In 2008, the Big 12 gave us exactly what we've come to expect from the NCAA's Football Bowl Subdivision: three months of thrills followed by a wholly unsatisfying finish. Remember, heading into the Oct. 25 slate of games, the best four Big 12 South teams boasted a combined 27-1 record. Ultimately, thanks to a tiebreaker system that omitted a crucial step the similarly designed SEC includes in its format, the team with the only loss at that point -- Oklahoma -- wound up winning the division, the conference and playing for the national title.
This is no knock against the Sooners, who fielded an excellent team, but the end didn't do justice to the glorious shootout Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech -- who all finished with a 7-1 conference record -- staged. Too many computers. Too many polls.
The conference will likely reassess its tiebreaker procedure in a few months, but that probably won't matter in 2009. As has been the case for most of this decade, one head-to-head matchup conducted in a funnel cake-heavy atmosphere will decide the south champ -- and probably the conference champ. Naturally, the combatants in that crucial matchup (Texas and Oklahoma) have already jumped ahead of most of their conference brethren this spring. Texas started spring practice Feb. 27, while Oklahoma started March 3. The Longhorns and Sooners have already begun working on the answer to the first of the five burning questions surrounding spring practice in the Big 12.
Probably not. While other programs rebuild, Texas and Oklahoma reload. Take, for example, the receiving corps at Texas. Quan Cosby finished his career as the X receiver, and a 6-foot-3, 218-pound X-factor named MalcolmWilliams may replace him. Meanwhile, backup quarterback John Chiles has also moved to receiver in the hope that one of the Longhorns' best athletes will finally get some playing time. Meanwhile, quarterback Colt McCoy, offensive tackle Adam Ulatoski, linebacker Sergio Kindle and the rest of the Longhorns' veterans will only get better as they scrimmage a group of blue-chip youngsters.
In Norman, where the returns of quarterback and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford, tight end Jermaine Gresham and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy guarantee stability, the priorities are finding new starters along the offensive line, at receiver and safety. The biggest issue may be the line. Trent Williams, the lone returning starter, has moved to left tackle, where he will replace Phil Loadholt. That leaves right tackle open either for junior Cory Brandon (6-7, 308 pounds) or Jarvis Jones (6-7, 294), who landed at Oklahoma after being dismissed from LSU. Meanwhile, Jason Hannan and Ben Habern will compete to replace Jon Cooper at center. Sooners coach Bob Stoops already tried to motivate the group by ripping its performance in winter conditioning. "They need to improve," Stoops said last week. "They haven't had the winter everybody else has had. They, right now, are the weak link of the team."
It won't be easy, because the Cornhuskers can't collect talent like Texas or Oklahoma. But coach Bo Pelini seems to have the right idea. Since no one in the conference seems to consider defense a priority, a team with a stout defense should be tough to beat. Pelini, a defensive guy, spent his first season in Lincoln trying to restore the luster of the Blackshirts. Nebraska's young defense struggled, but nine players from that group return, including nose tackle Ndamukong Suh. Meanwhile, the Cornhuskers' offense should complete the transition from former coach Bill Callahan's ill-advised West Coast scheme to a spread option similar to the one defending national champ Florida uses. The unexpected departure of potential starting quarterback Patrick Witt last month changes things a bit and could force the development of class of 2009 signee Cody Green, a 6-4, 220-pound early enrollee who may wind up as the backup to junior Zac Lee.
That's a tough one, especially given Bradford's, McCoy's and Oklahoma State tailback Kendall Hunter's accomplishments. My pick comes from outside the power teams, though. It's Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin. As a true freshman, Griffin won the conference 400-meter hurdles title, won the Bears' starting quarterback job and threw for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 843 yards and 13 touchdowns. This spring, Griffin knows what to expect from the college game, and coach Art Briles knows what to expect from Griffin. Now, Griffin looks to lead Baylor to its first bowl game in 14 years. "When I came in here last year, I was the new guy," Griffin said last week. "I couldn't say much. Now I've done a little bit on the field, so I can go out there and lead these guys."
The loss of quarterback Graham Harrell probably won't hurt the Red Raiders as much as the loss of receiver Michael Crabtree and three starters on the offensive line. Be it Harrell, Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons, Sonny Cumbie or Cody Hodges, coach Mike Leach's quarterback has always racked up huge numbers. So whether junior Taylor Potts or redshirt freshman Seth Doege wins the job this spring, Big 12 defensive coordinators won't sleep well, because Leach remains in control of the offense.
Replacing Crabtree, a receiver no one could cover, and the center, left guard and left tackle from a line that allowed just 11 sacks all season will be a bigger concern for Leach. Everyone in Lubbock already knows junior receiver Detron Lewis. This year, the rest of the nation will learn his name, too. Last year, Lewis caught 71 passes and finished with the same per-catch average (12.2 yards) as Crabtree. The biggest difference? Crabtree, playing outside at flanker, caught 18 touchdown passes. Lewis, playing inside at Texas Tech's "Y" position, caught three.
The reign of Chase is over. Long live the Blaines. The Chases (quarterback Daniel and tight end Coffman) are gone. Now a pair of Blaines (likely starting quarterback Gabbert and potential-backup quarterback Dalton) will try to keep the Tigers' offense humming. Gabbert, a five-star recruit from the class of 2008, played sparingly as a true freshman, but the 6-5, 235-pounder has all the tools. Andrew Jones, another member of the class of 2008, will try to fill Coffman's cleats and replicate his 90-catch, 987-yard season. Perhaps the toughest player to replace will be receiver Jeremy Maclin, who caught 102 passes for 1,260 yards and averaged 24 yards per kickoff return. Seniors Jared Perry and Danario Alexander, who combined for 67 catches in 2008, will attempt to match Maclin's production.
MORE BURNING QUESTIONSPac-10: Who has the edge in the USC QB battle?ACC: Will VaTech emerge as a national player?Big 12: Who's poised to challenge OU and UT?Big East: Can West Virginia win without Pat White?Big Ten: How will Michigan recover from a 3-9 debacle?SEC:Lane Kiffin can talk, but can he actually coach?THE REST:What has Charlie Weis done to save his job?