We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:
Here is everything you need to know about the Big 12:
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1. There's nothing wrong with Bob Stoops sticking up for his own conference. He's wrong, of course. But from his perspective, it's logical to try to temper the enthusiasm surrounding the SEC. The Big 12 is certainly deep with good teams, but the problem is that it may lack any great teams in 2013. Unless you're 100 percent sold on Texas, there are six SEC teams who would be favored to win the Big 12. There are also probably seven Big 12 teams who could sneak into the Top 25 at some point. All of which means the Big 12 race is wide-open and could perhaps be the most exciting in the sport. Just don't expect it to factor into the national championship race.
2. One issue this season is star quarterbacks are nowhere to be found. Four Big 12 quarterbacks threw for 4,000 yards last year; all are gone. Nobody else threw for more than David Ash's 2,699 yards at Texas. That's not to say those yards won't be replaced. This is still an offense-first league, one filled with systems that are conducive to huge numbers and some promising new quarterbacks.
3. Amazingly, the best QB in the league might be Bryce Petty, a first-year starter at Baylor who has thrown 14 passes in his college career. A junior, Petty sat behind Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, then Nick Florence, who threw for 4,309 yards, ran for 568 and accounted for 43 total TDs. That's what happens in Art Briles' offense. The Bears will score points, and they will rack up absurd yardage, both on the ground and through the air. So now it's the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Petty's turn to step behind center, and with the departure of Kendall Wright after 2011 and now Terrance Williams, it's likely time for Tevin Reese to become the team's top downfield threat.
4. The best Big 12 QB we've actually seen is TCU's Casey Pachall. We just haven't seen him play in a while. Two years ago, still in the Mountain West, Pachall completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 2,921 yards with 25 touchdowns and seven picks. As a junior, he appeared poised for a breakout Big 12 debut, and in four games, he threw 10 TDs and one pick and averaged 9.8 yards per attempt. And that was it. Pachall left the team in October after a drunk driving arrest and entered rehab. However, once completing the program, Pachall was allowed to return to the team, and if he continues to be in good standing, it's hard to imagine him not re-taking the starting job from promising but inconsistent sophomore Trevone Boykin, who was unexpectedly thrown into the fire in the middle of his freshman season. (For now, Patterson is keeping the race a secret.)
5. Pachall's return, combined with the addition of Nebraska transfer Aaron Green and the return of Waymon James from a torn ACL at running back, gives the TCU offense a lot of potential. Still, as is usually the case under Patterson, TCU's defense is what will carry it. Despite their 7-6 record, the Horned Frogs finished first in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed, and they'll likely stay atop the league. Not that there haven't been problems. All-Big 12 DE Devonte Fields, who had 10 sacks as a freshman, was suspended two games -- including the much-anticipated opener vs. LSU. He'll at least be back by the time TCU opens Big 12 play, which is not the case for two other key defenders. Linebacker Joel Hasley, the team's leading returning tackler, left the team at the beginning of camp, and cornerback David Jenkins, an LSU transfer, was thrown off the team in June. Throw in the transfer of starting offensive tackle Tayo Fabuluje, and TCU's had a lot of bad news to balance out the returns of Pachall and James.
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The 20 Best Players in the Big 12
1. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
2. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
3. Devonte Fields, DE, TCU
4. Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas
5. Cyril Richardson, G, Baylor
6. Gabe Ikard, C, Oklahoma
7. Calvin Barnett, DT, Oklahoma State
8. Jordan Hicks, LB, Texas
9. Aaron Colvin, CB, Oklahoma
10. Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor
11. Josh Stewart, WR, Oklahoma State
12. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
13. Kerry Hyder, DE, Texas Tech
14. Quandre Diggs, CB, Texas
15. Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
16. Ty Zimmerman, S, Kansas State
17. Cornelius Lucas, OT, Kansas State
18. Eric Ward, WR, Texas Tech
19. Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
20. Bryce Hager, LB, Baylor
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6. The most important defense in the Big 12 last year was Kansas State's, but it's almost all gone. The Wildcats led the league in scoring defense (22.1 points per game) and forced the most turnovers too, but neither number is sustainable, especially with only two starters returning. All-American linebacker Arthur Brown is gone; pass rusher Meshak Williams, who had 11 sacks, is gone; Allen Chapman and Nigel Malone, who totaled 10 interceptions, are gone. There is an absurd amount of production to replace, and while I've learned to never doubt miracle worker Bill Snyder's ability to piece together a roster, surprise everyone and win 10 games … it's just not going to happen this year, even if the Wildcats are still good enough to win eight games.
