|Stedman Bailey and West Virginia's high-powered passing game come to the Big 12. (US Presswire)|
It's a quarterback league.
You may have noticed that about the Big 12. Since 2001, a Big 12 quarterback has finished in the top five of the Heisman voting eight times. Four have won it -- Eric Crouch, Jason White, Sam Bradford and, last season, Baylor's Robert Griffin III.
Half the league's starters this season are on the Davey O'Brien Award watch list. You have a quarterback in this league, you have a chance. That's probably why West Virginia feels extremely comfortable. When the Big 12 offered a more stable home than the shaky Big East, the Mountaineers' administration jumped at it for more simply economic reasons.
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"Sounds like it's been the same way in the Big 12 for about a decade now," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Been a whole bunch of good quarterbacks come through the league ...
"You're going to score points. You're going to give up big plays. It doesn't mean that the game's over. You just gotta keep playing defensively. But I think we've got some guys in place that understand that."
The term "good fit" is thrown around in conference realignment like pennies into a fountain. Good fit doesn't begin to describe West Virginia in the Big 12.
It has the coach. Holgorsen spent nine years combined in the Big 12 at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State.
It has the team. The Mountaineers finished in the top 15 in pass offense, total offense and scoring offense. In the Orange Bowl, they hung 70 on Clemson. They will start the season in or around the top 10 and -- you might have guessed -- are considered a Big 12 contender.
Oh yeah, and they have the quarterback. Senior Geno Smith may be the league's top Heisman candidate. Let's not be shy, this being the high-scoring Big 12. Smith may be the nation's best Heisman candidate.
"I've improved so much over the summer and become a better player," Smith told reporters last month. "I've gotten bigger. I've gotten stronger. I've gotten faster. I'm definitely smarter. I've improved my mechanics.
"I've become a totally different player than I was last year, and I'm ready to let the world see it."
The media already made Smith the preseason all-Big 12 quarterback and offensive player of the year. Not bad for having never taken a snap in the league. But we told you this is a good fit. In his first year with Holgorsen, Smith set the school passing record (4,385 yards). Receivers Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin each went over 1,000 yards.
History suggests this is a mere appetizer. In his second year with Holgorsen as Texas Tech's offensive coordinator, Graham Harrell went from 4,555 yards and 38 touchdowns to 5,705 yards and 48 touchdowns. There was more second-year magic at Houston. All-time passing leader Case Keenum improved by more than 600 yards from 2008 to 2009 with Holgorsen as OC.
"You can see Geno with a bit more confidence," Holgorsen said. "It makes more sense to him. There should be improvement. If there's not, we're not doing a good job as coaches."
West Virginia has the chops to conquer the suddenly tight-knit Big 12. Fifteen starters return from a team that won 10 in Holgorsen's first season. The offense looks a lot like that basketball-on-grass culture that Leach cultivated at Texas Tech. Austin is a 5-foot-9 inside receiver who caught 101 passes.
The Mountaineers scored at least 34 points eight times last season. But that was in the less-regarded Big East. They struggled to win four games last year by six points or less.
|Landry Jones passed on the NFL Draft to return to Oklahoma for his senior season. (US Presswire)|
Preseason favorite Oklahoma has almost been lost in the discussion. The Mountaineers are new. They are colorful quotes. They have a Heisman candidate at quarterback.
The Sooners are trying to bounce back from disappointing end to 2011. Landry Jones is a Heisman candidate himself but slumped late. Defending champ Oklahoma State eviscerated the Sooners 44-10 in Bedlam to end the regular season.
Meanwhile, conference realignment has thrown West Virginia a lifeline. Staying in the Big East would have meant less money and less of a shot at the coming playoff in 2014. The Big 12 culture may fit West Virginia but the Mountaineers will travel quite a bit to play in it. Its closest conference opponent is 1,000 miles away at Iowa State.
