August 7, 2011

Aggies out to push Sooners in Big 12

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Since Bob Stoops arrived at Oklahoma in 1999, the Sooners have played in four national championship games.

That's an average of once every three seasons. That means the Sooners are due.

Oklahoma last played for the national title in 2008 - three seasons ago. And with the Big 12 slimming down from a dozen teams to 10, the Sooners' road to the national title game would seem to have gotten easier.

As if they needed any help.

OU has won seven Big 12 championships under Stoops and projects as a heavy favorite to add to the trophy case this season. The Sooners again are loaded on offense and are sound enough defensively that many observers feel they're the best team in the nation entering the season.

Yet, even in a smaller Big 12, the Sooners must overcome significant challengers. Yes, Nebraska has left for the Big Ten and Colorado split for the Pac-12, but history indicated they likely wouldn't derail OU anyway. The Sooners were 6-2 against both those teams under Stoops and beat both of them twice in Big 12 championship games.

But Oklahoma State and Texas A&M are potential top-10 teams, archrival Texas figures to rebound from last season and Texas Tech and Missouri are formidable challengers as well.

Even with 10 teams, the Big 12 still offers a lineup teeming with heavy hitters. Oklahoma just figures to be hitting cleanup once again.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon. The Big 12 has a ton of offensive talent, but no one is better than Blackmon, who has good size and speed and great hands. The 2010 Biletnikoff Award winner, Blackmon burst onto the scene a year ago and led the nation with 1,782 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns. He also had 111 catches. All three were school records. He was the Big 12 offensive player of the year last season and could win that honor again.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Oklahoma LB Travis Lewis. He has earned all-conference recognition in each of his three previous seasons, and it would be shocking it he isn't honored again. Last season, he led the Sooners with 109 tackles and also had three interceptions. Lewis has 362 career tackles, the second-highest total at OU during coach Bob Stoops' tenure. He also has eight career interceptions.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Texas QB Garrett Gilbert. Texas' hopes of bouncing back from last season's 5-7 debacle depend heavily on Gilbert's progress. If he doesn't make significant improvement, youngsters Connor Wood or Case McCoy could take over. Many of Texas' problems last season could be traced back to quarterback play. Gilbert threw three interceptions in a loss to Iowa State, five in a loss to Kansas State and had two interceptions and big fumble in a loss to Texas A&M. He has to prove he can play mistake-free ball.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Texas A&M LB Damontre Moore. He had a strong first season, but now he moves into the starting lineup in place of departed All-American Von Miller at what the Aggies call the "Joker" position, a hybrid end/linebacker. Rushing the passer gets much harder when the offense focuses on one defender. Last season, Moore's 5.5 sacks were a bonus. This season, he has to produce.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Oklahoma State TB Joseph Randle. As a freshman, he rushed for 452 yards as a backup to Kendall Hunter. Hunter is gone, but all five of the Cowboys' starting offensive linemen return. Randle figures to more than double his 2010 production, especially with opponents typically preoccupied with the Cowboys' passing game.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Missouri LB Zaviar Gooden. Some might contend that he broke out by posting a team-high 85 tackles last season. Yet he was overshadowed by higher-profile teammates and did not make the All-Big 12 team. This season, he'll be a focus of the Tigers' defense and will be a strong candidate for postseason honors.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Texas RB Malcolm Brown. Brown, a true freshman, may be just what the Longhorns need to boost their lackluster running game. He's Texas' most heralded running back recruit since Cedric Benson. Rated the nation's top running back prospect, Brown is fast and powerful. He used those attributes to rush for 6,663 yards in his high school career. He figures to be a starter at some point this season.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Kansas State LB Arthur Brown. Although he never seem to really fit in at Miami, Brown has been impressive since transferring to Kansas State. He wowed teammates and coaches while playing on the scout team a year ago. This season, the Wildcats certainly need him to give a boost to what was one of the worst rushing defenses in the country.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: Texas DT Kheeston Randall. He has been hailed as a potential All-American, but last season he didn't even warrant All-Big 12 recognition from the league's coaches. He has ability, but seems to frequently disappear, especially in big games. The Longhorns were vulnerable up the middle and gave up big runs inside last season. While that can't all blamed specifically on Randall, he didn't make a major difference, either. If Randall plays with passion this season, he could earn some awards. But he can't take plays off.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Kansas' Turner Gill. His first season at Kansas was a disaster. The Jayhawks limped to a 3-9 finish, finished last in the North Division and lost to FCS member North Dakota State along the way. Once a perennial also-ran, Kansas got a taste of great success by going 12-1 just four years ago. Extended futility won't be tolerated. The Jayhawks need to show obvious improvement this fall or Gill will really feel the heat.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Oklahoma. Though former offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson moved on to become coach at Indiana, Oklahoma's staff is the Big 12's best. Seven conference championships in 12 seasons under coach Bob Stoops is indisputable proof. Stoops is among the premier coaches in the nation, and four of his assistants have been with him from the beginning.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Missouri's David Yost. He took over the reins in 2009 when former OC Dave Christensen left to become coach at Wyoming. Missouri has had one of the country's most productive passing games. This season, Yost is hoping for similar success working with a new starting quarterback, James Franklin.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Oklahoma's Brent Venables. He routinely has supervised some of the Big 12's best defenses. The Sooners have ranked among the Big 12's top three in total defense in each of the past six season under Venables. He's easily the longest-tenured defensive coordinator in the conference at 12 seasons.

