The Big 12 gets an infusion of talent with TCU and West Virginia joining the fray in 2012. The already-elite conference will boast many top-tier players and several teams that could be in the national title race.
At this point, the conference championship race seems wide open. Leave it to high-caliber players like Landry Jones, Collin Klein and the incoming Geno Smith to be major factors in a competitive conference.
As we attempt to make sense of the new conference landscape, it's helpful to know who the most visibly prominent players are. So, here are the top 10 playmakers in the new-look Big 12.
He may not be in the limelight, but Seth Doege is improving as Texas Tech's signal-caller. He led his team to a mere five victories last season, but one of those wins snapped Oklahoma's 39-game home winning streak. Doege shone brilliantly in that contest, throwing for 441 yards and four touchdowns.
Overall, the junior threw for a solid 4,004 yards and 28 touchdowns. He should improve with the rest of the Red Raiders this season. Expect Texas Tech to serve primarily as a spoiler in the Big 12. It's unlikely the squad will win too many games, but you can't rule that offense out of any contest. Tommy Tuberville's bunch will upset at least one team, possibly Texas or Oklahoma State.
Because of his ability and the Red Raiders' spoiler potential, Seth Doege is an important player to focus on this season. The quality of his play could be important in influencing how the conference standings turn out.
Josh Boyce will be intriguing to follow this season. He had an impressive sophomore campaign last season, leading the Horned Frogs with 61 catches for 998 yards and nine touchdowns. He will continue to build chemistry with quarterback Casey Pachall in 2012. In fact, the Pachall-Boyce duo should develop into one of the most successful hookups in the conference.
The Big 12 showed porous pass defense in 2011, and the Horned Frogs should have success throwing the football. Boyce is poised for a breakout season, and if the wideout gets it done for TCU, the squad will be in the thick of the conference championship mix at the end of the season.
Pachall was impressive in his first season leading the Horned Frog attack. The sophomore threw for a school-record 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. More importantly, he led TCU to an 11-2 record and a Poinsettia Bowl victory.
TCU is riding an eight-game win streak as it transitions to the Big 12. With returning talent and an elite coach in Gary Patterson, expect Pachall and co. to compete for the conference crown. The final stretch will define the 2012 season as the Horned Frogs face Oklahoma State, West Virginia, Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma in succession. Ouch.
It will be exciting to see the perennial power compete in a big boy conference. A conference championship and maybe more are within reach, but the Horned Frogs' dreams start and end with Pachall. Regardless of much noise TCU makes in the Big 12, Casey Pachall will have a productive season in 2012 and become a household name.
Stills has been a primary threat in each of his first two seasons for Oklahoma. With the loss of Ryan Broyles to the NFL and a shortage of experience in the receiving corps, he will be Landry Jones' top receiver and a mentor to younger wideouts in 2012, including superstar-in-waiting Trey Metoyer.
If he continues to progress, Stills is on pace for a highly productive output this season. The OU offense is counting on him to produce. Without an effective Stills, the Sooner offense will lack dimension and struggle. But if he does live up to the hype, his success will fuel an offensive attack that can wreak major havoc in the Big 12.
Joining Tavon Austin for a potent one-two punch, WVU wideout Stedman Bailey hauled in 72 catches for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns as only a sophomore in 2012. Although his production dropped off in the latter portion of the season, Bailey was an integral part of a team that won both the Big East and the Orange Bowl.
The real challenge for Bailey and his teammates will be adjusting to Big 12 competition. Instead of playing Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Rutgers, the team will have to deal with TCU, Texas and Oklahoma. The Mountaineers have the talent to thrive in their new conference, but challenges will abound. The league's pass defenses may have been weak last season, but it's a new level of competition.
If Stedman Bailey is the type of player his supporters believe he is, the wideout will adapt quickly to Big 12 secondaries and continue to produce at a high level. Otherwise, his 2011 breakout year could be buried in a pile of disappointment and unfulfilled opportunities.
The Cowboys will be quieter in 2012 without star duo Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon. Tailback Joseph Randle, who was spectacular last season, will be foundational once again in the OSU attack.
In only his second season on campus, Randle burst onto the scene with 1,216 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. If that's not enough, he also caught 43 passes for 266 yards and two scores for an offense that racked up almost 400 passing yards per game.
As OSU adjusts to life without Weeden and Blackmon, Randle will serve a critical, prominent role in the offensive attack. The Pokes will go to the ground more to make incoming quarterback Wes Lunt's job as manageable as possible. Randle will blossom and put together a junior year to remember. But will it be one to remember for the Cowboys in the Big 12?
Sure, he has talent around him, but quarterback Geno Smith is what makes the Mountaineers such a dangerous team. Last season, he threw for a staggering 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns with only eight interceptions.
Now, the seasoned junior looks to try his hand against Big 12 competition. Given the aforementioned struggles to defend the pass in the conference, WVU should see success. The question is: How much success?
With its potent offense and returning talent, West Virginia will definitely compete for the Big 12 crown next season. Geno Smith will be a fitting addition to a pass-happy conference and enjoy another prolific year.
Already enjoying the status of the most prolific passer in Oklahoma history, the 2012 season is about redemption for Landry Jones. After a disappointing campaign last season, the senior is anxious to recapture his status as an elite quarterback and capture another Big 12 title.
Granted, Jones threw for 4,463 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2011, but he panicked after star wideout Ryan Broyles went down and never regained his old form. He will have plenty of talent around him in 2012. He must make the most of the opportunity and prove, beyond all doubt, that he is an elite quarterback.
If he plays to his potential, a conference title and possibly national championship are within reach for Landry Jones. Sooner fans hope the real Landry shows up in 2012.
The sixth-best passing attack in the nation would not have shone so brightly without the diminutive Austin. The junior snagged a superb 101 receptions for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns. His magnum opus came in the 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl. Austin burned the Tigers for 123 yards and four touchdowns.
Additionally, Austin led the nation in all-purpose yards and tallied 938 kick return yards with two scores last season. His receiving skills and versatility will help make WVU a conference championship contender.
Austin, fellow receiver Stedman Bailey and quarterback Geno Smith set WVU up for another prolific air attack in 2012. It will be interesting to see if Big 12 defenses have any answers for WVU's offensive fireworks show.
Klein's numbers in 2011 were astounding. He threw for 1,918 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushed for 1,141 yards and 27 scores. He carried the Wildcats on his back en route to an impressive 10 wins and Cotton Bowl appearance.
Considering his versatility and leadership, the 6'5", 228-lb. dual threat is the biggest playmaker in the Big 12 heading into fall. But can the record-setting quarterback replicate his success, or was 2011 the high point of Klein's career?
Similarly, is Kansas State poised for another storybook season? At this point, KSU should be considered a Big 12 championship contender, and Klein should be in the early Heisman Trophy discussion. All in all, the Wildcats should be one of the more intriguing Big 12 squads in 2012.