"The days of being able to take 15,000-20,000 people to different venues ... those days don't exist in the Big 12 because everybody's the same way at home," Holgorsen said. "Everybody packs their stadium and everybody gives the opponent about 4,000 tickets.
"So my suggestion to the people of West Virginia is to make sure you come to every home game and then pick a road game and go travel once a year."
Matt Hinton's predicted order of finish:
1. Oklahoma: Sure, most teams would have taken a 10-3 record and a top-20 finish in the polls in a heartbeat. But those teams didn't start last season as the No. 1 team in the polls. Oklahoma did, and by that standard, the second half of the season was a catastrophe: The Sooners lost their top rusher and receiver to season-ending injuries, dropped two games as double-digit favorites against Texas Tech and Baylor and went out on the wrong end of a 44-10 Bedlam beatdown by rival Oklahoma State. Fast forward to 2012. In terms of setting expectations, quarterback and Heisman candidate Landry Jones' decision to pass on the NFL was like setting a reset button: With a proven, fifth-year vet under center, Oklahoma's lineup is top-to-bottom the most experienced and most complete in the conference, as usual. Even at potential problem spots – depth at wide receiver, for example, or the occasionally flammable secondary – there is more than enough talent to turn those positions into reliable strength. Since he took over in 1999, Bob Stoops has yet to go two consecutive seasons without claiming a Big 12 championship, and this is certainly no rebuilding job.
2. West Virginia: The Mountaineers' transition to the Big 12 really began last year, months before they began maneuvering for an escape route from the Big East, when they promoted offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen to head coach. He was hired the previous winter specifically to remake West Virginia's nondescript offense in the image of the prolific "Air Raid" attacks he helped assemble at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, and he gave them a hit: WVU led the Big East in passing, total and scoring offense en route to its first conference title since 2007, punctuated by a 589-yard, nine-touchdown flambé of Clemson's defense in the Orange Bowl. After that, the only question for the Mountaineers' new rivals is whether they'd rather be carved up by senior receiver Tavon Austin out of the slot or burned by junior Stedman Bailey downfield. Really, quarterback Geno Smith is perfectly fine either way. But then, as with most of their new rivals, there is no such certainty about the Mountaineer defense, which will find no precedent for containing the likes of Oklahoma or Oklahoma State among the lo-fi attacks of the Big East. Coming into the season, West Virginia has no obvious candidates to fill the voids left by its best pass rusher, NFL-bound Bruce Irvin, or its best cover man, All-Big East cornerback Keith Tandy.
3. TCU: There is no way to spin the transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12 as anything but a step up in degree of difficulty, but that doesn't necessarily mean a steep learning curve for an outfit that effectively was the difficulty in the Mountain West over the seven seasons it resided there: TCU leaves the league with three consecutive conference championships, 24 consecutive conference wins and a single conference loss in the last four years, courtesy of a last-second field goal at Utah in 2008. Either of the Frogs' own undefeated teams in 2009 and 2010 were good enough to win the Big 12. This year, they're showing up with five reigning All-Mountain West picks en tow – quarterback Casey Pachall, wide receiver Josh Boyce, guard Blaize Foltz, defensive end Stansly Maponga and linebacker Kenny Cain – all of whom are immediate contenders for an All-Big 12 nod. After nearly 20 years of wandering the mid-major desert, the program is where it belongs. As for this particular edition, however, there are few unique challenges, namely, a) Plugging in four new, full-time starters in the secondary, b) Replacing Tank Carder, a mainstay at linebacker and the best player on the defense the past two years, and c) Replacing three other would-be starters at linebacker, cornerback and defensive tackle who were booted from the team following a campus drug bust earlier this year.
