<
>

What we learned in the Big 12 this spring

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Spring football, like the season itself, is a time of rebirth and renewal.

From the likeliest BCS challenger to those teams merely hopeful of escaping from the cellar, it's a time to look ahead to later in the season with hope and promise for what could happen.

And it's no different for Big 12 teams after the completion of their spring practices.

In fact, it might be even more anticipated because the Big 12's returning collection of talent looks even better than last season when the conference had an unprecedented hammerlock on the top 15 throughout most of the second half of the season.

After the work this spring, here are some trends we saw across the conference.

Offense again will rule: With eight returning starting quarterbacks from last season, Big 12 offenses looked as if they picked up this spring from last season's arcadelike numbers when the conference accounted for five of the top eight passing offenses and five of the top nine teams nationally in scoring and total offense. The spring showed that we should likely expect more of the same this season.

The two best teams have the two best defenses: Texas and Oklahoma appear to be poised to challenge for the national championship again. They will return quarterbacks who finished 1-2 for the Heisman Trophy. But the biggest reason for the high expectations at both South powers coming out of spring practices is their defensive growth. Oklahoma has nine starters back from last season and might have the nation's most talented and deepest front seven. Texas could conceivably have the nation's top secondary, with consistent two-deep talent at every position. That ability to make consistent defensive stops will be critical for both teams and their title hopes.

If you can't stop them, tweak your defense: Kansas and Kansas State struggled mightily making defensive stops. So it's not surprising that Mark Mangino and Bill Snyder both inserted the 4-2-5 alignment to be their base defensive set. It makes sense in this conference to have as many defensive backs and playmakers on the field as possible. Even Texas is incorporating parts of a five-defensive back set with talented safety Earl Thomas playing as a nickelback. Getting as many fast defensive players on the field as possible makes sense considering all of the talented skill-position people in the league.

Baylor's "Superman" doesn't need to run track: Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin made history last season when he won the conference's 400-meter hurdles only a few weeks after enrolling in school. Despite world-class speed that someday might earn him a shot at the Olympics, Griffin decided to dedicate himself to his football team this spring. It served as a unifier for the Bears, who appear to have a roster talented enough to enable them to challenge for a bowl berth for the first time since 1994. Griffin's diligence at football might get the Bears back in the bowl picture sooner than we all think.

Heavy lifting required for the new head coaches: Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads and Kansas State's Snyder probably have a better appreciation for their rebuilding jobs after gauging the talent of their teams -- or lack thereof -- during the spring. Rhoads vowed at his introductory news conference that his teams would hit opponents as they came off the bus. After only a few practices, Rhoads was blunt when he said his team could use extra practices and needed an infusion of speed to live up to those boasts. Snyder wasn't quite as verbose, but just as busy. As KSU quarterback Carson Coffman appeared to have claimed his No. 1 quarterback job late in spring practice, Snyder quietly attracted former South Florida quarterback Grant Gregory to provide immediate competition at the position and counted the days until heralded junior-college quarterback recruit Daniel Thomas arrives to boost the talent level of his barren team. It looks as if it will be some tough early sledding for both coaches trying to return their programs to respectability.