The Big 12 conference has five of the top 25 teams in the country, and with a wealth of talent returning the question becomes: who represent the Big 12 in the BCS?
It's a new look conference following the departure of Colorado and Nebraska. With only 10 teams inhabiting the conference now, that means no more North and South divisions and no more Big 12 Championship game. Every team will play each other on the schedule for the foreseeable future.
Seven bowl teams return to the conference this season and it's very likely that seven teams will return to bowls again this year. Some of the nation's top players at quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker are in this conference and realistically five teams could challenge for the Big 12 crown.
Will Oklahoma live up to the hype? Can Texas A&M trounce the Sooners? Or will Oklahoma State, Missouri, or Texas play the jester and still the crown from the favorites?
Here are my projections for where every Big 12 team will finish in the conference in 2011.
In short, Kansas head coach Turner Gill's inaugural season was a disaster, and things don't bode much better for the Jayhawks in 2011.
Kansas returns 13 starters from a 3-9 squad in 2010. Offensively, the team was absolutely putrid, ranking 113th in total offense in the country. Running back James Sims and wide receiver Daymond Patterson are the lone bright spots on the Jayhawk offense and will carry the load for most of the season.
Last year's starting quarterback Jordan Webb showed some solid scrambling ability, but was never consistent or prolific in any performance. He'll be competing for his starting spot against incoming freshman Brock Berglund, a competition many think Berglund could win by season's end.
On defense, things aren't much better. They finished 107th in the country against the run and hauled in a meager seven interceptions as a team in 2010. Senior linebacker Steven Johnson led the team in tackles with 95 and is the only defender with all-conference potential on the roster.
It's pretty clear that Kansas is the least talented team in the Big 12. James Sims looks like a future star, but he will be keyed on against virtually every team Kansas faces.
I can see them squeaking out a conference win like last year's 28-point comeback against Colorado, but don't expect much more from the 2011 Jayhawks.
Predicted Record: 3-9 (1-8)
Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads really gets a lot out of his players, but he simply doesn't have a lot to work with offensively to compete in 2011.
The Cyclones begin a makeover on offense after the graduation of quarterback Austen Arnaud. With only five starters returning in 2011, Iowa St. will be relying heavily on unproven commodities at key positions.
Luckily, starting left tackle Kelechi Osemele is one of the finest offensive lineman in the country, anchoring the Cyclone trenches. Sophomore running back Shontrelle Johnson averaged 6.2 yards per carry last year and looks to take over the reins as the new starter.
Junior college transfer Steele Jantz and last year's back-up Jerome Tiller will battle for the starting quarterback job throughout fall camp. Both players are skilled runners and good fits for the team's spread offense.
Although Iowa State's defensive numbers are abysmal, the team has some rising star power on the other side of the ball. Junior linebackers Jake Knott and A.J. Klein each had more than 110 tackles in 2010. They're quietly two of the conference's best linebackers.
Unfortunately, Klein and Knott make so many tackles largely thanks to playing behind the conference's worst defensive line. The Cyclones were shredded for over 185 yards rushing a game last year and don't boast a lot of defensive talent outside of the linebacking corps.
All in all, Paul Rhoads' squad proved that they won't go down without a fight after last year's upset victories. But with instability on offense and major holes on defense, the Cyclones simply can't match up with their conference counterparts every week to make a leap in 2011.
Predicted Record: 4-8 (2-7)
The Kansas State Wildcats have a re-tooled 2011 roster, but they're likely a year away from being serious players in the Big 12 conference.
Star running back Daniel Thomas' graduation decimates what was a strong running game for Kansas State's offense last year. They really, really liked to run the football. Junior Collin Klein takes over as the starting quarterback after operating as the team's option quarterback one year ago.
Klein's a solid athlete, but he'll need to make some big strides as a quarterback to save the Wildcat passing game that disappeared down the stretch in 2010. Sophomore running back Bryce Brown was at one point the top high school player in the country. After a fallout with Tennessee, the team hopes Brown can regain his form and become a big-time player in their offense.