4. Texas: After the abrupt, 5-7 shock of 2010, Longhorn fans were sufficiently braced for a rebuilding year in 2011, and after a deceptively fast start in September, that's exactly what they got from the greenest lineup in the league. Chalk it up to growing pains. Now, virtually across the board, this looks like a roster ready to bear fruit. On offense, the 'Horns get back last year's top two rushers, top four receivers and four returning starters on the line, the vast majority of whom were just getting their feet wet as freshmen and sophomores. On the other side, the defense boasts the best pair of bookend defensive ends in the country, Alex Okafor and Jackson Jeffcoat, and arguably the best secondary if corners Quandre Diggs and Carrington Byndom progress as expected. (Ditto Jordan Hicks at linebacker.) Statistically, it was already the best defense in the Big 12 by a wide margin under first-year coordinator Manny Diaz, for the fourth year in a row since 2008. The roster as a whole is still packed with former blue-chip recruits who picked up some valuable battle scars over the last two years. The glaring exception at the most important position, quarterback, threatens to set the entire project back another year unless sophomore David Ash or junior Case "Don't Call Me Colt" McCoy demonstrates some hint of the consistency so sorely lacking last year. If not, the burden could fall to true freshman Conner Brewer, and the clock starts all over again.
5. Oklahoma State: This time last year, Oklahoma State was breaking in a new offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, who knew so little about the system he was inheriting – one that had thoroughly obliterated every school record in 2010, a supposed rebuilding year – that he had to learn much of it on the fly from his new quarterback. From there, the Cowboys proceeded to obliterate all of the 2010 marks, hanging 546 yards and 49 points per game on mostly helpless Big 12 secondaries in one of the most spectacular offensive explosions on record. The blast propelled OSU to its first conference title in 85 years, its first ever BCS bid and the highest poll finish (No. 3) in school history. How much of that production we can chalk up to "the system," and how much was the result of the inherent brilliance of quarterback Brandon Weeden, we can probably never know. But we will get some idea this fall, when the torch is passed from the 28-year-old master to an 18-year-old freshman, Wes Lunt, who has all of one spring practice under his belt and no prospective target in the class of Weeden's un-coverable counterpart, two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon. There are no other major changes. It's as if Monken suddenly found himself in an experiment in which he is the controlled variable.
6. Kansas State: To a certain type of fan, Kansas State's unexpected, improbable return to the national consciousness in 2011 was more proof of coach Bill Snyder's workmanlike brilliance, their 10-3 record and sustained presence in the polls another triumph of his unquantifiable knack for maximizing value against all odds. To another type, the run was a succession of lightning strikes and lucky bounces that cannot possibly be replicated. In either case, the Wildcats lived 2011 on the edge. Five of their ten wins came by four points or less; six of their seven conference wins were decided by a touchdown or less. They beat Miami on a goal-line stand in the closing seconds, beat Baylor by one point in the final two minutes, beat Texas A&M in quadruple overtime, beat Texas despite a better than 2-to-1 advantage in total yards for the Longhorns. Even at the beginning, it took a come-from-behind, fourth-quarter rally to escape an upset bid from Eastern Kentucky in the final two minutes of the season opener. For the year, K-State finished next-to-last in the Big 12 in total offense and was outgained by nearly 100 yards per game in conference play. To the extent that last year's success is sustainable, it will be on back and brain of senior quarterback Collin Klein, who accounted for 70 percent of the team's total offense last year as a rusher and passer.
7. Baylor: Baylor so vastly exceeded all expectations and precedents in 2011 that at some point -– somewhere between the opening-night thriller against TCU, the milestone victories over Oklahoma and Texas, the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the ecstatic comeback in the Alamo Bowl and the top-20 finish in the polls – it all started to seem like extra gravy. And now… well, what, exactly? Sustaining last year's success is surely impossible in the absence of superhero quarterback Robert Griffin III, not to mention four other NFL Draft picks from one of the nation's most explosive offenses; it took every bit of that firepower, after all, to overcome a defense that remained mired among the nation's worst. But the Bears have come too far under coach Art Briles to slink quietly back into obscurity. The quarterback will be new, but whether it's Nick Florence, Bryce Petty or some obscure interloper from the end of the bench, he will have legitimate talent at tailback (Jarred Salubi, Glasco Martin and Oregon transfer Lache Seastrunk), proven targets at receiver (Terrance Williams, Tevin Reese, Lanear Sampson and Michigan transfer Darryl Stonum) and at least two future pros on the line (Cyril Richardson and Ivory Wade). Briles has never presided over a bad offense.
