Waco in 2008, there was no doubt the job of building the doormat Bears back up would require taking chances on kids in recruiting.

“Those guys are out there,” Briles said last week. “This is a big state with a lot of great football players.”

In those early years of rebuilding, Briles leaned on the relationships built from 20-plus years of coaching Texas high school ball. He has now been a college coach in this state for 15 years. Those bonds can pay off big when he and his coaches go hunting for undiscovered talent.

“We know the state of Texas and the state of Texas knows us,” he said. “They know we’re not going anywhere. I’m not trying to cross the border and not come back. I’m home.”

And while Texas, Texas A&M and the state’s recruiting powers cherry-picked from the best of the best, scooping up the big-name kids on the top-100 lists before the summer had even begun, Baylor was forced to take a different approach. You’ve got to be willing to turn over a lot of rocks, in locales near and far, if the blue-chippers aren’t returning your calls.

In seeking kids who fit their high-speed scheme, Briles and his assistants did lots of projecting. They found the quarterbacks (example: Kendall Wright) who could move to receiver or defensive back, the linebackers who could grow into defensive end, the linemen with developing bodies. They had to take gambles.

“The farther you get away from the center and nose tackle, the harder the prediction gets,” Briles said. “Once you get to the skill people on both sides, it’s tough. We just try to find the guys that fit what we’re looking for. If they have an interest in us and vice versa, we’re all in.”

[+] EnlargeEddie Lackey
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsLinebacker Eddie Lackey, who committed to Hawaii before signing with Baylor, was a key member of the Bears' defense in 2013.
But that’s not enough. Briles says he focuses closely on a kid’s commitment and passion, on the kind of stuff that makes good teammates. And he loves the chip on the shoulder.

“I like a guy that, when you look in his eyes, you can see the steely determination to him,” Briles said. “A guy who really wants to do something.”

They’ve found those kinds of kids from Amarillo to Refugio, from Midland to Texarkana. This spring, nearly 30 percent of Baylor’s players came from the always-fertile Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. A fifth of the spring roster hailed from the Central Texas territory that includes Waco and Austin. Greater Houston-area kids made up a little more than 10 percent.

As for the other 40 percent of the squad? There are more than a dozen transfers, five players from out-of-state schools and, of course, a melting pot of guys from all over Texas. A couple were four-star recruits, but more of them are the sleepers and projects that have fueled Baylor’s rise.

The game changed in 2011 thanks to Robert Griffin III. McLane Stadium and a Big 12 title have made Briles’ pitch even easier today. Petty signed in 2009 and can’t help but marvel at how the roster has transformed since then.

“I’m pretty sure I was the last class that had that problem of saying, ‘Baylor was my only offer. I had to go here,’” he joked. “It’s not that way anymore.”

Now that the big-name recruits are visiting Waco, the staff’s approach will have to change.

“It’s a whole different deal,” Briles said. “Our calls are getting answered, and we’ve got to be careful who we ask now -- 'cause there’s a good chance they might say yes. Got to make sure we’re asking the right ones.”

Still, three of Baylor’s six verbal commitments for 2015 are true athletes who could play a variety of positions next season. It’ll be a smaller-than-usual class, but one that will still feature a few three-star recruits few schools wanted. Those kind of kids made Baylor what it is today.

“Has the door opened for us, and are we getting more of the quote-unquote four- and five-stars? Absolutely,” Bennett said. “We’ll look at them. But the thing I’m proud of is, you’ve got to be a player here.

“If you come here, you’ve got to be a player.”
WACO, Texas -- When you’re a perfectionist like Bryce Petty, the nitpicking comes easier than you’d think.

For all the fantastic things he did in his junior year, for all the records his offense broke, the Baylor quarterback doesn’t struggle to come up with things he wants to fix. There’s always room for better.

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Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesBryce Petty wants this coming season to be even better for Baylor.
Good luck finding too many faults in Petty’s junior season. Well, OK, there is one obvious issue that should be addressed: The goal-line stumble.

You know, the one at Oklahoma State, when Petty broke free for an easy 26-yard touchdown run, then tripped near the 10 and fell down face-first short of the goal line.

For this, Petty offers no excuses. He goofed up. His teammates gave him plenty of grief for that one.

“When something like that happens, you have to embrace it,” he said. “If you let it get to you, it’s gonna kill you. It was funny. It was just one of those things that probably will be with my career the whole time.

“My mind just wants to go faster than my legs want to go.”

Fair enough. Petty can at least laugh about that one now. He’s serious when it comes to the other aspect of his game he can improve.

What’s on the to-do list of the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year? First up: Getting more comfortable in the pocket, a natural flaw for first-year starters.

“For me, everything is in the pocket. I want to hone in on being able to move and jive and not look to run too much,” he said. “I think I put my eyes down early a couple times last year, so I really want to try to work within the pocket and let things happen for me and not try to force anything.”

The stat line from Petty’s first year at the helm -- 4,200 passing yards, 32 touchdowns, three interceptions, 14 rushing scores -- really can’t get much better, can it? Petty spent three years preparing for his opportunity and took advantage in a big way last fall.

He says the hunger that built up over his years on the bench isn’t gone. He came back to win a national title. He came back to be the best in the game.

“Nothing has changed. I’ve still got to go out and prove that I am the starter and that there’s a reason why I’m the starter,” Petty said. “My mentality hasn’t changed and it shouldn’t change. You’ve got to want to be the best; no one else will do it for you.”

As a 13-game starter, Petty has the experience, and more confidence. But he was always pretty confident. Coach Art Briles wants to see improvements in those more intangible areas this year.

“Poise, leadership, perfection, guttiness, fearlessness, determination,” Briles said, “and unwillingness to accept anything but the best that he can do to lead our football team on a daily basis.”

Even with speedster Tevin Reese off to the NFL, the Bears are as loaded as any program in the Big 12 -- and maybe the country -- at wide receiver. Antwan Goodley and Levi Norwood will continue to make Petty’s life easier, and Baylor’s quarterback can’t wait to put freshmen Davion Hall, K.D. Cannon, Ishmael Zamora and Chris Platt to the test this summer.

“They’re more new weapons I get to play with,” Petty said. “I just have to trust them and let this offense work.”

As he took the field for his first spring practice Friday, that’s all Petty had on his mind. Not stats or Heismans or the kind of singular achievements he’s capable of reaching in 2014.

No, the leader of the highest-scoring offense in college football just wants one thing: More.
Spring ball kicked off in the Big 12 over the weekend, as Baylor, TCU and West Virginia all had their first practices. This week, most of the other Big 12 schools will join them.

With spring practice off and rolling, plenty of questions surround the league’s programs. And while many of those won’t be fully answered until the season begins in the fall, here are some of the biggest ones Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma will face this spring:

How will Baylor replenish its secondary?

[+] EnlargeQuarterback Bryce Petty #14 of the Baylor Bears
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images Bryce Petty is back so Baylor's offense should be in good shape. Its defense, however, has some question marks heading into the spring.
The Bears won their first Big 12 championship last season, thanks in part to a secondary that ranked second in the league in pass defense. Safety Terrell Burt, however, is the only returning starter from that defensive backfield, meaning rebuilding the secondary will be priority No. 1 for the Bears this spring. But as if that job wasn’t going to be challenging enough, both Burt and juco cornerback Chris Sanders, who is supposed to vie for a starting role, will miss the spring following shoulder surgeries. With QB Bryce Petty back, the Bears figure to be formidable again offensively in 2014. But to defend its Big 12 title, Baylor will need several inexperienced players to begin emerging in the secondary this spring.