7. Few coaches have built programs quite like Snyder, and even fewer have done it with such a heavy reliance on junior college talent. But Charlie Weis is attempting to follow in his in-state rival's footsteps at Kansas. Not that it'll work nearly as well, or at all. Weis signed 18 juco players in this year's recruiting class, betting heavily that more mature players with some experience under their belts will help turn things around more quickly. And, hey, perhaps it's good for Weis to bypass early player development, since he had some noted problems with that at his last head coaching stop. Of course, things can't get any worse in Lawrence, as they've lost more and more games every year since the 2007 Orange Bowl run: 8-5 and 5-7 in Mark Mangino's last two years, 3-9 and 2-10 under Turner Gill, 1-11 under Weis. There are some intriguing pieces at least, from BYU transfer Jake Heaps at QB to solid 1,000-yard rusher James Sims, and while their only win came against South Dakota State, they played one-possession games against Rice, Northern Illinois, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech, so all was not totally hopeless.
8. Kansas' chief competition to stay out of last in the Big 12 will be Iowa State. That's partly a measure of the Big 12's depth, because at a program with a low ceiling, Paul Rhoads' run of three bowl games in four years (with .500 records in each of those regular seasons) should be considered fairly successful. Hell, Gene Chizik went 5-19 in two years and got the Auburn job (which was both great and terrible). But while the Cyclones went to a bowl -- a loss to Tulsa -- they weren't particularly good, ranking 92nd in total offense and 94th in total defense, 112th in sacks and on and on. Their leading rusher had 505 yards; their top three receivers are gone; they're breaking in a new QB, Sam Richardson, although he did at least start two games. Rhoads gets the most out of his team, but he'll have his work cut out for him. Still, as always, don't be surprised if the Cyclones surprise somebody (especially if Bad Texas shows up in Ames on a Thursday before the Oklahoma game).
9. Iowa State may hover at or below .500 quietly; West Virginia will do it in a more exciting manner. Last year, I hopped on the West Virginia bandwagon before the season, but its offensive fireworks hit rough patches, and the last thing that could save anyone was the Mountaineers' defense. After a 5-0 start in which Geno Smith was running away with the Heisman, West Virginia finished 7-6 with a depressing blowout loss to Syracuse in a blizzard bowl game. Now Smith is gone, as is 114-catch receiver Stedman Bailey and other 114-catch receiver Tavon Austin. Not that the offense won't be productive, of course. Dana Holgorsen's offenses are always good, and the Mountaineers got some offseason help thanks to the transfers of QB Clint Trickett from Florida State and RB Charles Sims from Houston (he played for Holgorsen there as a freshman). Still, it will be impossible to produce at last year's level with the trio of stars gone, and it's tough to imagine one of the worst defenses in the country getting better enough to put the Mountaineers in the Big 12 race.
10. Holgorsen now has more company in the Big 12's Air Raid family, as fellow Mike Leach disciple Kliff Kingsbury moves on from calling plays for Johnny Manziel to return to Lubbock to take over Texas Tech after a troublesome Tommy Tuberville era. Tuberville's three-year stint was contentious, but it wasn't all bad, with an eight-win season last year in which they played solid defense and had a 4,200-yard passer in Seth Doege. Air Raid teams are rarely known for their defense, but Texas Tech has a solid foundation for Kingsbury to build on, with the added bonus that Red Raiders fans already love him from his successful days as Leach's quarterback. There are playmakers on both sides of the ball, from end Kerry Hyder on defense to receiver Eric Ward and tight end Jace Amaro on offense. The question is which quarterback will put up huge numbers: Sophomore Michael Brewer was expected to get the job, but because of a back injury, we could see freshmen Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield (a walk-on) both play in the opener at SMU.
