Heading into the 2011 season, it is tough to see what the future holds for schools other than the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas A&M Aggies.
Can quarterback Brandon Weedon and Wide receiver Justin Blackmon continue to punish defenses and turn heads at Oklahoma State?
Will the Texas Longhorns return to elite status and finish in the top three?
What will the Missouri Tigers look like now that Blaine Gabbert is in the NFL?
Can quarterback Robert Griffin finally get the Baylor Bears over the hump, and how will the Texas Tech Red Raiders do now that they boast a top-recruiting class?
While there is no way to truly know until the games are played, here is how I see things shaking up in the Big 12.
Returning 15 starters, Turner Gill has a huge rebuilding project on his hands, but his recruiting this past offseason was a very good first step.
Many are excited for running back Darrian Miller. He was a Missouri state prep star, and will join standout tailback James Sims. He had over 700 yards rushing last year with nine TDs. Not bad for a true freshman.
However, there is not much else going for Kansas this year and it looks to be another long one for Gill and Co.
Unless a major turnaround happens this year, I do not see Kansas making much noise. It needs much better quarterback play, and Jordan Webb was not very good last year—and the other quarterbacks on the roster were not much better.
Oh, and its defense was also not very good. It was ranked 98th in total defense last year.
Quarterback Austen Arnaud and running back Alexander Robinson were not amazing, but were basically Iowa State’s offense last year. Losing both of them will be tough to overcome.
It also loses its top two receivers.
Easy to say Iowa State has a lot to prove this year if it wants to finish in the top half of the conference.
Iowa State had a solid defense last year and forced some turnovers to make up for the yardage it gave up. However, I just do not see it being good enough to make up for its lack of offensive punch.
Losing running back Daniel Thomas is going to be a huge loss for the Wildcats. He put up over 1,500 yards rushing and 19 TDs last year for an offense that really had limited talent.
Running back Bryce Brown looks nice, but I cannot predict he will muster up that kind of production to lead Kansas State to success.
Bill Snyder is a great coach and has the Wildcats on the right track.
This just will not be their year.
The Bears' offense will look to be better than ever with stud quarterback Robert Griffin coming into his junior season. They also return their top five wide receivers.
However, losing running back Jay Finley is going to hurt a lot. He rushed for over 1,200 yards last year. It will be tough to duplicate that kind of production.
What will keep Baylor from progressing out of the bottom half of the conference is its defense. The Bears were not very good last year and lost defensive tackle Phil Taylor, a first-round selection in the NFL draft.
They are only returning five starters and things do not look too good for the Bears defensively.
Baylor has yet to prove to me they can take that next step after only beating one team with a winning record last year.
Losing their top two receivers in Detron Lewis and Lyle Leong is going to hurt for the Red Raiders. There is also no clear consensus from Tommy Tuberville on who will start for Tech at quarterback. It seems to be coming down to Seth Doege or Scotty Young.
What is going to be huge for the Red Raiders is returning five starting offensive linemen. That is huge and should help Eric Stephens have a breakout season at the running back position.
Also, Tech has a top-20 recruiting class, according to Rivals.
However, Tech will be losing Bront Bird, the team’s leading tackler. Not to mention defensive ends Colby Whitlock and Brian Duncan will both be missed.
Tech also has a sophomore starting cornerback tandem that was very raw last year in pass coverage. While the Red Raiders look to be better after a full season under their belt, it would be asking a lot for them to step it up enough to guard the Justin Blackmons and Jeff Fullers of the conference.
If Tech wants to do better than finish sixth, it will need to pull off an upset at home against a team like Oklahoma State or Texas A&M. Can they do it?
They did last year with a big home win against Missouri. However, as of now, I am not holding my breath.
Missouri rode the back of stud quarterback Blaine Gabbert last year and will turn to James Franklin to try and fill his shoes—like Gabbert had to fill the shoes of Chase Daniels.