Can Mangino turn Iowa State’s offense around?

As a big part of their disappointing 3-9 record last season, the Cyclones ranked ahead of only Kansas in Big 12 scoring offense. As a result, Paul Rhoads fired offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham and brought in Mark Mangino to revive the Iowa State attack. Mangino was offensive coordinator during Oklahoma’s national championship season, and he took Kansas to the Orange Bowl. His track record as an offensive mind is not in dispute. But can he turn around an offense that hasn’t ranked higher than ninth in the Big 12 in scoring since 2005? Mangino will have some pieces to work with. Wideout Quenton Bundrage, running back Aaron Wimberly and quarterback Grant Rohach all had moments in 2013. Whether Mangino can put them in position to produce a lot more of those moments will go a long way in determining if Iowa State can bounce back.

Can Harwell fill Kansas’ go-to WR need?

Kansas’ lack of production at receiver the past few seasons has been astounding. Justin McCay caught a touchdown pass in the 2013 opener to become the first Kansas receiver to catch a touchdown in almost two full seasons. But Kansas receivers would catch only two more touchdowns the rest of the season (for context, Baylor receivers totaled 35 such grabs). Senior transfer Nick Harwell, however, could be the answer to that woeful drought. Two years ago at Miami (Ohio), Harwell led the Mid-American Conference with 7.6 receptions and 96.7 receiving yards per game while earning All-MAC honors. Going into his final college season, Harwell already has 229 receptions for 3,166 yards in his career. Oh yeah, he has 23 touchdowns over those three years, too. The Jayhawks have desperately been in search of a go-to receiver. They’ll find out this spring whether they can stop that search.

What will K-State do with Sams?

Daniel Sams proved to be one of the league’s best playmakers last season, leading all Big 12 quarterbacks with 807 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. Sams’ role, however, diminished late in the season, as Jake Waters emerged as the majority-of-the-time quarterback. Sams is too dynamic with the ball in his hands to watch games from the sidelines. But Waters isn’t going anywhere at quarterback, either. Before the bowl, Sams hinted that he’d like to try another position to get onto the field more. K-State whiffed on signing a quarterback last month, so Sams will still have to keep ties with his old position for depth purposes. But the spring will also give the Wildcats the opportunity to experiment using Sams elsewhere -- like receiver -- if they so choose.

How will Oklahoma build on the Sugar Bowl?

By beating Alabama, the Sooners notched arguably the program’s most significant win since defeating Florida State all the way back in the 2000 national championship game. After struggling at times during the 2013 season, the Sooners suddenly have the look of a preseason top-five team going into 2014. Yet, in many ways, this is still a very young team. QB Trevor Knight has only five career starts, two of which he left early due to injury. Projected starting running back Keith Ford has loads of potential, but only 23 carries in his college career. And of the returning receivers, only Sterling Shepard delivered more than 13 catches last season. In the Sugar Bowl, OU flashed its capability. And the Sooners have tons of momentum, underscored by their furious recruiting finish. But to be a legitimate national title contender this fall, the Sooners can’t rest on their laurels of besting the Tide. And OU’s young players have to continue building off that experience.

Spring preview capsules: Big 12

February, 24, 2014
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Spring football is rapidly approaching.

Here's a team-by-team look at what to watch in the Big 12 this spring:

Baylor

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

What to watch: Who will replace Lache Seastrunk? The Bears' running back was the engine that helped keep the Baylor offense balanced and defenses honest. Shock Linwood will step in, but is he ready to handle the burden of keeping the offense balanced? . . . Baylor, the 2013 regular-season champion, has to find key replacements on a defense that is losing half of its starters. But several second-teamers -- including Jamal Palmer, Shawn Oakman, Andrew Billings and Orion Stewart -- are poised to fill the void . . . The Bears need to replace guard Cyril Richardson along the offensive line. Several candidates, including junior college transfer Jarell Broxton, will battle for the job. Baylor has arguably the league's best group of skill position players, but that will mean nothing if its offensive line takes a step backward.

Iowa State

Spring start: March 10

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: New offensive coordinator Mark Mangino arrives in Ames to bring more points and creativity to the Cyclones’ offense. The spring is the first opportunity for Mangino to get a feel for the playmakers and the players to get a feel for Mangino’s expectations . . . The quarterback competition is another thing to keep an eye on. Grant Rohach ended the season as the starter, but Sam B. Richardson could take his job back with a strong spring. And there are other young quarterbacks on campus who could insert themselves into the mix . . . Defensively, the Cyclones need to replace linebacker Jeremiah George and safety Jacques Washington, who finished 1-2 in tackles in the Big 12 in 2013 and finished their careers with 59 career starts combined. Iowa State seems to always have quality linebackers, so finding a replacement for Washington could be the defense’s top priority in the spring.

Kansas

Spring start: March 4

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Shuffling the offensive coaching staff has been the theme of the offseason. New offensive coordinator John Reagan, who was a KU assistant from 2005 to 2009, returns to the Jayhawks after running Rice’s offense last season. The spring is Reagan’s first chance to identify the playmakers who will be the foundation of his offense this fall. Expect wide-open competition across the board after KU finished 115th in the FBS in points scored ... The quarterback position will grab the headlines, with T.J. Millweard joining the competition with Jake Heaps and Montell Cozart, who each started games in 2013. Millweard transferred to KU from UCLA before the 2013 season.

Kansas State

Spring start: April 2

Spring game: April 26

What to watch: Finding John Hubert’s replacement sits high on the Wildcats’ priority list. The former running back carried the ground attack for the past three seasons, and there’s no clear favorite to step into his shoes. Will someone step up during spring football? . . . What will happen with quarterback Daniel Sams? The Wildcats have a proven Big 12 playmaker in Sams, a junior, and another proven quarterback in Jake Waters. Sams is an exceptional open-field runner who started two games in 2013, but look for Kansas State to start exploring ways to have both on the field together this spring . . . Replacing Ty Zimmerman’s playmaking and leadership on defense is another key this spring. The defense has to replace several starters in the secondary and at linebacker. Keep an eye on junior college defensive back Danzel McDaniel, who has the versatility to step in at several different spots.

Oklahoma

Spring start: March 8

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: With Trevor Knight poised to start at quarterback in 2014, Blake Bell moves to tight end after starting eight games under center in 2013. Bell’s transition to tight end will be the talk of the spring, with the senior’s commitment to the program and OU's need for help at the position . . . The battle to be the starting running back is another storyline, with sophomores Keith Ford and Alex Ross hoping to make a statement this spring before ESPN 300 running backs Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine arrive in the summer. Ford forced his way into the lineup as a freshman before an injury slowed him . . . The Sooners will be looking to shore up the secondary after the departure of All-Big 12 cornerback Aaron Colvin and starting safety Gabe Lynn. Sophomore Stanvon Taylor could be set to replace Colvin, while sophomores Hatari Byrd and Ahmad Thomas will battle to replace Lynn.