All-Big 12 safety Ty Zimmerman leads the Kansas St. defense in 2011. Zimmerman and the team's leading tackler David Garret make up a solid secondary for the Wildcats. They'll need to continue their strong play if they want to turn the defense around next year.
Kansas State was 119th against the run and just as bad at collecting sacks in 2010. Junior linebacker Arthur Brown aims to change that stigma. He's a transfer from Miami (FL), and head coach Bill Snyder thinks he could be one of the conference's best defenders.
As promising as the defense may be, this team still needs to replace their leading rusher, leading passer, starting receivers, and three starting lineman all in the same season. That will likely prove to be a tall order in the condensed 10-team Big 12. Hopefully, the Brown brothers live up to the hype.
Predicted Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Texas Tech head coach Tommy Tuberville led an up-and-down Red Raider team last year, and I'd look for more of the same inconsistency from the 2011 squad.
It's business as usual for the Tech offense this season. All five starting offensive lineman return for 2011 and many of the receivers that played last year come back as well. The Red Raiders were a top-25 team in scoring offense last year.
Redshirt junior Seth Doege takes over at quarterback in 2011. He's the ultimate question mark (65 career attempts) and injuries have derailed his college career. But the coaching staff likes his arm and trusts that the fourth year player will quickly grasp the offense.
Junior wide receiver Alex Torres is one of the better wideouts in the conference, but he'll need to play even better in 2011 to replace the production of departed players Lyle Leong and Detron Lewis.
On defense, it's another defensive coordinator and another new scheme for the third consecutive season. Nobody was worse at defending the pass than Texas Tech. Even offensively challenged teams like Iowa State scored 50 points on the Red Raiders with ease last year.
The defensive line is in shambles with many recruits being counted on to play early this season. The same can be said about the linebacking corps. Secondary players like Tre' Porter and Cody Davis return to provide the only stability anywhere on defense.
Tuberville has some serious swagger and the Red Raiders were able to steal wins from Missouri and Baylor in 2010 en route to a bowl game. But this team is pinning their hopes on an injury-prone quarterback and converted players all over the defensive side of the ball.
In short, I think Texas Tech is too poor defensively and not scary enough offensively to do major damage in this loaded conference.
Predicted Record: 6-6 (3-6)
Baylor head coach Art Briles has the Bear program on the rise, but serious questions defensively could hold back one of the country's strongest offenses in 2011.
There's a lot to be excited on Baylor's offense. It starts with quarterback Robert Griffin, who exploded last season for 3,501 passing yards, 635 rushing yards, and 30 total touchdowns. Griffin is a freak athlete and his presence alone will keep Baylor in a lot of games.
Senior wide receiver Kendall Wright is the school's most accomplished pass catcher. He's a rising conference star, as are speedsters Lanear Simpson and Josh Gordon at receiver. The offensive line welcomes four players back from a prominent unit in 2010.
As good as things look on offense, they appear just as badly on defense. The Bears lose their top five tacklers from a year ago on a defense that got torched for over 38 points seven separate times last year. New defensive coordinator Phillip Bennett will implement a 4-2-5 scheme and look to change the culture immediately in 2011.
Senior linebacker Elliot Coffey will lead the unit this season. He's a prototypical middle linebacker and could benefit from the change in schemes greatly. Young players like Tyler Stephenson and Sam Holl join the secondary this year and the coaching staff believes they have star potential.
Baylor is going to be an offensive juggernaut behind the strong play of Robert Griffin. He could challenge for Offensive Player of the Year honors.
That being said, Baylor is going to be some major growing pains on defense that prevent them from competing for a conference title this season. Another bowl game is certainly within their reach, though.
Predicted Record: 6-6 (4-5)
Mack Brown's Texas Longhorn team is awfully talented as usual, but a turnover-prone quarterback and a lack of offensive prowess will be the downfall of this re-grouping 2011 team.