BEST POSITION COACH: Oklahoma State OL coach Joe Wickline. The Cowboys frequently have led the Big 12 in rushing while Wickline has been on the job. Four starters were lost from an excellent line in '09, yet Wickline put together a unit that was one of the best in the country. A 30-year coaching veteran, Wickline reportedly was pursued by Texas during the offseason but opted to remain in Stillwater.

THE OTHER STUFF

Missouri at Arizona State, Sept. 9

Oklahoma at Florida State, Sept. 17

Missouri at Oklahoma, Sept. 24

Oklahoma State at Texas A&M, Sept. 24

Texas A&M vs. Arkansas in Arlington, Texas, Oct. 1

Oklahoma vs. Texas in Dallas, Oct. 8

Texas A&M at Texas Tech, Oct. 8

Texas A&M at Oklahoma, Nov. 5

Texas at Texas A&M, Nov. 24

Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 3

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders, who were picked seventh in the preseason Big 12 poll, could be much better than most folks think. Look for the Red Raiders to be tougher defensively in their second season under coach Tommy Tuberville, especially once DE Scott Smith comes back from suspension in October. Junior college transfer DE Leon Mackey will help, too. QB Seth Doege takes over as the starter and may be an upgrade. The entire offensive line returns intact, too.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Oklahoma State. Coming off an 11-win season, the talk in Stillwater is this could be the year Oklahoma State finally captures a Big 12 championship. Perhaps, but the Cowboys still appear to have defensive issues, lost 1,500-yard rusher Kendall Hunter and had to replace offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who left for West Virginia. The schedule is quite demanding, too.

GAME OF THE YEAR: Oklahoma at Oklahoma State, Dec. 3. If the annual "Bedlam" matchup is as good as last season's 47-41 thriller it will definitely be worth the wait. Both teams have high-powered offenses and some questions on defense. The game is in Stillwater, which obviously is an advantage for the Cowboys.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys have a Thursday night non-conference game against Arizona and also will take on offense-minded Tulsa. But what's really imposing is that the Cowboys must face Texas A&M, Texas, Missouri and Texas Tech on the road.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Texas Tech. The non-conference games against Texas State, New Mexico and Nevada don't figure to be too challenging. In fact, if the Red Raiders can post a home-field win over Texas A&M on Oct. 8 they will have a great shot to start 6-0. They're also at home against Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Baylor, though they face Texas and Oklahoma on the road.

Big 12 EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the Big 12. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma
David Fox: Oklahoma
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma State
Tom Dienhart: Texas
David Fox: Oklahoma State
Mike Huguenin: Missouri
Steve Megargee: Texas A&M

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: Second
Tom Dienhart: Second
David Fox: Fourth
Mike Huguenin: Fourth
Steve Megargee: Third

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma QB Landry Jones
David Fox: Baylor QB Robert Griffin
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: Texas A&M TB Cyrus Gray
Tom Dienhart: Texas A&M TB Cyrus Gray
David Fox: Texas TB Malcolm Brown
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma State TB Joseph Randle
Steve Megargee: Kansas State TB Bryce Brown

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma's Landry Jones
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma's Landry Jones
David Fox: Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma's Landry Jones
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma's Landry Jones
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon
Tom Dienhart: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles
David Fox: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles
Mike Huguenin: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles
Steve Megargee: Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: Iowa State LB Jake Knott
Tom Dienhart: Texas LB Keenan Robinson
David Fox: Iowa State LB Jake Knott
Mike Huguenin: Iowa State LB Jake Knott
Steve Megargee: Iowa State LB Jake Knott

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: Texas
Tom Dienhart: Missouri
David Fox: Missouri
Mike Huguenin: Texas
Steve Megargee: Texas

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: Texas
Tom Dienhart: Texas
David Fox: Texas
Mike Huguenin: Texas
Steve Megargee: Texas

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: Iowa State
Tom Dienhart: Iowa State
David Fox: Iowa State
Mike Huguenin: Iowa State
Steve Megargee: Iowa State