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Five Heisman Candidates
1. Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
2. David Ash, QB, Texas
3. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
4. Clint Chelf or J.W. Walsh, QB, Oklahoma State
5. Casey Pachall, QB, TCU
Five Breakout Players
1. Bryce Petty, QB, Baylor
2. Johnathan Gray, RB, Texas
3. Daniel Sams or Jake Waters, QB, Kansas State
4. Robbie Rhodes, WR, Baylor
5. Aaron Green, RB, TCU
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11. The Red Raiders are far from the only team juggling quarterbacks. We'll start at Kansas State, where the Wildcats appear to have two good options in top juco transfer Jake Waters and dual-threat sophomore Daniel Sams. In fact, it would be surprising if both don't play in some capacity, especially with home games against North Dakota State, UL Lafayette (which actually should be tricky) and UMass before the season heats up at Texas. Water set a juco record with a 73.3 percent completion rate last year, while Daniel Sams has already made his presence felt as a runner in limited action behind Heisman finalist Collin Klein. Kansas State can't replicate what it had with Klein, but the offense will still be in as solid of hands as one could hope, especially with 191-pound bowling ball running back John Hubert, quick receiver Tyler Lockett and all five offensive line starters still in the mix.
12. Oklahoma State is in similar shape, only better. It had three starting quarterbacks last year, and all of them looked promising. So even though Wes Lunt transferred to Illinois, the Cowboys will be just fine with senior Clint Chelf (15 TDs, six INTs, 60.4 percent) or sophomore J.W. Walsh (13 TDs, three INTs, 66.9 percent). Walsh actually finished fourth nationally in passer rating last year, yet Chelf has been thought to have the edge to start when Oklahoma State opens the season against Mississippi State in Houston. Then again, Mike Gundy announced on Thursday that both will play in the opener, a system that could continue.
13. Of course, no matter who the QB is and no matter who the coordinator is, it appears that Mike Gundy's Oklahoma State offenses will always be good. The Cowboys have finished in the top four in total offense three straight years, despite losing first-round picks Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon last season, and Gundy coordinators Larry Fedora (Southern Miss, North Carolina), Dana Holgorsen (West Virginia) and Todd Monken (Southern Miss) have all moved on to head coaching jobs. So, next up is former D-II Shippensburg coordinator Mike Yurcich, who inherits a productive and experienced unit led by receivers Josh Stewart and Tracy Moore.
14. The Cowboys' neighbors at Oklahoma are dealing with a more surprising quarterback controversy. Everyone naturally assumed that Blake Bell would replace Landry Jones as the starter, given that we've seen a ton of Bell out of the "Belldozer" goal line formation. Bell was a four-star recruit labeled a pro-style QB by Rivals.com, but we actually haven't seen if he can pass yet. Instead, the 252-pounder has mostly played a role in goal-line packages, rushing for 24 touchdowns in two seasons, while throwing only 20 passes. Despite our familiarity with Bell, reports surprisingly surfaced that Bob Stoops might tab redshirt freshman Trevor Knight as starter. And, sure enough, on Thursday Stoops named Knight the starter for the opener against UL Monroe.
15. Stoops has won at least 10 games in 11 of his 14 seasons, so it feels weird to say that Oklahoma may have hit a bit of a lull, especially after two more 10-3 seasons. The Cotton Bowl blowout loss to Texas A&M left a bad taste heading into the offseason, but, as always, the Sooners are Big 12 contenders. Knight will have what may be the Big 12's best line, anchored by center Gabe Ikard, in addition to versatile backs in Damien Williams and Trey Millard and a talented slot receiver in Jalen Saunders. More likely, it's the progress of the young defense, which lost four of its top five tacklers after finishing second to last in the league against the run, that will determine whether Oklahoma is a BCS bowl frontrunner or a middle-of-the-pack Big 12 team. There's not much difference between the two this season.