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8. Texas Tech: Despite fears to the contrary, the basic blueprint of Texas Tech football has not changed in the transition from its eccentric "Air Raid" evangelist, Mike Leach, to defensive-minded drawler Tommy Tuberville: Offensively, Tuberville's Raiders still put the ball in the air more often than any other attack in the Big 12. And defensively, they're still hanging on for dear life. Of course, the two trends are somewhat related. In 2011, the defense lost its grip so quickly and so completely that the only viable setting on offense was "bombs away." In nine conference games, Tech allowed at least 40 points in seven of them, and at least 50 points in three of the last four. The front seven yielded an entire season's worth of gains on the ground – 1,668 yards and 20 touchdowns – in the final five games alone; not surprisingly, it finished as the worst rushing defense in the nation. So what do you do? You keep throwing. Presumably that's the plan again, given the return of spread-bred offensive coordinator Neal Brown, senior quarterback Seth Doege and a half-dozen familiar faces at receiver. But the real question is on the other side: With a new coordinator (Art Kaufman, an old hand who once served as Tuberville's defensive coordinator at Ole Miss) and a staggering 16 players who have started at least four games in their careers, just how much better can the defense be? The only answer we have for now is that it cannot possibly be any worse.
9. Iowa State: Paul Rhoads has been head coach at Iowa State for three years, in which time the Cyclones have played in two bowl games, notched road upsets over Nebraska and Texas, taken the CyHawk Trophy from rival Iowa and laid waste to the BCS standings in an ambush of undefeated, second-ranked Oklahoma State last November, costing the Cowboys a shot at a national championship. By almost any measure, that qualifies as the best three-year run in Ames since at least the late seventies, when coach Earle Bruce parlayed a brief string of winning seasons into the top job at Ohio State. But come prediction time, here they are again, as usual, straining to escape the conference cellar. In defense of the pundits, and stray upsets notwithstanding, there's still not much for optimists to grasp onto. Aside from steady senior linebackers A.J. Klein and Jake Knott, ISU doesn't have a compelling All-Big 12 candidate at any other position, and hasn't produced a memorable playmaker on offense in ages. The quarterback situation remains an ongoing tug-of-war between last year's starters, Steele Jantz and Jared Barnett. The defense is plugging in three new starters on the line and two in the secondary. And even if they manage to solve every one of those issues, the Cyclones are staring down the barrel of a schedule guaranteed to cast them as underdogs in at least eight games.
10. Kansas: Remember two years ago, when Turner Gill was the sane, popular choice to rescue Kansas from the turbulent, sordid demise of his predecessor, Mark Mangino? No? Yeah, neither does Kansas. In two years under Gill, the Jayhawks were 1-16 in Big 12 games, and in both seasons ranked last or next-to-last in the conference in rushing offense, rushing defense, passing offense, passing defense, pass efficiency defense, total offense, scoring offense, scoring defense, third down offense, third down defense, sacks and sacks allowed. Last year's edition also finished last in the conference in total defense; in fact, Kansas allowed more yards and more points per game in 2011 than any other defense in the nation. The season concluded on a 10-game losing streak, six of those losses coming by at least 30 points. So enough with Mr. Nice Guy. Enter Charlie Weis, who was called everything from genius to fraud during his ill-fated, five-year odyssey as head coach at Notre Dame, but has never been called nice. Accordingly, his first priority last winter was overhauling the roster at all costs, beginning with the new quarterback, fifth-year senior Dayne Crist, a former Weis recruit whose career in South Bend was undone by multiple knee injuries and a troubling penchant for turnovers. The rest of the depth chart is awash in transfers from junior colleges and other major schools who have a leg up on the holdovers by the simple virtue of having not been associated with Gill-era futility.