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