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1. Baylor (10-2, 7-2)
2. Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2)
3. Texas (10-2, 7-2)
4. TCU (8-4, 6-3)
5. Oklahoma (8-4, 6-3)
6. Texas Tech (7-5, 4-5)
7. Kansas State (7-5, 4-5)
8. West Virginia (5-7, 2-7)
9. Iowa State (4-8, 1-8)
10. Kansas (4-8, 1-8)
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16. So now let's talk about Texas, which everyone seems to agree is the most talented team on paper in the Big 12. Mack Brown may or may not be on the hot seat, a more up-tempo approach may or may not work, the defense may or may not be fixed. This feels like a fork in the road for Texas, which has no business being mediocre, given its resources. Last year's defense was supposed to be one of the best in college football, but it ended up seventh in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed and was awful against the run, giving up 832 yards and 12 rushing touchdowns in a three-game span against Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas in October. Fortunately, the Longhorns return a lot -- everyone except star safety Kenny Vaccaro and star pass rusher Alex Okafor -- including end Jackson Jeffcoat and linebacker Jordan Hicks, who are the two most talented players on the defense but missed significant chunks of last season with injuries. Hicks in particular will play a big role in reshaping the run defense.
17. Similarly, Texas doesn't lack talent on offense; it's just been unable to establish an identity since the loss of Colt McCoy. Ten starters return, though, including improving QB David Ash (67.3 percent completion rate), a breakout candidate at RB in former top recruit Johnathan Gray (who's joined by experienced juniors Joe Bergeron and Malcolm Brown), a good line with all five starters in place and solid producers at receiver in Mike Davis and Jaxon Shipley. Coordinator Major Applewhite will shift toward an up-tempo approach, one that could suit the more accurate Ash.
18. Texas will be good on offense, but nobody in the conference can match Baylor. We've talked about Petty and the passing game, which is what Briles is known for. But, incredibly, the Bears had the Big 12's best rushing offense last year with the one-two punch of Lache Seastrunk and Glasco Martin. Seastrunk, an Oregon transfer known for his role in the Willie Lyles saga, broke out down the stretch in 2012, averaging 138 rushing yards per game over a six-game period in which the Bears went 5-1. That included a 185-yard effort in the crucial upset of Kansas State. Seastrunk may be the best running back prospect in next year's draft, and he shares the backfield with Martin, who ran for 889 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. So while Petty will surely throw for 300 yards every week, because that's what Briles' QBs do, he'll have one of the best combinations of running backs in the nation flanking him. That means a lot of running, and a lot of throwing over the top of the defense. In other words, it will be nearly impossible to slow Baylor down.
19. OK, but we shouldn't get too excited, right? Remember West Virginia? Yes, I was all-in on West Virginia last year, and that looked smart for five games, including the memorable 70-63 shootout against Baylor. It's easy to get sucked in by an offense that scores 45 points every week. So what about the Baylor defense? The Bears ranked 94th in yards per play allowed, 96th in sacks and 110th in scoring defense. For the most part, they were awful … except in the upset against Kansas State, and the blowout win over UCLA in the Holiday Bowl. Phil Bennett's group showed signs of life, at least, and while the defense certainly won't be great, there are a few solid pieces to work with, including linebackers Bryce Hager and Eddie Lackey, and a breakout candidate at end in 6-foot-9 Penn State transfer Shawn Oakman.
20. So, while fully acknowledging that I may regret this, Baylor -- yes, Baylor -- will win the Big 12 championship. Unless Texas suddenly puts all its pieces together and becomes a juggernaut again -- pardon me if I'm wary of that happening -- this is a perfect year for Baylor to get over the hump and grab the Big 12's BCS bid, even if it does so by winning a five-way tiebreaker. With how wide-open the conference is, nothing's really far-fetched.
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