Junior quarterback Garrett Gilbert was supposed to have a seamless transition into the starting role last season. That didn't happen, as Gilbert accounted for almost 25 turnovers in 2010 and was booed out of his own stadium at one point. He'll have to bounce back in a major way to fix the flawed Longhorn offense.
The offensive line struggled mightily last year as well and looks to find some new life with three new starters in 2011. Sophomore wide receiver Mike Davis was a bright spot in the passing game and could be the crutch that Garret Gilbert leans on early in the year.
Incoming freshman running back Malcolm Brown could be the savior Texas is looking for at running back, as he was the top-rated high school tailback in the nation last year.
Despite the offensive struggles, the Longhorn defense has the makings of greatness. They were the sixth ranked defense in the country last year and welcome some strong players back into the starting lineup. Sophomore Jackson Jeffcoat and junior Alex Okafor were productive players in 2010. They will make up one of the conference's deadliest pass-rushing duos.
Behind them are senior linebackers Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho. They were the team's leading tacklers last season and will make plays left and right for the Texas defense.
On the surface, Texas appears to have the fixings of a bounce back season. But many people are writing off last season's 5-7 record as a fluke. I'm not so quick to give Texas that benefit.
Mack Brown overhauled this staff this season to try to obtain a quick fix. New schemes on offense and defense will taken time to adjust to and that's no small task, even for a program like Texas.
While the defense will be one of the country's best, the season hinges on the play of Garrett Gilbert. If he plays like the 5-star talent he is, then Texas will be back in business. But with so many stronger teams in the Big 12 this year, I can't see Texas finishing higher than fourth or fifth in the conference.
Predicted Record: 8-4 (5-4)
Quarterback Brandon Weeden and Oklahoma State Cowboys have some mind-boggling offensive firepower and with improved defensive play could become a team to be reckoned with in the Big 12 this season.
Weeden, who is a staggering 28 years old, was one of the nation's top quarterbacks last season. He paired with wide receiver Justin Blackmon to form the most unstoppable passing combination in all of college football. Blackmon led the country in receiving yards and touchdowns and actually posted more receiving touchdowns than six Big 12 teams last year. Amazing.
Every starter on the offensive line returns. Left tackle Levy Adcock leads a group that only surrendered 10 sacks in 2010. They were a huge part of the offensive success of last year.
Wide receiver Josh Cooper is solid and sophomore running back Joseph Randle will have to replace the massive production of former starter Kendall Hunter.
The Cowboy defense is in a state of flux, but there are some strong players that OSU can build around in 2011. Senior safety Markelle Martin is one of the conference's fiercest hitters and had a strong 55-tackle, three interception campaign a year ago. Cornerbacks Brodrick Brown and Devin Hedgepath are a very solid pairing.
The question marks remain on the defensive line and at linebacker. Sophomore linebacker Shaun Lewis looks like a future star, but the rest of the front seven is riddled in disappointment. They weren't very good against the run and were even worse against the pass (115th in the country) thanks to a nonexistent pass rush.
Oklahoma State is stellar offensively. They scored 44.2 points per game and averaged 520 yards. They are one of the dark horses to win the Big 12.
However, if they want to compete with Oklahoma and Texas A&M they need to step up on defense in a big way. Those teams have great offenses, too. If the Cowboys can do that, there may be no stopping Justin Blackmon and company in 2011.
Predicted Record: 9-3 (6-3)
After a huge defensive turnaround in 2010, the experienced Missouri Tigers aim to make a run at the Big 12 championship in 2011 behind a stout defense and strong offensive line.
The Tigers bring nine starters back on the offensive side of the ball. The offensive line is one of the nation's best, with four-year starters Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch anchoring the tackle positions. The loss of all-conference center Tim Barnes will hurt, but junior Travis Ruth has strong talent around him to help the transition.
Every receiver that caught a pass in 2010 returns as well. All-American Michael Egnew is the best tight end in the country and junior receiver T.J. Moe burst onto the scene for over 1,000 yards and six touchdowns last year. With the exception of Oklahoma, Missouri has the most experienced offense in the Big 12 going into this year.
