The longest stretch of the year, college football’s extended off-season, ends Monday for Big 12 fans.
League players and coaches will assemble in Dallas to debate which team is most likely to earn that elusive title of “one true champion.”
They’ll offer insights about candidates for national awards, seeking to help media members separate the contenders (guys on our team) from the pretenders (guys on other teams) in the race to win the Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien Award and other postseason honors.
There will be talk of players’ potential at “the next level” and speculation about who should be the first Big 12 player taken in the 2016 NFL Draft.
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And, if we’re lucky, we’ll get our first round of bulletin-board material to begin the countdown to what should be a spectacular Nov. 27 matchup in Fort Worth between last year’s co-champs, TCU and Baylor.
Of the 42 votes cast in the preseason media poll to predict this year’s Big 12 champion, only the Horned Frogs (32) and Bears (10) landed at the top of participants’ ballots.
That tells you the stakes for a Black Friday matchup at Amon G. Carter Stadium that projects to be the final line of separation between two worthy contenders for CFP playoff berths.
What we don’t know, at this juncture, is which defending co-champion will be best equipped to handle that challenge the day after Thanksgiving. What we can count on, at this juncture, is a six-pack of truths that should begin coming into focus once the season begins Sept. 3 with TCU playing at Minnesota. The list:
There is not as much separation between TCU and Baylor as a 32-10 vote by the media panel would suggest. The Bears, who have won the past two meetings in the series, return more starters (eight on offense, nine on defense) than any Big 12 team. TCU holds the trump card in most analysts’ minds because the Frogs return 10 offensive starters, led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Trevone Boykin, while Baylor must replace departed quarterback Bryce Petty.
But it’s also a fact that TCU lost significant strength up the middle of its defense (both linebackers, two safeties, one defensive tackle) in its unique 4-2-5 scheme and Baylor’s nine returning defensive starters include its top two difference-makers (DE Shawn Oakman, DT Andrew Billings).
That means TCU coach Gary Patterson, a defensive wizard, has five key voids to fill to answer his biggest off-season issue while Baylor’s Art Briles, an offensive guru, needs only to develop his next quarterback.
And Briles will turn to Seth Russell, a fourth-year junior who has started a game and experienced some success at the college level, while TCU may turn over key defensive spots to freshmen.
Eventually, the Frogs will have the home-field advantage in this year’s season-defining matchup. But there’s no landslide of separation between these programs despite a media vote that suggests otherwise.
Boykin deserves all the summer love he’s getting. After last year’s breakthrough season, there is a reason why the TCU quarterback is the only Big 12 signal-caller on the watch list for the 2015 Davey O’Brien Award.
He’s the league’s only proven difference-maker at the game’s most important position. Ole Miss linebacker C.J. Johnson offered praise during last week’s SEC media days for Boykin, who dissected a Rebels defense that led the nation in fewest points allowed (16.0 per game) during TCU’s 42-3 victory in the Peach Bowl.
“I think he’s a really, really good football player,” Johnson said. “In terms of what they do offensively and how they do it, it benefits him greatly. They’re hard to prepare for and they’re going to be tough to beat again this year.”
Texas really is that depleted. The Longhorns landed only one of 30 members named to the preseason All-Big 12 squad, defensive back Duke Johnson. And it took a tie in balloting at the position, where six DBs were honored, to make that happen. That does not mean the Longhorns, who finished 6-7 last season, are without talent. But this team lacks star power more than any other Texas squad in Big 12 history (1996-present).
Oklahoma teams are undervalued. If any team trumps the anticipated TCU-Baylor power play at the top of the Big 12 standings, it will be one from the state of Oklahoma. The Sooners add RB Joe Mixon, QB Baker Mayfield and offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley to the mix this season. Oklahoma State returns 14 starters, including an emerging star in sophomore QB Mason Rudolph. The Cowboys will add RB Chris Carson, a JC transfer selected as the preseason newcomer of the year by media members. Either team is capable of making a title run if the Frogs and Bears spit the bit.
Biggest impact newcomers identified. The two that jump off the page will not wear shoulder pads. Expect OU’s Riley, a Mike Leach protégé who did wonders in four seasons at East Carolina, to energize the Sooners’ stagnant offense. And look for Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs, who elevated a once-porous defense at Houston, to do likewise in Lubbock.
Who has the highest upside? If I’m an NFL general manager, the most intriguing draft-eligible prospect from the Big 12 is Baylor’s Oakman (6-foot-9, 290 pounds).
The senior ranked among the national leaders last season in sacks (11) and tackles for losses (19.5) and should elevate his game and his maturity level with another year of seasoning at the college level.
If anyone trumps Oakman (unlikely), it might be teammate Billings (6-2, 300) if he opts to be an underclassman addition to the draft pool. The junior has been a mainstay at defensive tackle since walking on campus and was a national powerlifting champion in high school.
He’s arguably the strongest player in college football and his playmaking skills have improved each season.
Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760
Big 12 preseason poll
The media have selected 2014 co-champions TCU and Baylor to take the conference’s top two spots, with the Horned Frogs the favorite to finish first. (First-place votes in parentheses.)
4. Oklahoma State
6. West Virginia
8. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State