Even with change, Big 12 stays powerful
The Big 12 will look quite a bit different this season.
Nebraska and Colorado have said their goodbyes, and with that, came worry. Nebraska's departure meant the league was down a national brand and without an elite counterpart to the two powerhouses in the southern half of the league.
Texas and Oklahoma have dominated the league, winning 10 of 15 Big 12 titles and representing the Big 12 South in all but two of the championship games in conference history.
Without Nebraska, could the league be reduced to one nationally relevant game a season? What would be left after Texas and Oklahoma clashed at the State Fair of Texas?
Texas could have made it worse with its historically bad 5-7 season in 2010, its first losing season since 1997.
But the Longhorns' fall came in contrast to a rise of other teams in the league, which produced five team ranked in the final top 25 in 2010.
The Longhorns might take a while to get back, but even with one of the best programs in the league down, the Big 12 could be as good as ever in 2011.
Oklahoma is likely to open the season atop the polls as one of the favorites to win the national title. Oklahoma State and Texas A&M should be in the top 15 and return two of the best offenses in the country.
But even if Texas struggles again, the Big 12's depth should be outstanding.
Missouri could start the season with a cute little number beside its name, while Baylor brings back the core and quarterback of the team that broke the program's 16-year bowl drought this past December.
Texas Tech has the Big 12's longest bowl streak and longest streak of winning seasons. That doesn't figure to change in 2011, and the Red Raiders could see big things soon after coach Tommy Tuberville signed the best recruiting class in school history.
This season, Bedlam has replaced the Big 12 championship as the league's season finale, and it is likely to have serious league title implications and possible relevance in the national title race, perhaps for both Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.
Even when it didn't think it had to, the Big 12 proved in 2010 it could be a balanced, deep league without Texas at the top. With Texas trying to get back on top, that could be the case once again in 2011, regardless of where the Longhorns finish.
What we learned this spring
Major revelations around the league are usually reserved for the fall, but we learned plenty during an eventful spring across the slimmed-down Big 12.
Here are five takeaways from the spring:
1. Texas has a lot of work to do. There's definitely a renewed sense of purpose in Austin, but rebuilding after a 5-7 season in 2010 won't happen overnight. The Longhorns brought in a handful of new coaches, but the offensive personnel is still mostly the same, and that could mean another year without a Big 12 title contender. Mack Brown knows the truth about the Big 12 as much as anyone: A team can't win it without putting up a ton of points.
2. One quarterback competition settled. Most remain. Seth Doege all but locked down the starting spot at Texas Tech, but other than him, it's a lot of guessing elsewhere. Missouri's James Franklin and Kansas State's Collin Klein left their springs atop the depth chart after strong spring games, but they're far from locks to start the season. Meanwhile, Texas, Iowa State and Kansas each have multiple players vying for the starting job.
4. They're doing things differently in Stillwater. Dana Holgorsen is gone, and the Cowboys brought in Todd Monken, most recently the receivers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars. But they didn't bring him in to install his system. He's learning Holgorsen's offense from coach Mike Gundy and his quarterback, Brandon Weeden. It's a unique approach; we'll see whether it pays off in the fall.
5. Long road ahead for the former Big 12 North. Things have gotten tougher for teams from the Big 12 North with the league's new scheduling format. Rarely did teams see Texas and Oklahoma every season, and sometimes they dodged both. No longer. Everyone from the North will see the South's traditional powers every year. The power is clearly leaning toward the South. The bottom three teams in the Big 12 entering next season are all from the former Big 12 North. It could be tough for them to climb with an even tougher schedule.
Best of spring
Now that spring practice is over, it's time to pass out a few awards.
Best spring game performance: Seth Doege, QB, Texas Tech: The Red Raiders' likely new starting quarterback completed 20 of 35 passes for 317 yards and four touchdowns. That capped a solid spring in which Doege did just about everything he could to cement his status as the next Tech quarterback in the fall.
Best spring camp by a freshman: Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri: Despite losing Aldon Smith (the No. 7 overall pick in the NFL draft), Missouri's already-loaded defensive line looks like it has another budding star. Ealy, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound redshirt freshman, will find his way on the field next year.
Best out-of-the-blue performance: Donnie Baggs, LB, Texas A&M: Baggs wasn't a heralded recruit in the Aggies' 2011 class, but he enrolled early and might be called upon in the fall to replace the team's leading tackler, Michael Hodges.
