July 20, 2013

Even in unpredictable season, some Big 12 certainties exist

List starts with OSU scheduling edge, which is why Cowboys deserve to be favorites

Another Big 12 football season is upon us, with anarchy expected to reign in the conference standings.

The only certainty in this balanced league is weekly surprises until the final games are played Dec. 7.

What other conclusion can you draw when preseason prognosticators cast at least one first-place vote for 60 percent of league teams (six of 10) and the favorite, Oklahoma State, draws only 34.8 percent of the available top votes (15 of 43) on media ballots?

Actually, you can take a few more certainties to the bank as Big 12 coaches and players head to Dallas for media days on Monday and Tuesday. We’ll get to those momentarily.

But the primary theme for 2013 — unprecedented balance, with no clear-cut favorite — is undeniable. It will be the overriding expectation until some school from a six-pack of anticipated front-runners does enough to create separation.

That is not likely to happen soon, based on all the checks and balances we know about the contenders. We’ll have a better idea in October when we’ve seen how the freshmen, transfers and reserves-turned-starters shake out for the Special Six who will open the season with legitimate title hopes (listed in preseason poll pecking order): Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas, Baylor and Kansas State.

In an effort to add more clarity before Monday’s start of media days, we offer this list of 12 things you can count on in the Big 12 despite the uncertainty surrounding the 2013 football season:

1. The scheduling edge belongs to Oklahoma State. In matchups between the top six teams, the Cowboys play four of their five primary competitors in Stillwater, Okla. (Oklahoma, TCU, Baylor, Kansas State). The lone road trip is Nov. 16 at Texas, a venue where OSU prevailed in its past two visits (2010, 2011) by an average margin of 14.5 points. You do the math. Advantage, Cowboys. It’s why I was one of the Fab 15 to anoint OSU as this year’s favorite. Just realize we could soon be the Foolish 15 if quarterback Clint Chelf struggles.

2. No team will start the season in the Top 10 of the AP poll. With so much Big 12 balance and so much SEC love among pollsters, there’s no room for a league team until we get deeper into the inaugural rankings.

3. Texas will be underrated in August. Typically, the Longhorns receive a pound of credit for every ounce they deserve in preseason polls. But coach Mack Brown’s crew has turned off analysts with its 22-16 combined mark over the past three seasons. The Longhorns are better than the fourth-best team in the Big 12 and have a huge potential upside. Texas returns more starters (17) than any team, as well as the league’s most experienced quarterback in David Ash.

4. Bob Stoops will outcoach Mack Brown when their teams meet in October. OK, you already knew that. It’s one reason why Texas is not picked higher than fourth. But we’ve got to get to 12 somehow.

5. The guys in purple will outcoach everyone else on game day. There is a reason TCU’s Gary Patterson (No. 4) and Kansas State’s Bill Snyder (No. 5) were the top two Big 12 entries on a list of college football’s Top 10 coaches published earlier this month by Sports Illustrated. They’re the only league coaches worth points on game day. Others are worth points in recruiting (Brown) or in player development (Stoops, OSU’s Mike Gundy, Baylor’s Art Briles). But give me the guys in purple on game day. Every Saturday.

6. A key newcomer decides this year’s title. I can’t give you a name, but a breakthrough transfer or freshman will tip the scales this season in favor of the champ. For the record, TCU is ready to unleash multiple key transfers (WR Josh Doctson, WR Ja’Juan Story, RB Aaron Green). And OSU’s long list of intriguing freshmen includes a potential difference-maker in kicker/punter Ben Grogan, an Arlington Martin signee.

7. Great talent covers a lot of flaws. Two great talents at running back capable of lifting teams beyond preseason predictions are Baylor’s Lache Seastrunk and Texas’ Johnathan Gray, the former Aledo standout. Both should be 1,000-yard rushers this season.

8. Oklahoma’s defense remains a puzzle. The departure of QB Landry Jones draws lots of attention, but the Oklahoma defense has much to prove, especially in the front seven. Only four defensive starters return.

9. Kliff Kingsbury will impact the title race. Texas Tech’s first-year coach does not have the talent on hand to win the Big 12. But his offensive acumen, combined with promising new QB Michael Brewer, makes Tech a spoiler waiting to derail some contender’s title hopes.

10. No team will finish undefeated in league play. It didn’t happen last year and won’t this year. This looms as a season when tiebreakers will be needed to separate a bunch of co-champs with two league losses.

11. Kansas fans already are pining for basketball season. Sorry, Charlie Weis. Year Two won’t be much different than Year One (1-11, 0-9 in Big 12) in turnaround efforts for the former Notre Dame coach.

12. Heisman over BCS title game. It is unlikely that a Big 12 player or team will be a participant at either the Heisman Trophy presentation or the BCS National Championship Game. If one or the other happens (remember, anything is possible this season!), give me Baylor running back Lache Seastrunk as a Heisman finalist in New York on Dec. 14.

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