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QBRobert Griffin, Baylor (6-2/220, Jr.)
RBCyrus Gray, Texas A&M (5-10/198, Sr.)
RBJoseph Randle, Okla. State (6-1/191, Soph.)
WRJustin Blackmon, Oklahoma State (6-1/211, Jr.)
WRRyan Broyles, Oklahoma (5-11/187, Sr.)
WRJeff Fuller, Texas A&M (6-4/215, Sr.)
TLevy Adcock, Oklahoma State (6-6/322, Sr.)
TKelechi Osemele, Iowa State (6-6/354, Sr.)
GGabe Ikard, Oklahoma (6-2/290, Soph.)
GLane Taylor, Oklahoma State (6-2/327, Jr.)
CPhilip Blake, Baylor (6-2/315, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
ERonnell Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2/237, Jr.)
TTony Jerod-Eddie, Texas A&M (6-5/300, Sr.)
TKheeston Randall, Texas (6-5/295, Sr.)
EJacquies Smith, Missouri (6-4/255, Sr.)
LBArthur Brown, Kansas State (6-1/223, Jr.)
LBTravis Lewis, Oklahoma (6-2/233, Sr.)
LBKeenan Robinson, Texas (6-3/235, Sr.)
CBDemontre Hurst, Oklahoma (5-9/172, Jr.)
CBCoryell Judie, Texas A&M (5-11/188, Sr.)
FSBlake Gideon, Texas (6-1/205, Sr.)
SSMarkell Martin, Oklahoma State (6-1/192, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
KGrant Ressel, Missouri (6-2/190, Sr.)
PQuinn Sharp, Oklahoma State (6-1/189, Jr.)
KRJustin Gilbert, Oklahoma State (6-0/193, Soph.)
PRRyan Broyles, Oklahoma (5-11/187, Sr.)

Offensive backfield

1. Texas A&M: Cyrus Gray and Christine Michael is one of the best tailback duos in the nation, and QB Ryan Tannehill is real good, too.

2. Oklahoma: QB Landry Jones has arrived and heralded freshman RB Brandon Williams is on the way.

3. Oklahoma State: Brandon Weeden is an elite quarterback; Joseph Randle must prove he can be an elite tailback.

4. Baylor: QB Robert Griffin III is in the backfield. That's all you need to know.

5. Texas Tech: Eric Stephens is an underrated tailback and Seth Doege may have been Tech's best quarterback last season.

6. Texas: QB Garrett Gilbert was actually pretty good between the 20s. Heralded true freshman TB Malcolm Brown could solve a lot of problems.

7. Kansas State: RB Bryce Brown once was the top prospect in the country. Word is QB Collin Klein has made great strides.

8. Missouri: The Tigers have a committee of backs, but QB James Franklin has minimal experience.

9. Kansas: Jordan Webb is the incumbent starting quarterback, though that position is up for competition. RB James Sims is solid.

10. Iowa State: JC transfer QB Steele Jantz and RB Shontrelle Johnson have a lot of prove.

Receivers

1. Oklahoma: Ryan Broyles and Kenny Stills may be the best receiving duo in the nation.

2. Oklahoma State: Justin Blackmon is a star and there is good complementary talent.

3. Texas A&M: Jeff Fuller is a bona-fide threat and Ryan Swope ain't bad, either.

4. Missouri: Michael Egnew is the top tight end in the nation, while T.J. Moe heads a good group of wide receivers.

5. Baylor: Kendall Wright had 78 catches last year, and four other returnees had more than 40.

6. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders aren't as stocked with receivers as usual, but there are some productive players.

7. Texas: Sophomore Mike Davis is an emerging star. But the Longhorns need someone else to emerge.

8. Kansas: The Jayhawks need to find a deep threat to help out Daymond Patterson.

9. Kansas State: Tramaine Thompson and Brodrick Smith are coming back from injuries.

10. Iowa State: No returning Cyclones receiver had even 30 catches in 2010.

Offensive line

1. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys produced a 1,500-yard rusher and allowed the fewest sacks in the Big 12 last season. All five starters return, headed by T Levy Adcock.

2. Missouri: Four starters are back from a line that powered an offense that ranked 35th in the country.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners are solid up front, especially at guard and center.

4. Texas Tech: T LaAdrian Waddle and G Lonnie Edwards head a deep and experienced Tech front.

5. Baylor: The Bears are bigger and better than many realize.

6. Texas A&M: The young tackles are good, but the Aggies must reduce the number of sacks allowed.

7. Texas: The Longhorns have had trouble blocking for the run.

8. Iowa State: Even with star T Kelechi Osemele, the Cyclones allowed 33 sacks in 2010.

9. Kansas State: The tackles are solid, but there are questions inside.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks counting on the return of T Jeff Spikes from an injury to upgrade a unit in dire need.

