Since Bob Stoops became the head coach of the University of Oklahoma in 1999, the Big 12 conference has basically belonged to the Sooners.
Stoops and Company have won seven Big 12 championships in 13 years, and while there was still a real conference championship game being played, Stoops was 7-1 with his only loss coming in 2003 to a talented Kansas State squad. However, the Sooners were still elected to play in the National Championship game that season.
In the Bob Stoops era, the Sooners' seven championships are the most of any Big 12 participant by far. Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns have the second-most Big 12 titles in the Stoops era: two.
Even though last season marked the first time the Big 12 has never held an official championship game, the Sooners still played in what became an unofficial title game against the Oklahoma State Cowboys in their last game of the season. The Sooners had a solid chance to win their eighth Big 12 title under Stoops, but the Cowboys proved to be the better team, dismantling the Sooners by a score of 44-10.
For as much talent as the preseason No. 1 ranked Sooners had on their roster last season, injuries and inconsistency were key factors in the Sooners' fall from the top—the Sooners finished the season ranked No. 14 after a bowl victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Here's a fun stat: The Sooners have never gone two consecutive years without winning a Big 12 title under Bob Stoops. There's no doubt that the Sooners are going to be highly motivated to have a better season, but should they be the favorites to win the Big 12 in 2012?
After losing arguably their most important offensive player in wide receiver Ryan Broyles, and four of their best defensive players in cornerback Jamell Fleming, linebacker Travis Lewis and defensive ends Frank Alexander and Ronnell Lewis, the Sooners should be in rebuilding mode.
However, their offense has the chance to be even more potent than last season, and under "new" defensive coordinator Mike Stoops, the Sooners' defense should be much more productive. A great recruiting class gives the Sooners immediate options to fill the holes that the aforementioned players left, so the Sooners should be well on their way to competing for another Big 12 title.
The Big 12 looks a little different this year, though, as long time participants Texas A&M and Missouri are leaving to join the well-renowned SEC. While long time fans will surely miss the rivalries that these two teams brought to the conference, new participants TCU and West Virginia will more than makeup for their absence.
In fact, they may even be Oklahoma's biggest competition this upcoming season, but let's first look at the Sooners' biggest competition among the remaining Big 12 squads.
The Longhorns have been a mess the last two seasons due to inconsistent quarterback play and a lack of leadership. Though they did finish last season with a bowl victory over California, an 8-5 record isn't something that the Longhorns should be proud of.
Who will be the Sooners biggest competition?
However, I admit that the Longhorns were a very young team last season, and they did at times show flashes of life—their 27-25 victory on the road at Texas A&M was a very solid victory for a young team. With a year of experience under their belts, the Longhorns should be a much tougher team to face—let's not forget, the Sooners did embarrass them last season.
The Longhorns are loaded on defense (should be the best in the Big 12), and if they can get anything out of either David Ash or Case McCoy at quarterback, their offense should be a lot better.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
A lot of people want to write off the Cowboys now that quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon are off to the NFL. While I do think the Cowboys won't be as good as last season, they're still a better than average squad.
Junior running back Joseph Randle is a likely All-Big 12 First Team candidate (and possibly All-American) and the Cowboys' secondary has a chance to not only be one of the best in the Big 12, but in the country as well.
With the high-powered offense the Cowboys run, replacing Blackmon won't be as huge of a deal as most may think. The Cowboys have other capable receivers on their roster such as Isaiah Anderson and Tracy Moore, but the question remains, "Who is going to throw them the ball?" Whether that's junior Clint Chelf or redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh, the Cowboys should be competing for a consecutive Big 12 title.
After the Longhorns and the Cowboys, the Sooners may see some competition out of Iowa State and even Texas Tech, but newcomers TCU and West Virginia will pose a much larger threat.
TCU Horned Frogs
TCU was supposed to be in rebuilding mode last season after Andy Dalton, the Horned Frogs' four-year starter at quarterback, left for the NFL, but sophomore Casey Pachall led his team to a conference championship (which included a win on the road at Boise State) and a bowl victory over Louisiana Tech.
After playing against mostly lackluster competition in the Mountain West conference, TCU will likely have to get used to playing a higher level of competition week-in and week-out. However, being that TCU is one of the most talented teams in the conference, that transition should come easier than it sounds.
TCU will have to step up their defense next season, but they do have one of the best defensive players in the conference in junior defensive end Stansly Maponga.
West Virginia Mountaineers
In my opinion, the Mountaineers will be the Sooners' biggest competition this season. Even with Landry Jones returning for his senior year, West Virginia's Geno Smith may be the best quarterback in the conference.
After winning the Big East conference last season, the Mountaineers were awarded a BCS bowl bid to take on the Clemson Tigers—the Mountaineers won handily, 70-33.
They were a scary team on both sides of the ball last season, and to make matters worse (for OU), the Mountaineers return all of their skill players on offense (seven starters in total) and eight starters on defense. West Virginia's wide receivers should be the only group in the Big 12 to compete with Oklahoma's.
So there's a quick rundown of Oklahoma's competition for the 2012 season. If I had to speculate, Oklahoma's game at West Virginia in Week 12 might play a big part in deciding the conference winner.
The Sooners will likely go into the season as the favorite to win the Big 12 and there's no doubt they have the talent to win it all—that includes the National Championship. But which Oklahoma team is going to show up this year?
That's a question that will have to remain unanswered for awhile. For now, we can only speculate.