Biggest rising star: Corey Nelson, LB, Oklahoma: Nelson played sparingly as a freshman in 2010, but one of the nation's top recruits in the 2010 class emerged this spring. His play was so impressive, Sooners coach Bob Stoops called him the best player on the defense this spring. Oklahoma is locked in at linebacker heading into 2011, but he'll find a way on the field next year and become a household name before too long.
Most interesting story: Texas gets acquainted: There hasn't been much change at Texas under Mack Brown, but last season's 5-7 campaign necessitated it. This spring, the Longhorns adjusted to six new coaches, including offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin, who loves trick plays, and a defensive coordinator in Manny Diaz who shows up to practice in cleats and flies around in them like he wants his defense to do.
Best "thanks, but no thanks" moment: The Big 12 had just three players leave early, as some of the league's stars returned for another round of spring camp. Oklahoma's Ryan Broyles and Travis Lewis, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden, and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller all stuck around with big hopes for 2011.
Best quote: "We're looking for a guy that's never been 'it' in a game of tag." -- Baylor coach Art Briles, on the Bears' search for a running back to replace Jay Finley.
Big 12 players to watch
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Baylor: Robert Griffin III is back, but can the Bears' defense help them win a big game? For more on the Bears, click here.
Iowa State: Two new receivers could make life easier for whoever wins the quarterback battle. For more on the Cyclones, click here.
Kansas: New faces on defense and at running back could help Kansas compete in 2011. For more on the Jayhawks, click here.
Kansas State: The Wildcats might have found both a quarterback and defensive stud this spring. For more on the Wildcats, click here.
Missouri: With a stout line, defense, for once, might be the name of Missouri's game this fall. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Oklahoma: It might be the favorite, but Oklahoma still has questions. For more on the Sooners, click here.
Oklahoma State: Can a plethora of offensive weapons overcome the loss of a playcaller? For more on the Cowboys, click here.
Texas: After an offseason of change in Austin, is Texas ready to regain its elite status? For more on the Longhorns, click here.
Texas A&M: The Aggies might be Texas' top team. Can they handle the pressure of expectations? For more on the Aggies, click here.
Texas Tech: Seth Doege has grabbed the QB job, but more questions remain. For more on the Red Raiders, click here.
Big 12 Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Oklahoma: The Sooners will gladly carry the burden of national title favorite into the season. With an experienced offensive line returning, along with All-American receiver Ryan Broyles and quarterback Landry Jones, Oklahoma's offense will be one of the nation's best.
2. Oklahoma State: The best season in school history still ended without a Big 12 title. Playmaking quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon are among the nine starters back on offense hoping to build off an 11-win campaign in 2010.
3. Texas A&M: The Wrecking Crew loses its leader in Von Miller, but Ryan Tannehill was one of the hottest QBs in the country at the end of the season and he keeps game-breaking receiver Jeff Fuller. We'll find out in the fall whether the Aggies have truly turned a corner under Mike Sherman.
4. Missouri: For the first time perhaps ever under Gary Pinkel, Missouri's strongest unit could be its defense, specifically a talented, deep defensive line. Experienced running backs and receivers should help whoever wins the fall competition to replace Blaine Gabbert.
5. Baylor: If the Bears are going to be any better than seven wins in 2011, they'll have to do it with defense. Charged with making it happen? New coordinator Phil Bennett. Multitalented quarterback Robert Griffin III returns with one of the Big 12's deepest receiving corps.
6. Texas Tech: There are lots of new faces on offense for the Red Raiders, who lost a pair of quarterbacks, their starting running back and top two receivers. Last season's struggles for a young secondary should pay off this time around.
7. Texas: The Longhorns have to find offensive weapons fast and can't lay all the responsibility on freshman running back Malcolm Brown. The defense is stout, despite an inexperienced secondary, while a three-man quarterback competition should dominate fall camp.
8. Kansas State: The Wildcats have a quarterback competition of their own, but the focus from fans this fall will be on impact transfers Bryce and Arthur Brown. The K-State defense will have to improve under coordinator Chris Cosh to make a bowl game for second consecutive year.
9. Iowa State: This team is getting better, but the schedule isn't getting any easier. The Cyclones will be breaking in a new quarterback and will have to spring a few upsets to qualify for a bowl.
10. Kansas: The Jayhawks looked to upgrade their speed this spring. Linebacker Huldon Tharp will help the defense, but whether KU will be competitive in 2011 remains to be seen. Eight of the nine losses in 2010 were by double digits and five were by more than 20 points.