This week kicks off the final year of the Big 12 as it currently exists. After 2010, the conference loses Nebraska to the Big 10 and Colorado to the Pac 10 if they can manage scrape together the funds to pay the buyout penalty.
Prior to the change; one last opportunity for a team from the North to make a play at the conference championship stranglehold that exists with Texas and Oklahoma the old fashioned way in a championship game.
Heading into the season, both South teams have a considerable amount of new faces and new questions. But the reality remains that the road to the Big 12 title runs through the Norman/Austin rivalry for the moment and the Sooners and Longhorns don't often find any difficulty rebuilding.
Throughout the season RCT will take a weekly look around the Big 12 and rank the teams in the form of a power poll. Today, our preseason rankings for week one.
Last Year's Finish: 8-5(Sun Bowl win over Stanford)
Week One Opponent: Utah State
After a season full of failed expectations, injuries and the departure of several of the more recognizable Sooner faces, it might surprise some to see Oklahoma at the top. Fortunately for the Sooners, they return Demarco Murray, a more seasoned Landry Jones and the next crop of NFL talent coming up through the system. College football is a game where the rich get richer and this offseason certainly supported that theory. Barring a major injury bug similar to last year, the Sooners will compete and should be considered the front runner for the Big 12. With that, also comes a potential shot at a national title. Calling "(Not So)Big Game Bob".
Last Year's Finish: 13-1(BCS Title game loss to Alabama)
Week One Opponent: Rice
The Longhorns lose the face of the program in Colt McCoy, but the sneak peak at Garret Gilbert during the Rose Bowl went from a near disaster to a glimpse at a bright future. Gilbert takes over for the winningest player in college football history in a place where expectations rarely take a year off. Texas has a very strong defense yet again as Will Muschamp seems to be turning the Longhorns into a machine. Offensively the biggest concern is receiver. The talent is there, but someone will have to emerge as a leader for the group.
Last Year's Finish: 10-4(Holiday Bowl win over Arizona)
Week One Opponent: Western Kentucky
The Cornhuskers lose a few key contributors from 2009 including a boy named Suh that single handily makes a defense go. Throw into the mix the loss of two starters prior to the season due to injury and the Huskers return 17 players from a team that was one second away from a Big 12 title. I'm curious; was the the one second that ultimately led to the Husker departure for the Big 10? Nonetheless, the Huskers do have talent defensively and the Pelini brothers have proven time and time again that they can coach the heck out of defense. With that in mind the Huskers will be tough, especially if they can find any semblance of an offense which the Husker faithful and coaching staff continue to contend we will see.
Last Year's Finish: 8-5(Texas Bowl loss to Navy)
Week One Opponent: Illinois
A month ago I would have felt very good about Missouri as my pick for the North and the 3rd best team in the league. I'm up in the air on Nebraska and I've felt like the Tigers bring back a great deal of talent and now it's talent with experience. The only problem is, in the last two weeks they can't seem to stay out of the police blotter. Problems exist everywhere, I'm no saying they don't. But when your recently selected team captain is suspended indefinitely while being investigated for sexual assault and you have one coach and two players arrested for DWI's, it can present some distractions. The biggest strength by far has to be Blaine Gabbert who based on measureables and potential could be a first round pick in April. He'll need to find receivers and defensively the Tigers will need to improve their pass rush and pass defense. If both of those thing happen and Washington is cleared to return, I like the Tigers chances.
5. Texas A&M
Last Year's Finish: 6-7(Independence Bowl loss to Georgia)
Week One Opponent: Stephen F. Austin
On paper this is a tempting team. My gut tells me to rank them #3, but then I continually find myself remembering the recent struggles of the program. The Aggies are certainly riding much higher than recent years however and do boast the Big 12 offensive and defensive preseason players of the year. There is plenty of talent, it's young and developing talent, but it's definitely there. If the Aggies stay healthy on defense and the offense gels the way it could, they could be a dangerous team. The only problem is that you still have to go through Texas and Oklahoma, just ask Texas Tech.
6. Texas Tech
Last Year's Finish: 9-4(Alamo Bowl win over Michigan State)
Week One Opponent: SMU
Tech is breaking in a new coach and perhaps a new philosophy. Tommy Tuberville contends that he will keep the offense in place, but can anyone really run an offense to the extreme the way Mike Leach did? The good news for Tech is that the talent is still there, Leach wasn't fired because the program was in a bad spot. Defensively they have talent and are gradually improving, the addition of a new defensive coordinator from the Alabama staff could prove to be a great acquisition. Tech will be fast on offense, attack on defense. Simply for the fact that they are playing in the South and A&M might finally be getting their feet back under them, Tech comes in at #6.
