A new season is upon us, meaning it is time to peer into the crystal football and forecast what lies ahead for Big 12 teams.But in a crowded title race, with more contenders than pretenders at the conclusion of fall drills, there is a lone point of clarity: Some under-the-radar player is going to emerge and tip the scales in the direction of his team by the decisive first Saturday in December.Breakout newcomers emerge every year. But with uncanny Big 12 balance expected in this year’s race, their 2013 impacts mean more than in most seasons.Until games begin this weekend, most will remain fall-camp phenoms known only to their coaches and fan bases. But someone from this list has a great chance to emerge as the Big 12’s best surprise of 2013: Robbie Rhodes, Baylor, WR: The elusive freshman from Fort Worth Southwest has not disappointed coach Art Briles, who called him the “best receiver in America” among 2013 signees. Asked about Rhodes’ ability to make an immediate impact, Briles said: “Yes, sir. He will contribute on the 31st of August. He is a dynamic guy.” Other notable Baylor newcomers: DE Shawn Oakman (6-foot-9, 270 pounds), a transfer from Penn State, and DT Andrew Billings (6-0, 305), a freshman from Waco who set a national high school powerlifting record in March. Trevor Knight, Oklahoma, QB: The redshirt freshman from San Antonio Reagan edged junior Blake Bell, the team’s backup the past two seasons, for the Sooners’ starting job in fall camp. A dual threat whom Oklahoma coaches compare to Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Knight threw for 2,092 yards and rushed for 943 in his senior season in high school. Other notable new Sooners: DT Quincy Russell, a junior college transfer, and CB Cortez Johnson, a transfer from Arizona. Ben Grogan, Oklahoma State, K: In a league where lots of close games are expected, the freshman from Arlington Martin projects to be instrumental to the Cowboys’ title hopes. A Class 5A first-team all-state performer last season, Grogan won the battle to succeed the departed Quinn Sharp as the Cowboys’ kicker on Aug. 10. Ja’Juan Story, TCU, WR: A top-50 national signee with Florida in 2011, Story (6-4, 208) has yet to play in a college game. He redshirted in 2011, then transferred to TCU and will make his college debut Saturday night against LSU at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Desmond Harrison, Texas, OT: Last season’s top-rated, junior-college offensive tackle by 247Sports.com, Harrison (6-8, 310) has been impressive in fall drills after getting eligibility issues clarified last week. He will play Saturday and could soon emerge as the starter at left tackle, where current first-teamer Donald Hawkins is being double-trained at guard and tackle. Asked about Harrison, coach Mack Brown said: “He’s so talented, it’s unbelievable. He needs to be out there and learn, so he’ll be ready to go by the time we get into Big 12 play.” Jake Waters, Kansas State, QB: The 2012 national player of the year in the junior college ranks won a battle with Daniel Sams, last year’s backup quarterback, to replace the departed Collin Klein. Kansas State coaches have said both will play in Friday’s opener against North Dakota State. But the focus will be on Waters, who produced eye-popping JC stats: a 73.3 completion rate, 3,501 passing yards and a 39-3 ratio of TD passes to interceptions.Among teams not expected to push for more than down-the-line bowl berths, Texas Tech will rely heavily on a true freshman quarterback (Davis Webb or Baker Mayfield) until sophomore Michael Brewer returns from a back injury and Iowa State will turn to sophomore Sam Richardson, a third-teamer most of last season.But in terms of immediate impact, the nation’s sweetest skill-position transfer tandem belongs to West Virginia. Only the Mountaineers have the potential to turn to a quarterback/running back combo that suited up for two different FBS schools in 2012.Running back Charles Sims, Houston’s leading rusher last season (851 yards, 11 TDs), earned preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year accolades from media members after joining the program in July. Quarterback Clint Trickett, Florida State’s backup to E. J. Manuel the past two seasons, arrived in May and could win a tight battle with Paul Millard to be the team’s starter. Both Sims and Trickett graduated from their previous schools to earn immediate eligibility at West Virginia this season.
Texas Tech QB situation
Because of a lingering back injury to sophomore Michael Brewer, the most experienced quarterback on the Texas Tech roster, the Red Raiders will open the Kliff Kingsbury coaching era with an incoming freshman under center in Friday’s game at SMU (7 p.m., ESPN).
The candidates are Davis Webb, a dual threat from Prosper who enrolled in January and participated in spring drills, and walk-on Baker Mayfield. Kingsbury, a former Tech quarterback who defeated Oklahoma as a freshman in his first career start for the Raiders (1999 season), said he will make a game-time decision about his quarterback.
The edge in experience and pedigree goes to Webb (6-foot-4, 194 pounds), a Rivals.com three-star prospect who threw for 2,658 yards and rushed for 589 yards in his senior season at Prosper. He also accounted for 35 touchdowns (23 passing, 12 rushing).
Mayfield (6-2, 220), a two-year starter at Austin Lake Travis, walked on at Tech after turning down scholarship offers from two rebuilding programs, New Mexico and Florida Atlantic. He threw for 6,255 yards and 67 touchdowns in two seasons at Lake Travis.
In breaking down his quarterback quandary this week, Kingsbury said: “We’ll do our best to make sure whoever steps in there is ready. You don’t want them to think too much. It’s still playing the game. You just attack it. It’s still football.”
Unproven QBs Heading into this week’s season openers, five of nine Big 12 teams in action will feature quarterbacks making their first starts at their schools (Baylor, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Kansas State, West Virginia).
Friday night lights Texas Tech (at SMU) and Kansas State (vs. North Dakota State) open Friday. The games mark the first of seven prime-time, weeknight telecasts for Big 12 schools this season. The remaining non-Saturday games are on Thursday, starting with TCU at Tech on Sept. 12.
SEC showdowns Fans who like to debate the strength of the Big 12 in relation to the SEC will have ample ammunition this week. Two matchups are scheduled between teams from the respective leagues, both in neutral sites: TCU-LSU (Arlington) and Oklahoma State-Mississippi State (Houston). The only other nonconference matchup between Big 12 and SEC teams this season is Sept. 14, when Ole Miss plays at Texas.
No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU (8 p.m. Saturday, ESPN) Horned Frogs are capable of pulling the upset. But August personnel attrition at OT, LB makes it unlikely. LSU 24, TCU 19.
SMU 34, Texas Tech 31 (7 p.m. Friday, ESPN) Mustangs have ample offensive weapons, can exploit Tech’s new defense, freshmen QBs.
Kansas State 27, North Dakota State 14 (7:30 p.m. Friday, Fox Sports 1) With lots of new starters, Wildcats struggle early but finish strong against defending FCS national champ.
No. 15 Texas 51, New Mexico State 14 (7 p.m. Saturday, Longhorn Network) Longhorns capitalize on talent mismatch, build momentum for bigger tests in September.
Baylor 49, Wofford 24 (6:30 p.m. Saturday, FSSW Plus) Bears’ offense thrives under new QB Bryce Petty against one of FCS’ top teams.
No. 16 Oklahoma 35, Louisiana-Monroe 17 (6 p.m. Saturday, FSN PPV) Sooners have questions on both sides of the ball but should roll in home opener.
No. 13 Oklahoma State 38, Mississippi State 24 (2:30 p.m. Saturday, WFAA/Ch. 8) Cowboys’ tag-team QBs rule the day against SEC foe in Houston.
Iowa State 28, Northern Iowa 20 Cyclones win an in-state matchup that projects as pivotal to the team’s bowl hopes.
West Virginia 49, William & Mary 34 Mountaineers’ offense rolls a big number, bails out dubious defense.