Oklahoma State

Spring start: March 10

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Incoming freshman Mason Rudolph enrolled early to participate in spring football with the hope of replacing quarterback Clint Chelf. J.W. Walsh has won a lot of games in a Cowboys uniform, but will have to hold off stern competition to earn the starting spot as a junior . . . The Cowboys lose seven seniors off one of their best defenses in recent memory. The overall quality might be upgraded, but spring football will be the first chance to see if those talented yet inexperienced defenders are ready to step into the fire. Defensive end Jimmy Bean, linebacker Ryan Simmons and cornerback Kevin Peterson could emerge as the foundation of the defense . . . Who will step up at receiver? The Cowboys lose three of their top four receivers, with Jhajuan Seales as the lone returnee. But several youngsters appear poised to step in, including sophomore Marcell Ateman and redshirt freshman Ra'Shaad Samples.

TCU

Spring start: March 1

Final spring practice: April 5

What to watch: Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie have arrived to take over as co-offensive coordinators at TCU. The Horned Frogs need a jump start and could get it from the “Air Raid”-style offense the duo will bring to the table. This spring will be an important first step in improving the offense . . . Who will be the quarterback? Trevone Boykin started several games in 2013 but might actually be TCU’s top receiver. Tyler Matthews, a redshirt freshman, also saw time under center, but he faces stiff competition. Don’t expect the battle to end until fall camp . . . TCU needs someone to step up in the secondary, with Jason Verrett NFL-bound after spending the past two seasons as one of the Big 12’s top coverage cornerbacks. Ranthony Texada and Travoskey Garrett are among several young defensive backs who could try to fill the void.

Texas

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch: David Ash's health will be one of the main storylines of Texas’ first spring under coach Charlie Strong. Ash has the talent to be a key piece of the puzzle, but head injuries are always tough to overcome. If Ash is 100 percent healthy, the Longhorns will feel better about the overall status at quarterback . . . Strong has talked of instilling a tough mindset in Austin since he arrived in January, and spring football will be the first real taste of what the Longhorns’ new coach is trying to bring to the program . . . Where are the playmakers? Texas has a talent-laden roster, but didn’t have the exceptional talent who could consistently change games. This spring gives several returning skill players, including receiver Jaxon Shipley and all-purpose standout Daje Johnson, the chance to become the foundation of the offense in 2014.

Texas Tech

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Davis Webb's health is the No. 1 priority for the Red Raiders, who have seen three quarterbacks leave the program since the beginning of the 2013 season. Coach Kliff Kingsbury could have the toughest job of the spring as he tries to manage the lack of quarterbacks with the desire to have a productive spring for the roster as a whole . . . The Red Raiders have some consistency among the defensive coaching staff, meaning they could improve in 2014 despite losing multiple starters, including defensive tackle Kerry Hyder, linebacker Will Smith and safety Tre' Porter. Tech could start seeing dividends of that continuity . . . The Red Raiders have to replace Jace Amaro and Eric Ward, who combined to catch 189 passes for 2,299 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Jakeem Grant and Bradley Marquez made a bunch of plays in 2013 and Devin Lauderdale, a junior college transfer and early enrollee, will get the chance to show why he had Texas Tech fans buzzing when he initially signed in February 2013.

West Virginia

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 12

What to watch: Finding a quarterback is critical for the Mountaineers, who have talent at the skill positions but won’t transform into an explosive offense without efficient quarterback play. Clint Trickett is recovering from shoulder surgery, meaning Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and former receiver Logan Moore will run the offense this spring . . . Tony Gibson takes over as WVU’s defensive coordinator after coaching the safeties in 2013. His promotion allows some continuity on the defense after former DC Keith Patterson left for Arizona State after the season . . . Replacing defensive tackle Shaq Rowell and defensive end Will Clarke, who started 56 combined career games for WVU, won’t be easy. The Mountaineers will lean heavily on veteran juniors Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph, who have started since their freshman seasons.
Few things can match the game-day atmosphere that surrounds college football every Saturday.

Yet, more and more, the at-home experience is intriguing for college football fans.

The Big 12 understands the challenges that continue to emerge as its member schools try to fill their stadiums each weekend, and the conference is trying to be proactive in overcoming the attendance challenges each school faces.

“It’s an ongoing conversation with our athletic directors,” said Bob Burda, the Big 12’s associate commissioner of communications. “How can we continue to encourage people to come out? How can we give them an invaluable experience for a return on their investment of buying a ticket and coming to the venue?”

For example, member schools began showing in-game highlights conference-wide for the first time in 2013.

[+] EnlargeOklahoma State fans
Richard Rowe/USA TODAY SportsFans at Oklahoma State and throughout the Big 12 are largely backing their teams. But there's an ongoing discussion about how to keep the fans coming, which includes creating better cell phone coverage in stadiums.
“It’s becoming more challenging to compete with the living room experience and the wall-to-wall coverage of college football on any given Saturday,” Burda said. “We’re trying to develop more of a living-room type experience in our stadiums. The in-game highlights were one step in that direction.”

Arguably the biggest issue could be Internet access in stadiums on game days. With social media developing into a staple of most fans' game experience, lack of connectivity has the potential to have an impact on fans’ decisions to attend games or watch from the comfort of their own living rooms with no concerns about connectivity.

“Many of our institutions are now addressing the connectivity challenges that are faced when you have 50,000 to 100,000 people in one setting,” Burda said. “More and more, fans' sporting game experience includes the use of a handheld device.”

It can be particularly troublesome for college students, some of whom are unwilling to risk spending several hours without cell phone service.

“That’s the next generation of season-ticket holders,” Burda said. “So it’s incumbent upon our facilities to provide a fan-friendly experience. And that’s part of it.”

Connectivity issues or not, the game-day experience is difficult to match. Memories are more likely to be made in stadiums than on couches. Being in the stadium as history unfolds is different than watching from afar.

“There’s a excitement that comes with being a part of the crowd attending a game, not only inside the facility but outside the facility as well,” Burda said. “Having attended the Sugar Bowl and the Oklahoma win over Alabama, it was truly magical in the stadium that night. For those in the stadium cheering Oklahoma, that was an experience they are going to have for the rest of their lives, an experience they would not have had if they were not inside the venue.”

Overall, the Big 12’s attendance has been solid for the past few seasons. Eight of 10 Big 12 schools played to 90 percent of capacity and all Big 12 schools played to at least 80 percent capacity in 2013, Burda said. Seven Big 12 schools averaged at least 50,000 fans for their home games.

“We play an exciting game of football in the Big 12, and I think it resonates with fans,” Burda said. “All of our teams are competitive and everybody plays everybody. You don’t win a championship in the Big 12 because of who is not on your schedule. You have to play everybody, and that resonates with fans as well -- to see your team play the best teams in the Big 12, year in and year out.”

Big 12 spring practice dates

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
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Spring football is just around the corner.

The reigning conference champions will get things started for the Big 12 when Baylor begins spring practice in 18 days. The majority of the Big 12 will start spring practice in early March with Kansas State as the last team to get started with spring drills on April 2.

These dates are subject to change by the individual schools, but here are the spring practice dates to know in the Big 12.

