January 10, 2012

Picking next champ anybody's guess in inscrutable Big 12

Oklahoma looks to be Big 12 favorite in 2012 ... by a millimeter.

The schedule has yet to be finalized, much less distributed. But you can bank on an unpredictable 2012 football season for Big 12 teams, with no clear-cut favorite heading into next month's start of spring drills.

How wide open will the race be? You can build cases for a six-pack of potential champions. And the field would be seven if, contrary to reports Tuesday, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III, the 2011 Heisman Trophy winner, were to return for his senior season.

Depending on what happens with East Coast court proceedings (West Virginia vs. Big East), NFL Draft declarations and National Signing Day personnel additions, the Big 12 could break fresh ground next season by:

Watching two-first year members, TCU and West Virginia, play a winner-take-all game to settle the league championship.

Watching projected Texas signee Johnathan Gray, a five-star running back from Aledo, become the league's most influential freshman since Adrian Peterson carried Oklahoma to the 2004 title.

Producing all three finalists for the 2012 Davey O'Brien National Quarterback Award, as the league did in 2008.

Crowning a team other than Oklahoma or Texas for a second consecutive season.

Defending champ Oklahoma State (12-1), which finished third in Tuesday's final college football polls, kept the Sooners (10-3) and Longhorns (8-5) in the rearview mirror this season. No. 13 Baylor (10-3) also swept the Big 12's two traditional powers.

But OSU will have a new starting quarterback in 2012. All signs suggest the same will be true at Baylor. In this league, the champion rarely trots out a first-year starter at quarterback.

Among the few givens for September: Four teams listed on next year's tentative schedules cracked the Top 25 in Tuesday's final AP poll and know they will feature returning starters at quarterback. The list includes No. 14 TCU (11-2), No. 15 Kansas State (10-3), No. 16 Oklahoma (10-3) and No. 17 West Virginia (10-3).

The perceived line of separation between those four could not be smaller. And the list does not include Texas (8-5), which won its bowl game and returns tag-team QBs David Ash and Case McCoy. Texas also is positioned to land multiple impact newcomers in its 2012 signing class.

Bottom line: Next year's Big 12 champion will be decided by answers to questions that remain riddles today. The league's perceived parity, at this point, suggests no Big 12 team is likely to make a strong run at next year's BCS national championship. But the conference title could go to a team that loses two games in league play.

As for some of those lingering questions, the opinion here is that Griffin is headed to the NFL; Gray will have a major impact on the 2012 Texas team; unemployed defensive guru Mike Stoops surfaces on the Oklahoma staff; OSU will sorely miss departed QB Brandon Weeden and his 23-3 career mark as a starter; TCU quarterback Casey Pachall is capable of dissecting Big 12 defenses the same way he handled No. 8 Boise State (473 passing yards, 5 touchdowns in a 36-35 victory) and West Virginia wins its departure date tug-of-war with the Big East in time to play a Big 12 schedule next season.

Factor all of those items into the equation, plus the quality of the returning rosters, and the early favorite to win the 2012 Big 12 title has to be ... Oklahoma, by a millimeter.

The Sooners have history on their side (eight Big 12 titles in 13 seasons under coach Bob Stoops), along with the return of Landry Jones, the school's career leader in passing yards (12,389) and touchdown passes (93).

Jones, who will be a senior, cited a desire to "have another opportunity to make a title run" as his reason for returning in 2012.

It's hard to see the Sooners, or any other team, emerging from a balanced Big 12 to claim a BCS title next season. But it is easy to see OU, or one of a half-dozen other teams, hoisting the Big 12 championship trophy in December.

The champion will be the team that does the best job of answering its lingering questions over the next 11 months. And the clock is ticking.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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