By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com
After nearly suffering total dissolution prior to the 2011 campaign when Colorado and Nebraska bolted, the Big 12 is back for another season in 2012.
And as improbable as it may seem after losing Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC this year, the conference is arguably stronger than ever.
Say what? That’s because the Big 12 inked a reported 1.3 billion-dollar contract with ESPN and with it lured TCU and West Virginia into the fold.
That means the conference will once again operate as 10-team league for the second straight year as it continues to explore options to expand back to 12 teams or beyond. It also means that each school will once again play a round-robin regular season schedule among its members, providing a true league champion. That move contributed to the Big 12 members having the nation’s top-ranked schedule strength last campaign.
A quick recap shows the Big 12 participated in eight bowls games for the third consecutive season, and ninth time in 16 years. Its 6-2 record last season was the best in Conference history.
In addition, the Big 12 completed its non-conference schedule with the nation’s best non-conference win percentage at .868 (33-5). The Conference also led the country in regular season non-conference win percentage with a .900 (27-3).
Big 12 teams went 11-3 against bowl-bound teams in 2011 regular season play. The .900 mark in regular season non-league games is not only a Big 12 record, but also the best among all conferences since 1996 – topping the .882 (30-4) recorded by the SEC in 1997. The previous Big 12-best occurred during the 2001 season when the league compiled an .868 (33-5) mark. The league also tallied its best non-conference record in the month of September at 26-2.
Oklahoma State won last year’s Big 12 title, even after losing offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen when he accepted the job as head coach of West Virginia. The Cowboys ranked 3rd in total offense and 2nd in passing offense. With Holgorsen, West Virginia adds a dynamic wrinkle to the league.
Holgorsen’s offense at Oklahoma State led the nation in total offense in 2010. His offenses at Houston led the nation in 2009 and finished 2nd in 2008. From 2005 to 2007, Holgorsen was at Texas Tech when the Red Raiders offense was ranked No. 2, 6, and 4 in 2007, 2006 and 2005 respectively. His passing offenses were No. 1, 3, 1, 2, 1, and 2 from 2005 through 2010, and No. 6 in his first season at West Virginia last year.
Thus, West Virginia and Holgorsen’s hurry-up attack fits like a glove in a conference that still suffers from an age-old Indian disease that continues to affect most teams in the league: lack-a-defense.
Along with TCU’s always-potent offense, it’s bombs away in the born-again Big 12 in 2012.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2012 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On’ and ‘Play Against’ Best Bets follow each team’s preview.
BAYLOR – (6/8)
Team Theme: RG3 UNPLUGGED
An historic effort, behind a Heisman winning campaign by QB Robert Griffin III, took the Bears to new heights last season. When the dust settled, 10 wins matched a school record, Baylor won a bowl game for the first time since 1992, and snapped a 20-game losing skid (as 17-point home dogs) to Oklahoma. It’s uncertain what happens to this high-powered offense this season. This much we know for sure: DC Phil Bennett was brought in last year to tighten the screws on a unit that has now regressed each of the last three seasons. Without RG3 around to ignite the offense, Baylor can ill afford continued slippage from its stop unit. It needs to step up… now.
Stat You Will Like: The Bears faced only one defense (Texas) ranked in the nation’s Top 40 last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Oklahoma (11/10)
IOWA STATE – (*7/5)
Team Theme: ON THE RIGHT RHOAD
Props to Paul Rhoads who has taken a two-win team he inherited in 2008 to bowl games in two of the past three seasons. Not only did his Cyclones snap a 36-game road-losing skid when they beat the Longhorns in Austin as 21-point dogs, they also drilled the Red Raiders as 15.5-point dogs in Lubbock last year. More amazingly, he guided his team to a bowl game last season despite being an underdog in 10 of 11 lined games! The excitement has also hit Ames as ISU had more than 50K fans in attendance in every home game for the first time in school history. The best LB duo in the land, A.J. Klein and Jake Knott (231 combined tackles), should keep this team on the winning road.
Stat You Will Like: Rhoads is 15-1 SU in games when ISU allows less than 24 points and 3-19 SU in games when ISU allows 24 or more points.
PLAY ON: vs. Kansas State (10/13)
KANSAS – (6/6)
Team Theme: WEIS INVESTMENT?
Don’t feel sorry for college football’s most renowned coaching vagabond. Charlie Weis still bleeds green – as in the color of money. Not only does Weis’ fourth coaching job in as many years guarantee him $2.5M annually plus incentives over the next five years, he is still collecting from his days at Notre Dame and Kansas City. His new contract also allocates $2.1M for a coaching staff, thus the hiring of DC Dave Campo, an 18-year veteran with the Cowboys. He’ll also have the services of 5th-year Irish transfer QB Dayne Christ with former BYU signal-caller Jake Heaps taking over in 2013. Yes, the WR corps is thin but don’t expect Weis to lose $leep anytime soon.
Stat You Will Like: The Jayhawks are 1-20 SU from Game Six out the last three years.
PLAY AGAINST: at Northern Illinois (9/22)
KANSAS STATE – (*8/6)
Team Theme: GRAND SURPRISE
Not many great-grandfathers can lay claim to winning Coach of the Year honors unless, of course, your name is Bill Snyder and you captured that distinction in the Big 12 last season. Thanks to a bevy of close calls (nine games decided by one score or less in which KSU went 8-1), the Wildcats somehow won 10 games despite being outgained by 57 YPG. The offense is in good hands as first-team all-Big 12 QB Collin Klein (FBS record 27 rushing TD’s last year) returns for his senior season following his Tebowesque performance. However, these ‘Cats are at the top of our fade list after accomplishing so much while doing so little ‘in the stats’.