Baylor

Spring practice begins: Feb. 28

Spring game: April 5

Iowa State

Spring practice begins: March 10

Spring game: April 12

Kansas

Spring practice begins: March 4

Spring game: April 12

Kansas State

Spring practice begins: April 2

Spring game: April 26

Oklahoma

Spring practice begins: March 8

Spring game: April 12

Oklahoma State

Spring practice begins: March 10

Spring game: April 12

Texas

Spring practice begins: March 18

Spring game: April 19

TCU

Spring practice begins: March 1

Spring game: TBA

Texas Tech

Spring practice begins: March 5

Spring game: April 12

West Virginia

Spring practice begins: March 2

Spring game: April 12

Of the five major conferences, the Big 12 had the fewest players leave early for the NFL draft with only three. The departures of those three players, however, leave massive holes in their former offenses.

Below is a breakdown of those three players and who will be counted on to fill their shoes:

[+] EnlargeJosh Stewart
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsJosh Stewart's decision to go pro might not result in an early selection.
Leaving: Oklahoma State WR Josh Stewart

The replacement: Tyreek Hill

In a mild surprise, Stewart elected to go pro, even though he was given a Day 3 (fourth through seventh rounds) draft grade. Stewart might not get drafted high, but he has been a critical piece on the Oklahoma State offense as a dynamic slot receiver the past three years.

Due to inconsistent quarterbacking early in the season and a foot injury late, Stewart finished with only 60 receptions for 707 and three touchdowns. Stewart still ranked eighth in the Big 12 in receiving. But the season before, he had 101 receptions for 1,287 yards and seven touchdowns. Stewart’s numbers were down, but he was still Oklahoma State’s top playmaker, both as a receiver and a returner (Stewart was fourth nationally in punt returns).

The good news is the Cowboys might have just the player to replace him. Hill is the No. 4-rated junior college player in the country out of Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Hill had offers from Alabama, Florida State and USC, and Texas made an especially strong push to land him late, but Hill ultimately stuck with his commitment to Oklahoma State and signed with the Cowboys.

The 5-foot-8, 190-pound Hill was a running back in junior college, but the Cowboys plan to use him as a slot receiver. Hill has run the 100 meters in 10.19 seconds, which would make him one of the fastest players in college football.

Hill has the speed and the moves. If he can consistently catch the ball, the Cowboys could have yet another dangerous playmaker operating out of the slot -- and as a punt returner -- next season.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesShock Linwood has already played a key role in Baylor's rushing attack.
Leaving: Baylor RB Lache Seastrunk

The replacement: Shock Linwood

Seastrunk went into this season on the short list of Heisman contenders. While he was never a threat to win the Heisman, Seastrunk still led the Big 12 with 1,117 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns and an average of 7.45 yards per carry as Baylor led the nation in scoring and captured the school’s first Big 12 title.

Even with Seastrunk bolting early for the draft, the Bears figure to feature another prolific offense next season, thanks to the return of quarterback Bryce Petty and wideout Antwan Goodley. If Linwood performs the way he did as Seastrunk’s replacement last season, then the Bears' offense might not miss a beat.

After gashing defenses in mop-up time, Linwood finally got meaningful snaps in a prime-time Thursday matchup with Oklahoma in early November. When Seastrunk strained his groin and Glasco Martin suffered a knee injury, Linwood took over in the Baylor backfield and the Sooners had no answer for him. Linwood cut his way to 182 rushing yards on 23 carries, with most of his damage coming in the second half as the Bears coasted to a 41-12 win.

Linwood followed that up with 187 yards in Baylor’s 63-34 victory over Texas Tech the next week. As a result, despite being Baylor’s third-team tailback, Linwood still finished sixth in the Big 12 in rushing and averaged 6.88 yards per carry, second in the league only to Seastrunk.

With Seastrunk and Martin gone for good, Linwood will be the featured back, and he has the talent and skill to put up huge numbers over an entire season.

Leaving: Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro

The replacement: Jakeem Grant

There was no player like Amaro in college football this season. The unanimous All-American had 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns. He was too fast for linebackers; too strong for defensive backs.

The Red Raiders obviously don’t have anyone resembling Amaro’s skill set on their roster. But they do have an inside receiver in Grant who has the talent to replace some of that production.

As a sophomore this season, Grant hauled in 65 passes for 796 yards and seven touchdowns. The 5-foot-6, 160-pound dynamo was also fifth in the Big 12 in plays of 20 yards or more.

Due to some immaturity, Grant was benched for Texas Tech’s regular-season finale against Texas. But he got coach Kliff Kingsbury’s message and responded with 125 all-purpose yards, including six receptions for 89 yards and two touchdowns, in the Red Raiders’ 37-23 upset of Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl.

Grant probably won’t be able to replicate what Amaro accomplished this season. But his unique quickness and speed could make Grant one of the best playmakers in the Big 12 in 2014.
It’s never too early to start talking about the Heisman. After all, the past two Heisman winners, Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston, were redshirt freshman who had zero college experience before their Heisman season. The Big 12 should have plenty of candidates, some known and some unknown, heading into the 2014.

Here’s a look at the Big 12’s top five Heisman candidates heading into 2014.

[+] EnlargeBryce Petty
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsBryce Petty, one of the nation's top QBs this season, returns to lead Baylor's high-flying offense and could be on Heisman short lists in 2014.
1. Quarterback Bryce Petty, Baylor: The Bears quarterback should continue to spark nightmares for Big 12 defensive coordinators. He’s confident, accurate and efficient while triggering the Baylor offense. His 16.8 yards per completion was a full yard better than Winston and led all FBS quarterbacks.

Petty’s 85.5 adjusted QBR was fifth nationally this season, and he should be even better with a full season under his belt. Top target Antwan Goodley returns as well, so the Big 12’s top quarterback-receiver duo remains intact, and there’s no reason to think Big 12 teams will have any answers for the Bears’ pair in 2014. If Baylor has another impressive run to the top of the conference standings, Petty could find himself making a similar run toward the top of Heisman ballots.

2. Receiver Tyler Lockett, Kansas State: Simply put, Lockett is K-State’s passing offense. He accounted for 43.2 percent of the Wildcats’ receiving yards and 50 percent of their receiving touchdowns while finishing with 81 receptions for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013.

Lockett could easily be considered the Big 12’s most valuable offensive player, as his quickness, route running and consistency make him tough to contain. His progression from accomplished return threat to polished receiver has been remarkable. If he continues that progression, and the Wildcats win a bunch of games, he could insert himself into the Heisman conversation.

3. Receiver Antwan Goodley, Baylor: At Oklahoma State in 2011, Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon's combined brilliance tended to dull the shine on their individual accomplishments as the natural question emerged: Would they be as productive without each other? We could see a similar situation developing at Baylor with Petty and Goodley.

Goodley is the Big 12’s toughest cover, as his size, speed and strength combine to manhandle even the best defensive backs. Goodley had 71 receptions for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns, with 100-yard games in eight of 13 contests. If Baylor makes a run at its second straight Big 12 title, Goodley could be in the middle of it. And if he has a Heisman moment or two in the Bears’ biggest games, he could earn some Heisman love.

4. Running back Johnathan Gray, Texas: If the Longhorns’ best running back returns to good health, he could become the breakout star in the Big 12 during Charlie Strong’s first season. Strong keeps speaking of toughness as a priority for his program, which means running the football will be a focus, particularly with Joe Wickline calling plays. And Gray could be the beneficiary of that focus with his quick feet and playmaking skills.