Sophomore James Franklin will have to grow up fast to replace first-round NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert at quarterback. He played in every game last year and wound up scoring 3 total touchdowns. He's a mobile quarterback with good touch as a passer.
The strength of the Tiger squad will be on the defensive side of the ball. Despite losing Aldon Smith to the NFL, Missouri still has the best defensive line in the conference by a long shot. Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison are arguably the best defensive end combo in college football and both players will excel next season.
Senior linebackers Luke Lambert and Will Ebner need to stay healthy for Missouri to feel totally safe in the middle of the defense, but luckily junior Zaviar Gooden was the leading tackler from last year and could become the top linebacker in the conference by season's end.
Missouri returns 15 starters from a 10-win 2010 team. They will face early challenges on the road at Arizona State and Oklahoma that will ultimately decide their season.
If James Franklin is as good as advertised, look out. Missouri will be one of the top defensive teams next year and the offense has enough talent to flourish under strong quarterback play. This looks like the year Missouri officially enters the Big 12 elite.
Predicted Record: 9-3 (7-2)
Following an unprecedented midseason charge, the Texas A&M Aggies look like a real contender for a Big 12 championship behind a strong offense and quickly improving defense in 2011.
After the unceremonious benching of Jerrod Johnson at quarterback, the Aggie offense found new life last year en route to a Cotton Bowl berth. Senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill spearheaded that change and expectations are high for his first full season as the starter.
The best player on the offense is wide receiver Jeff Fuller. Fuller is an imposing 6'4", 215 pounds and produces wildly well for being the team's clear go-to receiver. He's grabbed 163 receptions for 28 touchdowns in three college seasons.
Fuller leads a strong receiving corps that includes 72 catches from Ryan Swope and a deep threat in Uzoma Nwachukwu. The Aggie offensive line also welcomes back four strong starters for 2011.
The defense looks to continue a steady upward trend this year, despite the loss of first-round pick Von Miller.
Miller will be replaced by junior Caleb Russell, a player with a lot of potential at the team's "Joker" position. Garrick Williams is the centerpiece of the defense after raking in 112 tackles a year ago. The Aggies will be a tough team to run the football on in their second season under defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter's new scheme.
Texas A&M was undefeated in conference play after switching to Tannehill at quarterback. They're a preseason top-15 team with a chip on their shoulder and a great home field advantage.
Can the Aggies put it all together and steal their first Big 12 title since 1998? It's very well possible, especially if the defense becomes as good as the offense in 2011.
Predicted Record: 10-2 (8-1)
The Oklahoma Sooners are the favorites to win the Big 12 conference because they have the most complete roster in all of college football right now.
Starting with the offense, this unit may be better than the one that went to the national championship in 2008. Senior quarterback Landry Jones shredded opponents last season for 4,718 yards and 38 touchdowns. His top target, senior wide receiver Ryan Broyles, hauled in an absurd 131 receptions for 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns.
The Sooners have a bevy of options to run with on offense. Sophomores Kenny Stills and Roy Finch were the top freshman at receiver and running back in the conference and will see expanded roles this season. Jones will pave the way for Oklahoma as he hones in on the school's all-time passing record.
Things look pretty darn good on defense as well. Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Travis Lewis has recorded over 100 tackles every year and looks to cap his Sooner career with another big season. Junior defensive end Ronnell Lewis looks like a future first-round NFL draft choice, and paired with senior Frank Alexander, they will terrorize offensive lines.
The only question surrounding Bob Stoops and the Oklahoma Sooners is if they can handle the pressure of being the favorite to win it all. History has shown that Oklahoma can crumble early only to find their footing too late in the season. Will that happen this year?
My guess is that it won't. This is a very experienced team with big talent at every position on the field. They'll want revenge for last season's loss against Missouri and won't be snuck up on by Oklahoma State and Texas A&M.
All signs point to Oklahoma winning the conference and potentially the national championship in 2011.
Predicted Record: 12-0 (9-0)