Stat You Will Like: The Wildcats have gone bowling 14 of the last 17 years head coach Bill Snyder has been on the sidelines.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Texas (12/1)
OKLAHOMA – (*8/7)
Team Theme: THE OLD GANG IS BACK TOGETHER
The highest-scoring program in NCAA annals, Oklahoma has averaged 27.03 PPG in its 1,182 game history. And it should go higher now that Bob Stoops has convinced Landry Jones, the all-time yardage and TD leader in OU lore, to return for his senior season. Having all but one of his protectors from a two-deep offensive line – including six who have totaled 102 starts – may have been all the convincing Jones needed. On the other side of the ball, ‘Big Game’ Bob will rely on little brother Mike to call the shots as he makes his second stint in Norman after getting bounced from the Arizona sidelines midway through the 2011 season.
Stat You Will Like: Oklahoma’s 15 returning starters this year missed 32 combined games last year.
PLAY ON: at Texas Tech (10/6) – *KEY
OKLAHOMA STATE – (6/8)
Team Theme: GUNNING FOR MORE
En route to winning their first outright conference title since the 1940’s, the Cowboys started the 2011 campaign with 10 wins in a row for the first time in school history. Despite the loss of NFL first-rounders WR Justin Blackmon and QB Brandon Weeden, HC Mike Gundy is ecstatic that 36 of his top 51 players on last year’s depth chart – including his top four RB’s and six of his top seven tacklers – return to Stillwater. The Cowboys led the nation in forced turnovers with 44 and will need more of the same in 2012 as five opponents with 10 or more wins grace the slate. Thanks to last year’s success, Gundy returns both coordinators for the first time in six years.
Stat You Will Like: Mike Gundy was 12-15 in his first 27 games with the Cowboys. He’s 47-15 since.
PLAY ON: vs. Iowa State (10/20)
TCU – (*5/4)
Team Theme: UP IN SMOKE
When four football players were named among the 17 students arrested on campus for buying and selling dope, it left a heavy stain on this once squeaky-clean program. Here’s a squad that heads into the Big 12 after bullying the MWC (38-1), owning the best record (77-13) in the state of Texas since 2005 and registering 11 wins in six of the last seven years. We could go on about the amazing numbers that Gary Patterson’s troops have posted but, frankly, we’d run out of space. Record-setting QB Casey Pachall is back but this inaugural season in Big 12 land could go up in smoke if the defense doesn’t return to the form that led the nation five of the past 12 years.
Stat You Will Like: The Frogs have scored 27 or more points in 31 consecutive regular season games.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Baylor (10/13) – *KEY
Team Theme: WE’RE HOOKED
Hook ‘Em bounced back off a disastrous five-win effort in 2010 to win eight games last year, including a satisfying win over California in the Holiday Bowl. Yes, the Longhorns are no longer mentioned among the nation’s elite but the fact of the matter is that UT owns seven Top 10 finishes since 2002. Prior to Mack Brown’s arrival in 1998, the ‘Horns last appeared in the Top 10 in 1983. QB’s David Ash and Case McCoy welcome the return of their top three wide outs but the question becomes can a 39-9 SU record in true Big 12 road games under Brown offset a salty schedule that finds opponents tallying an 87-65 record – including six that won 10 or more games?
Stat You Will Like: Over the last four years, Texas has held 43 of its 51 opponents under their scoring average.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Oklahoma State (9/29) – *KEY off win
TEXAS TECH – (*9/9)
Team Theme: LUBBOCK OR LEAVE IT
The hiring of Tommy Tuberville by Tech two years ago appeared a genius move for a program that flirted with BCS bowl contention under Mike Leach. Two years later, though, win totals and offensive production are way down while losses and defensive yield are spinning out of control. Tuberville looks to reverse those outcomes with three new defensive coaches, including a fourth coordinator in as many years, and arguably the strongest compliment of returning Big 12 starters. Senior QB Seth Doege and main target Eric Ward lead the charge, making the Red Raiders a full-fledged, highly capable ‘Mission Team’ in 2012 while erasing last year’s 0-5 finish.
Stat You Will Like: The Red Raiders have had two losing seasons in conference play since 1991 – both of which have occurred the last two years.
PLAY ON: at Kansas State (10/27) – *KEY
WEST VIRGINIA (*9/7)
Team Theme: CHANGING PONDS
A psych question often asked is would you rather be a big fish in a little pond or a little fish in a big pond? While it’s up for debate, the WVU brass opted to swim with the big boys when they said goodbye to the not-so-Big East and hello to the Big 12. With fellow newcomer TCU also debuting, the league is back and as strong as ever. And HC Dana Holgorsen should fit in well, having been a coordinator with Oklahoma State. While everyone remembers the 70-point outburst dynamic QB Geno Smith put on Clemson in last year’s Orange Bowl, it’s easy to forget the Hillbillies’ struggles against Big East foes (only two of seven games resulted in wins of more than 3 points). Be careful.
Stat You Will Like: After being the only team in the nation to not allow 24 points in any game in 2010, the Mountaineers surrendered more than 24 points on seven occasions last year.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Marshall (9/1)