If Gray has a setback during his recovery from his Achilles injury, Malcolm Brown could find himself in the Heisman mix as Gray’s replacement since he’s very talented in his own right and someone will have to tote the rock for Wickline’s offense.

5. Quarterback Davis Webb, Texas Texas: When you actually step back and take a closer look at Webb’s numbers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Red Raiders quarterback meeting room has resembled a Baltimore corner when someone yells, "Omar comin'" during an episode of HBO’s “The Wire.”

Webb ranked No. 12 nationally with a 82.6 adjusted QBR this season, ahead of Braxton Miller, Teddy Bridgewater and Tajh Boyd, among others. And he did it as a true freshman. Now, with the departures of Baker Mayfield and Michael Brewer, Webb is poised to be the main man throwing darts in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, which should be among the Big 12’s top passing units again after ending the 2013 season second among FBS teams (392.89 passing yards per game). The clear dark horse on this list, it wouldn't be shocking to watch Webb rise to the top if the Red Raiders end up in the middle of the Big 12 title race.

Big 12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Jan 14
11:35
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The college football season is over, and what a season it was. Picked fifth in the preseason, Baylor won its first Big 12 championship. Oklahoma, left for dead in early November, rose out of the ashes to win 11 games. Oklahoma State had some of the most puzzling losses and most dominant wins, as well. And Texas, well, the soap opera is finally over.

Here’s a look back at the 2013 season with our Best of the Big 12:

[+] EnlargeBob Stoops
Chuck Cook/USA TODAY SportsBob Stoops and Trevor Knight delivered the Big 12 a signature BCS win in 2013.
Best coach: Art Briles, Baylor. Bob Stoops deserves a bunch of credit for how his Sooners surged late in the season, but Briles' leading Baylor to its first Big 12 championship was no small feat. The Bears led the nation in scoring, and beat Oklahoma and Texas convincingly. The bowl game was disappointing. The season overall was not.

Best player, offense: Even though he cooled off later in the year, Baylor’s Bryce Petty still finished fifth nationally in QBR in his first season as a starting quarterback. He threw 32 touchdown passes and did a masterful job taking care of the ball, tossing only three interceptions.

Best player, defense: There wasn’t really anyone who clearly stood out here. TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State linebacker Caleb Lavey, Kansas State defensive end Ryan Mueller and Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey all had their moments. Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, however, was the only defensive player from the league to win a national award. He was given the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the defensive end of the year in college football. Jeffcoat tied for third nationally with 13 sacks.

Best moment: The league has been waiting for a signature victory to hang its hat on. Oklahoma finally gave the Big 12 that victory in the Allstate Sugar Bowl with a stunning 45-31 win over Alabama. Behind freshman quarterback Trevor Knight, the Sooners controlled the game from the second quarter on. Defensively, linebacker Eric Striker and end Geneo Grissom were unblockable, combining for five sacks of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. Offensively, Knight carved up the Crimson Tide for 348 passing yards and four touchdowns. It wasn’t even that Alabama played poorly. It was that Oklahoma played terrifically.

Best rivalry game: Maybe new Texas coach Charlie Strong will bring some more juice to the Red River Rivalry. Lately, it’s been second fiddle to Bedlam. In quality. In drama. In impact. Once again, Bedlam carried major Big 12 title implications, and once again, the game delivered a thrilling ending. Backup quarterback Blake Bell found Jalen Saunders in the corner of the end zone with 19 seconds remaining for the Sooners’ first offensive touchdown of the game, lifting Oklahoma to a win and spoiling Oklahoma State’s shot at a Big 12 title.

Best play: Late in the third quarter of Kansas State’s game against Baylor, Mueller stripped Petty while simultaneously recovering the fumble near the sideline. The acrobatic play gave K-State good field position in Baylor territory, and the Wildcats would go on to take a 25-21 lead. Baylor ultimately outlasted the Wildcats, but Mueller, who also had two sacks in the game, was a big reason why the Bears' high-powered offense was held in check most of the afternoon.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Jasen VinloveUSA TODAY SportsKansas State's Tyler Lockett had seven 100-yard receiving games this season, including two games with more than 200 yards receiving.
Best performance in a loss: The Wildcats eventually lost, but K-State receiver Tyler Lockett could not be covered by the Sooners in their game in late November. Lockett kept the Wildcats in the game, reeling in 12 catches for 278 yards and three touchdowns, prompting Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops to go ballistic on the sideline multiple times. Lockett was also a monster against Texas and Michigan. All told, he totaled 35 catches, 631 yards and six touchdowns against those three programs alone.

Best individual defensive performance: Mueller against Baylor, Verrett shutting down Baylor wideout Antwan Goodley, and Gilbert picking off Texas twice all deserve honorable mention. But Striker gets the nod for wreaking havoc on the two-time defending national champ in New Orleans. Striker had three sacks and forced a fumble after barreling around the edge to slam into McCarron’s blind side. The ball popped loose and Grissom returned the fumble for the game-winning touchdown.

Best true freshman: Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb had to split time with fellow true freshman Baker Mayfield for most of the season. When Mayfield left unexpectedly in December, the job was finally Webb’s to run with. And run he did. Actually, he threw. Against No. 14 Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl, Webb completed 28 of 41 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions in one of this year’s best bowl performances from a quarterback. Webb had a solid freshman season, leading the Red Raiders to fourth-quarter wins over TCU and West Virginia. But if the bowl was any indication, the best is yet to come.

Best quote: “So much for the big bad wolf, huh?” -- Bob Stoops, after the Sooners defeated Alabama.

Big 12 all-BCS-era team

January, 13, 2014
Jan 13
10:00
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After 16 years, the BCS era is finally over. Next season, college football will have a playoff instead.

With the BCS done, we've come up with our Big 12 all-BCS era team (1998-2013) below:

Offense

[+] EnlargeVince Young
Scott Clarke/Getty ImagesWith Vince Young at the helm, Texas won a national title and Rose Bowl.
QB: Vince Young, Texas (2003-05) -- Young led Texas to its first national title in 35 years with an unforgettable performance in the Rose Bowl against USC. The Heisman runner-up also became the first QB in college football history to throw for 3,000 yards and run for 1,000 in the same season.

RB: Ricky Williams, Texas (1998) -- Williams was part of the BCS era for only one season, but what a season it was. He rushed for 2,327 yards and won the Heisman Trophy going away. Only Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne has more career rushing yards than Williams (6,279).

RB: Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma (2004-06) -- Despite battling injuries throughout his career, Peterson still was a beast in college. After rushing for 1,925 yards while leading the Sooners to the national title game, he finished second in the ’04 Heisman voting, even though there was still a stigma then in voting for a freshman.

WR: Michael Crabtree, Texas Tech (2007-08) -- Crabtree became the first two-time winner of the Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation’s top receiver. In '08, he and QB Graham Harrell led the Red Raiders to an upset of Texas and a No. 2 ranking in the polls.

WR: Justin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (2009-11) -- Blackmon became the second and only other two-time winner of the Biletnikoff. In his final two seasons, he finished with 233 receptions, 3,304 receiving yards and 38 touchdowns, and he helped propel the Cowboys to their first Big 12 title in '11.

