2011 Big 12 Football Preview
The Big XII’s divisional format and championship game are gone. With the departure of Colorado to the Pac-12 and Nebraska to the Big Ten, the Big 12 is now “twelve” in name only. The ten remaining members will remain as is; they’ll keep the now incorrect name and crown a champion without a conference championship game. No longer hosting a championship game is a welcome development for fans of perennial powers that have seen their schools lose chances to play for a national title based on an upset loss on the first Saturday of December. Others counter that with the exception of the SEC Championship Game, the Big 12’s own title game was the most popular and that its attention will accordingly be missed.
Ten teams or twelve, discussions about the Big XII always begin with the conference’s premier programs: Oklahoma and Texas. Oklahoma concludes spring drills as the early favorite to be the preseason number one team in the polls. The Sooners won the Big XII in 2010 and return most of that championship roster. Offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson left Norman to take over as head coach at Indiana, but new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel was a capable understudy to Wilson and will have plenty to work with in his first year on the job. Quarterback Landry Jones, wide receivers Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills, and tailback Roy Finch will be a difficult group of skill positions players for any defense to handle. If the Sooners can win the annual Red River Shootout with Texas and a tough early season road game at Florida State, the stage will be set for the Sooners to play for yet another national title under Bob Stoops.
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Texas, on the other hand, has more questions than answers on the heels of a disastrous 2010 season that saw the Longhorns finish 5-7, miss a bowl, and turn over the entire assistant coaching staff. Lightning rod Greg Davis will no longer coach the offense and former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is now the head coach at Florida. In their places, Mack Brown hired Bryan Harsin as the offensive coordinator from Boise State and Manny Diaz as the defensive coordinator from Mississippi State. Both men will now bring their distinctive attacking styles to Austin. The first order of business for Harsin will be picking a quarterback. Spring drills did little to settle that debate and the battle for the starting spot will continue into early September. Diaz, on the other hand, should find plenty to work with and provide the offense some cover in the early part of the season.
On the heels of Oklahoma and Texas are Oklahoma State, Missouri, and Texas A&M. All three schools showed progress in 2010, but they face unique challenges as they attempt to maintain their successes in 2011. Oklahoma State returns quarterback Brandon Weeden and stud receiver Justin Blackmon, but will be playing in a new offense with the departure of coordinator Dana Holgorsen to West Virginia. Texas A&M finally found its quarterback of the future in Ryan Tannehill, who returns for his senior season. If the Aggies are able to find suitable replacements for standout defensive players like Von Miller, they should once again compete for the league title.
Missouri loses likely first round pick Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, but the Tigers bring back multiple playmakers at the skill positions and now don’t have the specter of games against Nebraska and Colorado to keep it from competing for the top spot in the league. Coach Gary Pinkel has quietly built Missouri into a consistently winning program and though Gabbert will not be easy to replace, there’s enough around Columbia to put the Tigers in the postseason again.
Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Baylor were improved in 2010, but with the losses of significant players of importance, could all be facing rebuilding efforts that keep them home for the holidays in 2011.
By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior College Football Correspondent