Defensive line

1. Missouri: Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison are the best set of ends in the conference.

2. Oklahoma: The Sooners can rush the passer, though there are concerns about stopping the run.

3. Texas A&M: Tony Jerod-Eddie anchors the Aggies' three-man front.

4. Texas: The ends are sound. The tackle spot next to Kheeston Randall is a major problem, though.

5. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys need big seasons from Es Richetti Jones and Jamie Blatnick.

6. Texas Tech: Newcomer Leon Mackey will make a big difference. So will fellow E Scott Smith when he returns from a suspension in October.

7. Baylor: The Bears have struggled against the run.

8. Kansas: See above.

9. Iowa State: The Cyclones managed just 11 sacks last season to rank 115th in the country.

10. Kansas State: Only New Mexico was worse than the Wildcats in run defense last season.

Linebackers

1. Texas: Keenan Robinson is a standout. Look for a breakout season from sophomore Jordan Hicks.

2. Oklahoma: OLB Travis Lewis is the league's best defensive player. But there are some concerns in the middle.

3. Missouri: There is lots of potential here, but MLBs Will Ebner and Luke Lambert have been injury-prone.

4. Texas A&M: Sophomore Demontre Moore is being counted on to fill Von Miller's shoes. Garrick Williams is a tackle machine.

5. Iowa State: Jake Knott and A.J. Klein both posted more than 100 tackles last season.

6. Kansas State: Arthur Brown will immediately upgrade the Wildcats here.

7. Baylor: Elliott Coffey is solid, but others need to distinguish themselves.

8. Kansas: The return of Huldon Tharp from injury will help.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are depending heavily on sophomores.

10. Texas Tech: This is a young and inexperienced group.

Secondary

1. Oklahoma: Demontre Hurst and Jamell Fleming are the league's best set of corners.

2. Texas: The Longhorns always seem to be strong in the secondary.

3. Texas A&M: CB Coryell Judie and FS Trent Hunter will contend for honors.

4. Kansas State: The safeties are solid. So is CB David Garrett

5. Missouri: The Tigers may actually get an upgrade at corner with new starters Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines.

6. Iowa State: CB Leonard Johnson is among three returning starters for the Cyclones.

7. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys led the Big 12 in interceptions last season, but gave up way too many passing yards.

8. Kansas: The Jayhawks' secondary returns intact.

9. Baylor: Some young players have to prove they're as good as coaches think.

10. Texas Tech: The Red Raiders were 118th in the nation in pass defense last season.

Special teams

1. Oklahoma: Ryan Broyles is dangerous on returns. Tress Way is an elite punter.

2. Texas: The Longhorns have big-play threats on return teams and K/P Justin Tucker is reliable.

3. Missouri: Tigers K Grant Ressel is astonishingly accurate.

4. Oklahoma State: Outstanding P Quinn Sharp is adding kicking duties this season.

5. Texas A&M: K Randy Bullock and P Ryan Epperson are inconsistent, but the return teams are lethal.

6. Kansas State: P Ryan Doerr is proven. K Anthony Cantele is not. The Wildcats always seem to find a threat on returns.

7. Baylor: K Aaron Jones hit 19-of-27 field goals tries in 2010. The return teams are solid.

8. Texas Tech: Eric Stephens has set school records on kickoff returns. Kicking is a cause for concern.

9. Iowa State: K Grant Mahoney is shaky beyond 40 yards, but P Kirby Van Der Kamp can boom it.

10. Kansas: The Jayhawks are breaking in a new kicker and a new punter.

Coaching staff

1. Oklahoma: Bob Stoops has seven conference championships in 11 seasons.

2. Texas: Last season's debacle shouldn't overshadow all that Mack Brown has done. His new assistants have impressive backgrounds.

3. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are flourishing under Mike Gundy. Defensive coordinator Bill Young and offensive line Joe Wickline have good reputations.

4. Missouri: Gary Pinkel and Co. have led Tigers to three 10-win seasons in the past four years.

5. Texas A&M: Mike Sherman appears to have turned the Aggies around. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is exceptional.

6. Texas Tech: Tommy Tuberville won big in the SEC, but is facing a tougher challenge in Lubbock.

7. Kansas State: Bill Snyder made Kansas State a national power once. We'll see if he can do it again.

8. Baylor: Under Art Briles, Baylor no longer is a laughing stock. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett could make the Bears even better.

9. Iowa State: A case could be made for Paul Rhoads and his staff to be higher. Texas and Nebraska fans wouldn't argue.

10. Kansas: Turner Gill has a lot to prove after last season's three-win showing.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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