TE: Chase Coffman, Missouri (2005-08) -- Coffman had a monster statistical college career for a tight end with 247 catches for 2,659 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns. He won the ’08 Mackey Award, given to the nation’s top tight end. Missouri won 37 games during the four years Coffman was in the lineup.

OT: Jammal Brown, Oklahoma (2001-04) -- Brown was a unanimous All-American and a three-time All-Big 12 selection. He became the fifth Sooner to win the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation’s top interior lineman.

OT: Russell Okung, Oklahoma State (2007-09) -- In Okung’s final two seasons, Oklahoma State led the Big 12 in rushing yards. The Cowboys were also third in the country in ’07 in fewest sacks allowed with Okung at left tackle. He was a unanimous All-American and Outland finalist in ’09 and became the sixth overall pick in the ’10 NFL draft.

OG: Cyril Richardson, Baylor (2010-13) -- Richardson became Baylor’s seventh all-time unanimous All-American. The Outland finalist was also a key piece on the nation’s highest-scoring offense this season.

OG: Justin Blalock, Texas (2003-06) -- Though a guard in the NFL, Blalock actually started 50 games for Texas, most coming at right tackle. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a consensus All-American in 2006.

C: Dominic Raiola, Nebraska (1998-2000) -- Raiola was the inaugural winner of the Rimington Award, named after former Nebraska center Dave Rimington, which recognizes the best center in college football. He was an Outland finalist and a consensus All-American.

APB: Darren Sproles, Kansas State (2001-04) -- One of the most prolific all-purpose performers in college football history, Sproles finished his career with 6,812 all-purpose yards. Among his 39 consecutive starts, his most memorable performance came in the ’03 Big 12 championship, when he had 235 yards rushing and 88 receiving, as K-State upset top-ranked Oklahoma 35-7.

Defense

DE: Brian Orakpo, Texas (2005-08) -- Orakpo captured the ’08 Nagurski Award as the most outstanding defensive player in the country, and the Lombardi Award, given to the best college lineman or linebacker. He also was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus All-American while piling up 11 sacks his senior year.

DE: Von Miller, Texas A&M (2007-10) -- Out of a hybrid defensive end/linebacker role, Miller led the nation with 17 sacks in ’09. He was a two-time All-American and won the Butkus Award in ’10 as the nation’s top linebacker.

DT: Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska (2005-09) -- There was no more dominant defensive player in college football during the BCS era. Suh finished fourth in the Heisman voting in ’09 and won several national awards, including the Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski (most outstanding defensive player)and Bednarik (defensive player of the year). He was also a unanimous All-American and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.

DT: Tommie Harris, Oklahoma (2001-03) -- Harris was a force from the beginning as a freshman on the OU defensive line. He won the Lombardi his junior year, and he was a two-time consensus All-American, garnering unanimous honors in ’03.

LB: Derrick Johnson, Texas (2001-04) -- Johnson was a menacing linebacker for the Longhorns, earning consensus All-American honors in ’03 and unanimous honors in ’04. He was also a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection, and won the Butkus (best linebacker) and Nagurski awards as a senior. Johnson finished his career with 458 tackles.

LB: Rocky Calmus, Oklahoma (1998-2001) -- Calmus played a major role in OU’s resurgence under Bob Stoops. He won the Butkus in ’01 and was a finalist for the Nagurski and Bednarik. A three-time All-Big 12 pick, Calmus led the Sooners in tackles in all three of those seasons.

LB: Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma (2000-03) -- Lehman too won the Butkus, beating out Johnson for the award in ’03. He also was Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, captured the Bednarik, was a unanimous All-American and played in two national championship games.

[+] EnlargeTavon Austin
Justin K. Aller/Getty ImagesWest Virginia receiver and returner Tavon Austin had a huge 2012 season.
CB: Terence Newman, Kansas State (1999-2002) -- Newman was a solid player for Bill Snyder his first three seasons, then broke out as a senior. Newman was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American and the Thorpe winner, given to college football’s top defensive back.

CB: Derrick Strait, Oklahoma (2000-03) -- A four-year starter, Strait finished with a school-record 52 career pass breakups. He also won the Thorpe, and was a unanimous All-American.

S: Roy Williams, Oklahoma (1999-2001) -- Nicknamed “Superman,” Williams was the Big 12’s most dominating defensive player until Suh came along. He won the Thorpe and Nagurski in ’01, and was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a unanimous All-American the same season. He also famously skied over the Texas offensive line to force the game-clinching interception to earn his moniker.

S: Michael Huff, Texas (2002-05) -- Huff became the first Longhorn to win the Thorpe, and was the leader of the ’05 national championship defense. He was also a unanimous All-American that season.

Special teams

K: Mason Crosby, Colorado (2003-06) -- Crosby was three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection, and twice was a consensus All-American even though he never won the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation's top kicker. He was also the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year as a junior, and converted 66 field goals in his career.

P: Quinn Sharp, Oklahoma State (2009-12) -- Sharp became the first three-time All-American in Oklahoma State history, and he earned All-American honors both as a punter and a kicker. He was twice named the Big 12 Special Teams Player of the Year. In his career, he made 50 of 59 field goals, averaged 45.9 yards per punt and missed only one extra point.

KR: Tavon Austin, West Virginia (2012) -- Austin was in the Big 12 only one season, but he was unstoppable that one season. On top of being one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country, Austin had 1,289 yards receiving and 643 rushing, and finished second in the country in all-purpose yards.

PR: Ryan Broyles Oklahoma (2008-11) -- On top of being a prolific punt returner, Broyles was one of the most efficient receivers in college football history. He finished his career with an FBS-record 349 receptions, and was a two-time consensus All-American before a knee injury cut his senior season short.
It could have been an ugly bowl season for the Big 12.

Instead, the conference held its own during the season finale, finishing 3-3 in six bowl games, including 1-1 in BCS contests. The SEC led the way among automatic-qualifying conferences with a 7-3 record, followed by a 6-3 mark from the Pac-12, with the Big 12 third, then the ACC (5-6) and Big Ten (2-5).

[+] EnlargeHead coach Bob Stoops of the Oklahoma Sooners
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter Bob Stoops and Oklahoma celebrated a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, it was obvious the Big 12 had a better bowl season than expected.
The Big 12’s national reputation needed a boost -- and it got it with Oklahoma’s Allstate Sugar Bowl win over SEC power Alabama and Texas Tech’s National University Holiday Bowl victory over a 10-win Arizona State squad from the Pac-12.

The eerie silence around Norman, Okla., is Bob Stoops still awaiting the “S-E-C, S-E-C” chant that many expected to rain down upon his Sooners when OU was matched with the Crimson Tide. Outside of BCS champion Florida State, OU was the story of the bowl season thanks to its 45-31 upending of Alabama. And somewhere Stoops is still smiling. His team validated his words about quality quarterback play against SEC defenses; redshirt freshman Trevor Knight validated Stoops' confidence in naming him the starter before the season; and his defense validated the decision to move from a 4-3 to 3-4 with strong performances throughout the year. Nobody had a better bowl experience than Stoops and Co.