From here, the Big 12 becomes a bit of a crap shoot.
7. Iowa State
Last Year's Finish: 7-6(Insight Bowl win over Minnesota)
Week One Opponent: Northern Illinois
This is a power rankings, not an order of finish prediction. For that reason, I like Iowa State. Ignore the fact that their schedule all but assures a difficult season and you have a team that returns almost the entire offense and some inexperienced but talented players on defense. Austen Arnaud and Alexander Robinson are two big play potential players on offense and the offensive line is up there with the best in the league. Realistically Iowa State and Paul Rhoads could have a better team this year, but when it's all said and done you'd never know it. This is likely the highest I'll be able to put them all year as things get difficult quickly and downhill momentum is hard to stop. But watchout for the Cyclones and a potential upset somewhere along the way.
Last Year's Finish: 5-7
Week One Opponent: North Dakota State
Maybe a bit of a homer pick, but like Tech I don't think the cupboard is bare at Kansas. Turner Gill's style is a 180 from Mark Mangino's and if the players embrace that approach, pull in the same direction and overachieve a bit they could surprise some folks. There are new faces in key positions including quarterback, but the offensive line should be a strength and outside of the defensive tackle position, the Kansas coaches are confident they can manufacture some depth. The other thing that Kansas has in it's favor is the schedule flip. Games against a rebuilding Oklahoma State, Baylor and A&M instead of Oklahoma and Texas provide a much easier path to success. Kansas could easily fall short or exceed my expectations, but either way I expect the team to compete as a team in every game which is something that didn't happen during 2009.
9. Kansas State
Last Year's Finish: 6-6
Week One Opponent: UCLA
After last season and the impressive speed with which Bill Snyder was able to clean up the Ron Prince mess I promised I'd never doubt him again. I'm breaking my own rule. #9 might be selling the Wildcats a bit short to start things off, but just like last year the quarterback position is a question mark and depth is virtually non-existent. On the bright side they do return four starters on the offensive line and a weapon to put behind that group in Daniel Thomas. And most important of all, Bill Snyder is still on the sidelines. His teams play tough, disciplined and they execute the gameplan. Find a way to keep the offense on the field and score a few more points and the Wildcats could be back in a bowl.
Last Year's Finish: 3-9
Week One Opponent: Colorado State
The Buffaloes are the anti Kansas State. K-State lacks depth and talent but has a great coach. Colorado returns 17 starters, has solid talent and they no longer have the excuse of being young. But Dan Hawkins is no Bill Snyder. If he was, he might just win the North. While that might be an exaggeration, Colorado does have the talent to surprise and finish in the top 3 of the North. They also face the distinct possibility of a tough non-conference start, a lame duck coach and a school and fan base looking toward the future and the Pac 10. This is a tough team to call, but with Dan Hawkins consistently failing to meet expectations it's probably a safe bet that he'll do so for the last time in 2010.
11. Oklahoma State
Last Year's Finish: 9-4(Cotton Bowl loss to Mississippi)
Week One Opponent: Washington State
The Cowboys are dealing with a tremendous amount of turnover in 2010. They return just a handful of starters from a year ago and with that there is going to be a learning curve. It's hard to completely discount the Cowboys because T. Boone Pickens has armed the program with the facilities and resources it needs to recruit. Still a young team with little experience having to play OU, UT, Tech, A&M and an improving Baylor could prove to be a bit of a rebuilding project. Oklahoma State has some weapons offensively and could still surprise this year, but the expectations are definitely down after last season's failed attempt at a conference title run.
Last Year's Finish: 4-8
Week One Opponent: Sam Houston State
The Bears are getting better, and I'm sure they'd give about anything to play in the North. Problem is they don't. Robert Griffin returns and if he returns to pre-injury form the Bears have an offense that could breakthrough at anytime. Because of that the Bears have a chance to surprise some teams and pull off an upset like they did a year ago against Missouri. But it's still a project and two 4-8 seasons under Briles means there is a bit of a prove it element in play as well.
Best Games of the Week
Missouri vs. Illinois
The Tigers have handled the Illini over the past few years. Now how do they handle breaking in a new receiving corps and the loss of one of their team captains.
Kansas State vs. UCLA
A Pac 10 vs. Big 12 non conference matchup. Kansas State has plenty of question marks, but they can go a long way toward answering the early doubters with a win over a UCLA team coming off a 7-6 season and a trip to the EagleBank Bowl.
Colorado vs. Colorado State
I know it doesn't have the name recognition or draw much national attention, but this is a rivalry game where one team continues to insist it isn't a rivalry and the other team has kept the series near even for the last decade. It's a fun game to watch as is any rivalry game, this one just happens to be during the first weekend of the year.