Franklin has a lot of help around him. Mizzou is returning all of its top pass catchers, including T.J. Moe.
The Tigers also will return their top three running backs.
Losing Aldon Smith on the defensive side of the ball is going to hurt, and they are losing three out of four secondary starters.
However, that defense is just good enough to put them above teams like Texas Tech and ,as the defensive line returns the other three starters that were very effective, but overlooked because of Smith's presence.
If Texas is going to get back to its winning ways, then it needs to get better play out of quarterback Garret Gilbert. His 10 TDs and 17 INTs are not going to cut it.
One thing that prevents me from thinking that he will is that the offensive line is only returning two starters. That is a worrisome thing for the Longhorns' fans.
However, UT knows how to recruit and once again had an amazing recruiting class. the Longhorns were ranked third in the nation, according to Rivals, and top in the conference.
Running back Malcolm Brown is the gem of the recruiting class, and many in Austin feel they finally have a feature back since the end of Jamaal Charles’ college career.
UT also is returning the fewest starters in the conference, with just 12. That, and new coordinators on both sides of the ball will cause a lot of growing pains for the Longhorns.
The Longhorns will be a young and exciting team to watch, but that will not translate to a BCS berth, or even a top-three finish in the conference. The experience of Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma will prove to be too much for UT as it finishes fourth.
I have respect for Mack Brown, but he is not a miracle worker. Fans expecting a return to elite status will have to wait another year. The Longhorns just have too many question marks for me to comfortably put them higher.
The Oklahoma State Cowboys were a big surprise last year. Many had them at the bottom of the conference before the season started, and before guys like quarterback Brandon Weedon and wide receiver Justin Blackmon came in and exploded stat sheets across the nation.
They will miss running back Kendall Hunter, but did get a top recruit in Herschel Sims to help fill the void.
Ultimately, what will separate the Cowboys from finishing in the top two is their defense.
They are only returning five starters to a defense that ranked eighth in the conference last year. They will be relying on some new faces at many positions on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cowboys will really need to catch some breaks if they want to run the table to a conference title and a BCS game.
Road games against Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas will make that very difficult. They do, however, have a chance to upset the Sooners in Stillwater for the last game of the year, which can spoil OU's potential title dreams.
If they had the Aggies at home, I might have put them higher. However, you got to play the schedule given to you, and playing at Kyle Field is never easy, especially when the Aggies are as talented as they are.
Offensively, Texas A&M will be a force to be reckoned with. They return ten starters, only losing a starting center.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill will be ready to join forces with stud wide receiver Jeff Fuller and running back Cyrus Gray. There is no doubt the Aggies' offense will perform once again.
The question for the Aggies is the losses on defense. Tim DeReyter worked wonders in his first year as defensive coordinator at College Station.
They do return some talent. Linebacker Garrick Williams made 112 tackles last year as he returns to fill the void left by Von Miller. Linebacker Sean Porter also returns. Jonathon Mathis and Tony Jerod-Eddie are two returning defensive linemen that can get the job done.
While their secondary was not very good, 89th in the nation,they do return all four defensive backs and they have nowhere to go but up.
Miller is irreplaceable. This defense also lost Michael Hodges, who played exceptionally well along side Miller.
Ultimately, I see this defense losing a step or two, but they return enough talent to be a very respectable defense.
Getting Missouri, Texas and Oklahoma State at Kyle Field will also help A&M tremendously. However, Oklahoma on the road will kill their chances of winning the conference.
No surprise here. The Oklahoma Sooners are filled with talent at many positions across the field, as reflected in their top ranking in preseason polls.
Quarterback Landry Jones is coming off a very good year, as he avoided the dreaded “sophomore slump."
They are returning 17 starters, including four offensive linemen. It is going to be huge to protect Jones as much as possible.
Losing DeMarco Murray will undoubtedly hurt, along with losing both starting safeties.
I think they definitely have the talent to make up for the losses to win the conference, but winning a national title might be just outside of their reach.