Baylor entered the bowl season as the conference's lone clear favorite, with the Big 12 champions expected to take care of business against UCF in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. But Blake Bortles and the Knights had other ideas, upsetting the Bears 52-42 and knocking the Big 12’s reputation back a step in the process. To see the Big 12 champions fall, and look defenseless doing so, kept the bowl season from being an exceptional few weeks for the conference.

Texas Tech could be the overlooked surprise of the conference with its 37-23 win over Arizona State, which finished the season with a loss in the Pac-12 title game. The Red Raiders entered the contest with shaken confidence, having lost five straight games to close out the regular season, yet were undeterred, jumping on the Sun Devils from the outset and dominating the game with a stellar quarterback performance from freshman Davis Webb.

Kansas State took care of business against Michigan and its true freshman quarterback, Shane Morris, cruising to a 31-14 win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl and snapping its five-game bowl losing streak to join the Sooners and Red Raiders in the win column. And Big 12 secondaries can feel better about themselves, because a Big Ten foe couldn’t seem to stop Tyler Lockett, either.

Oklahoma State’s AT&T Cotton Bowl loss to Missouri wasn’t a surprise in a game that was tough to pick as soon as it was announced. The Cowboys had opportunities to win, but ultimately came up short thanks to Missouri’s ability to consistently force OSU’s offense into game-changing mistakes.

And Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl ... um, well, it was good to see Mack Brown walk off the field to cheers after his final game in burnt orange despite a 30-7 thrashing at the hands of Oregon.

Ultimately it was a terrific bowl season for a conference that needed it. OU reminded the nation it can play with anyone, an upstart Tech knocked off a 10-win team, Bill Snyder finally got to end his season with a bowl victory, and future Big 12 stars may have emerged at the quarterback position in Knight and Webb.

Did the Big 12 prove to be the best conference in the nation? No. But it proved to be better than many people thought it was when the season kicked off in August.

Big 12 all-bowl team

January, 9, 2014
Jan 9
9:00
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The Big 12 had some memorable bowl performances, and some not-so-memorable ones. Below, we honor the memorable ones with the Big 12's all-bowl team:

OFFENSE

QB: Trevor Knight, Oklahoma. Texas Tech’s Davis Webb and Kansas State’s Jake Waters were marvelous, too, but Knight was simply incredible, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the two-time defending national champs.

RB: Malcolm Brown, Texas. Brown did everything he could to keep the Longhorns in the Valero Alamo Bowl, rushing for 130 yards on 26 carries. Unfortunately, he had little help from the rest of the offense.

[+] EnlargeTyler Lockett
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesTyler Lockett proved just as much a handful for Michigan as he does Big 12 teams.
RB: John Hubert, Kansas State. In his final game at K-State, Hubert went out with a bang, rushing for 80 yards and a touchdown as the Wildcats rolled Michigan.

WR: Tyler Lockett, Kansas State. The Wolverines became the next team unable to guard Lockett, who had another stellar outing with 10 catches, 116 yards and three touchdowns. Big 12 defensive backs cannot be looking forward to this guy coming back next season.

WR: Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma. Saunders hauled in two of Knight’s touchdown passes, the second a 43-yarder coming off a gorgeous double move that gave OU the lead for good.

TE: Jace Amaro, Texas Tech. Amaro became the NCAA's all-time single season tight end record holder for receptions and receiving yards, reeling in eight catches for 112 yards against the Sun Devils before revealing he would be turning pro.

OT: Bronson Irwin, Oklahoma. Irwin held up remarkably well against Alabama’s mighty front in his first career start at right tackle, as Knight was sacked only once. Irwin, a guard his entire career, had to move outside because of an injury to Tyrus Thompson.

OT: Le'Raven Clark, Texas Tech. Webb attempted 41 passes and wasn’t sacked once. Clark was a big reason.

OG: Cody Whitehair, Kansas State. The Wildcats moved the ball at will against Michigan. Along with Clark, Whitehair is one of the best young returning offensive linemen in the league.

OG: Beau Carpenter, Texas Tech. After missing three straight games with a concussion, Carpenter returned to help shut down Arizona State All-American DT Will Sutton, who basically was a non-factor.

C: Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma. Even with a makeshift offensive line, OU somehow won the battle in the trenches against Alabama. Ikard, an All-American and quarterback of the line, deserves a ton of credit for keeping the line together.

DEFENSE

DE: Geneo Grissom, Oklahoma. Grissom was a man possessed against the Crimson Tide. The former tight end had two sacks and two fumble recoveries, the latter of which he returned for a touchdown to clinch the Sooners’ victory.

DT: Calvin Barnett, Oklahoma State. Despite the loss, Barnett tied a career high with five tackles and one sack and repeatedly found his way into the Missouri backfield.

DT: Dartwan Bush, Texas Tech. The Red Raiders desperately missed Bush late in the regular season. His performance against Arizona State underscored why, as Bush delivered three tackles and a sack and freed up Kerry Hyder to make plays, too.

[+] EnlargeEric Striker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesSooners LB Eric Striker sacked AJ McCarron three times in the Sugar Bowl.
DE: Jimmy Bean, Oklahoma State. Bean had a breakout game in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, with a career-high seven tackles, including three for loss.

LB: Eric Striker, Oklahoma. Not even Alabama could block Striker off the edge. Striker had a monster performance against the Tide with seven tackles and three sacks, with his final sack forcing the game-clinching fumble in the final minute of the fourth quarter.

LB: Will Smith, Texas Tech. The senior had a National University Holiday Bowl-high 14 tackles, as the Red Raiders held Arizona State 17 points below its season average.

LB: Blake Slaughter, Kansas State. One of the better linebackers in the Big 12 all year, Slaughter had another fine game in the desert with seven tackles, including one for loss, as Michigan’s offense was held in check all night.

CB: Aaron Colvin, Oklahoma. The Sooners gave up some big plays in the passing game, but Colvin was the exception. He also had a critical, touchdown-saving tackle in the first quarter that resulted in Alabama having to settle for a field goal.

CB: Demetri Goodson, Baylor. The Bears gave up 52 points, but they might have given up more had Goodson not collected an acrobatic interception inside the Baylor 5-yard line.

S: Dante Barnett, Kansas State. Barnett led the Wildcats with eight tackles, and he delivered the exclamation point against Michigan with a 51-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.

S: Tanner Jacobson, Texas Tech. In his last college game for a while, the walk-on freshman had a very solid performance with seven tackles. Jacobson is leaving the program for a two-year Mormon mission to Bolivia.

SPECIAL TEAMS

K: Michael Hunnicutt, Oklahoma. “Moneycutt” nailed a season-long 47-yard field goal in the second quarter that allowed OU to keep momentum. It was the third-longest field goal of his career.

P: Spencer Roth, Baylor. One of the few bright spots for Baylor in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl was its punter, who was busier than he had been all season. Roth averaged almost 44 yards on seven punts, and pinned UCF inside the 20-yard line three times.

