The Big 12 tends to get as much love as any conference in college football, but since the turn of the millennium, it has proved to be a bit on the thin side. Since 2000, only twice has a champion emerged from the conference not named Oklahoma or Texas (’01 Colorado and ’03 K-State).
With storied programs such as Colorado and Nebraska failing to make much noise in the conference of late, and the disappearing act K-State has pulled since taking the conference crown in 2003 (going 21-26 since), the Big 12 has been more like the Big Two.
That is, until Kansas and Missouri came out of nowhere last year to take the conference - and the rest of the country – by surprise, by going a combined 21-1 before meeting each other in the regular season finale.
Kansas was 11-0 heading into the Border War, led by then sophomore QB Todd Reesing. The Jayhawks were just filthy on offense, ranking second in the nation in scoring with 42.8 ppg. In 2008, Kansas will replace five offensive starters, including Brandon McAnderson, the conference's third leading rusher. But the Jayhawks have plenty of talent waiting to fill the void, and shouldn’t miss a beat in 2008.
On the other side of the ball, nine defensive starters return for the Jayhawks, who led the conference in total defense in 2007, and ranked No. 1 in the nation in TO margin.
Missouri will also look to replace five starters on offense, including running back Tony Temple, who ran for 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons. Sophomore receiver Jeremy Maclin is the Tigers' top returning receiver. Maclin caught 80 passes last year for 1,055 yards and nine TDs.
Not to mention Texas Tech, which quietly racked up nine wins last year in the shadow of the Tigers and Jayhawks. QB Graham Harrell and WR Michael Crabtree put up inexplicable numbers last season in Tech’s pass-heavy offense, both leading the nation at their respective positions, and both returning in 2008.
Texas Tech’s signature wins in 2007 include a 34-27 upset of Oklahoma in the season finale, and a 31-28 Gator Bowl win over Virginia. However, disappointing losses to Oklahoma State and Colorado (by a combined total of nine points) left some people with question marks. If Tech can avoid losing to inferior teams in 2008, don’t be surprised to see them contend for a conference title and a BCS birth.
With all that said, this conference is now legitimately five teams deep. But it doesn’t end there.
Now that Dennis Franchione is out as head coach at Texas A&M, and Mike Sherman is in, senior QB Stephen McGee will likely have the freedom to play to his strength, throwing the football, instead of forcing the triple option.
The Aggies are inexperienced, returning only nine total starters from last year’s 7-6 squad, but don’t be surprised if this team raises some eyebrows in 2008, and flirts with a double-digit win total.
There’s also a new era (again) in Lincoln. Bo Pelini takes over as head coach of the Cornhuskers after contributing a big glass football as defensive coordinator in a place called Baton Rouge.
Pelini will have his work cut out for him defensively. Nebraska returns six defensive starters, and the top eight on the defensive line. Whether or not that is a good thing is yet to be determined. Last year’s Huskers were terrible defensively, and ranked 112th in the nation in total defense.
However, if the Cornhusker D can turn it around, there might be hope. QB Joe Ganz threw for 1,399 yards and 15 touchdowns as the starter in the final three games. I-Back Marlon Lucky will also carry a load offensively for Nebraska. Lucky carried the ball for over 1,000 yards in 2007, and added another 705 yards on 75 receptions, catching the ball out of the backfield.
The overall outlook in Colorado is, well, they’re a year older. The Dan and Cody Hawkins duo is in its second year, and saw flashes of success in 2007.
Colorado played more of a spoiler role last season, beating Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but inexcusably losing to Kansas State and Iowa State on its way to an Independence Bowl loss to Alabama. If the Buffs can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, they could challenge for a spot in the Big 12 title game.
While Texas and Oklahoma will still be powers in the Big 12 this year, this conference goes much deeper than it has in the recent past. When was the last time you knew the Texas Tech/OK State game was going to be meaningful? Much less in the middle of June.
Not only is this conference deep this year with legitimate contenders, but it’s loaded with quarterbacks as well. Let me clue you in. Graham Harrell, who threw for 5,705 yards in 2007 (best in the nation) was left off of both preseason all Big 12 teams.
You’re telling me the nations most dangerous passer isn’t even all Big 12 second team worthy? Nope, That honor went to Oklahoma’s Sam Bradford, while first team honors went to Chase Daniel of Missouri. Something tells me Todd Reesing would be selected for the all Big 12 third team if there were such a thing.
This year, every Big 12 game will be important, not just the ones involving Oklahoma or Texas, as the conference should be considered one of the deepest in the country.