As we look ahead to the 2011 college football season, we take with us the lessons we learned from seasons past. We calculate, scrutinize, dissect and digest schedules, returning starters, coaching changes, injuries, and yes, even hunches, and spew it back in the form of how we think each of the 11 Division 1 FBS conferences -- and the independents -- will pan out by year’s end.
Of course, these are merely our opinions. Feel free, as we know you will, to disagree. We know that’s why you really come here anyway.
Here are our predictions for the Big 12:
The Sooners have been getting some serious offseason love by the press, and that, my friends, is no coincidence. A lot of planets need to align for a team to win a conference -- and national -- title, and Oklahoma seems to have the pieces in place to make a run. You need to have talent (check), depth (check), a favorable schedule (check, sort of) and a little bit of luck (TBD).
There are two teams who could challenge Oklahoma for the Big 12 title, but as far as BCS conferences go, OU might be the biggest favorite to finish the season on top.
Texas A&M finished strong in 2010, but the Aggies have a recent history of not living up to high expectations. To pick them this high this early would appear to be a kiss of death, but I’m playing with house money, and the Aggies return what might be the most potent backfield in the Big 12 in Ryan Tannehill, Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael. And let’s not forget wide receiver Jeff Fuller.
Oklahoma State and Missouri are two interesting teams who could be interchangeable at No. 3, but I’ll give the edge to the Cowboys because of the lethal QB/WR combination of Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon.
It’s still unusual to see Texas not one of the top two teams in the Big 12, and while it’s only a matter of time before the Longhorns are elite again, it’s not going to be this year. There’s been too much turnover on the coaching staff and quarterback Garrett Gilbert still hasn’t shown he is the guy to lead this team. Tough-to-read Texas could finish as high as No. 3 and as low as last.
Okay, second to last. The Longhorns aren’t losing to Kansas.
John Taylor’s take
For the first time since the Big 12 was formed in 1996, a title game will not determine the conference champion. Instead, a round-robin schedule will allow one of the 10 remaining schools in the conference to lay claim to the title and the automatic BcS berth that comes with it. Round-robin, conference title game, whatever, the road to that automatic berth will run right through Norman. Oklahoma is clearly the class of the Big 12, perhaps more so than any one team in any other conference in the country. Loaded on both sides of the ball, the Sooners’ biggest test could come from outside the conference with a trip to Tallahassee the first month of the season.
And that’s not to give short shrift to the other schools; Texas A&M and Oklahoma State are very good, above-average teams. In fact, the latter could well be the lone conference school with a remote shot of tripping up the Sooners in their run to a potential BcS championship, with a season-ending Bedlam date in Stillwater looming as the lone remaining obstacle -- provided they get past Florida State -- between OU and a trip to New Orleans.
There’s also the little matter of OU-A&M in Norman early in November. Sorry, Aggie Nation, I’m just not as high on your team as others appear to be, which means I see Oklahoma State as the biggest stumbling block for their in-state rivals.
As far as the third tier of the conference is concerned, take Texas, Missouri, Baylor and Texas Tech, toss them in a bag, shake ‘em up and pull ‘em out one team at a time, although I get this sneaking suspicion that I’m sleeping way too hard on the Longhorns. Then, I harken back to 2010 home losses to UCLA, Iowa State and Baylor, and realize UT -- Longhorn Network or not -- is likely a year away from their rightful spot at or near the top of the conference. Come to think of it, I may be sleeping on Mizzou as well. This year, though, it won’t really matter in either case; Oklahoma is clearly the class of the conference, and it would take some serious self-immolation for there to be any other ending than OU wearing the crown at season’s end.