Returner: Reginald Davis, Texas Tech. After Arizona State had trimmed Tech’s lead to 27-20 early in the third quarter, Davis answered on the ensuing kickoff with a 90-yard touchdown return down the sideline. The Sun Devils failed to retake the momentum again the rest of the game.
Immediately after the national championship game, colleague Mark Schlabach released his Way-Too-Early Top 25. In concert, below is our Way-Too-Early Big 12 power poll. This could change between now and the end of the spring. In fact, it probably will. But this is a first look at how the Big 12 teams stack up against one another for 2014:

1. Oklahoma Sooners

In the Allstate Sugar Bowl, freshman Trevor Knight finally played like the quarterback that had been drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel behind Oklahoma’s closed practices. The Sooners lose some cornerstone players to graduation, notably running back Brennan Clay, center Gabe Ikard, receiver Jalen Saunders and cornerback Aaron Colvin. But with Knight and budding running back Keith Ford returning to man the backfield, and nine starters coming back defensively, including menacing outside linebacker Eric Striker, Oklahoma could be a favorite in every game next season -- and a force once again on the national stage.

2. Baylor Bears

Even with running back Lache Seastrunk going pro, the Bears return plenty of firepower offensively. Bryce Petty will be the reigning All-Big 12 quarterback, and Antwan Goodley will be coming off a monster junior season. Rising sophomore Shock Linwood showed he could shoulder the rushing load, too, when Seastrunk and Glasco Martin were banged up late in the season. The Bears, however, could take a step back defensively. Baylor, which got torched for 52 points in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, loses six starters there, including All-American safety Ahmad Dixon and All-Big 12 linebacker Eddie Lackey. Former blue-chip defensive tackle recruit Andrew Billings will need to step up and become more of a force. Even if the defense stumbles, Baylor should be capable of scoring enough points to win every game on its schedule, thanks to coach Art Briles being back on its sidelines.

3. Kansas State Wildcats

Along with Missouri, the Wildcats were the first two teams left out of Schlabach’s Top 25. But they make a compelling case for inclusion. Quarterback Jake Waters improved dramatically during the second half of the season, eventually squeezing Daniel Sams out of the QB rotation. Wideout Tyler Lockett could be a preseason All-American, after torching Texas, Oklahoma and Michigan for a combined 631 receiving yards and six touchdowns. The defense should be better, too, with sack artist Ryan Mueller back at end, and rising junior safety Dante Barnett set to take over for the outgoing Ty Zimmerman as leader of the secondary. The Wildcats will be tested early with national runner-up Auburn visiting Manhattan on Sept. 20. If K-State can win that game, the rest of the Big 12 will be on notice.

4. Texas Longhorns

During his introductory news conference on Monday, new Texas coach Charlie Strong said Mack Brown left him with a team that could win right away. Strong might be right. The Longhorns return eight starters off a defense that found its stride under interim coordinator Greg Robinson. Texas also brings back six starters offensively and its entire running back corps, including Malcolm Brown, who rushed for more than 100 yards in the Valero Alamo Bowl. A big part of Mack Brown’s downfall, however, was quarterback play, and that once again will be a huge question mark in Strong’s first season. David Ash sat out most of this season with concussion issues, making his football future tenuous. Tyrone Swoopes is athletic with a big arm but needs polish. The other option will be incoming freshman Jerrod Heard, who just led his high school team to a Texas state championship. If one of those three emerges, Strong could have Texas on the way back ahead of schedule.

5. Oklahoma State Cowboys

The Cowboys were 19 seconds away from playing in a BCS bowl game. But two losses to end the year soured what could have been a stellar season. Now, Oklahoma State must replace the bulk of its team, including quarterback Clint Chelf and seven starters defensively. Star slot receiver Josh Stewart is also reportedly mulling over leaving early, too. Either way, 2014 will be a retooling season for coach Mike Gundy, whose first order of business will be settling on a quarterback. J.W. Walsh, who started the first half of the season before losing the job back to Chelf, would have to be considered the favorite. But Gundy has shown before he’s not afraid of turning the keys of the offense to a true freshman, and the Cowboys have an intriguing freshman QB enrolling for the spring in Mason Rudolph, who threw 64 touchdown passes this fall as a high school senior in South Carolina. That could result in some growing pains for Oklahoma State, which opens the season against defending national champion Florida State. But if Rudolph proves to be the long-term answer at QB, it shouldn’t be more than a year before the Cowboys are contending in the Big 12 again.

6. Texas Tech Red Raiders

Texas Tech completely changed the tenor of its offseason with a dominating 37-23 win over Pac-12 South Division champ Arizona State in the National University Holiday Bowl. Finally healthy again, the Red Raiders showed they were better than a five-game losing streak to end the regular season indicated. Now, Tech returns eight starters offensively, including quarterback Davis Webb, who torched the Sun Devils and had several other encouraging moments as a true freshman. Tech has to replace most of its defense. But if Webb settles in at quarterback, the Red Raiders should be improved in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s second season in Lubbock.

7. TCU Horned Frogs

TCU was the 2013 preseason pick of many people to win the Big 12. Instead, injuries ravaged the roster, and the Horned Frogs failed to go to a bowl game for just second time with Gary Patterson as coach. Patterson shook up his offensive staff after the season, bringing in Houston’s Doug Meacham and Texas Tech’s Sonny Cumbie as co-coordinators to revamp TCU’s offensive attack. TCU should be stout again defensively, especially if 2012 Big 12 defensive freshman of the year Devonte Fields returns to form from a broken foot. But the key to a better season will be whether Meacham and Cumbie can squeeze more offense out of the Horned Frogs and find the answer at quarterback. The answer, however, might not be on campus yet. Trevone Boykin has 15 career QB starts, but is probably a better fit as a receiver. Meanwhile, TCU’s top incoming recruits, Foster Sawyer and Grayson Muehlstein, are both quarterbacks, and could factor into the wide-open competition.

8. Iowa State Cyclones

Even though Iowa State just finished in the bottom three of the Big 12 in points per game (24.8), yards per game (363), yards per play (4.82), rushing yards (143.8) and passing yards (219.2), the Cyclones return some offensive firepower. Tailback Aaron Wimberly was effective when healthy, and Quenton Bundrage flashed signs of a legit No. 1 receiver. The key will be QB, and whether Grant Rohach builds on his late-season surge. But with a proven offensive coordinator in Mark Mangino now on board, the Cyclones have the pieces to form one of the better offenses in the league next season.

9. West Virginia Mountaineers

The Mountaineers careened off the road late this season with back-to-back losses to Kansas and Iowa State. Now, the pressure is on coach Dana Holgorsen, who will have to win games to keep his job even though the 2014 schedule is brutal. Like so many other teams in the Big 12, West Virginia must find a solution at quarterback. Holgorsen has options. Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress are all back after getting at least two starts apiece last year. Junior-college transfer Skyler Howard will be enrolling early and joining the fray. Four-star recruit William Crest will be in the mix, too. Even if Holgorsen finds his answer at quarterback, a winning season won’t come easy. The Mountaineers have one of the toughest schedules in the country, beginning with the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Alabama in Atlanta.

10. Kansas Jayhawks

Kansas showed only modest improvement in Charlie Weis’ second season as head coach. This will be a key season for Weis as he attempts to rebuild the program. He desperately needs Montell Cozart to develop into the answer at quarterback. Cozart still has a ways to go with his passing, but he showed he could hurt defenses with his legs. Defensively, the Jayhawks bring back some solid players, notably linebackers Ben Goodman and Ben Heeney and safety Isaiah Johnson. But Kansas will take the next step only if Cozart -- or somebody else -- emerges at quarterback.

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